2020 Season Review
As we head into 2021, I’d like to look back at the year that’s passed; the annus ‘orribilis of a generation, one that many of us would sooner forget. Yet it’s also one where the resilience of our sport and the people who make it has shone through.
I think of the start of the 2020 season as a cold, wintry March day – much like the opening of any other year of racing. Except this year, rather than trying to warm my hands in a paddock someplace, I was sitting opposite my partner working from home for the first time in my career. Even over the course of one day it became clear that a global catastrophe was unfolding, and that we had no idea when or how it might be contained.
I was about to send the E36’s differential off to Neil McDonald to be refreshed for the new season’s racing. I found myself wondering whether I should spend those few hundred pounds. Would I actually get to drive the car this year? Would I still have a job to pay for it? Would motor racing even exist again in its present form?
The plunge was rightly taken and over the next few months, those doubts started to fall away. Motorsport UK was swift in issuing its statement postponing the start of the season, and developed plans rather clearer than HMG’s to outline how we could resume when the lockdown lifted.
The community rallied. I’ve never had an especially large following on social media, but the people who do read these musings are near all true enthusiasts, racers, friends. When I started to record video blogs from home to fill my furloughed days, people watched and asked questions and got involved. I was buoyed by each and every one of you wanting to pick my brain, find out more or simply keep me company.
I always tell anyone thinking of going into club racing that they’ll be amazed how tight and how strong the community is, and how happy fellow racers will be to help them. This Spring, it was my turn to be amazed.
As the tunnel brightened a little towards summer, the clubs came to the fore. I want to underline how enormous a task it is for a race club to piece together a calendar for the coming season. I certainly don’t know the whole story, but when you consider the task of 750 Motor Club as an example: 26 formulae, each wanting at least six meetings a year at an all-too-finite number of circuits in the country, none wanting to pay more than their customary entry fees. Every pool of drivers wants to race at the most thrilling circuits, but only on a warm, dry day and only if there aren’t any more alluring events on the same weekend.
Five other clubs jockey for position on those same few circuits, each with their own bursting rosters. And then there are the big-ticket national championships – we’re racing on the same Tarmac as the BTCC, WEC, Formula 1.. It’s extraordinary that it can be done at all, never mind so seamlessly every year. This time, it had all to be thrown away and done again – and crammed in starting three months late in the year.
Yet it was, revised calendars emerged, my marker pens came out again and my busiest-ever season began.
Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing
750MC Ma7da Series – Snetterton 200 – Sam McKee
Perhaps fitting that the year unlike any other should start with racing unlike any other. A far cry from my usual long races at the often-shared ‘wheel of my BMW E36 328i, 2020 started with sprint races in a Seven. I borrowed James Lewis-Barned’s Ma7da car, based on a Locost chassis with a 140bhp Mazda MX-5 engine, for the opening round of the inaugural 750 Motor Club Ma7da Series at Snetterton.
The mood in the paddock was a strange but relieved one; like the ending of a long school holiday. Camaraderie returned, amplified by the excitement of finally being back, but tempered by the obvious need for caution and distance.
A wet qualifying complete with obligatory half-spin put me a pleasantly surprising fifth on the grid of 16. I made a truly terrible start in the first race and was thrown into a frenetic battle, three wide into Montreal hairpin just the beginning. After 11 laps of fierce racing, I brought the car home fifth, just four tenths of a second ahead of Dan Sibbons. What a thrill these pocket rockets are!
Photo by SJN Photography
The second race brought a better start, but a soft brake pedal and an unaccountable loss of my previous strength against my competitors in the braking zones. Over several laps of struggling, locking up and understeering past apexes I realised I had no rear brakes. After fighting back to pick up places one by one, I finished fourth, in sight of the last podium spot claimed by Tom Robinson five seconds ahead.
It was tantalising to miss out when I’d had the pace to win a trophy first time out, but the racing had been fantastic and my interest in the formula well and truly piqued. That I was named “Newcomer of the Meeting” was icing on the cake!
CSCC Open Series – Thruxton – Sam McKee & Alex Baldwin
The avid readers among you (hi Mum) might remember Alex Baldwin. Filming a documentary titled Dreamchaser, Alex was to enter his first-ever motor race in 750MC Roadsports, driving my car at Brands Hatch in April 2019. We got there, we qualified and we were fighting for a podium when a suspension failure forced me to retire the car before handing it over to Alex. He didn’t get his shot… that year.
I was more than happy to make sure he got his turn at the ‘wheel, this time at Thruxton. We booked a few sessions of testing, as neither of us had ever raced Thruxton and I’d only driven it once five years previously. A real white-knuckle ride of fifth-gear sweepers and rolling hills, it’s a circuit famed for testing your commitment. We entered the Classic Sports Car Club’s Open Series, finding the name delivered on its promise of a widely varying field from an MG B through Jaguars to a Ginetta G55. We’d no expectations of winning, but were certainly going to get some racing.
The format was two 20-minute races, with the grid for the “second half” set by finished order from the first. Despite the car’s usual reliability I was taking no chances and Alex went first, starting from 37th on a colossal grid of 45 cars to bring the car home 34th. Simply finishing without incident on a damp and slippery circuit he’d only seen for the first time 24 hours ago was a feat, making up places was impressive.
Photo by @photojcs
Late in an afternoon of torrential rain came my turn. My favourite: wet tyres, wet track, and time to drive by the seat of the suit. Starting 39th this time, I used every ounce of my faith in the car to overcome a field of vastly more powerful competitors by carrying as much momentum as possible – all the time. 12 laps later, still averaging 85mph despite the appalling conditions, I crossed the line 16th overall. I’d never climbed so many positions in a single race, and rarely felt quite so satisfied on getting out of the car.
MSVT Trackday Trophy – Oulton Park International – Sam McKee & Rob Dowsett
With August entered perhaps the biggest talent I’ve ever strapped into the E36. Rob Dowsett had got in touch with me earlier this year, having seen my work bringing new drivers into the sport. That 750MC gave me the Dave Bradley Memorial Award for “best promoting and furthering the ideals of the club” in the 2018 season convinced him that I was the place to start his circuit racing career.
So we arrived at Oulton Park for Rob to spend a full day testing, learning car and circuit ahead of racing in MSVT’s Trackday Trophy – a 45-minute race with pitstop and driver change similar to our usual home of 750MC Roadsports. I expected Rob to go well, with experience sprinting his Toyota GT86 and racing in karts in Club100, but what I saw was something else. He was right on my 2019 laptimes by his second session. We were in for a strong outing.
On race day, Rob punched in two consecutive laptimes good enough for third overall on the grid of 26 cars. He took the standing start, getting away cleanly and holding his position against some very stiff competition. I jumped in for the final stint, rejoining fourth but gaining a slot after a mistake put the Harding/Slater Civic in the wall at Cascades with just a couple of laps to go. So it was that we finished third overall in Rob’s first-ever race – a stunning achievement, and far from his last.
750MC Roadsports – Silverstone International – Sam McKee & Iain Thornton
It seemed very strange to get all the way to August before the first Roadsports round, but it felt like home to return to that paddock. It also brought me the opportunity to do one of my very favourite things: race my car with a friend. Iain drove the E36 in Roadsports for his very first race in 2019. Having since racked up experience in James’s aforementioned Ma7da, he returned to my saloon car for his sixth race.
A tricky meeting, this. The racing surface was in very poor state, with whatever combination of weather over the preceding week making it extremely slippery even in the areas that were traditionally reliable. The low grip level doesn’t just slow laptimes, it also disrupts the handling of the car, which never felt satisfactory throughout the weekend. It wasn’t helped by trialling a new tyre, the MRF ZTR, which we found we couldn’t get working anywhere near as well as my customary Nankang AR1.
Photo by Gary Walton Photography
We wrestled with these issues through a Friday of testing, but arrived feeling far more positive on Saturday. After all, there’s only so glum you can be when you walk up to your racing car parked in Silverstone’s Wing pits with their white-painted floor and cavernous, F1-spec expanses of space to go about the business of motorsport.
We qualified fifth of the 14 cars in Class C, and each managed to get some good racing done against a field of familiar cars over the 45-minute event. We took the chequered flag seventh in class, but much more satisfying was our 18th overall place of the 43 starters. Not bad for the third class in a dry race! Having successfully completed his sixth race, Iain could peel the novice cross sticker off the back of the car: he was now a fully-fledged racing driver.
Snetterton 300 track day – Daryl & Ryan Bennett
August wasn’t just about racing. Daryl Bennett had approached me about converting his sim racing passion into the real world, and I was as keen as ever to make it happen. His enthusiasm was obvious and he booked a track day at his home circuit of Snetterton, sharing the day with his brother Ryan.
You can never be sure what to expect when you plug a total novice into the car, and here I had two newcomers who had never driven on a circuit before. I was very happy with what I found. Both Daryl and Ryan clearly had natural ability, and learned very quickly with my tuition. It was very interesting seeing their different approaches: healthcare professional Daryl built methodically while sportsman Ryan flew by instinct. Both were quick, consistent and most happily of all loved every minute of the experience and came away raring for more.
CSCC Open Series – Donington Park National – Jonathan Layzell
Another month, another new racing driver! A very engaging and enthusiastic chap called Jonathan Layzell sent me a message on Twitter in early September. He had spent his whole life in paddocks, built experience on track days, sprints and hillclimbs and held a race licence but hadn’t yet used it. The impending purchase of a 1962 TVR Grantura which could be invited to compete at Goodwood brought the need for racing experience, and soon!
Only a few weeks later, we met for the first time at Donington Park for me to introduce Jonathan to the car and give him some pointers for how to approach the circuit – which he’d also never driven before. Two hours later, he left the assembly area to qualify for his first motor race, on a combined field of 42 cars from the Open Series and Jaguar Enthusiast’s Club Championship.
In that eye-opening session and the first race that followed, he acquitted himself beautifully and managed a very busy circuit of wildly varying cars without incident. I was flattered by his very kind words about the balance and performance of the car, and it’s always such a pleasure to see someone climb out with a big grin on their face.
But it was the second race where Jonathan truly came into his own. This one had it all. Fast traffic, leaking competitors, a safety car and another all-important racing first – a spin! Jonathan and the E36 soaked it all up unruffled (including the coolant from the Jag’s V12 alongside), and he came back to the paddock looking far more satisfied. “I felt much more like a racing driver in that one.”
Justifiably so. Welcome to the club, our sixth débutant – swiftly to return!
Oulton Park track day – Daryl & Ryan Bennett
I did say those Bennett brothers were keen for more. Only six weeks after their first taste of circuit driving at Snetterton, they were back behind the ‘wheel at Oulton Park – and that intervening time hadn’t been wasted. Daryl had already used his new experience to pass his ARDS tests and had raided Grand Prix Racewear’s store: he was suited, booted and qualified to go racing in 2021.
Oulton is an entirely different proposition to Snetterton’s near-flat airfield course. It’s bumpy, undulating and ballsy with barely a moment’s rest from the start to the end of the lap. Arriving into torrential rain had Daryl’s eyes out on stalks, but he adapted quickly and the much-reduced grip helped him learn the car’s balance. As the circuit dried and the pace climbed through the day, so his satisfaction grew. I had a great time in the passenger seat, barely needing to give more than occasional pointers by mid-morning. An excellent, thinking, technical driver, this one.
At lunchtime, Ryan arrived with some news: he had snuck off and done his race licence examinations too, passing a few days ago. We had two brand-new racing drivers, barely a month into their circuit careers! Once strapped into the car, Ryan didn’t disappoint. He found his way around Oulton’s 2.4 miles of hills, crests and bad cambers in no time and whenever his ambition overstepped the available grip, his reactions were spot on. My pulse never quickened in the passenger seat, even with the car well out of shape – always a reassuring sign!
He had a review for me to publish, too.
“I just think it’s fast as fuck!”
750MC Ma7da Series – Mallory Park – Sam McKee
Three months on from my brilliant first Ma7da races in James Lewis-Barned’s car, I returned to the series at Mallory Park. Despite feeling like a local circuit, being so near to home, I’d only driven Mallory on two track days over the years and had never raced there. It’s an underrated circuit with some quite unique challenges, including both the longest corner and the tightest corner in the country.
A relatively small roster for the meeting – only eleven races! – meant there was time for a practice session first thing in the morning. I didn’t stump up for it, but got to learn a little from watching most of my competitors on the wet circuit. It didn’t dry in time for our qualifying session, where I had a huge amount of fun. Passing a car halfway through the first corner set the tone: in the tricky conditions I seemed able to feel out the circuit better than most, and enjoyed clawing out as much laptime as possible while flowing past other cars as I found them. I was very pleased to find I’d qualified third on the grid for both races: half a second behind by regular race winners (and morning practicers!) Jonathan Lisseter and Ben Powney.
True to form, I fluffed the start and gave away all that hard work to enter the first corner surrounded. You’re very much outdoors in a car like this, and your competition feels more than close enough to reach out and touch: on a sunny day at a little circuit in Leicestershire, it was brilliant. I fought hard to try to hang onto the lead pack despite what seemed to be a lack of straightline pace, and was working forwards until a contact in the hairpin jerked the steering wheel across hard enough to pull my shoulder out of its socket. After a bit of confusion at my inability to select third gear, I got it back in place and resumed into a great battle with David Mason which lasted right to the final lap.. when the car failed. A total loss of electrics left me coasting anticlimactically back to the paddock.
Frantic stripping, fault-finding and diagnosis with the help of Iain Thornton and TMC Engineering’s Matt Cherrington had us replace a coolant pipe that looked to have leaked onto the alternator, dry everything up, exchange blown fuses and have the car running again in time for race two where I would again line up third.. but warming up in the assembly area, the engine died again. Plainly the fault hadn’t been found and my day was done.
The “podiums that might have been” felt like unfinished business in Ma7da. The racing was superb, but I needed a different way of accessing it. Happily, together with fellow Club Enduro racer Imran Khan I’ve found it in the shape of a Locost chassis we’ve bought and will convert to race in Ma7da next season.
MSVR Allcomers – Brands Hatch Grand Prix – Jonathan Layzell
Jonathan doesn’t waste any time. Seven days after his first-ever races in the E36 at Donington Park, he entered his own TVR Grantura in Equipe Libre at Silverstone. Despite appalling conditions and visibility near zero, he guided his new purchase home 14th of 25 starters in their maiden outing. The following weekend, he reprised his role in moderns at Brands Hatch.
I’ve driven and raced many a lap of the Brands Hatch Indy layout, but never experienced the storied Grand Prix circuit. Now my car was finally going to race on that hallowed Tarmac.. without me on board! Jonathan entered the double-header of MSVR Allcomers, with a grid ranging from a SEAT Leon right up to Mike Jenvey’s manic Gunn sports racer lapping at 102mph. While my car might be familiar, the circuit was a steep learning curve – steep being the operative word! Jonathan arrived back in the paddock after qualifying intimidated and enthused in equal measure, confessing that he’d ducked to get his head under the bridge at Pilgrim’s Drop!
The races were different flavours of experience: the first, of traffic management when the huge spread of performance came into play by the mid-part of the race. When the race leader’s car can do four laps to every three of yours, they arrive quickly in the mirrors! The second came after a downpour in gathering gloom, but equipped with a heater and effective wipers Jonathan’s visibility was nowhere near as hampered as the previous weekend and he was able to stay – mostly! – in his comfort zone while others spun around him.
That made five races in fourteen days for Jonathan, four of ‘em in my old girl. The entries we chose were dictated by diaries and eligibility, aiming to rack up experience rather than racing to win. I understood that, and knew the E36 was serving a purpose; but I was very happily surprised when Jonathan said he was left wanting to race my car again, with me, and somewhere truly competitive. You can imagine my response – any time!
750MC Roadsports – Snetterton 300 – Sam McKee & Neil Savage
A long-standing plan finally came together. Since 2014 I’ve been competing against Neil Savage, on sprints organised by a group of petrolheaded colleagues at Nissan. Neil’s advice and experience was instrumental in me making the leap to first go racing in 2017, and he brought me another fantastic experience in the shape of the 2CV 24hr Race in 2018. There was only one thing left for us to do: we’d have to race my E36 together.
There was no better opportunity than 750 Motor Club’s brilliant Roadsports series at Snetterton. A day’s testing which started wet and dried into the afternoon was the perfect familiarisation, and as it turned out, ideal preparation for qualifying. On a slippery morning I managed one clear lap, which proved good enough for class pole after a red flag cut the session short on only Neil’s second lap. 13 other Class C cars would line up behind us.
I started the race, twice after a first-lap red flag sent us back to the grid. I had scraps with cars in class and above throughout my stint, and thoroughly enjoyed myself in a car that felt fantastic and was lapping seriously quickly. I handed over to Neil from the class lead with half of the 45-minute race gone. Despite a strong, consistent drive Neil was passed by Matt Creed’s Clio which went on to set the class fastest lap of the race. As the gap widened, I resigned myself to a well-fought second place. It still meant a trophy, and on Neil’s birthday – a good result.
Photo by SJN Photography
But with six minutes to go, the E36 flew into view far closer behind the leading Clio than the previous lap. Next lap, closer still, actually within reach and a sniff of distant possibility now in the air. The two cars came around onto the final lap absolutely neck-and-neck, separated by one hundredth of a second over the line but the E36 looked to have the legs and Neil’s nose was ahead into Riches corner. Carving through traffic right to the final corner, he got the job done and took the chequered flag. We had won!
MSVT Trackday Trophy – Brands Hatch Indy – Sam McKee & Rob Dowsett
Your home circuit, fresh from a podium last time out, and your second-ever race. Pressure? Plenty to my eye, but Rob didn’t show it. We arrived at Brands Hatch on race morning – no testing this time – to find a decidedly dicey sky above. We were about to go out for qualifying in the same Trackday Trophy formula in which we’d finished third overall at Oulton in August.
It wasn’t August now and there was a huge weather system headed our way. Thinking we could beat it, we went out into qualifying on dry tyres and quickly found we’d made a mistake. The car was driveable, but seriously slippy and despite briefly being third in the standings, we landed up ninth – the laptime, by the way, being set by Rob again.
Come the race, an easier decision sent us out on our wet tyres. I would start, and on a very busy grid was unable to capitalise on a fantastic launch when the lights went out. Swamped in cars, I fell to 14th and had to fight my way back forward to get in touch with the leaders. With a capacity field on only 1.2 miles of circuit, I had a brilliant time sliding the car around as I clawed through the order.
I handed over to Rob from sixth place in an unexpectedly slick pitstop that saw us rejoin fifth. I felt we had the measure of the cars ahead: it was possible to catch up, but overtaking would be another matter. A safety car period stymied Rob’s progress, leaving him only a few minutes to get the job done. He gave no quarter when the race resumed and soon had us back on the podium, third overall with the leaders in sight. He pushed with all he had, setting a lap only three tenths off the fastest of the race, but crossed the line a second behind P2 and a bare four seconds behind the winner.
Any disappointment at missing out on a win that seemed within our grasp was soon forgotten: we were the only rear-wheel drive car even on the lead lap, and finishing right at the sharp end of a very competitive field twice in a row just goes to show Rob’s class. And, it must be said, the capabilities of the little roadgoing racing car.
Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing
There are plenty more shots for both in 2021: Rob and I will contest the full Trackday Championship, aiming for overall victory by the end of the season.
Donington Park track day – Jonathan Pascall
With only a few weeks left on the calendar, there was still time to squeeze another new driver into the E36! Jonathan Pascall got in touch via email, having kept up with my exploits on my website. He had accrued some track day experience in road cars, but wanted to try a proper racing car with a view to getting himself on the grid in 2021.
Jonathan had said nothing to make me doubt his commitment to going racing, but all the same, I didn’t expect him to arrive with a brand-new race helmet and FIA-approved boots picked up the week before! Clearly this was more than a maybe, and once we got out onto the circuit I could see why. Immediately seeming comfortable in the car despite wet conditions, Jonathan’s instincts were all in the right place and his responses to how the car moved beneath him very encouraging.
As the circuit dried and pace built through the day, his confidence rose – rightly unabashed by a lairy moment or two, nor a spin across the grass that’s all part of the learning process! The improvement in each session was marked, and every time I gave a pointer or drove a couple of laps to demonstrate something it sunk straight in. It was supremely satisfying to say “don’t brake” on the way into the Craner Curves, and be trusted!
I was delighted to hear Jonathan’s impressions of the car, and his enthusiasm for more was plain. So much so that his racing début is already set: he will enter his first race with me in MSV’s Trackday Trophy next season. I can’t wait to see what he can do.
750MC Roadsports – Donington Park National – Sam McKee
Ordinarily a podium on Hallowe’en would close the season, but there’s been nothing ordinary about 2020. The finale of the 750 Motor Club calendar was set for 21st November, prohibited by another national lockdown. While other clubs cancelled meetings and furloughed staff, 750MC soldiered on and two weeks before Christmas we were racing again at Donington. After running eight other drivers in my car over the course of the season I entered this one solo, for the first time since 2017.
A typically brimming Roadsports field awaited me in qualifying, with 39 cars vying for position on a damp and slippery track. Having the full 25 minutes to myself left me feeling quite relaxed, despite the session being disrupted by yellow flags and a safety car period. I felt my way around the familiar circuit, found some room, and put in a lap that would eventually prove good enough for third in Class C and a very satisfying 12th overall.
I was pleased to see that conditions didn’t improve as our race start approached: despite the wet making it very difficult for a rear-wheel drive car like my BMW to compete against the very capable front-wheel drive competition, it’s enormous fun and puts all of the emphasis on the driver’s judgement every single lap. A win would be difficult, but a good time was guaranteed.
The rolling start saw me outbrake quite a few drivers into the first corner and break away from most competitors behind, hanging onto the Class A cars as they struggled to get to grips with the conditions. After a couple of laps, good sense and massive power prevailed and they pulled away, leaving me busy fighting off Sami Bowler’s MINI Challenge car. Lap after lap she hunted for a way past, finally nosing ahead through Hollywood. I fought back through in traffic, going around the outside of Sami and a Class B Boxster through McLean’s, and stuck ahead for a few minutes before coming in for the mandatory pitstop.
Winning the previous Roadsports race with Neil earned me a 15-second penalty for this one. I rejoined into a good scrap with Ivor Mairs in his MX-5, then had a quiet remainder of the race scything through traffic and being, myself, scythed by the race leaders. I crossed the line 5th in Class C and a tantalising 11th overall of the 39 starters, narrowly missing out on a top ten finish. Nonetheless, as commentator Josh Barrett pointed out, the only RWD cars ahead of me all had over 100bhp more at their disposal and I’d put a fair chunk of Class B behind me. A satisfying way to draw a close to a season like no other.