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.