Friday, 16 August 2013

Brands Hatch Test and Race

Brands Hatch Test and Race – Friday 26th July – Sunday 04th August:

I came back from Donington thinking that it was probably my last race of my season, but the following week my wife and I sat down and talked it through and agreed that I should finish off the year and that we should have a good chat about what I would do the following year. The compromise is that I will miss the Oulton Park weekend and spend the weekend in Portugal with her, minus the children. As far as I am concerned it is a sacrifice well worth making. Whilst currently 2nd in the championship, I really don’t care that much about it, it is the racing and the results over the course of the weekend that excite me more. Without my wife’s support I wouldn’t be doing any of this and a weekend away in Portugal isn’t exactly a hardship is it?


Having not had much time with Ben Clucas at Donington I decided to book his services again for Brands Hatch. We were scheduled to test on Friday 26th July, along with half of the Brit Car series it seemed. This meant I spent a day dodging Porsche 911, Ferrari 458 and Aston Martin GT3 cars, which were unbelievably quick along the straights, but actually not a huge amount quicker through the corners.

The first session with Ben was a disaster. He was sat beside me and I drove like an idiot…his feedback was so overwhelming that I actually got worse and worse throughout the session as I tried to process it all and put it into action. The key challenge was my feel for the brake pedal, which I was treating as a binary instrument and this was upsetting the balance of the car. The one positive was that Ben says I have great car control, but that I was relying on it too much to get me out of trouble.

During the second session Ben took me out and showed me how it should be done, before coming back in and giving me a few laps on my own to try and put into practice what he taught me earlier. As soon as I was out on my own I started to feel as though I were driving better again; more smoothly and consistently, upsetting the car less during braking into and being more accurate with my acceleration out of each corner.

For the third session I went out again on my own to push for a time, eventually getting down into the low 56 second bracket, which was OK, but barely any quicker than I had been in the Academy the previous year. Once I felt I had gone as quickly as I could I handed back to Ben to set a benchmark time, which he did at 55.8 seconds, some way off what he is capable of but reflective of what was possible on a very hot day. Once back in the pits we looked at where I was losing time to Ben, which was mainly at Paddock Hill and Graham Hill bends.

During the final session I tried to put all I had learnt into practice and chipped away at my times until I managed a best of 55.9 seconds, just 0.1 seconds off Ben’s time. Shortly afterwards I found my limit and ran through the gravel at Paddock Hill at high speed, during which time the gravel ripped my passenger side rear wing in half. I know these are considered disposable items, but I was really pissed off with myself as I was still running my original wings and was very proud of the fact that my car had suffered no damage to date.

It had been a very productive day and I had learnt a huge amount from Ben, who is an excellent, but demanding coach. He gave me a number of new things to consider and made me realise that I had been over driving the car this year, using good car control to hold it all together, but not actually allowing myself to go as quickly as I could. It would be interesting to see how it all came together during the race weekend.

The week before the race itself I spent preparing the car, bolting on a new rear wing, changing my wheels, checking it over and generally smartening it up. As always what I thought would be a couple of hours work turned into 5 or 6 hours very quickly, despite my best efforts and practice at such tasks.

Saturday Qualifying and Race 1:

On race day I got up at 5am and drove down to Brands Hatch for sign-on and scruitineering. We had an early qualifying slot, so I didn’t have a huge amount of time to get prepared and ready. I had friends coming to see me race, but as with Donington we were operating a three group system in Roadsport, so I wasn’t sure whether I would actually get to race on Saturday or not.

Qualifying itself was a really interesting affair, with 38 cars on the very compact Brands Hatch Indy circuit it was very, very busy, with little opportunity to find a gap and get a clean lap in. I felt as though I drove reasonably well, backing off and giving myself space when required, and eventually managing to find enough room to put a 55.48 second lap in, placing me 4th on the grid and 0.1 seconds behind pole man Pete Fortune. The upside was that this meant I would be racing on the Saturday in front of my friends, the downside was that in chasing that time I had taken another trip through the Paddock Hill gravel trap and ripped my brand new wing off! Luckily the Caterham team were on hand to sort it whilst I went to spend time watching the rest of qualifying with my mates.

As the time for the race drew nearer I started to get more and more worried that my car wouldn’t be ready. I had asked Caterham to look at the brakes, which were feeling very spongy, and when they did they noticed that the rear pads were shot. In the end I had a real panic and was strapped into the car in my race gear as the Caterham guys worked flat out to fit new pads and get me to the holding area just before the formation lap. They managed this, just, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude and myself a big talking to for not checking the pads more recently. Even though they had been changed before Anglesey the new tyres give them a much harder workout than the old Academy tyres and I hadn’t checked them soon enough, which was a basic schoolboy error on my part…one that I won’t make again!

I arrived in the holding area for the first race last of all and only 5 minutes before we were due out on track. I would have to try and bed the pads in on the warm up lap and take it easy for a lap or two to get a feel for the braking performance. As it turned out I made an OK start from 3rd place and was 4th going through Paddock Hill Bend.  I got a good run up to Druids and thought I would go around the outside of Nick Portlock who had braked early. This was going well until I hit the cement dust that had been put down to cover up oil dropped in the previous race and it was all I could do to hold the car on track. Luckily I only lost one place to Paul Croll.

A lap later Paul went very wide at Paddock Hill Bend and I managed to squeeze through, but was instantly passed by Mike Evans and under pressure from Tristan Judge. Tristan passed me later that lap on the start finish straight, but I dived straight back past again into Paddock Hill bend, but noticed rather late that I had done so under yellow flags, so gave the place back and had another go two laps later. I passed Mike the following lap, but my battle with Mike and Tristan allowed Peter Fortune, Zoltan Casabi and Nick Portlock to make a break and pull a bit of a gap. Catching them was one thing, but passing another. I tried again to go around the outside of Nick at Druids on lap 15 and again was compromised by the cement dust (I wasn’t learning).

In the end a safety car was brought out to cover the race whilst a number of cars were retrieved from the gravel at Paddock. At the re-start I tucked right in behind Nick and managed to drag past him and out brake him into Paddock Hill bend. I was in 3rd place with Zoli just in front. Two laps later I had got a better run out of Graham Hill bend and dragged past Zoli along the Cooper straight, just squeezing up the inside into Surtees. With 2 laps left to go I was in 2nd place and a second behind Pete. Realistically I knew I wouldn’t be able to pass and catch him in that time, so focused on consolidating my 2nd place and getting safely to the finish.

As I crossed the finish line I had a distinct feeling of snatching a good result from the jaws of defeat. I had made some silly mistakes that had sent me backwards down the field at the start and it was only luck that had seen me climb back up into contention again. Still a 2nd place and a fastest lap wasn’t a bad way to finish.

Once back in the paddock I packed up my things, said goodbye to my friends and headed straight off into London for a wedding. It wasn’t until I returned the following day with the family that I noticed my rear anti-roll bar had become detached. This had happened on the test day and after qualifying and had been causing the car to roll around a lot at the rear and make me work much harder than I should have to. I reattached the bar and completed my usual preparation before heading off to line up in 4th place for the second race.

Sunday Race 2:

I was determined to learn from my mistakes the previous day, so after a good start I slotted into 3rd place behind Pete Fortune and Stephen Nuttall and was determined not to try anything silly in the opening phases of the race. This worked well until Pete and Stephen started scrapping with each other on lap 4. Pete went up the inside of Stephen at Paddock Hill bend and came out at the bottom slightly wide and slow. This tempted me into the fight and I tried to go up the inside at Druids, but there wasn’t really room and I tagged Pete lightly, getting us both slightly crossed up, but thankfully causing no damage or loosing us too much time. I was now well and truly involved and my initial plan had gone out of the window. On lap 9 Pete and Steve started scrapping hard again, allowing me to close right in. I slipped up the inside of Steve at Clearways, but he passed both Pete and I at Paddock the next lap as we both ran wide. As the laps wore on the battle got more and more fierce and Pete’s lines through Paddock Hill more lurid. At one point he went in so wide and so hot that he held the most beautiful power slide all of the way down the hill. As I came past him on the run up to Druids I gave him the thumbs up in recognition. A few laps later he was passed again and still sliding around. As he hit the bottom of Paddock Hill he shot across right in front of my car and my nose cone hit his rear lights…there was nothing I could do to avoid it.

Our battling allowed Max Robinson to get back up to us after a poor start from 3rd place and as Pete ran wide again at Paddock, slowing me down mid-bend, Max came up the inside and passed me going into Druids. At this point we had been joined by Tony Mingoia, who I now had to manage closely from behind. Whilst great fun it was starting to get a little desperate. Stephen had used the opportunity to break free into clear air and had a lonely run to the line. I now watched at Pete and Max did battle for 2nd and 3rd, with Max getting the upper hand a couple of laps before the flag, up the inside into Surtees. Whilst right on his tail to the end, Pete crossed the line 3rd, just ahead of me, with Tony Mingoia a fraction behind.

It had been a hectic, scrappy race, but one where I felt I had made few mistakes. I hadn’t gone backwards at the start and felt that driven well, especially given that my rear anti-roll bar had once again come adrift causing more handling issues. I was disappointed not to come away with a podium, but more disappointed by the damage that I had done to my wing and nose over the weekend.  My once immaculate 7 was now supporting a few cosmetic battle scars on its extremities, although thankfully nothing permanent.

It had been a good weekend with lots of friends and family present to watch. My car will need a good going over before the next race, but thankfully I have time given that I will be missing the Oulton Park round. I am slightly disappointed as it is supposed to be a fantastic track, but for me the next race will be the last of the year…roll on Silverstone.

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