Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Curborough Sprint

Curborough Sprint – Saturday 12th June:

My Curborough weekend started at 4am on Saturday morning with me hitching the trailer to the Volvo and setting off for Litchfield shell shocked and bleary eyed. I had promised Sophie that I would try and do each of the upcoming events in a day, rather than stay overnight, so we could have some time together. Despite the ungodly start I rather enjoyed the drive up as the roads were deserted and the sun was very definitely out and shining on us. I arrived just before 7am and the track walk after a very brief coffee and croissant stop somewhere near Birmingham.

The track walk was really useful and helped to put into perspective the challenge ahead. I had spent a little time on Friday night watching some useful videos on Curborough ( and reading the hints and tips that I had been passed by Lotus Seven Club members Steve Marsh, Michael Calvert and Mark Gibson, which were very much appreciated and helped me to feel reasonably well prepared, especially compared to Aintree. After the track walk and a short briefing by the Clerk of the Course it was time to get the car un-loaded and scruitineered. I had parked at the far end of the paddock as my allocated bay was filled with someone else’s car and trailer, so I started un-strapping the car, before managing to shuffle my fellow competitors cars around to make space where I needed to be. Thinking the car was still in gear and with the handbrake on I went to tow it back up the paddock only to hear a crash from behind. Looking in the rear view mirror showed a trailer, with a Caterham half way off it pointing skywards. Clearly the handbrake wasn’t still on and the car wasn’t in gear. Bugger! Luckily the Caterham guys helped me to lift it off and no damage was done, other than to my pride, but it was a rather inauspicious start to my day.

After scruitineering it was time to get out on track for the first of our practice runs. We were first on the timetable so it was straight into the car and off to the holding area. I felt much more calm and composed than I had at Aintree as, whilst not an old hand, I knew what to expect. The weather was beautiful and the setting picturesque (so much nicer than Aintree), so I was really looking forward to a good days racing. Once clear of the paddock we trundled down the access road to the start line and grouped up waiting for our runs. Unlike Aintree where they fired us off in very quick succession there was plenty of waiting around, which meant plenty of time to start getting nervous. The feeling of the un-known; fear mixed with excitement and a desire to prove yourself and do well. I am not sure if that feeling ever goes away, even for professional racing drivers, but it is a feeling that I hate and enjoy at the same time. I am car number 108 for the sprints, so had about 10 minutes to wait whilst my fellow Academy drivers (100 – 107) went and explored the course for themselves, some more quickly and composed than others.

When my time came, and I was called to the start line, I tried to get settled and focus on what was ahead of me. As the lights went green I left the line with a little too much wheelspin and fired myself off up the tight and twisty track in a flurry of gear changes, locked brakes, dabs of opposite lock and missed apexes. Unlike Aintree where there is plenty of time to think about what you are doing between the three corners, Curborough is so tight and twisty that everything comes upon you very quickly and it is easy to find yourself on the wrong line, at the wrong speed and in the wrong gear. I honestly can’t remember what I did on that first run, I was just reacting instinctively, but I must have done something right as my first practice run was 65.57 second, which was the quickest in Group 1 and “only” 1.6 seconds off the class record. I felt really pleased.

After the excitement and adrenaline of the first run it was back to the paddock to compare times and experiences with the rest of the guys. In some ways I enjoy this part of the day as much as the actual driving, as grown men become children again, bouncing around with excitement, exaggerating what has just happened and generally joking with each other. It is infectious. Once out of the car I went off to watch my fellow competitors with some of the other guys from Group 1 and we all offered commentary on their lines, corner speeds, braking points etc……every one of us an expert after one lap!

After an hour and a half standing in the sunshine watching cars racing (is there really a better way to spend a sunny Saturday?) it was time for our next practice run. This followed the same routine….into the car, belts on, balaclava, helmet and gloves on…..trundle through the holding area, down the access road to the start area and then wait, watching the car get hot and worrying about whether you have enough fuel vapours left to get around the course. The wait at the start was longer than before as we were behind the last group to complete their first practice runs, which included some very powerful and serious looking Caterhams competing in the Lotus & Club Sprint Championship.

Having been around the course once I felt confident in attacking it a little harder and set off as I meant to go on. My start was better, with less wheelspin, and the first corner just about spot on, carrying plenty of speed down towards the Molehill. From there on in to the finish it was a case of trying not to get too excited and keep it tidy and controlled. The strategy, if you can call it that, obviously worked as I was rewarded with a 64.78 second run, which was a fantastic and slightly unexpected result, just 0.79 seconds off the course record. It had certainly felt good from the drivers seat, so I was excited and slightly confident for the timed runs. Once back in to the pits the banter started again, with lots of jovial comments along the lines of “so, how is the victory speech coming on?”. I was faced with the same comments at Aintree and now know only too well that in sprinting you don’t really know your result until the last run is complete, so I focused on getting ready for the timed runs themselves and trying to act cool and calm. This all sounds very serious writing it down afterwards, but there really is a fantastic spirit in the pits. Everyone is massively competitive, we wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t, but genuinely supportive of each other and pleased when others do well.

The first of the timed runs came after lunch (I decided to go easy on the sandwiches in the interests of weight saving) when the sun was out and the temperature really up. We sat sweating gently in our Nomex for about 30 minutes in our cars in the start area, before getting our chance to prove ourselves officially against the clock. Once again the nerves started to kick in just before the run, but once into it all was calm. I got a reasonable start and had another fantastic first bend, before going in slightly too hot and slightly too sideways to Molehill. The rest of the run seemed to go really well…fast but controlled and I stopped the clock at 64.86 seconds, slightly slower than my second practice run, but still not a bad effort. This was enough to put me into first place in Group 1 and was a great banker lap, allowing me to be more relaxed on my second and final timed run.

Back in the pits I took a good look at the video of my lap and figured that there was probably ½ a second to be had by being quicker into turn 1, tidier into the molehill and slightly later on the brakes at the end of the first lap back into the first turn. I was determined to try and find that time and even try and push into the 63 second bracket if I could. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that! My second run was a bit of a disaster from the start, with too much wheel-spin at the start and a massive “moment” as I carried too much speed into turn one, unsettling the back of the car. I then made the same mistake at the Molehill and was trying to play catch-up for the rest of the lap. Finally it went completely wrong at the Molehill on the second lap as I took too much curb on the inside of the corner and upset the car, spinning on the exit. I was really disappointed with myself, but had to laugh as I trundled back to the pits, waving at the photographers capturing my embarrassing moment. At least I had that banker lap from earlier.

Back in the pits it was a nervous wait to see what the final result would be. Having been pushed down to 4th place at Aintree by some fantastic drives from Matt, Tristan and Zoli on their final runs, I was aware it could very well happen again. To make matters worse Jenny had asked for the timing screens in the pits to be turned off so we couldn’t see the results as they came in. I simply had to load the car back onto the trailer and watch the remaining runs to see how the Group 2 guys were getting on.
After an hour or so of packing away and waiting we all gathered eagerly at the Caterham Motorsport truck to hear the results, which for Group 1 were, in reverse order; 3rd - Tristan Judge (65.89), 2nd - Matt Lawrence (65.82), 1st - Alex Gurr (64.86)…….a trophy, a cap and a kiss from Jenny. What a fantastic feeling…..I still have the smile on my face writing this almost a week later. The Group 2 guys had a great set of times too, with; 3rd – Peter Fortune (65.14), 2nd – Danny Killeen (65.11), 1st Stephen Nuttall (64.14 – a fantastic time and quickest novice by quite some way). Congratulations guys….a great set of results.
After the Caterham Motorsport awards we went off to join the awards for the rest of the competitors, where we received another set of trophies and some very warm applause from our fellow competitors. A nicer bunch of guys you could not hope to meet.
So it was that I left Curborough at 6.30pm after a very long, but fantastically rewarding and enjoyable day. The Caterham Academy is only just getting into its stride, but it already ranks as the most enjoyable and exciting experience I have ever had. The people are fantastic, the competition is intense and the experience unrepeatable. Gushing I know and possibly coloured slightly by the result but I really can’t stress quite how much I am enjoying it all right now. Roll on Snetterton in a few weeks’ time!

Run Number 1 - 64.86 seconds:

Run Number 2 - A long time :-)

Snetterton Track Day

Snetterton Track Day – Wednesday 09th May:

After Aintree and the disappointment of not being as quick as I had hoped, I decided I needed to get some track time with the car and some tuition. My times at Aintree were OK and pretty consistent, but 1.2 seconds slower than the very fastest guy. Now I could make all sorts of excuses about my weight, optimum suspension set-up etc., but the simple fact is that a number of people were just plain faster than me. Some of these guys have had significant track time and tuition, so I decided to do the same. I can’t afford, either in time or money, to do this often, but realised that if I was to get quicker I needed someone to help me. Someone who could see what I was doing and help coach me through the issues I didn’t even know I had with my driving. As someone who thinks he was only a lucky break away from F1 this was quite a big step to take, but one well worth taking.

In the end I responded to a post on the 2012 Caterham Academy Facebook page by a chap called Ben Elliott, who runs his own training company and has worked with a number of the Academy guys over the years. He suggested a Javelin track-day at Snetterton the following week, which I duly signed up for. Being mid-week and with a terrible weather forecast there were plenty of spaces, so Ben and I met in one of the garages on a wet and cold Wednesday morning to talk about the plan for the day, which was broadly:
-          go out and complete the sighting laps;
-          then Ben would talk me around the circuit building up my speed and watching what I did, coaching me as we went;
-          then we would come back into the garage and talk about my technique in general and what I needed to focus on;
-          then we would go out again and put into practice what we had discussed;
-          then I would go out alone and try this on my own;
-          then before lunch Ben would show me just how it should be done by driving me in my car;
-          then after lunch we would repeat the above but using the V-Box data logger and dashboard timer to give a real time view of where I was making and loosing time.

Our first laps were taken relatively easily whilst I learnt which way the circuit went.  I had never been to Snetterton as a driver before and was really impressed with the new 300 format, which is a fantastic mix of really quick corners that has the car right up on tip toes in the wet and some really slow technical bits. We quickly started to pick the pace up and find how little grip there was on a greasy track, with plenty of very sideways moments and a few nervous giggles from Ben over the intercom. Afterwards Ben said he was impressed with my car control, but that we really needed to work on two key areas:
-          Braking – going into the corner much deeper and harder on the brakes and bleeding the brake pressure off at the point of turn in, so that the weight of the car is on the nose. I had been braking too early and then accelerating too early which caused the car to lift at the front and cause understeer at the apex. I was then trying to correct the understeer with a load of throttle which was causing corner exit oversteer. Spectacular, but not that quick.
-          Throttle Balance – being quicker back onto the throttle and more balanced with the application in quick corners to settle the car. I was braking then waiting to apply the throttle as the car settled in the corner, which actually causes it to be more unsettled, so I needed to be quicker from brake to throttle and then more balanced with the application so not to induce more oversteer.

With Ben talking me through these two areas and helping me to get my lines right we had a really good morning and found a lot of extra pace. I then went out on my own and completely over drove the car for the first few laps whilst I got used to driving without the weight, or help, from an instructor beside me. By the end of my solo session I felt as though I were being much smoother and faster and was really pleased with the progress I had made. At this point I came back in and Ben took me out to show me how it really should be done. He was noticeably stronger on the brakes than I was and was carrying much more speed into the corners, particularly the first (Riches) and last (Coram), so over lunch I pondered what I still had to do!

After lunch we went out with the timing gear on the car and found some more speed. The track was drying to start with, but then got greasy again, however regardless of this I was much more confident on my braking and turn in, carrying more speed everywhere and unsettling the balance of the car less. It was hugely rewarding and Ben was laughing his head off over the intercom as we went quicker and quicker. I asked him afterwards if I had scared him and he said “yes…..but only because we were really shifting”.

My final session of the day was on my own with the dashboard timer and I really went for it, becoming quite obsessed with where I was picking up and loosing time against my best laps. I did about 15 laps with very little traffic and managed to get into the 2 min 41 second bracket on a very greasy track. Most satisfying of all was sticking with a Caterham R500 for a few laps, despite the significant performance difference between the cars. I was finding huge chunks of time through the first corner (Riches) and the last (Coram) at last and was much more confident on the brakes under the bridge into the Esses. It was a really satisfying feeling, so I decided to call it a day before getting carried away and doing something silly.

Back in the garage Ben and I looked over the data and the video from my solo run. There were still areas of significant improvement to be had, but the difference in performance from the start of the day to the end was huge. It is hard to say exactly how much time we found because the track conditions changed, but I think it may have been as much as 6 seconds over the lap. I was dubious about driver coaching before I started the Academy, but the results of the day spoke for themselves. I was driving more confidently, more smoothly and much more quickly. It was a great investment and Ben was a fantastic teacher. I will get some more coaching later in the year (probably one session at each of the tracks we are due to race at), but in the mean time I need to put into practice what Ben has already taught me. Hopefully the investment will pay off at Curborough, our next event.