Thursday, 23 August 2012

Brands Hatch Race (and preparation)

Brands Hatch Race – Saturday 04th August:

It only feels like yesterday that we were at Donington for the first race of the Academy season, with the three week gap to Brands Hatch seeming much shorter than it actually was. I had been looking forward to Brands since the start of the Academy, but had only driven there as an 18 year old in 1997 after my dad bought me half a day at the Nigel Mansell racing school, so a refresher before the race seemed like a good idea.

I managed to book myself on an MSV trackday on the 26th July and once again I was using Ben Elliott for tuition, this time sharing him with David Russell and Nigel Board (two of my fellow Group 1 competitors). Nigel had booked Ben initially and rightly had first dibs on him in the morning, so after Ben had strapped the V-Box to my car and given me a bit of guidance on the circuit I set off for my first laps of Brands on my own. It was a roasting hot day, with both car and driver getting very warm very quickly, so I limited myself to about 15 laps during which time I fell in love with the circuit all over again.

Back in the garage after the first stint Ben took a good look at my data, which showed my quickest lap to be 57.02 seconds (4/10ths off Bens own quickest time in an Academy car), so things were looking really promising. Watching the video back and looking at the data Ben gave me plenty of pointers, particularly how to tackle Clearways where I was losing quite a lot of time onto the main straight. I then went out and spent the rest of the day trying harder and going slower, even earning a bit of a telling off from the marshals’ for throwing the car into the gravel at Clearways whilst trying too hard. Finally, at the end of the day, things started to click into place and I eventually put in a 56.44 second run and was consistently in the 56’s (Ben, using my car, had gone even quicker with a 56.16s earlier in the day), before I threw the car into the gravel again in spectacular style at the top of Paddock Hill Bend. At that point I decided to call it a day and head home….hot and tired, but really pleased with my progress.

The week leading up to the race was much more relaxed than it had been for Donington. My only preparation was to remove several kilos of gravel from the car, give it a good clean and check all the vital fluids. I felt much more relaxed in myself, more confident that I knew what to expect and how to get ready for the coming race. In all honesty work had been so busy that I hadn’t even had a chance to think too much about the race in the lead up to the weekend.

Despite Brands Hatch being much closer to me and Group 1 having a more civilised time for sign-on than at Donington, I still made an early start and left the house at just after 5am. The weather was pretty poor, with heavy rain on the way down, undoing all my car cleaning efforts within a few miles. I stopped for the obligatory coffee and croissant just before the Dartford Bridge, but still arrived at the track just before 7am. This gave me plenty of time to go through the usual preparations and final checks; attach the camera to the roll bar, check tyre pressures, check wheel nuts, fill with fuel, tape up the handbrake etc. I then had plenty of time to mosey around and take in the atmosphere before sign-on and scruitineering at 9am. As a petrolhead there is something quite magical about arriving at a race circuit early in the morning and it is always nice to spend a bit of time taking it in and appreciating that you are following in some very significant tyre tracks by racing on that circuit.

After sign-on and scruitineering we gathered at the Caterham truck for a briefing from the Clerk of the Course. It is fair to say that he was rather a scary gentleman who gave us all a pretty stern talking to after the antics at Donington where people missed and ignored yellow flags, causing the accident that the unfurled and left 3 cars pretty badly damaged. To add to this there had been a test day at Brands Hatch the day before, where a lot of the guys had gone for some final practice before the race and by their own admission it was carnage, with damaged cars and plenty of red flags. I don’t think Jenny was at all amused and it was clear that they expected much better of us at the race.

After the briefing a number of us strolled from the lower paddock to Paddock Hill Bend to watch the Group 2 guys qualify. It was fascinating watching the different styles and lines, some much smoother and faster than others, but everyone looked as though they were having fun. Michael Gazda put in a storming drive to grab pole in 56.21, just ahead of Pete Fortune in second on 56.49.

Group 1 had its qualifying at 10.35, so I had plenty of time to get myself ready, strapped into the car and trundle around to the holding area to be noise tested. Waiting in the holding area is always a pain and there appears to be a fine balance between getting there very early and having to wait ages, but being first out on track and therefore into clean air, or getting there a little later on but risking being caught up in a lot of traffic unable to get a clear lap. As it transpired I timed it well and was 5th car out and starting to make good progress when on lap 3 my drivers side front cycle wing came flying off. Unfortunately the wires for the indicator on the wing held it to the car, but allowed it to flap around wildly, so I had to slowly make my way around the circuit and back into the pits to ask a marshal to rip it off. With the wing removed and time lost I got back onto the circuit and fortunately back into clean air. I made the most of this over the next 10 laps and drove as hard as I dared without doing anything silly. The circuit still felt slippery from the rain the night before, so I didn’t feel as though I was as quick as I had been at the track day a week earlier, but once back in the pits I was told I had got pole, so something had obviously gone ok.

Before I could return to the paddock my car was checked for weight (it was well over the 620kg minimum at 631kg) and a few other bits and bobs…as expected nothing was found to be amiss, but it remains a nerve wracking experience. Back in the paddock I managed to get hold of the Group 1 qualifying times and could see that I had managed a 56.44 second lap, identical to my quickest time the week before, and was ½ a second clear of Scott Lawrence in 2nd. My nearest championship competitor Matthew Lawrence was 8th, which was a surprise to me….and him I think.

After lunch the Group 2 guys set off for their race, which was fantastic to watch from the bottom of Paddock Hill bend. Peter Fortune initially took the lead, but a very determined and very quick drive from Michael Gazda saw him take the lead back at half distance, at which point he slowly drew away from the chasing pack. Despite getting involved in a chaotic battle for 3rd/4th/5th in the early stages Stephen Nuttall drew away to chase Peter Fortune, overtaking him on the last corner of the last lap as the pair were tackling traffic. It was another great race from the Group 2 guys.

The Group 1 race came at 1.30pm and with it came the return of the nerves. Sat in the car in the holding area I found myself playing over and over in my mind the start and the daunting run down to Paddock Hill bend. Eventually we were released onto the grid and then off for our warm up lap, which on a circuit as short as Brands Hatch Indy doesn’t take long. The wait for the lights to come on for the start however seemed to take for ever. As they came on I twitched….almost false starting, meaning that I didn’t react as quickly as I should have to them when they went out for real. Scott Lawrence made a much better start than me and was a couple of car lengths ahead as we approached Paddock. Scott braked earlier than me so I tried to go up the inside, which didn’t quite work so we ended up going through Paddock side by side, with me getting plenty of oversteer mid corner and therefore a slower exit up to Druids. At Druids we all took a defensive line, before taking the plunge back down to Graham Hill Bend. Here I got on the power too early in the vain attempt to get a run on Scott up to Surtees, but in the end understeered wide at the exit, got on the rumble strip and grass and ended up having quite a moment. Luckily no one behind was able to capitalise on my mistake so I concentrated on getting a clean run through Surtees and Clearways. Onto the back straight Scott was again a few car lengths up, but I had got a better run out of the final corner and was closing him down. Into Paddock he was a little early on the brakes again and I decided it was now or never, so braked as late as I dared and threw the car up the inside. It worked as I came out in front and took a defensive line again into Druids. From then on I started to pull away from the field and, driving at 90 – 95%, had to focus on maintaining my concentration and not doing anything silly. I wouldn’t call it a boring race, I don’t think there is any such thing, but it was certainly very much easier than at Donington where I was pushed all of the way to the flag by Matthew Lawrence and Matt Dyer. This time I was the only one that could throw it away and I was determined not to do so.

Two laps from the end I caught a couple of the back markers, passing the first easily along the bottom straight and into Surtees, the second put up more of a fight. The blue flags weren’t very visible and I think Michael thought I was his competition, but on the last lap, not wanting to lose too much time and risk being caught by Scott, I made my move past Michael Downing down into Graham Hill Bend. Michael turned in on me and for a horrible split second I thought it was going to end in tears, but thankfully he saw me at the last minute and gave me room. From there through Surtees and Clearways for the final time to the finish line and the chequered flag I could really relax and enjoy myself. I even let out a little victory cheer as I crossed the line, 5 seconds clear of Scott in second place.

On the cool down lap it was time to say thank you to all of the Marshalls, who were again fantastic and thankfully a lot less busy than they were at Donington, before heading back into Parc Ferme to have the car checked over again. With nothing found to be amiss, except me being quite significantly overweight still, it was back to the paddock and time to load the car back on the trailer. An old school friend had come along to watch my progress with his family and my family were present once again, so I had plenty of help getting the car loaded and a nice time being congratulated by everyone.

The awards were held in the Caterham hospitality area (no official podium this time unfortunately) and we were under very strict instructions not to spray champagne inside the awning, so did it outside instead. The results for Group 2 were; 3rd – Peter Fortune, 2nd Stephen Nuttall, 1st Michael Gazda and for Group 1; 3rd Mathew Lawrence, 2nd Scott Lawrence, 1st Alex Gurr. It had been a great day and another good result, but I am starting to feel a little self-conscious…like the kid in class who is trying just that little bit too hard. I am competitive by nature and like to do well, but I am also approaching the Academy to have fun first and foremost. Good results are an added bonus.

With the formalities over and the car loaded it was time to head home. I was given a very tired and very grumpy Jemima as my passenger, whilst Sophie drove back with Tabitha (still wearing my winners cap) and Henry. My friend Martin had offered to drive Michaels Caterham back to Hertford as he had a tow car and a Caterham to try and get home, but no trailer (via a complicated set of circumstances that had started with his accident back at Donington). So in convoy we all set off back home, tired, happy and another step closer to being a proper racing driver. It had been a very good day indeed.

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