750MC Roadsports at Silverstone with Iain Thornton

It seems strange that we should reach late August before entering the first round of 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports series, but such is the way of 2020. That belated season opener brought us to Silverstone’s International circuit, which neither I nor good friend and returning E36 racer Iain Thornton had driven before. Some testing was in order.

We arrived in the bafflingly tiny International paddock on the Friday morning before Saturday’s race, each with two half-hour sessions booked. Mine would be used to puzzle out how the car was handling and identify any changes needed; Iain’s would be to learn the circuit and reacclimitise himself to a car he last drove a year ago at Donington Park.

Whatever Silverstone used for their track surface, it wasn’t happy that weekend. I was relieved that other drivers were also finding it very slippery despite the apparently ideal conditions of cloudy, dry and low-twenties temperatures. The car felt very “loose”, tending to oversteer mid-corner and more heavily at exit of the almost exclusively right-hand bends of this layout. Even the usually stunning braking performance seemed lacklustre thanks to the low grip of the circuit and we both felt dissatisfied by the day’s running.

Race day dawned bright and sunny with the wonderful atmosphere that accompanies racing with 750MC. Friends old and new stopped by the garage to catch up, take a look at the car in its latest trim and wish us well. It was hard to feel any less than optimistic as we went into qualifying and tried to find some space to set a laptime among the near-capacity field of 47 cars packed onto International’s 1.85 miles.

Photo by Gary Walton Photography

I went out first, aiming to complete my minimum three timed laps before handing the car over to Iain for the remainder of the session. As it turned out, I needed one more to be totally happy! A small mistake entering The Link a little too slowly cost me valuable pace down the Hanger Straight on my third lap, but I was much more satisfied with a 1:21.49 on my fourth attempt. I got out to find us lying second in class with 10 minutes still to go.

Iain drove well, putting in consistent times near his best testing pace and came back in the pits smiling: “I’ve got my mojo back! That felt much better. I think we’re gonna have a good day.” Relief and smiles all round as we checked the car over and settled down to watch some racing before our turn would come at 2:10pm. Other competitors had improved towards the end of the session, but we still landed fifth of the 14 Class C cars on the grid: a strong result.

Iain would start the race right in the thick of the action, 26th overall of the 43 cars which made it to the rolling start. Ahead, a Porsche 968 Sport and a Renault Clio 200. Behind, a Toyota MR2 and a Caterham 7. Such is the fabulous variety of the cars in Roadsports, all making their laptime in very different ways!

He got away cleanly and was immediately trading places with the #4 MR2 of Peter Higton, the two cars working their way up the field together as they battled. It was a pleasure to see the E36 arriving into view around Club corner right on its toes, with varying amounts of opposite lock in play as Iain pushed ever harder to maintain his momentum. The laptimes were great, quicker than he’d driven all weekend despite the pressure and compromise of busy race traffic.

Then a rare thing happened: the safety car appeared at exactly the right time! We had planned to let Iain race for as long as possible, up to the end of the “window” in which we had to make our mandatory pit stop. That meant I would get in the car just before 30 of the 45 minutes’ racing had elapsed. No sooner had I hung out the pit board telling Iain he had one more lap to go, than the #2 Porsche Cayman of Bradley Ellis & Leonzpas Loucas had a dramatic tyre blowout and beached itself in the gravel before Stowe corner. With the stricken car sitting right at the fastest part of the circuit, there was no choice but to bring out the safety car to allow it to be recovered. Everyone in the pit lane burst into action: making your stop while the field circulates at reduced pace is a major advantage.

Iain threaded the car through the teeming pit lane for a 90-second pit stop; the mandatory time increased by half a minute to allow the departing driver to sterilise the car’s controls before the next occupant gets in. It made for a relaxed affair. I was strapped in and ready to go with plenty of time to spare, Iain assuring me everything on the car felt fine while Mum counted down the seconds before releasing me back into the race.

This time, a less thrilling opening of proceedings as I caught back up to the train of cars behind the safety car before watching, lap by lap, the marshals extricating the sorry Porsche from the gravel. The green flag came out with fifteen minutes to go and finally I could do some racing.

A mid-race safety car always plunges everything into disarray: with competitors pitting at different times, it’s very hard to know whether the car in your mirrors is far behind, battling you for position or in fact a lap ahead and not concerned with you at all. Unless a rival was obviously far quicker, my solution was to fight for every single spot while keeping up as strong a pace as possible. We wouldn’t know our position until the end, but in the meantime I was going to push!

Photo by Gary Walton Photography

After nine laps of some pretty entertaining traffic management, trying to use both quicker and slower cars as chess pieces to pick my way forwards on the busy circuit, the chequered flag came out. I crossed the line 18th of 43 overall, six places up from that strong qualifying result. It put us seventh in Class C and, while far from the podium we’d hoped for before the meeting, we were really satisfied with our performance in surprisingly tricky conditions.

It marked Iain’s sixth race finish from six starts, not only testament to his dependability but also the end of his days as a “novice”. Six finishes makes him eligible for the Race National licence and means he no longer has to display the black cross on the back of the car, so there was more work to do after the race!

Sadly, the ongoing restrictions in Wales meant that the following Roadsports event – scheduled for 12th September at Anglesey – has been cancelled. There’s still more to come in the E36’s September, though.. Watch this space for another new racing driver.

Sam

MSVR Trackday Trophy at Oulton with Rob Dowsett

“It’s really happened!”

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

Every driver remembers their first race, no matter how many years ago it might have been. It’s a unique experience and often represents half a lifetime of hopes, dreams, planning and anticipation finally turning to reality before your eyes. I can recall nearly every minute of my soaking wet day at Donington on 18th March 2017, but I get to relive the feelings even more closely than that: I get to watch it happen for new drivers as they make their racing débuts in my car!

At Oulton Park on 8th August, that happened for Rob Dowsett. A regular Club100 kart racer and competitor in Javelin’s Sprint Series with his Toyota GT86 road car, he’s no stranger to racing or to driving cars at speed – but he had never before put the two together.

Nor had he ever visited Oulton Park, nor driven my car. We arrived on Thursday evening to walk the track before a full day’s testing on Friday, giving the best acclimitisation before the Saturday’s race. To say Rob was excited would be a significant understatement – he positively bounced out of his car and was immediately absorbing every detail of the venue.

I never know what to expect when strapping a brand new driver into my car, but my first impressions of Rob’s ability to visualise the right lines around the circuit and ask all the pertinent questions on the track walk quickly followed through into impressive speed. In his first test session he got a handle on the car swiftly, and by his second he was driving right up to my race pace from 2019’s Club Enduro round.

The day ran faultlessly as Rob clocked up 123 miles along Oulton’s twisting, undulating Tarmac ribbon. It often feels strange running the car all day and not driving it, but I didn’t go short of information: after each session, Rob was able to give me detailed notes on how the car was behaving and how his driving had developed through the day. It was a real pleasure to see his laptimes tumble, and to see his huge grin every time he stepped out of the car.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

Race day dawned damp and drizzly for the second round of MSVR’s Trackday Trophy. I had never entered the car in this series before, its typical home being with 750 Motor Club. The format is a 45-minute race with a mandatory pitstop to be taken between 15 and 30 minutes, and the class structure allows for cars up to 175bhp/ton measured without driver. My car produces around 162bhp/ton by that metric – so while we didn’t expect to be left behind, finishing at the front was going to be a tall order.

As usual, I aimed to give my guest driver as much track time as possible. I went out first in qualifying to put in the minimum of three timed laps to allow me to race, then planning to hand over to Rob for the rest of the session. I found a circuit greasy but improving, and a car which thankfully felt smooth and consistent. It wasn’t without incident, though..!

An unlucky BMW suffered an engine failure and dropped a lot of oil on the inside of Druids, a fourth-gear right-hander which demands a lot of commitment on entry and gives little margin for error. An MX-5 and I were fortunate not to trip over each other as we both fell off the circuit! Completing the rest of my laps unscathed, I handed the car over and watched Rob fly.

By the end of the session, he’d put in two consecutive laps good enough for third place on the grid – and within two tenths of the fastest this car has ever been around Oulton Park. A stunning performance!

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

A five-hour EnduroKa race gave us a short gap between qualifying and race. Fortunately, a very healthy car needed only its brake fluid bleeding to have it as fresh as possible for the race. With that done, I talked Rob through the process for getting from the assembly area to the grid, how to approach the warmup lap and how best to launch the car. I left racecraft out, trusting in his years of karting to have already taught him what to do once the lights went out.

How right that was. Rob put in a superb start to hold his third position away from the grid, and after a brief safety car period was in the thick of a three-way battle for second place. I could scarcely believe the stopwatch on the pit wall: creeping into 2:01 laps around the 2.7-mile circuit, an 80mph average speed despite the closeness of the competition.

I was thrilled to see the car fighting right at the front – at this rate, all I’d need to do was bring it home. I called Rob into the pits after 27 minutes, checking tyre pressures and wheel bolt torques while he sanitised the car to let me strap myself in and go for my own slice of racing.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

I love the bubbling adrenaline of rolling down the pit lane to rejoin the circuit, briefly reined in by the 60kph limit, feeling the engine’s muted howl through all my nerve endings as the car strains to be let loose once more. I cross the pit exit line, snap the throttle open and feel her surge forwards; pitch rising with my pulse. A right-hand curve on the inside of Old Hall, check the mirror as I join the circuit, take the line and we are racing.

I found a car that was hot after her two minutes standing, soaking in her own heat and brake smoke in the pits, but very driveable indeed. After a lap or two of feeling out the limits in each corner, wanting to waste no time but take no risks from fourth position, everything came together. The balance of the car felt superb, totally predictable and absolutely willing to work with me. I pushed on, the lap timer telling me I was into 2:01s as well, thrilled with the performance and the fantastic feel of the car. A yellow flag at Cascades and a Honda Civic stuck in the wall didn’t hold significance for me until I saw “P3” on the pit board – we had just inherited a podium position without needing to pass the unfortunate car ahead.

Here’s the complete race footage:

With five minutes to go, another incident brought out the red flags and the result was sealed – we had brought the car home third overall in a hotly contested field of 24 cars, despite being 15bhp shy of the class limit. I felt euphoric crossing the line, completing the final act of our outstanding weekend where everything had gone even better than we could have imagined.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

This kind of result was a fairytale: it felt surreal even to me, despite many a podium in my time. How must it have been for Rob?!

I’ll let him tell you himself.

Rob Dowsett, racing débutant in the McKee Motorsport E36 and podium-winner in MSVR Trackday Trophy:

“I had an open mind heading into my first race weekend, with my only objective to be as present as possible to make the most of the experience, as up until 2 years ago I thought participating in Motorsport was a pipe dream.

Thankfully this guy called Sam McKee exists and makes it possible to enter a race without having to sell an organ. Racing in a meticulously maintained and wonderfully set up BMW E36 328i makes for a very approachable driving experience that still feels extremely rewarding when you reach close to peak performance of the car.

More impressive is sharing your first race weekend with Sam, as he made the whole weekend run like absolute clockwork, with every detail discussed, planned and executed seamlessly. As much as there’s plenty of opportunity to feel stressed or under pressure in an event like this, the environment with Sam is totally relaxed but still focussed, so I felt I got the absolute maximum out of my first race weekend experience that I could have, both on and off track, both on topic and completely off topic in our downtime!

Secondary to these factors is the matter that we managed to qualify P3 and finish there as well, which is just bloody marvellous and topped off a weekend that is a clear highlight of my life so far. So with everything that happened last weekend, trying to describe the emotions I feel thinking back to it is difficult to describe but the best word is just utter elation – and because of that, I am well and truly hooked and will be back for Round 2 later this year!”

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

You’re welcome any time, Rob – the car and I will always be ready for more of that!

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

CSCC Open at Thruxton with Alex Baldwin

The full report from Thruxton is coming soon, along with a professionally-edited video from Alex himself. In the meantime, here’s my thrilling onboard from the soaking-wet Race 2.

750MC Ma7da at Snetterton

First published in Motor Racing UK Magazine, Issue 11, August 2020

The red lights finally went out on my 2020 season on 19th July at the Snetterton 200 circuit, where I made my début in 750 Motor Club’s Ma7da Series driving James Lewis-Barned’s car. Within seconds, I was plunged into my first experiences of sprint racing, one-make racing and open cockpit racing all at once. Learning curve? That’s Riches, isn’t it?

We had at least been able to set up the car on the Monday preceding the race, being graced with a drier day at Donington Park this time. It didn’t take much to get this straightforward machine handling beautifully. We had already settled on ride heights and the geometry felt fine, so it was a simple matter of dialling out the last vestiges of high-speed understeer with the one-way adjustable dampers, and puzzling out the correct cold tyre pressures.

The result was a riot of a racing car. I’d never driven it in the dry before – my high hopes were met and then some. I don’t know of a more communicative and playful chassis than this one; its willingness to work with the driver right to the limits of its performance inspires such confidence.

If returning to a circuit for that test had felt exciting, it was nothing compared to going to a race meeting. The break of nearly nine months was longer than I’d ever gone without turning a wheel in anger. On arriving at Snetterton to find actual, live motorsport happening in front of me once again (the Toyota MR2 Championship having a remarkably considerate race), I expect my grin must have been visible from Jonathan Palmer’s helicopter.

After the car was unloaded and prepped and Saturday’s competition concluded, a track walk followed by camping at the circuit led me into race day. It dawned drizzly and damp, but without any of the rush and stress that a 9am qualifying session would usually bring: at a Covid-secure event signing-on, scrutineering and drivers’ briefings are all conducted in advance.

Entrants self-declare their cars fit for the event on a web system, listing the compliance standards and expiry dates of their safety equipment and giving contact details of all attendees. Clubs have been doing a fantastic job of laying out every part of the meetings’ procedures clearly online. Two cars from each series are selected at random for a socially distanced compliance check, but the overall tone of the paddock was significantly more relaxed than previous seasons.

By contrast, the wet qualifying session shared with the Sports Specials field was an eye-opening experience. I’m accustomed to a saloon car with ABS and the option of fitting wet-weather tyres; to control costs, all Ma7da cars run a Yokohama A048 tyre which is superb in the dry but gives only a passing nod in the direction of water dispersion. 15 minutes felt precious little to put in a clean lap around a circuit overrun by 40 cars, of which perhaps 30 were still on the Tarmac at any one time. Basic survival climbed my priority list as the session wore on and someone helpfully dropped fuel around Coram, so I was delighted to find that I’d qualified fifth of the 16 cars entered for our two 15-minutes races.

Photo by SJN Photography

With no new issues uncovered and certainly no setup learning to apply to the car for the races, which looked certain to be dry, I reverted to my default role of enthusiastic spectator until my first race. Watching the Locost Championship was particularly instructive – being a similar body but with far less power, their racing accentuates the slipstreaming effects I was about to experience.

On the way to the assembly area, it occurred to me that I didn’t know quite how to start this car from my slot on the third row of the grid. I’d never launched it before and to compound the difficulty of its unwillingness to idle properly and awkward handbrake, Snetterton’s grid is on an incline. With no green flag lap, I needed only a couple of practice starts on my way to the grid to learn enough to completely fluff it when the lights went out.

Photo by SJN Photography

With my three-pedal juggling act distracting me enough to react a little slowly, I then fed in far too much power. The lukewarm Yokos spun right up and I was swamped with cars. No matter – I’m here to do some racing, and the thrill of approaching the first corner three-wide with competitors’ engines roaring through my helmet cannot be found anywhere else. It felt fantastic right from the start and I quickly found myself able to hold my own, especially under braking and into the slower corners of the circuit.

In the faster corners, I had to adjust my racing very quickly: these are small cars, and gaps which don’t bear contemplating in my BMW are easy pickings for these hornets with a tyre at each corner and clear lines of sight everywhere. A glance in the mirror might have me feel safe as I chose a line into Brundle, only to have a car up the inside of me a heartbeat later.

The accelerative advantage to be found tucking in behind another car down a straight makes the jockeying for position absolutely relentless – I could defend successfully and really stick a corner exit over a competitor and then find them right alongside me a few hundred yards later. These were proper battles that called on every ounce of racecraft.

It was utterly brilliant and, in the rare moments in which I wasn’t under immediate fire, I exulted at the sheer experience of it.

My race boiled down to a mano a mano contest with the #56 car of Dan Sibbons, trading places twice a lap until finally an overly ambitious entry to Riches saw him run wide enough for me to break free. More exultation – the triumph of securing fifth place in such a fierce race felt better than some victories I’ve scored. The timesheet told me that that final, comfortable-feeling gap to come home ahead was in fact just four tenths of a second.

Photo by SJN Photography

The frenetic nature of a sprint race isn’t its only joy: you get a second one on the same day. The car had felt so good and I was on such a high as I crossed the line that upon parking it up in the paddock, I didn’t feel a need to do anything beyond putting some more fuel in it and going out again.

I lined up third on the grid for the second race after mechanical failures knocked out two drivers who’d finished ahead of me earlier. This time I made no mistake with the launch and was hanging onto the coat-tails of the leaders until I found a very long brake pedal at the end of the Bentley Straight. A late and confused corner entry saw me rightly mobbed by my competitors, and the race became a fight to lose as few places as possible while I figured out what my middle pedal was telling me.

A real tendency to lock the front tyres and an unwillingness to rotate under trailbraking – all unravelled whilst wheel to wheel in the battle for third place – had me wonder whether I’d any rear brakes at all. By the time I’d started driving around it with all my earlier advantage lost, I’d fallen to seventh wondering how I’d recover when another’s misfortune became my gain.

Locked in a tight battle ahead of me, Danny Andrew in the #27 car missed third gear, and so close was Dan Sibbons in his slipstream that avoiding action was impossible. The two collided, breaking Sibbons’ steering and spearing him across the grass. Andrew seemed, reasonably enough, to have lifted off during the impact and I caught him to inherit fifth place. A lap later I was able to claw past David Jones’ #50 car and finish fourth with no small measure of relief. We later found the all rear brake fluid had drained out through a loose union.

Photo by SJN Photography

Overwhelming and fabulous though it is, the intensity of the racing doesn’t tell the whole story. Throughout those tussles I’d felt comfortable putting my [James’s..!] car right up to these drivers; there was awareness and respect and, when necessary, the foresight to yield a position and come back again in the next corner.

Sprint racing can sometimes seem to descend into a melée, but this field was doing it right – an impression underlined by big thumbs-up all round at race end, and kind words with enthusiastic story-swapping in the paddock.

I knew the formula had potential, with cars cheap and simple to run but enormously entertaining with unbeatable performance per pound (either sort). That it comes with such top-quality racing and a welcoming, supportive paddock is a club racers’ dream come true. They were even kind enough to name me Newcomer of the Meeting!

Cheers for the outing, James – I may just make a habit of this…

You can find out more about the Ma7da Series at https://www.750mc.co.uk/formulae/ma7da