Sunday, 15 December 2013

Silverstone Test and Race

Silverstone Test and Race – Friday 18th October – Sunday 20th August:

It had been a while since I had been in the car, 2 ½ months in fact, as I had missed the Oulton Park round of the championship to go on holiday with my wife. As a result I felt a little rusty and out of practice before the final round of the championship at Silverstone, but a day checking and cleaning the car helped me to get my head back into race mode. A day at Silverstone testing was always going to be required to blow the cobwebs away, especially as I had never driven the track before and in theory I still had a shot at the championship win, despite missing the Oulton Park round.


I had promised my children that we would hire a camper van for Silverstone (they always love playing in the other vans in the paddock), but after a day of phoning around and being unable to find anything with a tow bar I was getting a little desperate. In the end I managed to borrow one from a very generous friend just up the road from Silverstone, but this meant Thursday night was spent rushing around loading the car, collecting the trailer, driving to collect the campervan, etc., etc. Not the ideal way to start a race weekend in other words! In the end I got to Silverstone at about 11pm on Thursday evening, just in time to roll the car off the trailer and into the garage, before catching a few of the boys for a quick drink after their day’s testing.

After a restless night in the camper Friday morning dawned damp and overcast. In fact the track was sopping wet, so I went for a soft set-up on the car, using the Orange front ARB and the softest setting at the rear to try and generate better turn in and traction. I had only used this set-up once before, for qualifying at Anglesea, and it had been a disaster, so was a bit of a gamble. During the first 45 minute session I spent the majority of my time trying to find the wet lines. These were obvious at certain corners like Stowe but at others, like Vale, there seemed to be no grip anywhere at all. My v-box wasn’t picking up the start/finish timer, so I didn’t know how well I was going, but the car felt great and I felt pleased with my pace, compared to those around me.

By the second session the track had started to dry and my wet set-up felt horrible on the dry line, so I came in well before the end, feeling that I wasn’t learning anything useful and that I would rather save myself, the tyres and the car than continue at this stage.

Having stiffened the car back up over the lunch break for the third session, which was now on a dry track, I went out to see what my ultimate pace would be. With a working v-box I was now able to see where I was making and losing time, ultimately working down to a 1 min 20 second lap, which seemed to be in the right ball park given the amount of time I had on track.

For the final session I left the car as it was and tried to work away at the fractions that I knew were still there, particularly at Vale, where I knew I was over driving the car and losing lots of time. To my frustration I couldn’t get below 1 min 20 seconds, which showed I wasn’t improving, but more importantly that I was over a second off the fastest guys (Stephen Nuttall having done a 1 min 18.8 second lap the previous day). I was a little disheartened that evening and spent another restless night wondering what Saturday would bring. I needn’t have worried too much.

Saturday Qualifying and Race 1:

Saturday dawned wet and overcast again, which was something of a relief as I knew it would be a real performance leveller. I wouldn’t claim to be particularly good in the wet, but I don’t mind it and knew that it would throw up a few surprises in qualifying.

I spent the morning softening the suspension settings back off from the previous day (I was getting quite adept at this by now) and giving the car a general check over to ensure everything was in order. The facilities in the new Silverstone paddock making this no chore at all as we had all been allocated garage space in the Wing complex and, with enough room for at least 8 cars in each garage, we had plenty clean and well serviced space to work in.

As we got closer to qualifying there was the usual scramble for position in the holding area, with many arriving 45 minutes ahead of our allotted time, which always amuses me greatly. I was about 10th in line and wondering whether this was going to cause me a problem, with a number of slower cars in front and the potential to be held up. In the end I managed to cut through the traffic within 2 laps and found myself in clear air trying to chase down Stephen Nuttall and Peter Fortune, my two main championship competitors, who were off out front. I didn’t manage it, but neither was I being left behind, holding a steady gap that gave me confidence for a good qualifying position. In the end I managed to secure a 1 min 33.26 second lap, which was good enough for 3rd place. Peter was on pole almost a second ahead and Stephen just behind, so I was pretty happy overall and certainly in a better mood than I had been at the end of the day before.

Back in the paddock there was plenty to keep me occupied before the race. As the morning wore on a dry line started appearing on the track, so I decided to go back to a full stiff set-up, and to give the car another quick check over just in case. I also had a few visitors arriving, including my mother who hadn’t been to any of my races so far and I think was starting to feel slightly guilty (she isn’t naturally given to motorsport, having once fallen asleep at a classic car meeting at Brands Hatch). It was lovely to see everyone, but I always feel quite torn between needing/wanting to spend time with them and focusing my time on getting myself and the car ready.

As the race approached I was feeling more relaxed than I had done all year. Theoretically I could still win the championship, but realistically I knew that was going to be a very long shot. Second was a more realistic target, but having missed the two races at Oulton I knew that was also going to be a stretch, so I focused on having a good race and not doing any damage to the car.

As I drew up at the start line 3rd place suddenly started to look like a bad place to be. Whilst there was a dry line around the circuit, off-line it was still very damp and in 3rd place I was very definitely off-line for the start. As the lights went out I tried to leave the line smoothly, but was swamped by those starting on the dry line behind me, as my rear wheels struggled to find grip on the wet track. I went from 3rd to 6th place in an instant, which meant I was in the middle of the action from the very beginning. I tried to make it all back up again going into Village on lap 1, but was on the wet line and had no grip, meaning I ran wide and lost all the places I had just gained. Out onto the Hanger Straight I was still in 6th place, with the 5 cars in front running side by side towards Stow. I was passed by Simon Ledger and pushed down into 7th place, but as we went into Stow I ran around the outside of Tristan Judge for 6th place, out braked Simon Ledger into Vale for 5th place and got a run on Max Robinson out of Club into 4th place. As we started the second lap I got a run on Paul Croll for 3rd place, only to find a Safety Car had been deployed and that I needed to give the place back. It had been a hectic first lap.

We followed the safety car for three laps as the marshals cleared up three broken cars that had come together on the first lap in the mid-field. Unfortunately the cars were a real mess, but the drivers were thankfully ok. As the safety car peeled in I got a good run on Paul Croll again and finally got past for 3rd place going into Abbey. It took me a lap to catch Stephen and Pete, but as I did I was determined not to get wrapped up in a battle that would slow us all down and allow those behind to catch-up (I had done that too many times already this year). Towards the end of the 7th lap Pete got the tow past Stephen on the Hanger Straight and I made my move on Stephen around the outside at Stowe. Stephen then came back at me around the outside at Vale, pushing me wide on the exit and onto the wet AstroTurf. For a second or so I was very sideways and almost spun, but held it together and got back on the track having lost a couple of seconds to the leading two. It took another lap to catch them again and then the gloves were off….Pete, Stephen and I swapping places every few corners, lap after lap, and slowing each other down, which enabled Max Robinson to catch us and join in the fun.

From that point until the finish the 4 of us swapped places every few corners, until on the last lap I got the drag on Peter and Stephen down the Hanger Straight and into Stow. With 3 corners left I was in the lead. However I out braked myself into Vale, as I had been doing all weekend, and ran wide allowing Peter and Stephen back through and only just salvaging a 3rd place finish from Max. It was a good result, but was a real missed opportunity.

I had enjoyed the close racing immensely, but was really annoyed with myself for having thrown away an almost certain win, so it was with mixed emotions I parked the car up in Parc Ferme and mounted the podium to join Stephen as he was crowned a very worth Roadsport Champion.

That night, we made the most of the brilliant facilities and had a gathering of friends and family together in our garage for a BBQ and beers amongst our cars. In and amongst it all we shared stories of the race and talked about what we were all going to do next year. The children chased each other around on scooters and I sat thinking about whether I could really imagine not racing again next year. The camaraderie and friendship being as good, if not better than the racing we had all enjoyed.

Sunday Race 2:

The following day dawned equally damp and overcast causing more discussion amongst the Roadsport drivers as to the optimal set-up. Our race was late morning and whilst the track was likely to dry before we went out, I didn’t think it would dry completely and that off-line it was likely to remain wet. As such I made my switch to a wet set-up early on and enjoyed a relaxed start to the day.

Having won the championship the day before and with nothing to gain from competing, except possibly damaging his car and losing points, Stephen decided to sit out the final race of the season. It was a real shame, but perfectly understandable. This meant I was promoted to 2nd place on the grid….something I wasn’t going to complain about.

As the start grew closer the clouds grew darker and as we drew up on the grid itself it had started to rain lightly. The soft set-up looked to be a good choice. As the lights went out I made a good start and dived into Abbey in first place, which I would hold for 5 laps. I managed to pull enough of a gap in the first few corners to allow me to break away from the chasing pack which Pete, who had started on pole, had got stuck in. I was driving sensibly, not taking any real risks on the wet track, but also not making enough of the gap I had started to build. I spent too much time looking in my mirrors being slightly too cautious, so as he broke away from the chasing group Pete reeled me in. On lap 6 normal service was resumed and we had started battling again.

Each lap Pete and I would exchange places at least once, but managed to do it in such a way that we were not holding each other up and continued to pull a gap on those behind. Having looked at the videos from some of these cars afterwards I am glad, as it was absolute carnage with far too much body contact to be acceptable. As we came into the second to last lap we caught Bronek Masojada and as we went to lap him Pete went one way and got baulked and I went the other way and got through. This gave me a second or so and allowed me the breathing space I needed. For those last 2 laps I kept it as clean and tidy as I could, not wanting to throw away another win. As we went into Vale for the last time I was even more cautious than I had been all weekend, with Pete all over the back of me, but I had position and he wasn’t going to come past. As we crossed the finish line there was 3/100th’s of a second between us.

I was ecstatic. I had come 3rd in the championship behind two fantastic drivers, and now great mates, and had bookended my year with a win at both Snetterton and Silverstone. It couldn’t have been a better finish to the year.

After the joy of the podium I got back to the paddock to celebrate with friends and family, but the mood was a little bit more subdued than usual. There had been quite a lot of contact throughout the field, more so than in any previous race, and there were a number of cars with significant chassis damage and many more with bodywork damage which had been caused by some silly behaviour as well as the usual racing incidents. It was a real shame as over the last couple of years there has been surprisingly little damage given the closeness of the racing. It will resolve itself, but it was a bit of a shame none the less.

It did however make me reflect on how lucky I have been overall. In 2 years of racing the total damage to my car has been:
-          1 x replacement front cycle wing – Flew off of its own accord at Graham Hill Bend, Brands Hatch, but was salvaged and re-used
-          1 x replacement rear wing – ripped off by the gravel at Paddock Hill Bend, Brands Hatch as a result of my mistake
-          1 x cracked rear wing – still on the car, but slightly battered from a couple of love taps from Peter and Stephen
-          1 x cracked nose cone – still on the car, but slightly battered from a love tap with Peter at Paddock Hill Bend, Brands Hatch
-          1 x chipped windscreen – still original (I think some of the drivers are on their 5th!)
-          1 x replacement gearbox – considered normal during a seasons racing
There has been no chassis, suspension or metalwork damage to the car at all, which my bank manager and I am thoroughly relieved about. With £300 worth of glassfibre from Caterham the car will look almost as good as it did the day I finished building it. After 2 hard years of racing that is something I am almost as proud of as the race results themselves!
What Next?
The Silverstone Roadsport races weren’t quite the end of the year. The following weekend I drove the car up to Silverstone again, to compete in the 750 MCC Birkett 6 hour race, where our team of 6 (Tristan Judge, Zoltan Csabi, Scott Lawrence, Tom Woodcock, Jason Gale and I) came a respectable 8th overall and 4th in class on handicap. Sharing the full GP circuit with 60 other cars, from a Smart 4/2, to a Radical SR8, was a fantastic and really eye opening experience. After that the car was given some love and TLC, before finally being tucked up in the garage for the winter.
 The annual Caterham Motorsport Awards Dinner was held at the end of November and was a final chance to catch-up with friends before Christmas. As I write this I am honestly not sure what I will be doing next year. I know for sure that I won’t be back to do a full year in Tracksport (the next championship up from Roadsport, but I am currently tempted by the Graduates championship). Already being time poor, but with major building work planned on our house likely to make me cash poor, I am not sure I could realistically do much at all. Having said that I now have the racing bug so badly, the thought of not doing anything at all genuinely upsets me. I will keep the car no matter what I do, it is part of the family, so I just need to find a way of getting my racing kicks without having to give up quite so much time.

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