Monday, 8 July 2013

Zandvoort Test and Race

Zandvoort Test and Race – Friday 07th – Sunday 09th June:


Before booking my testing at Zandvoort I had a dilemma. Thursday the 06th June is my little girl Jemima’s birthday. I could either travel over on Thursday the 06th and be sure of a full days testing on the Friday, but miss part of her birthday and incur the wrath of my family. Or I could enjoy her birthday and get the overnight ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland on Thursday night, but risk missing some of Friday testing. I chose the latter and am very glad I did…her 3rd birthday party was fantastic.

Having watched 20 children destroy my house and garden, I loaded the car up onto the trailer and set of for Harwich. I arrived at 8.30pm ready of for an overnight sailing. As we set off I sat in the bar watching on-board laps of Zandvoort on YouTube hoping it would help make up for the fact that I was likely to miss the first session of testing in the morning. I was then discovered by Andrew Jenkins, one of my fellow Roardsport competitors, who promptly encouraged me to have a few more beers with him thus ruining my carefully planned preparation but ensuring a very sociable evening.

After a restless 5 hours sleep, we docked at the Hook of Holland and I got straight into my race suit and prepared the car (to the extent that the keys were in the ignition) whilst waiting to get off the ferry. At this point I was still hopeful of being able to make part of the first test session. These hopes were rapidly dashed by a delayed disembarkation, slow progress through passport control, and then even slower progress through the early morning Dutch traffic. It took almost 2 hours to complete what Google believes is a 1 hour journey and at various times I started to worry about whether I would even make the second test session, which would be a disaster given there were only 4 sessions available. As it transpired I arrived just in time to ask the boys already at the circuit if they wouldn’t mind unloading my car whilst I ran to race control to sign on.

I was rushing and in a bit of a flap, but once strapped into the car ready for the second session of the day it was time to concentrate on learning a circuit that I had never seen before, but that all of the guys that had been there since Thursday had been raving about. I hooked onto the back of Tristan and followed him around, trying to keep up without putting the car off the track and fell in love with the track immediately. I surprised myself by learning it quickly and feeling comfortable in no time at all, which was just as well, because I got perhaps six laps in that first session due to two red flag stoppages.

The third session was scheduled after lunch, just as the day was getting really hot. During this session I had plenty of track time and worked my times down into the 2min 05s bracket, which was possibly a second off the fastest guys at that time. The session was actually so long that I came off track before it finished as I felt I was cooking the car, the tyres and myself without actually going any quicker (I have found that knowing when to stop and give yourself a breather is an important part of testing).

For the fourth and final session of the day I focused on refining my lines through some of the quicker corners, where I knew there was more time to come. I was now down into the low 2min 04s bracket and very pleased with the progress I had made, so once again pulled off before the end of the session to give the car and myself a break.

Back in the paddock and changed out of my race suit I spent a couple of hours checking the car over and giving it a good clean (it is a sort of ritual for me now). I also changed my wheels and tyres as the days testing had finally killed my old set and I would need some slightly fresher rubber for qualifying and the races. After that Tristan, Scott, Gavin, Tom, Paul, Zoli, Andrew and I all settled in around the BBQ outside Tristan’s camper van and talked rubbish over a few beers and a few kilos of meat. It was the perfect way to end a great day. After which I headed over the road to the hotel for a bath and a good night’s sleep.

Saturday Qualifying and Race 1:

Race day dawned as bright and sunny as the day before. Having signed-on and been scruitineered the previous day and with qualifying scheduled for 11.25am it was a leisurely start with plenty of time for a decent breakfast. Needless to say most of us still arrived at the circuit pretty early and spent the next couple of hours fretting over our cars and what we were going to do in qualifying (the strategy around qualifying being actually really quite important).

In the end Peter Fortune jumped into his car and raced off to the holding area 50 minutes before qualifying was due to start, and like a line of dominos we all followed. As we stood waiting to be called out on track we all laughed at each other and our own competitiveness, which was such that we actually arrived at the holding area before many of those going out in the qualifying session before us. We all wanted to get out onto the track early and into some clear air for a few good runs and hopefully some good times.

I ran with a group of 5 or 6 guys at the front for the majority of the qualifying session and was pleased with the way I was driving. My times seemed to be in the low 2min 04s bracket again and I felt that I was quicker than the day before, so it was a bit disappointing to come off track and find I had qualified in 7thplace. Max Robinson had qualified on pole with a time of 2min 03.6s, using two very good tows during his best lap. Stephen Nuttall was in second place with a 2min 04.0s lap and I was in 7th with a 2min 04.2s lap. It was all very, very close and very dependent on who had managed to get a good tow or not. Regardless of my position I knew that there was going to be plenty of racing to be had, so didn’t feel too worried about the prospect of the race that afternoon.

Once back in the pits it was time to check the car over again, have lunch in the Caterham hospitality area and enjoy the sunshine and racing. Zandvoort really is a great place to be on a sunny summer’s afternoon.

Come the race the nerves returned and I lined up on the start trying to think through my tactics on the run down to turn one. In the end I made a good start a passed Nick Portlock almost immediately, before going around the outside of Michael Coulten into Turn 1 (Tarzanbocht). I was in 5th place and circulating in the middle of the leading 8 cars. Half way through the second lap I passed Simon Bennett going up the inside into Renaultboch. I was 4th and stayed there until lap 5 when I drafted past Max Robinson on the pit straight. By this time our group of 4 cars was a second or two clear from the chasing pack, but not really pulling away as we were squabbling amongst ourselves and slowing each other down slightly.

On lap 7 I went around the outside of Stephen Nuttall into turn 1 for 2nd place and was starting to feel pretty confident. I chased Pete Fortune hard, but made a few small mistakes and never quite got the opportunity I needed. I was also busy trying to deal with a very determined Max, who drafted past me on the straight on lap 9, demoting me to 3rd place. With Max, Stephen and I squabbling over 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pete pulled out a very slight win and won his first ever race. Max finished 2nd and I right behind in 3rd.  It had been a brilliant race and lovely to see Pete finally win a race…since the Academy he has consistently been one of the fastest, if not the fastest driver out there and this result was really well deserved. You could tell by his podium celebration that it really meant something to him!

After the race and the usual trip through scruitineering it was back to the paddock to tell tales of the race and go over the car to make sure it was ready for the following day. A few of us had decided to meet for dinner, so after a trip back to the hotel and a well-earned shower we all met up for something to eat and drink on the seafront. A few drinks turned into a few more, then a few more, before finally finishing in the hotel bar at 3am. Thankfully my attempts to get everyone to go to Amsterdam for the night were scuppered by a lack of available designated drivers! It had been a brilliant day, with a real holiday atmosphere that everyone was clearly enjoying.

Sunday Race 2:

Sunday dawned cloudy and overcast after the beautiful sunshine of Saturday. Thankfully we weren’t racing until mid-afternoon, so I was able to get up late, have a big breakfast and take my time. I got to the paddock around lunchtime and still had plenty of time to go over the car and get myself prepared. With a 3rd place starting position on the grid I felt confident for the coming race, having now gained an even better understanding of the track. I felt that I had over driven the car the previous day and that I needed to be smoother and more controlled to extract that little extra speed that might have seen me catch Pete the day before. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

As the lights fell at the start I couldn’t have predicted the excitement that was to unfold. I made another good start and went straight past Max before turn 1, slotting in behind Pete and following him closely for the first lap. I wanted to be smooth and controlled and not try to race to hard right from the start, but as we came onto the pit straight for lap 2 Stephen and Max both drafted past me. I braked late into turn 1 and went back around the outside of Max, so went from 2nd, to 4th, to 3rd again in a few hundred meters….the scrapping had already started. So much for my plan!

On the 4th lap Max and Michael Coulten both drafted past me on the pit straight pushing me down into 5th place and allowing Tony Mingoia to climb all over the back of me. On the start finish straight the next lap he came past me, pushing me down to 6th and making me feel as though I were getting mugged. I was going backwards, so clearly my plan wasn’t working!

I braked very late for turn 1 and drove around the outside of Tony, allowing me to hold onto 6th place and then a couple of corners later Michael Coulten kindly went off-roading at Hugenholtsbocht promoting me to 4th place again. At the start of lap 8 I was in 4th place, but getting a good tow and braking as late as I dared into turn 1 I went around the outside of Pete and Max (and very nearly Stephen as well). Stephen held me off until the beginning of lap 9 when I got in his tow and went past him into the lead…this was more like it.

However it was still unbelievably close and surely enough a lap later both Stephen and Pete drafted past me on the start finish straight pushing me back into 3rd place again...the racing was getting more and more intense as the laps to the finish counted down. Later that lap at Renaultbocht Pete made a mistake and ran wide and Stephen kindly followed him, allowing me to drive up the inside and regain the lead. This would be a lead I would hold for a whole 4 corners, before Steve once again passed me on the pit straight, demoting me once again to 2nd place. Steve however had run slightly wide allowing me to nip back up the inside at turn 1. We then proceeded to run into turn 2 (Gerlachbocht) side by side. There really isn’t room for 2 cars here and it was getting very tight, so I backed out first and let Stephen have the corner. What I hadn’t realised at the time was that Max was actually on the other side of Stephen, half on the grass, and we were trying to go three into a corner that really only has room for 1 car at a time.
I emerged 2nd and followed Stephen closely, trying to plan where to make my move. We were now on the last lap and I wanted to be first out onto the pit straight as I didn’t think I could draft by him for a win. I chose my moment coming into turn 10 (The Audi S) and came alongside, but Stephen came across and drove for the apex, leaving me nowhere to go. I had to brake as hard as I could, but just tapped his rear wing with my front wheel. He went straight on into the gravel, but re-emerged at a rather jaunty angle as we were exiting the corner, pushing me out wide. All of this had allowed Max and Pete to close right in and Pete nipped past as I was trying to recover the car. Two corners from the end and I was in 3rd again…this wasn’t going to plan, but as we drove out of the final corner (Arie Luyendijkbocht) I got into Pete’s tow. Pete was in Stephens tow and Max was in mine. At the last second we all dived out of the tow and as we crossed the line, 4 cars together, we were separated 1st to 4th place by 0.1 seconds.

Stephen had held onto the lead by 0.035 seconds, from me in 2nd and Pete in 3rd 0.01 of a second behind me. It had been an unbelievable race and so close that as Stephen, Pete and I pulled into the pit lane none of us knew who had got what position. Despite coming 2nd when I felt I could have won, I was extatic….it had been the most exciting race I have ever taken part in and my heart still races at the thought of it.

It had been a phenomenal way to end a brilliant weekend. The holiday atmosphere had been fantastic and the racing sensational (Jenny came up to us at the end of our second race and showed us her notebook, which now had teeth marks in after the final few laps of our race). So it was with a heavy heart that I packed my things away and headed back to the UK for work. An overnight ferry with a group of the Roadsport boys helped to delay the feeling of the inevitable, but all too soon I was back to work and thinking about the next race….roll on Donington in July!

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