Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Snetterton Race (and preparation)

Snetterton Race – Saturday 01st – Sunday 02nd September:

I had been to Snetterton a couple of times before, but I had never driven the full 200 circuit that we would be using over our race weekend. My first visit earlier in the year had been to a sodden 300 circuit, so I knew which way the majority of the track went, but was still keen to get a bit more practice to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake as Donington, where I wrongly assumed a couple of unknown corners wouldn’t matter too much.

I booked myself on a Javelin track evening prior to the race and towed the car up to the track for a 5pm start. Unfortunately the weather was grim and the track horribly slippery. A number of the Academy guys had been there for the day and their cars looked pretty caked in mud from various off-track excursions. My early laps were really just about familiarising myself with the track again and learning the line at Montreal and onto the Bentley straight (the corner I hadn’t learned for the 300). It was really hard to get a feel for my pace as the track was terribly slippery and the evening plagued by red flags as cars went off stage, left, right and centre. It was an enjoyable evening, but not particularly productive so I was left hoping that our race would be either wet or greasy as I still hadn’t managed to drive the track in the dry.

The night before the race I went over the car with the usual spanner check and changed the oil and filter again, as the last time I had done this was just before the Aintree sprint at the start of the season. On the Saturday morning of qualifying I made my customary early start, leaving in the pitch black and arriving at Snetterton just after 7am to unload the car and make final preparations. Qualifying was not until late afternoon but I had volunteered for Marshalling duties, which Caterham encourage us to undertake for 5 extra points on our championship and an extra signature on our race license. I had chosen to do mine at Snetterton as we were to be there all weekend and my family were away, so it would minimise the time away from the kids and roll everything into one weekend.

The marshalling itself was fascinating. To see the dedication and passion of the marshals was quite humbling. They are very professional and clearly love their motorsport, but the time commitment required is significant. They will regularly be at the circuit from before 8am till gone 6pm Saturday and Sunday throughout the year. It is a sacrifice I couldn’t make, but one that I really appreciate them making, as without them none of us could race.

On Saturday morning I was stationed at Riches during the qualifying for all non-Academy Caterham championships, the TVR championship and the Fiesta championship. This passed with the odd spin, but not an awful lot else by way of incident, but Sunday morning was a different matter entirely. This time we were based on the outside of Brundle and watched in amazement as the Caterham boys and girls slipstreamed and swapped places endlessly throughout their races. It was fantastic to get so close to the action, but during the Supersport race a couple of the chaps decided to bring the action even closer as they got tangled together and literally skidded along the rails by our feet at about 80mph, showering us in polystyrene from one of the marker boards. All of the marshals we met were fantastically friendly and it was a great way of gaining a closer understanding of what they do for us to allow us to race….to any marshals reading, thank you!

At lunchtime on Saturday we left our new marshalling friends and went to sign-on and get our cars scruitineered.  I then had a few hours to ponder what tyre pressures I wanted to opt for and what extra checks I wanted to make on the car before qualifying. I find myself endlessly tinkering just to fill the time, which meant my car got a good clean again before going out on track.

Once we had been called it was off to be noise tested and then gather in the assembly area. I was a little later than usual and about 10 cars back in the queue to get out on track, which was going to make qualifying even more interesting. Once on track it was straight past a couple of the slower guys and into some clean air to try and put a good lap together. My lack of dry running time was showing and I was making plenty of mistakes; too slow into Riches, too hot into Montreal, all over the shop at Brundle. I couldn’t seem to string a good lap together and backed off on three occasions when I made a mistake to give myself some space from the group in front and more clear air for a clear run the following lap. I am glad I did as there was a large crash at the finish line between Matthew Lawrence, Tony Mingola and Andreas Sinclair. They had been battling all session long and had come across Philip Nash who was driving slowly up the straight after coming off the track. There were bits of cars everywhere and all of us following had to take evasive action to avoid getting caught up in it as well. Thankfully everyone was OK, but there were some rather sorry looking cars afterwards.

Despite being unhappy with the way I had driven, I had managed to grab pole by just under 1/10th of a second from Tony Mingola, with a 1.29.664, but whilst happy with the result I knew I was a long way from perfect. This was comprehensively proved when Group 2 went out for their qualifying and Peter Fortune put his car on pole with a 1.27.880 (another stunning time). Still, pole is pole.

That evening a number of us stayed at the track and had a beer or two with a BBQ kindly put on by Tristan Judge and Scott Lawrence. It was a great opportunity to chill out and enjoy the atmosphere of the paddock, which I hadn’t had a chance to do until now because I have been doing all the events in a day. I left just before 9pm to head for my B&B, with Scott and Tristan looking very mischevious….to be honest I was pretty worried about what might be in store for my car, which I was leaving at the track.

After a very pleasant stay in a local B&B I returned early to the track for my Sunday marshalling activities, only to find my trailer moved and my car hidden behind a bunch of big wheelie bins! It could have been worse…the boys had been tying tin cans to the cars of some of the guys in Group 2 so that they looked like the carriage of a recently married couple.

After the mornings marshalling it was back to the paddock to tinker with the car again. I had friends from work and home coming to see me race, so spent time with them trying not to think too much about the race ahead. The sun was out and the atmosphere in the paddock fantastic, so it was a really nice afternoon to sit, chat and watch the world go by. A little while later my family arrived and my girls started busily clambering over my car, which always makes me nervous in case they get hold of the fire extinguisher leaver and I have forgotten to put the pin in….thankfully there were no explosive moments to clear up, but I am convinced it will happen one day.

After being called to the holding area and waiting for what seems like and age we were called onto the track and formed up on the grid. Thankfully those that had been involved in the crash the day before were all fixed (some more crudely than others) and back on the grid, which is a fantastic testament to the skill and speed of the guys at Caterham, who had numerous cars to sort out over the weekend and not just from the Academy.

As the green flag fell I got a fantastic practice start and charged off towards Riches to get a sense for the levels of grip available. On the way in to Corham at the end of the lap I slowed to let the field bunch up before forming up again on the grid. As the red lights went out for the real start I made a great get away and shot straight into the lead, with Tony Mingola slotting in just behind me as we charged through Riches. I braked as late as I dared into Montreal and covered my line, being careful to check the mirrors and ensure no one was doing anything silly up the inside. As I exited Montreal and onto the Bentley straight I could see lots of tyre smoke in my mirrors, but didn’t give it too much thought as I was more concerned with Tony getting a tow down the straight and taking me into Brundle. Luckily I seemed to get a better corner exit than him and had 3 or 4 car lengths, which was enough to keep me in clear air. Then, as I approached the Bomb Hole I saw a red flag and guessed that the tyre smoke from the second corner must have resulted in a race stopping pile-up, so cruised back round to the grid to wait and be re-started (for some reason the Academy races weren’t being run with safety cars at this event).

We waited about 20 minutes whilst the debris was cleared up and damaged cars removed. It turns out that Matthew Lawrence had spun going into Montreal and had been collected by Tor Mcilroy, with Tim Younge somehow getting tangled up in it all. It was a sad way for all the guys to end the weekend, especially Matthew who had absolutely rotten luck all weekend and had been my stiffest competition in the championship until that point. But, they will all be back for the next round, of that I am sure.

As the race re-started I made another good start and sprung into the lead from Tony. Through Riches I was as committed as I dared be on lap one, before once again braking as late as possible for Montreal and trying to concentrate on getting a good clean exit out onto the Bentley straight. As I did I noticed that Tony had run a little wide at the hairpin and I had once again got a few car lengths on him. From there on to the finish 9 laps later I concentrated on being smooth and consistent, driving at about 90% and drawing out a lead from the guys battling behind. Despite feeling as though I were driving much more within myself I was actually circulating at, or quicker, than my qualifying times the day before. At the finish I crossed the line just over 7 seconds clear of Brian Caudwell who had a fantastic run to his best ever finish. No race is ever easy, but this one felt under control and I had more chance than ever before to enjoy the experience as I went along.

On the cool down lap I made sure I gave an extra big wave and toot on the horn to the marshals I had spent the previous two mornings with, before cruising into the pit lane to be greeted with the news “we aren’t 100% sure, but we think you have just won the championship”. I am not an outwardly emotional person, but I must admit I gave the steering wheel a few good slams with my fist in delight at that news. What a feeling. Once out of the car it was time to congratulate the rest of the guys on a great race, especially Brian and Nigel Broad who also secured his first podium with a 3rd position. We were then ushered onto a make shift podium in parc ferme where we sprayed each other and anyone else nearby with champagne, before being interviewed by a chap from Motors TV who were filming there that day.

My car was scruitineered again before leaving parc ferme (it must be the most heavily scruitineered car in the series by now) to see the family and pack everything up for the long drive back home. This part of the weekend always comes as a big anti-climax, as you say goodbye to your friends and head back to reality after a weekend of laughter and excitement. I tried not to think too hard about the championship that might be mine as I drove back, but on the Monday morning when sat at my desk I received an e-mail from Jenny confirming that I had won the Group 1 Academy championship. It was a really emotional moment and something I had to sit quietly to take in. Now I know it isn’t formula one, but it is a highly competitive series with some very talented drivers, so to win an event is a major achievement and to win the championship a real honour.

Unfortunately I missed the Group 2 Academy race, but watching the videos back the next week it is clear that the top 5 guys had a hell of a battle and demonstrated fantastic speed, car control and race craft. It really was fantastic to watch, with Stephen Nuttall grabbing another win, just, from Danny Kileen and Nick Portlock a fine third for his first podium. The final places were settled just 2 corners from the end of the race after a fantastic battle with Peter Fortune and Michael Gazda throughout. Well done guys, you certainly gave the crowd a great race.

So, with one race left at Rockingham, what next? Who knows. I am looking forward to the final round and hopefully another good result. Caterham are then talking about putting on an extra couple of non-championship races at Donington later in the year, which I will certainly be up for. After that, I am not sure…..it depends on how negotiations with Mrs G go about my moving up to Roadsport J

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