Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Snetterton Test and Race

Snetterton Roadsport Testing and Races – Friday 19th – Sunday 21st April:

I last visited Snetterton in September 2012 (for the Caterham Academy round run on the 200 circuit), so given I hadn’t driven the track for a while and that I hadn’t driven the car in Roadsport spec on track at all, I thought I better get some practice in.

I started off by doing an MSVT track-day on Monday 25th March, sharing a days tuition with Paul Hagen (an ex-Academy comrade also making the move up to Roadsport with me), using Ben Elliott who was offering a free day for those that bought v-boxes through him (something I had done over the winter). The snow had only just cleared from the ground, but conditions were surprisingly good, if bitterly cold. After a day of analysing data and doing plenty of track laps, with and without Ben, I got my times down from 2mins 22seconds to a reasonable 2min 18seconds (a good time, but some 2 seconds of the lap record). I was pleased with the progress I had made, but knew there was further time to come as I got used to the circuit and the cars new handling characteristics.

Because I didn’t feel properly prepared and because I had missed the official Caterham test day at Donington earlier in the month, I booked myself on the test day at Snetterton the day prior to the race weekend. This was the first test day I had done, so I was a little nervous that I would be swamped by experienced racers in fire breathing single seaters, but to my great relief the test was sessioned and I was on track with other Caterham Roadsport and Tracksport drivers. With no coaching, but more practice and better conditions I gradually worked my time down to 2min 16seconds (very close to the lap record) feeling that if I could repeat it in qualifying it would put me at the pointy end of the grid.

One of the great advantages of these test days, apart from the extra practice it gives you, is that at least half of the grid is typically there, meaning there are plenty of opportunities for banter and a beer to compare times over afterwards. Having made good progress I spent the evening preparing my car for the following day before setting off to the pub for a well-earned pie and pint with 12 of the other guys, before settling down to a good night’s sleep in a local B&B.

Come race day I was well prepared and in a good frame of mind for the task of qualifying. I made it to the holding area early and was 5th out onto circuit allowing me to get my head down and get some clear laps in. With 38 cars on the grid this was a real advantage. We are now allowed to run our v-boxes during qualifying and the races, so I was able to get a good sense of my pace as I went along. I spent most of the session trying to chase Stephen Nuttall (ex-Academy Group 2 champion) down, but never making more than a few meters up on him, before making a mistake and losing a small amount of ground again. As I went past the pits and into my final lap one of the Tracksport drivers indicated that I was in 2ndplace, which I was happy with, but a great final lap and a 2min 16.05second run put me on pole by 2/10ths from Stephen Nuttall. I was delighted, especially being a second clear of Michael Coulten in 3rd place.

After scruitineering it was back to the paddock to look at my data and go over the car again before the race later in the afternoon. I always seem to find things to do to keep me occupied, but at the same time I find it hard to supress my nerves while thinking of the prospect of leading 37 other Caterhams away from the start line.

Our race was the last of the day and one I won’t forget for a while. I made a good get away from pole and led into the first few corners, closely followed by Stephen Nuttall and Pete Fortune, who had made a fantastic start from 4th place. Over the next 7 laps we got our heads down and started gapping the rest of the field, swapping places regularly, but not holding each other up. As we came into the latter part of the race we were all set for a great battle, with Stephen leading Pete, and me tucked up in 3rdplace. But with 7 minutes to go the red flag came out for a car and driver stuck out on circuit.

After a nerve wracking 20 minute wait we were re-started with Pete leading Stephen and I through turn 1 and into turn 2. At this point I made a slightly silly dive up the inside of both and was lucky that Pete saw me in time, delaying his turn in and giving me the space I needed. I got myself crossed-up and fell back to 3rd place as we exited the corner, but two corners later I dived up the inside of Pete and made the move stick. Stephen and I then spent the next 3 ½ laps swapping places regularly, with me leading into the final lap. Down the Bentley straight at the back of the circuit and with only 3 corners to go Stephen dragged past me to re-gain the lead. I stuck to the back of his car like glue and as we exited the last corner onto the pit straight slipstreamed past him to win by 0.03 seconds (less than a nose cone). To say I was delighted is an understatement. It had been one of the toughest races I had ever had, but by far the most enjoyable, being close but very clean and fair.

That evening I drove home to collect the family and return with them on the Sunday for race 2, which was scheduled for late afternoon. Once again the nerves started to set in around 2 hours before the race itself, but the atmosphere in the paddock on a beautiful sunny day in Norfolk was a brilliant distraction.

Starting again from pole because of my result the previous day I made a reasonable start, but Pete Fortune made a belting start from row 2 and out dragged me into turn 1. I then made a mistake trying to tuck in behind him giving Stephen Nuttall and Michael Coulten the opportunity to come around the outside. By turn 3 I was in 4th place and had a lot of work to do. I then spent the next 20 minutes having a huge battle with Michael as Stephen and Peter made a break for it, with Michael and I swapping places 18 times over those 20 minutes. It sounds like a typical racing drivers excuse, but Michaels car is very healthy and I found he had a couple of mph advantage over me on the straights, no matter what I did, but this was compounded by my inability to get out of the corners quickly due to tyres that went off mid race.

Come the final lap I was just behind Michael in 4th place, before driving around the outside of him at turn 1. Michael stuck to me like glue and took 3rd place back two corners later. As we went into the final corner I was once again stuck to the rear of his car and managed to repeat the finish of the previous race, just out dragging Michael to 3rd place by 0.027 seconds. It was a hectic and very exciting race. It was the first time I had raced closely with Michael and whilst I was disappointed to have made the mistake at the start of the race that put myself out of contention for the win, I had another brilliant close and clean race, once again proving that the battle is more enjoyable than the result.

It had been a long 5 month wait to get back on to the track to do battle with the friends I had made in the Academy, but the wait had been well worth it. It was a great weekend with all the best ingredients in abundance; cars, close racing, beer, banter and laughter. It was a brilliant way to start the Roadsport championship and the prospects for the rest of the year have me really excited.

Race 1 (Part 1) - 3rd as Race was Red Flagged:

Race 1 (Part 2) - 1st Place:

Race 2 - 3rd Place:

Roadsport Upgrade


After the Caterham Autumn Trophy double header at Donington in October I strapped the car to the trailer, drove it home, put it in the garage and left it for a couple of months. It was time to forget racing and spend evenings and weekends with my family. I had burnt plenty of brownie points over the course of the year and wanted to earn them back by having good quality time with my wife and children. Apart from the Caterham Awards Dinner in November, I didn’t think about Caterhams or racing for weeks at a time.

Just before Christmas I dragged the car out of the garage and took it down to Caterham Dartford for its Roadsport upgrade. This consisted of a set of Avon CR500 tyres (replacing the rock hard Avon CR322’s that we ran in the Academy) and a valve spring upgrade for the engine (necessitated by the lower profile, grippier, tyres and done to protect the engine from over revving). I gave the brake bias valve a miss as I didn’t think the cost worth it, but did buy a rear anti-roll bar kit to stiffen up the rear of the car. The grand total for this work came to a not inconsiderable £1,300.

The work was completed in a day, so the following morning I popped back to Dartford with the trailer and loaded the car straight on, ready for a trip around the M25 to DPR. Here the car spent a few hours having the suspension set-up adjusted to account for the new tyres (which have a much lower profile, so the ride height needs to be adjusted) and the rear anti-roll bar fitted. This little lot relieved me of a further £240.

The cost of the upgrades is not insignificant, but then I have learnt over time that nothing to do with cars, and particularly racing them, is. As you will see below, the upgrades fundamentally change the way the car drives, so I consider the cost a relatively small price to pay for another years racing.


Since the end of last season and having the upgrades made my time in the car was limited to; a brief run out on New Year ’s Day to the local VSCC meet, and an hours blast out through rural Hertfordshire on the one warm day of the year so far. It was therefore too early to tell what the car would feel like on the track, but on the road it felt noticeably different.

With the thicker Green front anti-roll bar fitted and the rear roll bar set to its stiffest setting the car feels really planted on the road. Much of this will be down to the new tyres, which offer vastly more grip than the old Avon CR322’s. The offset is that it rides harder and tramlines more, but these are compromises worth making, even on the road, let alone the track. The reduced rolling radius of the tyres also changes the gearing slightly, so the car is now much more keen to rev (it is just about possible to red-line it in top now), so it accelerates more keenly too.

Overall it feels like an altogether more alert and responsive car, but the chassis is now better than the engine. It will be great fun on track, but a part of me is now longing for slightly more power (can you ever have too much?) to really give the chassis a proper workout.


At Rockingham the Caterham guys had told me that the radius arm bolts were lose, so I started my winter preparation with a complete nut and bolt check across the car. This took a good half a day, but thankfully revealed that all was still well and nothing was going to fall off any time soon.

I also used this time to replace the front wing stays for lowered versions. With the new lower profile tyres the wings on the old front stays were sat a good couple of inches above them and whilst this isn’t a problem it did look slightly odd. The change was relatively quick and painless, with the only fiddle being the need to disconnect the front brake hoses and therefore bleed the brakes again. With new lowered wing stays and fresh front wings fitted (the old stays and wings will be used as spares) the car looked great again.

Final preparation a few weeks later involved a good clean of the car, which was starting to look like it would benefit from a few hours with a polishing rag and some aluminium polish. Removing the old race stickers and replacing them with new ones took a whole day, but after a good clean the car looked like new again. Other than that all is well. I know a number of the guys have had their gearboxes re-built, but with limited track mileage completed last year mine still feels fine and I will see how I get on with it before making that investment.

I just can’t wait to get the old girl back out on circuit again.

Awards Dinner:

The awards dinner in November was a fantastic event, with several hundred people from the world of Caterham racing present and the 2013 Academy crew well represented. Caterham had made a big effort and brought along not only examples of the 7 range, but also an SP300 and a 2012 F1 car. My rather drunken request to sit in it was met with laughter and a rather cheeky response that I wouldn’t fit.

The videos, speeches and presentations made the atmosphere of the evening fantastic and got us all excited to get back out on circuit for the following season. I am sure this was a big contributing factor to the record number of Academy drivers signing up for the Roadsport championship, with some 40 plus drivers making the move up, including Group 2 champion Stephen Nuttall. It is going to be a brilliant year!