Race One – Donington, part 2

March 2017: For all the mad rushes and sleepless nights poured into getting the car ready for a race weekend, the time between qualifying and race start can feel long. Typically four hours, punctuated only by a fifteen-minute drivers’ briefing where the club stewards cover series-specific regulations, unless you have major work to do on the car there’s a lot of time to worry about what could go wrong. This does also mean plenty of time for the hot engine to dry out your race boots, though!

Fortunately, there’s always plenty to be doing in a club racing paddock. Fellow competitors to talk to and learn from, other series’ qualifying and racing to watch, and a huge variety of beautifully prepared race cars to pore over and pick up ideas from.

My process was to get all the key checks on the car done first: fluid levels, tyre pressures, get some fuel in, check torques on critical fasteners and so on. Then a run round with the glass polish to give the windows the best chance of staying clear, put the cameras and transponder on charge, and try to unwind a bit. Before long, we were being called back to the assembly area for the race.

Starting the race might sound simple, but you need to be paying attention. Cars are formed up in the assembly area in a big semicircle, and when the time comes – after a good fifteen minutes of severe nerves as rain keeps falling! – you’re waved out onto the circuit in sequence. You all drive to the start line at moderate pace, where a marshal guides you into the correct slot on the grid. You need to remember some landmarks for where this is and which cars are around you, because next is the green flag lap – the cars are released to do one last sighting lap before starting the race. This is your only good opportunity to do a practice start, trying to gauge the correct engine revs and clutch engagement to get a good launch. When you come back round to the grid, with minimal supervision you stop in your slot and await the start.

Now, nerves and adrenaline are at a peak. After the last car forms up, a 5-second warning board is shown, then the red lights over the start line come on. You hold the engine at your best guess of starting revs, with the noise of every other car surrounding you doing the same, and poise to release the clutch – after a random interval of a few seconds, the lights go out, the hammer goes down and you’re racing!

I made a good start, but the lofty qualifying position meant I was immediately swamped by faster cars, and the first two laps were solely focused on protecting the car and finding where the grip might be. Or not, as in the majority of the circuit! A safety car period was triggered early when a brand new BMW M235i Cup car ended up in the pit wall, but after this, I was able to find a groove and start hunting down the cars ahead. I was amazed to find that I could not only catch cars in my class and even the ones above, but get up to them and pass them! Here’s the full video, with notes to find interesting bits:

“Overtaking manouvres at 16:15, 19:30, 20:30, 30:20 and finally on the leader of my class at 32:40. This was a bit sketchy – I tried to go around the outside, but just as I was turning in, heard him lock up and push me down to the edge of the circuit!

Tripping over a backmarker at 39:15 leaves me then, rather confused, hanging onto the back of the race-leading car for much longer than I expected.

There’s gratuitous oversteer throughout, some of it even intentional, but particular moments to be found at 30:05, a small off in Craner Curves at 30:50, and overstepping the mark at both Redgate and Craners from 41:10. Finally come round to take the chequered flag at 45:00″

The last half of the race was a truly fantastic experience. I knew I’d made up a lot of time and passed cars in my class, but when I saw Kevin hold out the pit board with the cards every driver longs to see – “P1” – I could hardly believe it. The circuit was drying, the car felt brilliant and I just wanted to drive faster and faster, but made a conscious effort to rein myself in (and stop sliding around so much, however enthusiastic some of spectators might be!) and make sure I brought the car home.  I took the chequered flag first in class and 17th of 39 cars overall, setting the class fastest lap on the way. What an unbelievable start to my racing career!

As I drove back to the paddock, the car was weighed and power-tested on the dyno to check it was within the class regulations. 199.5bhp and 1255kg gave me 159bhp/ton – perfect against a class limit of 160! Then the team caught up with me, in almost as much shock at the outcome as I was. The atmosphere felt surreal, but the sense of achievement between us all was simply amazing. As a spectator it’s sometimes easy to forget that motorsport’s impossible as a solo venture, and behind every driver is a team, whether they build and run the car or simply lend a hand and give support where it’s needed. No result at all would be possible without this bunch behind me, never mind a class win. So thank you all for selflessly getting me there!

How to top off such a great result? Drive the race car home and get the BBQ lit, of course. Next stop, Snetterton…

Sam