Donington Race – Saturday 14th July:
This weekend has been a long time coming. Whilst the sprints were fantastic fun, it felt as though they were just the warm-up before the races. Having your first race at Donington Park, a bona-fida Grand Prix track, supporting the European Le Mans series is certainly a privilege, but a nerve wracking one at that.
Time and money for practice remained limited once again, but I did manage to sneak in a track-day on the Donington National circuit (we would be racing on the International) on the 16th June, as a post birthday treat. I was again using Ben Elliott as my guide, but sharing him with Jason Gale and David Russell (two of my fellow Group 1 competitors) to help reduce the cost and hopefully learn something from them at the same time. It was a fantastic day, starting out dry, then getting greasy, later very wet, and finally dry again. In that regard, we were very lucky as it gave us a chance to drive in all possible conditions and learn the lines for each. The unfortunate part was that it was only the National circuit, so we wouldn’t get the chance to do the Melbourne Loop, which we would have to do come race day. I figured it was only three extra corners, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but with hindsight that was probably not quite right.
I went out first with Ben and he showed me which way the circuit went, giving me plenty of hints on braking points, turn-in points, apexes and gear selections. We made really good progress in the first 30 minutes, before Ben took me out and showed me how it should be done. As at Snetterton, he was noticeably stronger on the brakes than me, and was much tidier through Redgate and Old Hairpin. At this point he went off to spend some time with Jason and I was left to play on my own. Throughout the day and despite the changing conditions, my confidence grew and I was carrying more speed everywhere, but I was still struggling with Redgate and the Old Hairpin even at the end of the day. I just couldn’t find a line I felt comfortable with through Redgate and I wasn’t carrying quite enough speed at the apex of Old Hall to allow me to take it in 4th gear, so was dropping to 3rd then quickly back up again to 4th. Despite this, I was just a second of Ben’s pace by the end of the day and had thoroughly enjoyed Donington. There is a real sense of history at the circuit and whilst it has changed a lot since the Silver Arrows came over and dominated the 1938 meeting, the essential character remains. Flat through the Craner Curves at over 100mph is something that will live with me for a long time!
Following Ben’s feedback on the set-up of my car at Snetterton and again at Donington I decided to bite the bullet and take it to DPR for a change. I was perfectly happy with the Caterham set-up, but wanted to see if there was something extra to be found. I also decided to ask them to fit the race transponder and to look at the brakes for me, which had been mushy since the calliper recall earlier in the year. I was really looking forward to trying the new set-up and seeing the difference it had made, but I collected the car late one evening, directly after stepping off the plane from our family holiday. The 2 hour drive round the M25, in biblical weather conditions told me nothing, other than the fact that a 7 with the roof up, on a packed motorway, in the pouring rain is a pretty noisy and scary place to be.
A week later, I got back in the car and took it up to Arch to have the harnesses adjusted for my HANS device. I hadn’t bothered with this before as I didn’t think I would really need it at the sprints or on a track day, but with the race looming I decided fitting it made sense. I was lucky with the weather and seemed to choose the one morning in the whole month that was dry, so had a good run up to Huntingdon with a bit more of a chance to get a feel for the set-up. The car felt great, but there was a strange buzzing coming through the steering when the car was on an 1/8th of a turn of lock, and also when heavily loaded through a corner. Definitely something I needed to investigate later on.
If I describe Arch as quaint, it might sound patronising, but it isn’t meant that way. The guys there were incredibly friendly and showed me around the factory with great enthusiasm. It was great to see the quality of workmanship on display and the variety of manufacturing work they undertake for car and bike manufacturers and individuals alike. The adjustment to the harnesses was done in less than 2 hours and was a quality job, but the £240 bill seemed somewhat steep for the time and materials involved. Still, you really can’t really put a price on safety and Arch are the only people licensed to undertake the work.
With a week left to the race, the excitement started to increase exponentially but I still had a few small jobs to do, so kept myself busy in the evenings fiddling with the car. This included adjusting the steering rack to move the column away from the engine pulley (after the DPR set-up, these had been contacting slightly, causing the vibration through the steering), replacing the metal rear wing bolts with nylon ones to protect the bodywork in the event of a wing being knocked off (the nylon bolts snap easily, saving the aluminium skin underneath from ripping), checking the crucial nuts and bolts were as tight as they ought to be, checking the fluid levels and, most importantly of all, fitting my new race number (46 – in honour of The Doctor). During the days, I had to content myself with endlessly checking the weather forecasts to see if we were going to be in for a wet or a dry race. If I didn’t like the answer I saw on one website, I would go off and check another until I found one I did like. Unfortunately they all said the same thing … it was going to be wet! By Friday I was struggling to concentrate at work and just wanted to get home to get the car loaded and myself prepared. In the end, I left work just after 6pm and finished getting everything ready by 10pm. I then went to bed and tried to sleep. With little success. Anyone who remembers being 5 and waiting for Father Christmas to come, or worse still, 16 and waiting for your exam results to arrive will know that feeling. It was a real mixture of excitement and fear playing around in my head.
As with Curborough and Snetterton I set off at the crack of dawn, leaving the house at 4.15am and driving through the pouring rain up to Donington. After a very quick pit stop for a coffee and croissant (not a real racing driver's breakfast I am sure, but it worked for me) I arrived at Donington at 6.30am, only to find that I couldn’t get in. Those of us who hadn’t been to the Caterham supported test-day the Wednesday before had been instructed to collect tickets at the gate, but that gate was shut and the tickets weren’t there. We were due to sign-on and get scruitineered at 7.30am, so it really didn’t leave very much time at all. Luckily, at 7am, Jenny turned up and got me into the circuit. I then started rushing around like a madman getting the car unloaded and everything ready. Once through sign-on and scruitineering (they actually sound tested us, which I found hysterical given that we were sharing the day with LMP1/2 cars and Donington is right under the flight path of East Midlands airport. 26 Caterhams on the grid would hardly have registered against the backdrop of noise from the airport and our more glamorous racing companions from the ELMS) it was a back to the paddock for more last minute preparations: adjust mirrors, fit camera, check tyre pressures, fluid levels etc. before going to the "new driver" briefing at 8.15am. This was a very friendly session, which helped put us at ease. The great thing about the Academy is that there is no question too silly to ask….although we really did test this theory. The highlight for me was the Clerk of the Course introducing himself and saying he hoped not to get to know us, at which point a couple of the guys introduced themselves to him as Alex Gurr! Brilliant!
It was then back to the car and quickly off to the assembly area, where we waited with engines running and hearts racing, ready for qualifying. I was out onto track 4th and it was clear that the rain that had fallen over night had left the track treacherous and very, very slippery. With heart in mouth I set off at about 90% race pace to find out where the grip was and to learn my way around the Melbourne loop, which to my dismay was much trickier than it looked on the track guide (a lesson learnt there). I quickly picked off one of my fellow competitors before getting embroiled in a fantastic spat with Nigel Broad, who graciously left me alone after spinning at the Melbourne hairpin. It was then off past Matthew Lawrence (currently just behind me in the championship) and into clear air for a few laps, before catching some of the more tentative guys from Group 1. In those 7 laps, the car felt terrible with no grip and a very twitchy rear end, which made me less than confident for my grid position but to my great surprise, as we were flagged in through the pitlane and into parc fermé, one of the Caterham guys smiled at me and held up a single finger (à la Vettle). I had got pole for my first ever race! Not by much though, with Matt Dyer having put in a very strong drive and having qualified just a couple of 10ths behind. After much banter and hanging around in parc fermé, it was off back to the paddock to wait. Qualifying had finished at 9.20am and we would be racing at 2.50pm, with little to do in-between but get nervous and watch our fellow competitors show us how it really should be done.
As the afternoon wore on my brother and his girlfriend arrived, followed by an old friend, then finally, just as I was driving into the assembly area for the race itself, my wife and the children (late as usual, but very much a welcome addition to the fan club). By this time I had been to the loo more times than I care to count, cleaned the car obsessively and tried to busy myself with thoughts other than what it would feel like to start a race with 26 Caterhams breathing down my neck. To make matters worse when I got to the holding area I realised that I had put the pin back in my fire extinguisher and forgotten to take it out again (something that can earn you a hefty fine) so had to frantically call someone over to take it out for me, before being waved off to form up on the grid. With this duly done and my heart rate through the roof, I set off on the green flag lap, practicing a start that saw me using too many revs and getting too much wheelspin (another lesson learnt). I drove around at about 75% race pace, trying not to do anything silly, before slowing right down at the Melbourne Hairpin and letting my fellow competitors group up behind me.
Sat on pole position, not quite believing that I was finally doing what I have wanted to do since I was a little boy, I checked myself, checked the car was in first gear (3 or 4 times) and waited. Then came the 5 second board. Then the lights illuminated. Then, they are gone. 4,000rpm, a little too much wheelspin, but a good safe start and the charge off down to Redgate. Brake slightly early, take a middling line, check there is no-one doing anything silly up the inside, then turn-in and accelerate towards the Craner Curves. Two or three car lengths ahead now and concentrate, this is easily flat, but the car is understeering a little too much for my liking. Late on the brakes and down into third for Old Hall, taken with an early turn in and a touch of understeer out to the curb, before slotting 4th and keeping it flat out up to McLeans. Brake as late as possible, down to third and into the corner taking as much curb and some of the grass as possible. Then up to 4th again before a very quick stab of the brakes and down into 3rd again for the blind apex at Coppice. Carry as much speed as possible here to make sure that you minimise the possibility of someone getting a tow down the Dunlop straight. As we arrive at the Foggarty Esses I notice waved yellows and a safety car board out, so slow down to 70% race pace and make my way around to the startline, where we are picked up by a Nissan GTR. Time to breathe again.
As we go down the Craner Curves on lap 2 the reason is apparent as Andreas Sinclair has beached his car in the gravel on the infield in a place where he could get hit. We continue around the course to the Foggarty Esses where there is more carnage, with two cars head-on into each other and another beached in the gravel, with a good deal of debris spread across the track. It later transpired that the yellow flags, seen by some and not by others, had caused a chain reaction of events with the unfortunate outcome that a further four cars were out of the race. Following the safety car around for a further 2 laps, I had a chance to calm down and work out how I was going to lead the pack away. On lap 4 I saw the lights go out on the safety car so started to hold back as we went down the Dunlop straight and through the Foggarty Esses, then halfway to the Melbourne Hairpin I went, gaining an instant 2 – 3 car lengths on Matthew Lawrence, which I held for about half a lap. However going into the 6th lap, he and Matt Dyer were right behind me again - I was quick through the first and middle part of the lap, but my lack of experience around the Melbourne Loop was showing and they were gaining significantly in that sector. As we started the 6th lap, Matthew was all over me and had a look coming out of Old Hall and up through the Schwanz Curve, but thought better of it. I managed to get a good drive onto the Dunlop Straight and pull away again slightly, but coming back through the Foggarty Esses and the Melbourne Hairpin he was right with me again. Onto the final lap and down the start finish straight he got into the tow and put a great move on me down the inside into Redgate (in all honesty I didn’t see it coming…another lesson learnt). I then stuck to him like glue down through the Craner Curves and up to McLeans. Following Matthew felt a lot easier than leading him and whilst disappointed I had lost the lead, the pressure actually felt less as I could follow his lines and work out where I was stronger than him. Coming out of Coppice I got a better drive onto the Dunlop Straight and got right into the tow. Matthew saw this and moved to the middle of the track to defend, but I moved to the inside and as we headed down into the Foggarty Esses it was a game of "last of the late brakers". We both went in too hot, too sideways and too slow, but I came out in front. Accelerating out and down to the Melbourne Hairpin, Matthew had a look down the inside again, but this time he was joined by Matt Dyer on the outside of me, so three into one at Melbourne. I took a defensive line, got there first and again over-cooked it at the apex, as did the other two. We all then struggled for traction out and up the hill to the final corner, where I again took a defensive line. With my mirrors full of two very determined Caterhams I accelerated out of the last bend and onto the finish straight to take the chequered flag…my first race and my first race win.
It had only been 7 laps, and only 4 of those at race pace, but it had felt 10 times longer than that out front. I was exhausted, thrilled and genuinely surprised. On the warm-down lap I quickly remembered to wave to say thank you to the marshals, without whom we couldn’t race and who did a fantastic job that day. At the end of the lap as I cruised into the pit lane I heard my family shouting from the grandstand which was a lovely moment. Once in parc fermé, Matthew, Matt and I were quickly gathered up by Jenny and ushered up to the podium (the real Grand Prix podium) where we were presented with our trophies, caps and champagne. I was then interviewed by one of the commentators, which in all honesty felt very embarrassing given the number of people watching and the clichés that were falling out of my mouth as I was blabbing away. Still, it was nice that they made a real fuss of us. At that point I got absolutely covered in champagne by Matt and Matthew.
Back in the paddock after having my car scruitneered (an experience I still find nerve wracking even though I know it is absolutely fine), it was time to congratulate my fellow drivers on a good clean race and to recall all of the experiences to my friends and family. It was also an opportunity to see Michael and Tristan who collided on the first lap through no fault of their own and offer my commiserations. It was a really sad way for both of them to end their races, but at least they were both physically OK.
Having packed the car away, we watched the Group 2 race which was dominated by Stephen Nuttall (also a Rossi fan running number 46), with a phenomenal and very clean battle for 2nd place between Peter Fortune and Michael Gazda. The guys showed real class in their racing and were very impressive to watch. Before we left for the evening we had another presentation in the Caterham hospitality truck, which provided a final opportunity to congratulate everyone on their results and to say thank you to the guys at Caterham for looking after us so well.
After dinner with the family and on the drive back home I had a chance to reflect on the day. I remained unbelievably pleased, but also conscious that I had been lucky. I was under-prepared for the race, having not driven the full track before and having not been on the circuit with the car with its new set-up. The conditions in the morning had given me a bit of an advantage as I really like the wet and in the race I really believe that Matthew, and probably Matt, were quicker than me. Had there been no safety car, or had the race been another lap longer I doubt I would have won. But that is motor racing and I am more than happy to take the win. More importantly than that, I will keep that day with me until my death bed. The 5 year old boy in me has finally realised a dream.