Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Rockingham Race (and preparation)

Rockingham Race – Saturday 06th – Sunday 07th October:

My first time at Rockingham was for a Book-a-Track day on the 16th September where I would share Ben Elliott with Academy Group 2 leader Stephen Nuttall. Unlike Brands Hatch, Snetterton or Donington which you enter taking in the palpable history and, in the case of Brands and Donington, beauty of your surroundings, Rockingham is unremittingly grey and characterless.

I didn’t like the track to start with and didn’t feel any warmer towards it at the end of the day if I am honest. It is wide and has no real features or gradients. It doesn’t flow and has some real micky mouse corners, so all in all not a great circuit in my book. I am sure in a 500bhp single seater it would be a real challenge, but in our little Academy cars you spent half of the lap with your foot to the floor wishing there were another 125bhp under the bonnet.

My time with Ben was well spent however. I started out lapping well enough, but we found plenty of extra pace throughout the day, eventually putting in consistent low 1.46 second laps, having started off in the 1.50 second bracket. It was Stephen’s third time at the track and he managed a stonking 1.45.3 second lap early in the day as a benchmark, before consistently lapping in the high 1.45 second/low 1.46 second range. We spent quite a lot of time looking at each other’s data and whilst we were equal in the first sector and I ever so slightly quicker in the final sector, Stephen was the best part of a second quicker in the middle sector, which I just couldn’t master in the time available.

I left at the end of the day reasonably pleased with my progress, but also realising that I still had a bit to gain. The funny thing is that having secured the Group 1 championship at Snetterton I knew that come race day I could just turn up and enjoy myself, rather than worry about the result, which was a really nice feeling. That didn’t stop me from wanting to master the track however.

Like Snetterton Rockingham was a whole weekend affair, with qualifying on Saturday 6th in the late afternoon and the race at the end of the day on Sunday. This allowed me a leisurely start and relaxed drive up to the circuit after breakfast with the family. However as I casually pulled in to the paddock I got a shock as I saw row upon row of very ready looking cars and drivers…most of my fellow competitors having been there since the Friday test session. My relaxed demeanour rapidly disappeared as I frantically ran around trying to get the car and myself ready for qualifying.

With all my pre-race checks complete I started to relax again and as a consequence wasn’t really prepared when the call for qualifying came. I was one of the last into the holding area and therefore one of the last out onto the track. I then spent the next 15 minutes wondering if I had oil on my rear tyres as I threw the car sideways at every corner and into gravel traps (twice I went in and twice I managed to escape under my own steam). It was a terrible qualifying session and was clear that not having my brain fully in gear was a major factor. I wasn’t in the right mind-set from the start and I drove badly as a result. In the end I managed to string 2 reasonable laps together and qualified 3rd on the grid behind Matt Dyer and Scott Lawrence, which was really lucky.

Back in the paddock I took the car to the Caterham guys to have the diff cage changed. These have broken on a number of the Academy cars this year and whilst mine was fine they had wisely decided to change them all for a strengthened and redesigned version. Whilst the car was up on axle stands they checked the bolts on the A-frame and radius arms, which it transpires, had come loose and would have made the back of the car feel loose. That explained a lot, although I think it would be unfair to blame my driving solely on the car. With another lesson in preparation learnt I went away to join the party in the paddock knowing that my car should be much better to drive come race day.

As Rockingham was the last race of the season Caterham were very kindly throwing a party that evening to celebrate, with a bar, band and hog roast for all drivers and their families. Despite the very kind offer of a bed in Zoli’s motor home and the temptation to stay for “just one more drink” I stuck to the lemonade and made my way home after the meal and before the band started. My wife had not been particularly well and had been with the kids on her own all day Saturday, so given my race was not until mid-afternoon on Sunday I reluctantly decided to leave the party and go home. This meant I got to have breakfast with them all the following morning and bring them all up for the following days racing. Despite missing out on the end of a great evening I am glad I made that choice, as racing without my families support really just wouldn’t be feasible, so it is important to try and strike the right balance. It was at this point that I really was starting to see the benefits of buying and running a motorhome. The atmosphere in the paddock is fantastic and those with motorhomes who bring their partners and kids and seem to have a great time mucking in together…it is a cost I can’t afford at the moment, but something I will seriously look at next year if I carry on racing.

After breakfast with the family I was as relaxed as I had been on Saturday and as we arrived I started to panic thinking about everything I still had to do. No matter how much time you think you have, there always seems to be one last small job to do and my preparation really was last minute. In the end I finished in time to watch the Group 2 race, which was won in style by Danny Kileen, with Max Robinson a fine 2nd (his first podium) and Stephen Nuttall 3rd for the Group 2 championship win. It had been a really close battle between Stephen and Pete Fortune for the title and went right down to the wire, with Stephen taking the top spot courtesy of a spin from Pete at Tarzan mid race, putting him back several places and out of contention for the title. Both have driven brilliantly this year and are fearsome competitors…if I am honest I don’t much fancy my chances against them in Roadsports!

Come race time it was off to the holding area, where I was actually calmer than I had been at any of the previous races. I wouldn’t say I was relaxed, but I knew I could afford to just go out and enjoy this race without any real pressure to win. The only slight concern I had was how 26 Caterhams braking from 110mph for Deene and fighting for the same piece of tarmac would work out, but in the end I had nothing to worry about as we had the cleanest start to any of our races of the year. Maybe we were all getting better.

My start was really good and I made up the 2 car lengths to Scott and Matt on the front row in an instant. I tried to go between the two of them before realising that they were coming together and there really wouldn’t be enough room for a third Caterham. Close doesn’t even cover it, as I had my front wheels inside both of their rear wings. I got out of the throttle quickly which meant that as we approached Deene for the first time I was getting swamped by other cars; Brian Caudwell on the inside, Tor Mcilroy on the outside, Scott and Matt in front, Zoli behind. Luckily we all came out of Deene unscathed, but I had dropped from 3rd to 5th place in a matter of seconds. I tucked in behind Tor as we went down to Yentwood, just in time to see him attempted an optimistic lunge on Brian going into the corner, spinning himself round and pushing Brian onto the grass. In avoiding the contact and Tor’s spinning car I had got myself off line and in the wrong gear and Tony Mingola shot through the gap as Brian re-joined the race track, thankfully unscathed.

At the end of the first lap the order was Matt, Scott, Tony, Brian, myself and Zoli, all in a train. It had been a hectic first few corners, probably the most exciting of my short racing career, and we were only just getting started. As we crossed the finish line I was tucked into Brian’s slipstream and dragged past him along the start/finish straight. Brian then tucked back in behind me as we headed down to Deene for the second time. With hindsight I was slightly too kind too him, because despite braking very late I left him just enough room to sneak back up the inside and take me back at the apex. For the rest of the lap I was stuck to the back of Brian’s car as he crawled all over the back of Tony’s. Brian then made a great move up the inside of Tony going into Tarzan. Back onto the start/finish straight I got a good drive from the final corner and dragged past Tony, making sure I didn’t make the same mistake as the previous lap and leave him any room to come back at me going into Deene. After that I set off after Brian again, finally making the same move stick the following lap.

By this time Matt and Scott were over 6 seconds clear up front. I set off after them as hard as I could, focusing on being smooth, consistent and quick. I was closing the gap at a rate of 1.5 – 2 seconds a lap over the next 4 laps. During these laps I was significantly quicker than I had been in qualifying, finally catching them 2 laps from the end. They were having a fierce battle going into the first corner together. I stayed wide, managed to get a great line through Deene and carrying much more speed than both and slipped straight up the inside of Scott at Yentwood. As at Brands a couple of months ago I think Scott was being quite the gentleman and left the door wider open than he had any requirement to…I dint need inviting twice though. For the rest of the lap I sat behind Matt planning to once again slipstream down the start/finish straight and pass in the braking area going into Deene. Matt had other ideas however. The first part of the plan went well, but Matt held a defensive line and I had to go around the outside of him, which I managed, but as I had with Brian I left just that little too much room for him at the apex and he came back at me at the apex with a fantastic move. At this stage I wasn’t rattled and planned to have another go at him going into Tarzan, however in trying to get really close in the preceding corner, Gracelands, I went in a little too hot and had the mother and father of all slides, only just managing to hold the car on the track. With that mistake Matt was gone and I suddenly had to fend Scott off again.

In the end I crossed the line an exhilarated 2nd for my worst race result of the year. It was however the most fun I have had all year and by quite a considerable way, just going to prove that the race is more important than the race. I was buzzing.

Back in the paddock it was time to congratulate Matt on a fantastic win and all of the others on a really close and clean race. I got dragged off by Motors TV for an interview and I fear the result is likely to be more meaningless babble, but in my defence I was still high as a kite after the race and I don’t have Sky so I don’t suppose I shall ever have to watch it. We were then ushered onto a makeshift podium in Parc Ferme for man hugs and champagne spraying, which is always brilliant fun.

Finally my car was scruitineered (again) and I was free to go…my final race of the season at my least favourite circuit and my worst result. I should have felt quite flat, but I was still buzzing and trying to work out if there is anything that can beat the feeling of great racing in a brilliant little car with a fantastic bunch of mates. I fear not and the draw to Roadsports remains as strong as ever. On the way home Mrs G and I continued our negotiations!

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