Monday, 11 June 2012

Snetterton Sprint

Snetterton Sprint – Saturday 02nd June:

Like Curborough, my Snetterton weekend started at 4am on the Saturday morning with me dragging myself bleary eyed out of bed and into my race gear. The key differences this time being that the weather was terrible and I was driving the Caterham up (my wife had stolen the tow car to take the kids down to see her dad for the long bank holiday weekend), so my mood was less than jubilant.

In the end I managed to wedge all of my gear into the passenger side of the Caterham (25 litre jerry can, toolbox, socket set, torque wrench, foot-pump, fold-out chair, change of clothes, crash helmet, etc, etc). It is amazing just how much you can get into a Caterham when you really need to. The journey itself up the motorway was dull (and pretty noisy with the roof up), but the sun came out about 10 miles from Snetterton, so I arrived feeling a little more buoyed up and ready for a good days racing.

Having done a track-day at Snetterton a month or so ago I was confident I knew which way the track went, but that day was soaking wet and today looked as though it would be dry, so the track was still going to present a decent challenge for me. The start of the Snetterton 100 sprint is at the bottom of the Agostini hairpin which you accelerate hard through, then up a short straight into the left hander at Hamilton, taken with a lift in third, before breaking  hard for the third gear right at Oggies. It is then a short squirt in third before going hard on the brakes and back to second for the left hand hairpin at Firmans. After the hairpin it is back up to third and into the left hander at Palmer, taken with a small lift, before getting back on the throttle and into fourth for the straight that takes you back to Agostini. Two circuits of the track in an Academy car last year took just over 100 seconds, but the finish line had been moved a few hundred yards from last year so it wouldn’t be possible to make a direct comparison with the 2011 groups times.

The format of the morning was much as with Aintree and Curborough. I arrived at 6.30am and unload the car, checked tyre pressures and taped up the lights/handbrake etc. before signing on at 7.00am, scruitineering at 7.30am and the track walk at 8.00am, before the drivers briefing at 8.30am. Then…hang around a lot. There really is a great deal of hanging around at sprints, giving plenty of time to banter with fellow competitors and get nervous about how well you are going to do.

Our Academy group was first up on track at 9am and with three cars running on the track at any one time we were being dispatched in pretty quick succession. I was actually pretty relaxed, but as I got to the holding area I was asked for my scruitneering card, which was in my pocket. I undid my belts and fumbled in my pocket to get it, only to be told it was for car 107 (I am car 108). Some marshals have a great sense of humour, but this one clearly didn’t, so I started to get flustered whilst he worked out what had gone on. In the end it was sorted pretty quickly and I was put back into line with the rest of the group, but it certainly didn’t do anything to help me keep calm or focus on the task ahead.

My first practice run was pretty untidy, particularly at the Firmans hairpin and Hamilton where I was sliding wildly and on the lock stops, only just holding the car on the track. I didn’t actually think I was pushing that hard and was quite surprised by how little grip there was on the track first thing in the morning, so resolved to make my second practice run slower and much more controlled. Still a time of 107.30 was enough to have me 1st in class at this point, but some 2 ½ seconds off the usual suspects (Peter Fortune and Michael Gazda) in Group 2, who were flying. After the run it was straight off to scruitineering to have the car weighed to ensure it was above the 620kg minimum (I was weighing in at 629kg at the start of the day and with a little less fuel 625kg at the end of the day).

It was then back to the paddock to compare times and experiences with the rest of the guys. Unlike Aintree and Curborough where you can see your time as you cross the finish line the Snetterton timing was hidden away. This meant that we were all crowding around the timing board outside the timing hut waiting for the results to be printed out like schoolboys waiting for exam results to be posted. Once reviewed the usual banter started, with those posting 999 times vigorously protesting their innocence about the fact they weren’t really off the track (a 999 was handed out to anyone who put more than two wheels off the track and was strictly enforced), but the quantities of dust getting thrown up by various Caterhams would suggest there were a few guilty parties.

There was no tannoy system in operation at Snetterton, so we had to carefully watch out for our turn to come around again, making sure we were back in our cars in plenty of time to get settled, but not so early so as to sit sweating in our nomex. My second practice run was much better than my first. It was much tidier with far less time spent sideways and much quicker as a result. A 106.12 was over a second quicker, but it was clear that there was more speed to be found in Hamilton and Palmer if I could be braver on the turn in and get the car settled quicker to avoid mid corner oversteer, which was still hampering my efforts.

My first timed run was my best run yet, yielding a 105.56, which kept me top of Group 1, but was still some 2 seconds off the fastest time in Group 2. The key difference between this run and the two practice runs was that I was now taking Hamilton at the top end of third gear, rather than fourth as I had been previously. This made a big difference, allowing me more control over the car mid-corner and a better exit, but at the same time I managed to muck up my entry into Agostini, which I tried to take in third, and which cost me a little of the time I had gained at Hamilton. Again, there was more pace to be found.

My second timed run started off really well, with the first lap just about perfect, but as I started the second I understeered wide at Hamilton and dropped the two right hand side wheels off the track and into the dirt. I kept my foot in and carried on at pace, but knew it would be a marginal call as to whether I had remained on the track or not. I thought I might just have had the two left wheels on the kerb, but a quick look at the timings afterwards revealed a 999. Checking my video footage showed this to be fair, as my left hand side was about an inch over the white line, so the car was completely off the track. It is a real shame as I think it would have been my fastest run yet, but rules are rules and I still had a good banker from my previous run.

My third and final timed run, was actually two runs. On the first I got a fantastic launch and had nailed the first half of the lap when I saw red flags out for Jason Gale (car 107), who had spun up at the Firman hairpin, so I had to cruise around and re-join the queue for a second attempt as my first had been compromised. This time I was a little less tidy, with more wheelspin at the start and some turn in oversteer at Palmer on the second lap, but it felt quicker than my previous runs, so I was hopeful of a good time. It just remained to be seen if anyone in Group 1 had managed to go quicker still, or whether I could hold on to my first place.

Once again Jenny Grace (our Academy coordinator) was feeling mean and kept the results from being posted up by the timing officials, so it was simply a case of packing the car up with all of my things (a lot easier and quicker than having to load it onto a trailer) and chat to the guys about who had done what. After an hour or so we all gathered eagerly at the Caterham Motorsport truck to hear the results, which for Group 1 were, in reverse order; 4th Brian Caudwell (106.23), 3rd – Matt Lawrence (105.97), 2nd - Tristan Judge (105.29), 1st - Alex Gurr (105.12)…….another trophy, another cap and another kiss from Jenny. It was a fantastic feeling and no less exciting than the first win at Curborough, but I do confess to a strong feeling of embarrassment when I walked up to collect the trophy. I know I shouldn’t and all my fellow competitors are great sportsmen, but there is something about the whole process that I find slightly awkward…I am not sure how professional sports people deal with it. Once again the Group 2 guys had a great set of times, with; 4th Danny Killeen (105.31), 3rd – Stephen Nuttall (105.07), 2nd – Michael Gazda (104.12), 1st Peter Fortune (103.13) – a fantastic time and quickest novice by quite some way. Congratulations guys….a great set of results.

After saying goodbye to everyone, I climbed into the Caterham and took off for home, driving in convoy with a couple of other Caterhams, hood down with the warm evening air on my face. It had been another fantastic day and a great result, which has now put me to the top of the Group 1 table, 1 point clear from Matt Lawrence. I have thoroughly enjoyed the sprints, but am now really looking forward to the circuit races (the first being Donington in 5 weeks’ time). Everyone has said that those that are quick at the sprints aren’t necessarily quick in the races, but this doesn’t worry me. I feel that I am driving better and better, but also know that the guys in my group are also improving in leaps and bounds, so it should be really exciting. For now I am just concentrating on enjoying the experience and am really looking forward to getting on track, side by side, with my fellow Academy competitors.

Run Number 3 - 105.12 seconds:

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