Friday, 16 August 2013

Brands Hatch Test and Race

Brands Hatch Test and Race – Friday 26th July – Sunday 04th August:

I came back from Donington thinking that it was probably my last race of my season, but the following week my wife and I sat down and talked it through and agreed that I should finish off the year and that we should have a good chat about what I would do the following year. The compromise is that I will miss the Oulton Park weekend and spend the weekend in Portugal with her, minus the children. As far as I am concerned it is a sacrifice well worth making. Whilst currently 2nd in the championship, I really don’t care that much about it, it is the racing and the results over the course of the weekend that excite me more. Without my wife’s support I wouldn’t be doing any of this and a weekend away in Portugal isn’t exactly a hardship is it?


Having not had much time with Ben Clucas at Donington I decided to book his services again for Brands Hatch. We were scheduled to test on Friday 26th July, along with half of the Brit Car series it seemed. This meant I spent a day dodging Porsche 911, Ferrari 458 and Aston Martin GT3 cars, which were unbelievably quick along the straights, but actually not a huge amount quicker through the corners.

The first session with Ben was a disaster. He was sat beside me and I drove like an idiot…his feedback was so overwhelming that I actually got worse and worse throughout the session as I tried to process it all and put it into action. The key challenge was my feel for the brake pedal, which I was treating as a binary instrument and this was upsetting the balance of the car. The one positive was that Ben says I have great car control, but that I was relying on it too much to get me out of trouble.

During the second session Ben took me out and showed me how it should be done, before coming back in and giving me a few laps on my own to try and put into practice what he taught me earlier. As soon as I was out on my own I started to feel as though I were driving better again; more smoothly and consistently, upsetting the car less during braking into and being more accurate with my acceleration out of each corner.

For the third session I went out again on my own to push for a time, eventually getting down into the low 56 second bracket, which was OK, but barely any quicker than I had been in the Academy the previous year. Once I felt I had gone as quickly as I could I handed back to Ben to set a benchmark time, which he did at 55.8 seconds, some way off what he is capable of but reflective of what was possible on a very hot day. Once back in the pits we looked at where I was losing time to Ben, which was mainly at Paddock Hill and Graham Hill bends.

During the final session I tried to put all I had learnt into practice and chipped away at my times until I managed a best of 55.9 seconds, just 0.1 seconds off Ben’s time. Shortly afterwards I found my limit and ran through the gravel at Paddock Hill at high speed, during which time the gravel ripped my passenger side rear wing in half. I know these are considered disposable items, but I was really pissed off with myself as I was still running my original wings and was very proud of the fact that my car had suffered no damage to date.

It had been a very productive day and I had learnt a huge amount from Ben, who is an excellent, but demanding coach. He gave me a number of new things to consider and made me realise that I had been over driving the car this year, using good car control to hold it all together, but not actually allowing myself to go as quickly as I could. It would be interesting to see how it all came together during the race weekend.

The week before the race itself I spent preparing the car, bolting on a new rear wing, changing my wheels, checking it over and generally smartening it up. As always what I thought would be a couple of hours work turned into 5 or 6 hours very quickly, despite my best efforts and practice at such tasks.

Saturday Qualifying and Race 1:

On race day I got up at 5am and drove down to Brands Hatch for sign-on and scruitineering. We had an early qualifying slot, so I didn’t have a huge amount of time to get prepared and ready. I had friends coming to see me race, but as with Donington we were operating a three group system in Roadsport, so I wasn’t sure whether I would actually get to race on Saturday or not.

Qualifying itself was a really interesting affair, with 38 cars on the very compact Brands Hatch Indy circuit it was very, very busy, with little opportunity to find a gap and get a clean lap in. I felt as though I drove reasonably well, backing off and giving myself space when required, and eventually managing to find enough room to put a 55.48 second lap in, placing me 4th on the grid and 0.1 seconds behind pole man Pete Fortune. The upside was that this meant I would be racing on the Saturday in front of my friends, the downside was that in chasing that time I had taken another trip through the Paddock Hill gravel trap and ripped my brand new wing off! Luckily the Caterham team were on hand to sort it whilst I went to spend time watching the rest of qualifying with my mates.

As the time for the race drew nearer I started to get more and more worried that my car wouldn’t be ready. I had asked Caterham to look at the brakes, which were feeling very spongy, and when they did they noticed that the rear pads were shot. In the end I had a real panic and was strapped into the car in my race gear as the Caterham guys worked flat out to fit new pads and get me to the holding area just before the formation lap. They managed this, just, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude and myself a big talking to for not checking the pads more recently. Even though they had been changed before Anglesey the new tyres give them a much harder workout than the old Academy tyres and I hadn’t checked them soon enough, which was a basic schoolboy error on my part…one that I won’t make again!

I arrived in the holding area for the first race last of all and only 5 minutes before we were due out on track. I would have to try and bed the pads in on the warm up lap and take it easy for a lap or two to get a feel for the braking performance. As it turned out I made an OK start from 3rd place and was 4th going through Paddock Hill Bend.  I got a good run up to Druids and thought I would go around the outside of Nick Portlock who had braked early. This was going well until I hit the cement dust that had been put down to cover up oil dropped in the previous race and it was all I could do to hold the car on track. Luckily I only lost one place to Paul Croll.

A lap later Paul went very wide at Paddock Hill Bend and I managed to squeeze through, but was instantly passed by Mike Evans and under pressure from Tristan Judge. Tristan passed me later that lap on the start finish straight, but I dived straight back past again into Paddock Hill bend, but noticed rather late that I had done so under yellow flags, so gave the place back and had another go two laps later. I passed Mike the following lap, but my battle with Mike and Tristan allowed Peter Fortune, Zoltan Casabi and Nick Portlock to make a break and pull a bit of a gap. Catching them was one thing, but passing another. I tried again to go around the outside of Nick at Druids on lap 15 and again was compromised by the cement dust (I wasn’t learning).

In the end a safety car was brought out to cover the race whilst a number of cars were retrieved from the gravel at Paddock. At the re-start I tucked right in behind Nick and managed to drag past him and out brake him into Paddock Hill bend. I was in 3rd place with Zoli just in front. Two laps later I had got a better run out of Graham Hill bend and dragged past Zoli along the Cooper straight, just squeezing up the inside into Surtees. With 2 laps left to go I was in 2nd place and a second behind Pete. Realistically I knew I wouldn’t be able to pass and catch him in that time, so focused on consolidating my 2nd place and getting safely to the finish.

As I crossed the finish line I had a distinct feeling of snatching a good result from the jaws of defeat. I had made some silly mistakes that had sent me backwards down the field at the start and it was only luck that had seen me climb back up into contention again. Still a 2nd place and a fastest lap wasn’t a bad way to finish.

Once back in the paddock I packed up my things, said goodbye to my friends and headed straight off into London for a wedding. It wasn’t until I returned the following day with the family that I noticed my rear anti-roll bar had become detached. This had happened on the test day and after qualifying and had been causing the car to roll around a lot at the rear and make me work much harder than I should have to. I reattached the bar and completed my usual preparation before heading off to line up in 4th place for the second race.

Sunday Race 2:

I was determined to learn from my mistakes the previous day, so after a good start I slotted into 3rd place behind Pete Fortune and Stephen Nuttall and was determined not to try anything silly in the opening phases of the race. This worked well until Pete and Stephen started scrapping with each other on lap 4. Pete went up the inside of Stephen at Paddock Hill bend and came out at the bottom slightly wide and slow. This tempted me into the fight and I tried to go up the inside at Druids, but there wasn’t really room and I tagged Pete lightly, getting us both slightly crossed up, but thankfully causing no damage or loosing us too much time. I was now well and truly involved and my initial plan had gone out of the window. On lap 9 Pete and Steve started scrapping hard again, allowing me to close right in. I slipped up the inside of Steve at Clearways, but he passed both Pete and I at Paddock the next lap as we both ran wide. As the laps wore on the battle got more and more fierce and Pete’s lines through Paddock Hill more lurid. At one point he went in so wide and so hot that he held the most beautiful power slide all of the way down the hill. As I came past him on the run up to Druids I gave him the thumbs up in recognition. A few laps later he was passed again and still sliding around. As he hit the bottom of Paddock Hill he shot across right in front of my car and my nose cone hit his rear lights…there was nothing I could do to avoid it.

Our battling allowed Max Robinson to get back up to us after a poor start from 3rd place and as Pete ran wide again at Paddock, slowing me down mid-bend, Max came up the inside and passed me going into Druids. At this point we had been joined by Tony Mingoia, who I now had to manage closely from behind. Whilst great fun it was starting to get a little desperate. Stephen had used the opportunity to break free into clear air and had a lonely run to the line. I now watched at Pete and Max did battle for 2nd and 3rd, with Max getting the upper hand a couple of laps before the flag, up the inside into Surtees. Whilst right on his tail to the end, Pete crossed the line 3rd, just ahead of me, with Tony Mingoia a fraction behind.

It had been a hectic, scrappy race, but one where I felt I had made few mistakes. I hadn’t gone backwards at the start and felt that driven well, especially given that my rear anti-roll bar had once again come adrift causing more handling issues. I was disappointed not to come away with a podium, but more disappointed by the damage that I had done to my wing and nose over the weekend.  My once immaculate 7 was now supporting a few cosmetic battle scars on its extremities, although thankfully nothing permanent.

It had been a good weekend with lots of friends and family present to watch. My car will need a good going over before the next race, but thankfully I have time given that I will be missing the Oulton Park round. I am slightly disappointed as it is supposed to be a fantastic track, but for me the next race will be the last of the year…roll on Silverstone.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Donington Test and Race

Donington Test and Race – Wednesday 10th – Sunday 14th July:


My original plans for Donington fell apart just before lunchtime on Wednesday 10th when my gearbox decided it had had enough. Having been frustrated by a lack of running time at the Friday test days in Anglesey and Zandvoort I had decided to do a midweek track day and give the Friday test a miss. I was sharing a new tutor (Ben Clucas) with a fellow Roadsport competitor, Ian Sparshott, and had just familiarised myself with the track again and started to build up pace, when my gearbox got stuck in 4th gear. The crunch I had been experiencing changing from 3rd to 4th had been getting worse since Anglesey and the synchros decided that today was the day that they would finally pack in. I tried frantically to get a gearbox from Caterham and to see if one of the race teams present could change it and get me back out for the afternoon, but it was an ask too far. In the end I took the car back to Caterham Midlands, who worked on it the next day and had it ready for the Friday. I was also fortunate that Bookatrack, who were running both the Wednesday track day and the Friday test day, agreed to swap my Wednesday afternoon for a slot on Friday afternoon, so my preparation wasn’t as compromised as it could have been.

On the Friday, having spent the morning at school with Tabitha for her sharing assembly, I got in the car and drove up to Caterham Midlands to collect the car and trailer and be relieved of a large sum of money! I then drove up to Donington and got signed on for an afternoon of testing. It was a blisteringly hot day and the times a little down on what had been possible the Wednesday before, but I was driving much better thanks to some focused hints and tips from Ben that I had been mulling over for the last couple of days. The gearbox felt tight and certainly much better than it had been before it had expired, so the outlay had proved worthwhile, if painful. I had questioned Caterham on whether a gearbox should only last a season and a half of racing and was told that I was doing well…some of my fellow competitors were on gearbox number 3!

At the end of Friday afternoon my times were comparable with the faster guys there that day, but I knew there was more to come. Ben had posted a 1:22.6 second lap in my car on Wednesday and I was in the mid 1:23 second bracket. Even allowing for the heat that day, there was a good 0.5 seconds to be found. I mulled this over as I gave the car a good check over and clean, before packing away my things and heading back down to Daventry to stay with an old university friend and her husband. At this point I felt as though I was getting to know the M1 rather better than I would usually care to, but a thoroughly pleasant meal, a few beers and a comfy bed for the night certainly beat a night in a local hotel on my own.

Saturday Qualifying and Race 1:

On race day I was awoken at about 6am by my friend’s children, which somehow wasn’t quite as bad as being woken by my own. After a pleasant breakfast with them I made my way back up to the track for another scorching day in the paddock and qualifying.

Due to the number of Roadsport drivers exceeding the permissible number of cars on track, we would be split into 3 groups, each of which would race twice. Our qualifying position would determine whether we were Group A, B, or C (1st = A, 2nd = B 3rd = C, 4th = A etc.). Groups A vs. C would race each other on Saturday afternoon and Groups A vs. B and B vs. C on Sunday.

At the track I went through my usual routine fussing around the car, checking fluid levels, tyre pressures, wheel nuts etc., before going off to the weigh bridge to see what the car weighed with half a tank of fuel in. The weighbridge at Donington is a little on the antiquated side, but even still I was surprised to find that I was only just on the minimum weight limit (I am 14 ½ stone, so no featherweight) with half a tank of fuel in the car. I quickly returned back to the trailer and put another few litres of fuel in as ballast.

At around 10am I made my way to the holding area, about 30 mins before qualifying started, and was lined up 8th in the queue of cars. Sat in the car in fireproof underwear, a race suit, balaclava and helmet, with no shade I thought I was going to melt…at which point I seriously considered how the F1 guys manage a 2 hour race in the heat of somewhere exotic like Malaysia! Out onto track and I made my way quickly past a couple of cars and into what I thought was clean air, but after a couple of laps Andres Sinclaire started to dice with me, so I backed off to try and find some space. I was circulating in the low 1:24 second bracket, which I knew was well off my true pace, but it took me a number of laps to find the time, which eventually came in one big chunk at the chicane, where I gained 0.6 of a second. For the rest of the session I kept chipping away at my time, then backing off to find more space when I messed up a lap. In the end I put in a 1:23.2 second lap, which was good enough for 2nd place on the grid behind Max Robinson.

I was really pleased with the result given the frustrations and relative lack of running the previous week, but slightly frustrated at the same time as my qualifying performance put me in Group B, so I wouldn’t get a chance to race on Saturday. With the rest of the day to kill I contemplated driving home to see the family, but with the paddock party scheduled for that evening and the kind offer of a bed in Mark Forrest’s very smart camper van I decided to faff around with the car, watch some racing and have a few beers. As much as I love watching motor racing I now realise that all I really want to do is go out and compete, so whilst a nice day in many ways it was also slightly frustrating watching my fellow competitors racing without being able to go and join in.

The paddock party that evening was a great affair, with good food, drink and banter with a great bunch of mates. Caterham had brought an F1 and a GP2 car along to display, so we had great fun seeing who could squeeze into Jano Trulli’s seat (not quite my size I have to admit), before retiring to bed. Marks camper was fantastically comfortable and I slept like a log until about 5am when the planes from East Midlands airport started screaming overhead on take-off.

My first race on Sunday was at 11:25, so I spent the morning going over the car again and putting even more fuel in (I had been weighed at 622kg after qualifying, which is a little too close to the minimum weight limit of 620kg for my comfort), before heading off to the holding area to wait for the start. Because Max had raced the day before and wasn’t in my first race, I was given pole position, my first since Snetterton at the start of the year. On the start line I struggled to keep the car from rolling downhill whilst balancing the clutch and throttle for the best possible launch. In the end I made a reasonable get away and led into the first corner, with Stephen Nuttall slotting in behind me from his 4th place grid position.

I led the majority of the first lap, but onto the back straight the inevitable happened and Stephen dragged past me and into the lead. I didn’t fight this as I wanted to get away from the chasing pack and knew that if Steve and I started fighting together we would only slow each other down. I followed Steve for the majority of lap 2, but onto the back straight for the second time I went to drag past him. I got past, but a few corners later he returned the favour. Our scrapping allowed Nick Portlock to close up. Nick came alongside me on the back straight, but going into the Fogarty Esses I held my line and just squeezed around the outside of him. This meant I was slow out onto the start/finish straight and gave Steve an instant 1 – 2 second gap that he set about consolidating. However on lap 5, going into Redgate Steve made a mistake and spun.

For the next 10 laps I worked on building my lead from the chasing pack, treating each lap as though it were a qualifier and focusing on being smooth and consistent. After the early excitement it was a rather lonely and boring race to the finish line 11 seconds clear of 2nd place, with all the action happening some way behind. Whilst pleased with the result, it was something of a comedown after the excitement of the final race at Zandvoort a month beforehand. Still, a win is a win and it would be churlish to complain!

The second race later that afternoon was much better. After more faffing around in the paddock with tyre temperatures, fuel loads and the like, we lined up ready for the third Roadsport race of the weekend (my second). Max Robinson was on pole, with me alongside in 2nd and Pete Fortune and Zoltan Csabai behind us. I made a good start and was battling for the lead of the race with Max, Pete and Zoli at the end of lap 2 when the race was red flagged due to a crash at the Fogarty Esses. Gavin Crawford had spun and an unfortunate Michael Sauer had collected him, causing quite a bit of damage to both cars, but thankfully neither driver.

On the re-start I again struggled to stop the car rolling on the incline and made a bad start, missing my gearchange from 1st to 2nd and putting me back several places. At the end of lap 1 I was 4th behind, Max, Pete and Zoli, but being attacked by Paul Croll and Tony Mingoia. It took me a couple of laps to get back past Paul and until lap 8 to clear Tony. By this time Max, Zoli and Pete were some 4 seconds down the road. I made after them as quickly as I could and caught them on lap 10, just in time to see Zoli spin off at the Old Hairpin. As he spun, I had to lift off, unsure as to which way he was going, losing me a couple of seconds and contact with the leading two. I spent the next couple  of laps chasing them back down and eventually got onto Pete’s tail on lap 13. I stuck to Pete like glue, calculating that I would wait until the last lap to drag past him on the back straight and take 2nd at the finish, but like all the best laid plans it didn’t go quite as expected. Coming onto the back straight for the final time, Pete backed me up in Coppice, but I still got a good run on him. He pulled to the inside to defend his line and I went to the outside. Coming into the Fogarty Esses we were side by side. We both braked as late as we could, but I couldn’t quite get around the outside of him. We both came out of the corner going far slower than usual, but with Pete a nose ahead. He took a very well deserved 2nd and I 3rd. The race had been brilliant, but I had made life very hard for myself by going backwards at the start, then having to battle up from 6th place to 3rd in the end.

With scruitneering complete, podiums and interviews done and the car packed away I said goodbye to my friends and made my way back to my family and normal life. I had found Donington a difficult weekend because my wife had been struggling with the children, who weren’t behaving very well, and we had started talking about the possibility of me having to give up. Whilst this isn’t something I want to do, it is something I feel I might have to if I am to keep my family happy, which ultimately is the most important thing to me. Racing is a wonderful experience, but ultimately a very time consuming and selfish one. I am lucky to have someone that has supported me for a year and a half, despite us having three very young children, and I won’t ever take that for granted. In my mind I am preparing for Donington to have been my last race…if it is then it will have been an unforgettable experience and one I am proud to have some success in.