We are back. After six weeks the stricken E36 returned home from the bodyshop, and she’d never looked so good. It was remarkable how well such serious damage had been repaired, everything looked straight and fit perfectly. The only downside was that the new paint finish was so good, it made the rest of the car look a bit shabby!
Driving the car again after such a long absence was wonderful. I’d forgotten just how right it feels.. agile, urgent and alive beneath you. And it sounds so, so perfect. The acid test would be a geometry check, to make sure it really was straight – and the result was the most accurate setup I’ve ever had on the car. Fantastic news. All that was left to do was race it..
And to tell you all about that, we have another guest driver – the fifth novice racer to be strapped into this car. Iain Thornton made his debut in our comeback race at Donington Park, competing in 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports series. He was kind enough to put his own words to the experience.
“After a hiatus since the damage at Croft and plenty of blood, sweat and tears on Sam’s part, the 328i was back to race Roadsports Class C! For me it would be the start of my racing career, under Sam’s guidance.
I turned up to Donington at 8am on Friday the 6th to be greeted by a wonderful sight – a real race car with my name really on the rear windows! This was probably the most nervous I’d be all weekend, which is a real testament to the confidence the car would give me throughout the day. Sam and I chatted as he set up the car ready for the first test and he showed me around it a bit, telling me bits about it that I didn’t know. He chose a worn set of Nankang AR-1s for the test day, on the basis we would save the fresh ones for qualifying and racing.
Before we knew it, it was time to get dressed for the first test session. Sam sent me out and timed me from the pit wall. It was a relatively slow session as a bit of a warm up, but lap times tumbled as the day went on. I came into the pits at the end of the session and reported to Sam that an indicator bulb had blown, judging by the fast flash. He pointed out that actually the whole indicator assembly had fallen out. Oops!
By the second session I had started to understand the car and circuit a bit better and things were really coming together. Sam kept asking how the car felt – I couldn’t find a thing wrong with it. I think he was just itching to get on track himself, but we needed him to coach me from the sidelines!
After the second session, the heavens opened so we retired to my car to sit, eat some lunch and chat about plans for the day. We agreed to continue with the balding Nankangs (despite having a set of wet weather tyres) as it would be a good chance for me to explore car’s dynamics in wet weather without pushing it too hard. As we discussed the afternoon and weekend ahead, we expressed pity for those who were getting soaked outside, such as the marshals and staff around the track. It was around this time that I realised that one sleeve of my race suit was stuck outside the car door, so with a sopping arm I headed back out on track.
I soon forget about the wet arm – this was the most tiring session of the day, requiring a lot of concentration. The track was sodden and grip was non-existent. The car was behaving very well, however. Predictable and easy to control. Sam continued to time and I was lapping faster than I had in the first session of the day, so there was clear progress. Again Sam was desperate to know if I had any car faults to report – the worst thing I could think of was a tiny wobble at cool down speeds, which I’m confident was nothing more than slight flat spots on the tyres.
I had been struggling to do Redgate and Coppice quite right all day. Sam told me that I just needed to trust the car more – turn in harder and more decisively as it could do it. I finally built up to this in the fourth session – lo and behold, he was right. This final session was dry and the track had dried out, so it was a great opportunity to practise building pace again. I came into the pits at the end of the session to find Sam very, very pleased – my laps had been consistent, improving incrementally each time. This was music to my ears as I had made more progress in one day than I could have imagined and addressed something I’ve previously found quite difficult – setting consistent lap times. Now we had to be ready – whether we liked it or not – to qualify the next morning.
The car had been weighed earlier in the day, exceeding the minimum weight and when we presented it and ourselves for scrutineering, we all passed quickly and easily. It all seemed too easy!
On Saturday we got to the track a couple of hours before qualifying started to check the car over and to swap to the fresh AR-1s I had been denied the previous day. We were greeted by a lovely morning – crisp but sunny and with the smell of petrol and oil from the V8 MGBs and Cs that were doing their qualifying session. The 328i was exactly as we expected – faultless and ready for us to hit the track.
Sam went out first and I prepared to take over. I didn’t realise that he only planned to do the three laps required for him to qualify to race. Despite putting in only the minimum number of laps and having driven for none of the testing the day before, his time put us 3rd in class. We thought that we had qualified 2nd in class, but then discovered that there was a car [Chris Morton, you git – S] missing from the live timing list due to not having a transponder. Oh well, we couldn’t be disappointed with 3rd!
I went out with the goal of doing three laps so that I could race. All other considerations were secondary, so I started with three safe laps to get me race eligibility. After that I started to feel at ease and fell into a rhythm. I used the rest of the half hour session for more practice and somehow I managed to impress Sam again – my lap times were still consistent and still dropping!
My qualifying session was uneventful, for the most part, but it was invaluable for the experience it gave me before the race. Having dried completely overnight, the track was great and the fresh AR-1s were even better. I could scarcely believe the amount of grip I was getting and the way the front end was biting – it stunned me after the damp weather the previous afternoon. It would be in this session that I would decide I had finally conquered Redgate – my confidence there had been knocked by a spin in the third session of testing.
Sam used the time between the qualifying session and the race to thoroughly check the car again. Although we had agreed that it felt excellent, we also didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Everything had run like clockwork until that point and neither of us wanted that to stop. We practised our driver changes, which we were managing in 45 seconds – this left us a 15 second margin for error in the race as the car had to stop for a minimum of 60 seconds. Sam briefed me on what I needed to know about how we would handle pitting and anything I needed to know about the format of the race and the drivers’ briefing filled in the other blanks. At this point I simply couldn’t believe it – we were about to race!
As planned, Sam went out first and I waited in the pits for him. At Coppice on the first lap our streak of good luck ended – a competing BMW with dirty tyres slid into the side of 36, denting the driver’s door and sill. Despite being obvious, I wouldn’t find this out until the end of the race. I didn’t notice it as I got in due to the pressure of the situation!
The race itself was marred by several periods following the safety car. Being inexperienced, I wasn’t ready for the sudden disappearance of the safety car and immediately lost several positions as it entered the pits. Never mind – I was determined to hold onto my new position the best I could.”
Here’s the race footage:
“Finally the chequered flag came and we had come 17th overall in a field of 40 and 9th of 17 in the class. Sam showed me the news on the pit board and I came in to be stopped by a very stern marshal who asked me to go to Race Control. I had no idea what the problem was but Sam filled me in on the accident. I was feeling guilty that stones had flicked up from the tyres of another car and chipped the windscreen and headlight, so it was a real shock to see the big dent in the sill from the incident in the first lap. Apart from this, we also had a 5 second penalty for breaching track limits, for which we took joint blame – luckily it didn’t cost us a place.
We had finished and I hadn’t disgraced myself! This was my main aim, and Sam had a final surprise for me. I had reached my target time of 1:25. Given that and the fact that we and the car had made it through the race and the car was not damaged beyond repair, we agreed that the weekend had been a resounding success. I’m very much looking forward to the next chance we get to do it all again!”
The next round of the Club Enduro Championship took us to Croft, a less well-known circuit 195 miles away near Darlington. I vaguely recalled the layout from playing TOCA 2 in the early 00s, but I’d never been there. Adam spectating in 2003 was the sum total of our experience on the ground! It’s a long old way up the A1(M) when you’re driving your competition car, and I’d planned to stop for dinner halfway there to stretch my legs, but actually I did the three-hour run in one hit and felt none the worse for it. It speaks volumes for the versatility of this car that even now, in full endurance-racing spec, it can still do that with ease.
Barely knowing which way Croft went, it seemed prudent to book some testing. We arrived on Friday morning to find a quaint little pit lane leading onto a circuit that looked fast, flowing and with very few textbook corners. Everything is either compound, bumpy, off-camber or all three – a simple airfield circuit this isn’t! It seems to have its own microclimate too, with our test day bringing us three seasons in one day. We found the newly laid surface remarkably good in the wet, and when it finally dried in the afternoon, we had a car that was fast, balanced and extremely satisfying. We managed to record the second-fastest time of the day for Class C cars. It’s rare to get to a stage with setup where you feel equally happy in the wet as the dry, but we’d managed it. A good job, since the forecast for race day looked likely to throw both at us.
Testing on Friday and racing on Sunday gave a rare treat – a “day off” at a circuit. While the car needed checking over and tidying up after the soaking test runs, we were generally free to soak up some racing, and what a treat 750 Motor Club had in store for us. We discovered Croft is a pretty nice spectator circuit, with banking giving us birds-eye views of 38 Locosters trying to negotiate the first chicane, the stunningly fast F1000s whose full wet laptimes outpace our dry ones, and proper eleven-tenths driving from the brilliant MG BC V8 series. These cars have to be heard to be believed – just wonderful.
Race morning dawned dry with threatening skies, but we felt content either way. We’d learnt the circuit in the full spectrum of conditions, and while we weren’t certain whether we’d been able to cure an ABS problem, we felt confident in the car. For a change, it was even looking clean and presentable before the qualfiying session!
We’d had the car on axle stands overnight to make a call on tyres in the morning. The weather looked almost stable before qualifying, so Adam drove down to assembly on dry tyres.. upon which it immediately started to bucket down good and proper. The circuit was drenched, and the focus changed. The first laps wouldn’t be any use for trying to set a time, not until Club Enduro’s capacity field of cars had circulated for long enough to dry it out. Instead Adam focused on finding where the best grip was in the wet, working to get the car around safely and smoothly to complete his laps before handing over to me to finish the session.
Unfortunately, that didn’t go quite to plan.
After his third lap, Adam came over the radio to say that he’d been hit. From the pit wall only the left-hand side of the cars can be seen, and there wasn’t any obvious damage. He reported it was driving OK, so he stayed out and kept punching in faster laptimes as the circuit dried. After three more, he came in to hand the car over to me. I found a very bent driver’s door that was a struggle to open, but the rush of a mid-session driver handover was no time for close inspection. I strapped in and went out to try and put us on pole position once again.
The car felt unbalanced, requiring some left steering lock to keep it straight, and considerably more keen to go right than it was to turn left.. but qualifying is a short session and only the laptime counts. Under those circumstances it’s possible to force your brain to ignore most issues, so as I’d done at Donington, I switched off my mechanical sympathy and pushed as far as I could. The lap times tumbled as the circuit improved and through the pit board Mum and Emily told me the story: 36 P3, 36 P2, and finally 36 P1. We were the fastest of the fourteen Class C cars, but in the dying minutes of the session I knew there was far more time still out there.
Finally I overstepped the mark into Clervaux, Croft’s unforgiving first corner. You hit it in fourth gear, and with gravel on the outside your instinct is to clip early – but the inside kerb is enormous, and there’s a savage dip right in the apex. It’s the toughest test of dampers I’ve found on any circuit, and this time I asked too much and had a big sideways moment. Remembering we had an endurance race starting in an hour and a half, I backed off and brought the car back to the pits. It was a shame to see we slipped to fifth place by the end of the session, but it was the right call to resist pushing too hard.
It wasn’t until I got out in parc fermé that I saw what the contact Adam reported had done to the car. It wasn’t just the doors – the entire bodyshell had caved in as far as the rollcage. The B-pillar was hard against the cage, the sill rail was a crumpled mess, and the floor was rippled up. The body was visibly bent around the point of impact. It was the kind of damage you only get in a serious shunt, so the footage from our camera went straight to the stewards. I shuddered to think what would have happened without the rollcage, then started to wonder if this car was even raceable.
We later heard that the stewards found Adam at no fault for the collision. The other driver involved was excluded from qualifying and their licence endorsed with four penalty points.
Just our luck that the schedule was another short gap between qualifying and race start – we had only an hour before we would be called to the assembly area. The shell looked like it could be terminally damaged, but with no reserves left on the entry list and no refund for withdrawing, we had to try and race it. Priority one was to get the driver’s door working properly, so that marshals would be able to extract us from the car in the event of an accident. Thankfully it did reseat and could be operated from inside or out. The rear door was “persuaded” back into an aperture that was no longer big enough for it, the hole torn in the floor was patched, the tank was brimmed with fuel, and we had time for no more than a wheel torque check before it was showtime.
But racing is an amazing thing. There I sat strapped into a car that had been five years in the making, with blood, sweat and yes, a few tears poured into the endless development that got it from a tired repmobile to a race winner. I knew she’d been dealt a serious blow and I had no idea whether she could ever be repaired. I’d never considered looking past this car, but now it could be the end of the road. Yet when I pulled around the hairpin for the rolling start among the biggest grid of cars Croft had ever seen, the lights went out, I opened the throttle, and everything else fell away. All that was left was the desire to win, the almost instinctive control of the car, the constant judgement of the drivers alongside and ahead, and hunting for any gap or any mistake I could use to get in front.
I passed five cars in the opening lap, and it felt absolutely incredible. There is nothing like pushing a car right to the edge of the envelope, inches from another, and winning through. Here’s the start of the race:
Crushingly, it wasn’t to last. There was a brief safety car period during which a lot of rain fell, but when we resumed racing there was obviously a problem with the car. I couldn’t pinpoint it at first, there was just an instability somewhere, and it felt like the oversteer to the right had worsened. I subconsciously started to back off, losing third place to the #68 Mazda MX-5 of Darren and James Kell.
On the exit of Tower corner I realised this was serious and I was going to have to pit, just 12 minutes into the race. But this was halfway around the lap, and I had over a mile to nurse the car back. Even at reduced pace, a vibration rapidly became what felt like a shredded rear tyre, with the car crabbing right and dragging heavily. I got as far as the Complex, three corners to go, before a heart-stopping bang shook the whole car. I immediately had no drive and it was obvious that at least one wheel had completely locked. I could hear the tyre screaming against the tarmac, and the drag was huge. I tried to use the momentum to get out of the way, but in the end only made it a few feet off the circuit into the grass. After trying in vain to move the car, I had to abandon it.
The moment I looked back, my hopes sank. This wasn’t a damaged tyre, it was a complete collapse of suspension or wheel hub. There was no prospect of getting that car back out into the three-hour race.
Croft’s excellent marshalling and recovery team got the car off the circuit and sympathetically lifted back to the paddock where I could work on it. On removing the wheel, which was only kept tethered to the car by its brake disc being trapped in the caliper, we found the driveshaft end had sheared off. The huge nut on the end of that shaft holds the wheel hub together, so with it gone, the bearing had collapsed and the wheel came completely free of its mounting. It looked like the car had been running on a cracked shaft which had progressively bitten through until complete failure. A cracked shaft such as you might expect if your car had been thrown bodily across a racetrack by a collision two hours previous…
It really hurt to see the car lifted onto a truck for the first time in my entire ownership. Reliability had been so key in everything we’d done, and the car had proven itself time and again, so it felt absurd to retire with two and three-quarter hours’ racing still to go. It was small consolation that the failure didn’t seem to be down to our preparation or our driving. We had little to do but watch the more fortunate drivers still racing, load all our equipment back into the stricken car, and wonder about how to get it home.
The marshalling team at Croft went above and beyond to help us with that. They put us in touch with a local recovery firm and even tracked me down in the paddock later in the day to make sure I’d been able to get something arranged. At not-insignificant cost – even in the context of endurance racing! – I had, and by 10pm that evening the car was home.
What happens next for #36?
Well, in the cold light of Monday morning, the car looked no prettier. The further I inspected the more damage I found, and the bodyshell looks well beyond what you’d consider saving on a road car. Motorsport is different – not only in the value of the car, but also in the effort required to transplant everything to another shell, with welded rollcage feet and plumbed-in fire extinguishers to name just two jobs requiring a lot of work. Saving this car could still be the most cost-effective way to get racing again, and if there’s any chance she can live on, I want to take it. Work continues now to rebuild the rear left corner and get the car driveable, so it can be properly assessed and a decision taken. In the meantime we’ve had to withdraw from the next two rounds at Spa-Francorchamps, a real disappointment that – along with our failure to finish at Croft – also puts us out of contention for the championship.
I’ll keep you updated as I try to bring the car back.
This is the big one – the opening round of the 2019 Club Enduro Championship. We plan to contest every one of the eight races organised by 750 Motor Club, spanning the biggest circuits in the UK and even further – to the legendary Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Five years on from a humble beginning as a standard road car used in a few track days a year, my 192,000-mile E36 is now a genuine endurance racing car fighting for a championship. Even seeing it in the assembly area alongside GT4 and TCR cars, it doesn’t quite seem real. Nor did seeing our names on the same entry list as a multiple BTCC race-winner. Still, best to approach this meeting like any other – I drove the car to the circuit on Sunday evening before the race on the bank holiday Monday, passed scrutineering, and parked up in the garage.
It had been a busy week getting the car re-prepared after Brands Hatch seven days before, featuring this car’s first-ever retirement from an event. A replacement front left suspension strut was bought from Gaz, the geometry reset, and brand-new Nankang AR1s fitted to the new wheels. This would be our first time ever racing on fresh tyres, having done all of the previous seasons on part-worn tyres to reduce costs. I was nervous about the durability of the car, but very keen to see how it could perform.
Trackside images by Jon Elsey Motorsport Photography
Adam went out first in qualifying, and completed only two laps before reporting a vibration in right-handers. He brought the car into the pits to be checked – suspecting an issue with the recently replaced front left strut I took that wheel off, looked for any clearance issues and spanner-checked everything. It looked fine, as did everything at the rear, so I sent Adam back out to build up pace and report if anything worsened. It didn’t, so with a sigh of relief I received the car with 15 minutes remaining to try and set a laptime.
Sure enough there was a dire vibration somewhere, but dynamically the car felt OK, with huge grip and excellent balance from those new AR1s. Finding space amongst 49 cars wasn’t easy, but at the end of the session, I managed to get under the lap record and put in a 1:51.97 followed by a 1:51.79. Here are those two laps..
Seeing 51s pop up on the lap timer was fantastic, I knew that laptime should have been enough to be on the pace, but I didn’t expect to be right at the front. At the end of the session we stood second of 16 cars in Class C, but later found that there’d been a timing error with the one car that recorded a faster time – in fact, we were on pole. I could scarcely believe we’d opened the season by qualifying fastest of such a huge field!
Getting back from qualifying at 11am before a race at 14:05 would normally be a pleasantly short gap, but this time it presented real pressure. We had two and a half hours to diagnose and try to repair whatever was causing the vibration, refuel the car, eat something, prepare ourselves and get it out to start the race. We found that the freshly mounted tyres were out of balance – they can often slip on the rims when first used on a circuit, thanks to the soap used to mount them. But the real issue was finally uncovered with the rear of the car in the air and the wheels turning – the left-hand driveshaft had spat some or all of the grease out of its inner CV joint and was knocking heavily as it rotated. An unlikely failure and unrelated to the previous weekend’s issues, something I don’t carry parts for, and we didn’t have time to get it off the car anyway. We elected to go, but to try and keep off the kerbs as much as possible.
Adam would start the two-hour race, and ideally drive until around the one-hour mark before coming into the pits to get out, refuel the car and let me take over. But endurance racing forces you to be adaptive, and if there was a safety car period earlier in the race, it would be advantageous to pit early… so long as you could then carry enough fuel to finish the race. We calculated the “stop / no-stop” race time and agreed to give a lap’s notice before coming in – two minutes I’d need to swap stopwatch and radio for helmet and gloves!
I was almost as nervous on the pit wall as I would have been sitting in the car, powerless to control what would happen in the middle of a pack of 49 cars crammed onto Donington’s front straight.. but I oughtn’t have been. Adam drove superbly, fast and consistent, staying out of trouble but refusing to give ground. Imran Khan and Andrew Lightstead’s mighty #79 330 Challenge car pulled out an early lead, but regular battles with the #73 Mazda MX-5 of John Munro and Nick Dougill kept Adam busy. After 30 minutes he fought them off for good and held 2nd place in Class C.
Here are the highlights of Adam’s stint:
I’ve long said that endurance racing brings so many new elements and experiences that are missing from sprints or shorter events. One of them is standing on the pit wall watching the car you built fight for podium places in a huge race like this, with your friend at the helm driving his best yet. It was absolutely brilliant – and I hadn’t even got to race it yet!
A safety car at around 35 minutes’ race time tested our strategy – it wasn’t really soon enough for us, so Adam stayed out while some cars pitted, and as it turned out, the two-lap safety car period wasn’t long enough to confer a real advantage. Adam pushed on for five more laps before coming into the pits at 55 minutes, having reported a fuel starvation issue.
With some quick discussion beside the car as the fuel poured in agonisingly slowly, it became clear there was a new problem. We could normally run the tank down to five litres before getting any issues with fuel delivery, but Adam had reported it from two-thirds of a tank. We decided to put the full forty litres in, costing us almost an extra minute stationary but reducing the risk of not getting to the flag.
Finally, I got to strap into the car and go do some racing. Here are the highlights:
It’s strange jumping into a car halfway through a race. Your first lap is normally an act of bringing tyres and brakes up to temperature and getting the car into its natural groove, whilst surviving the hectic traffic of a race start. But driving second, you arrive quite by surprise into a racing car that’s already in its operating window, on a circuit that’s much clearer. Right from the first corner it felt brilliant, the brakes bit hard and the tyres were still properly switched on. Such was the immediate confidence that I made up two positions on my outlap.
A second safety car period curtailed the fun for seven laps, but after that, I had a fresh mind and 45 minutes of racing ahead of me. I used a relatively clear circuit to break the Class C lap record twice consecutively, despite a nearly full tank of fuel on board. Sadly my 1:53.07 won’t make it into the record books, as Imran Khan had turned in a 1:53.02 in his 330i to claim the bonus championship point for fastest lap. Next time!
I thoroughly enjoy multi-class racing, I think the “set pieces” effect of having a wide range of pace on the circuit adds a lot of interesting opportunities. It’s not without risk, though, as I found out halfway through my stint. On the run down the hill into the tight Melbourne hairpin, the second-placed BMW M4 GT4 passed me on the inside. Being a Class A car with 430bhp and already two laps ahead, it was no challenge for him. Unfortunately, the #51 Class B Honda Civic of Luke Handley tried to follow him from a little bit too far back, locked his brakes and ran into the back of the M4. The impact threw the rear corner of Luke’s Civic into the side of my car. The whole episode only cost five seconds, but I spent the next few laps listening carefully to the car, checking its handling, and watching temperatures – from my tightly strapped position in the driver’s seat, I had no idea what had been hit. I decided the car felt pretty good, and pressed on. Unbeknownst to me, the impact avoided the wheels, but made a nice mess of the driver’s door, which could no longer be opened from the outside!
Having left the pits 11th in class, I’d made it back to 4th place before the fuel starvation issue Adam had detected came back with a vengeance. You can read about the measures I’d taken to avoid the fuel handling issues that plague all standard E36s here, and they’d been very effective, so clearly something wasn’t working properly. After a few laps I switched off the secondary fuel pump to see if it made a difference – it didn’t, so apparently I had nothing transferring fuel across the saddle-shaped tank. The result was no power on the exit of right-handers, when the cornering forces threw all the fuel away from the engine’s supply pump located on the right side of the tank.
Come race end, I’d find a break in the earth wire to that secondary fuel pump. Such a simple failure had serious consequences, as without the pump transferring fuel, the only alternative was to take a shallower line through right-handers and then forcibly “transfer” the fuel myself by throwing the car to the left! Only then was power restored. It cost around three seconds a lap and I was constantly worrying that it would worsen to the point of being undriveable. Fortunately for me, before that point I found the #316 BMW 330i of Ivor Mairs, who was lying 3rd in Class C, the final hurdle before climbing onto the bottom step of the podium. Desperate not to give away how my car was ailing, I put everything into passing Ivor as quickly as possible and pulling a gap. Once a few seconds ahead, I was able to relax a tiny step and focus on bringing the car home.
The clock ticked down tantalisingly slowly, but at long last it hit 120 minutes and Adam confirmed over the radio that this was the final lap. I don’t remember ever being so happy to see a chequered flag waving! After the momentary thrill of qualifying first, through the rush and stress of getting the car fit to race and finally having to drive around issues and nurse it to the end, crossing the line third place was the most enormous relief. I felt deeply proud of everything that had got us there – Adam for fighting so hard right from the start, Mum and Em for working strategy and tracking the race and making sure we knew when to push and when to consolidate, and the car for whilst never being perfect, refusing to let us down.
What a stunning start to our first championship campaign. Next up, Croft on 2nd June, for the even greater challenge of a three-hour race. Via a bodyshop first, I suppose…
It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye…
After a long winter of work and upgrades on the 328i, the 750 Motor Club’s 2019 racing season finally kicked off at Brands Hatch in April. This first meeting came with a difference – it would mark the debut of Alex Baldwin, shooting the “Dream Chaser” documentary about entering club motorsport.
Alex first got in touch with me 12 months ago, looking for a car and willing participant for his project. Never being one to turn down the opportunity to promote club racing and get more drivers involved, I jumped at it, and the plan evolved into running the car at Donington Park for Alex to acclimatise to it, then test and race at Brands Hatch in the first round of the 750MC Roadsports series.
That acclimatisation at Donington was very reassuring. You can generally get quite an accurate idea of how someone will drive by their attitude and approach, but you’re never quite certain until you sit beside them on a circuit! I was immediately put at ease – Alex clearly knew exactly how the line was supposed to look, and had a good feel for the car straight away. We spent the day at Donington developing him rapidly, including several solo stints of near-race length into the afternoon, clocking up over 200 miles. The improvement was marked, and as you can see from the trackside photography, commitment levels certainly weren’t lacking!
Two weeks later we arrived at Brands Hatch for the race weekend. We booked an afternoon’s testing on the Friday, for a number of reasons: Alex knew Brands already, but an hour’s running to adapt his knowledge to driving this car here would be very valuable. It also gave him his first exposure of driving in “live” motorsport traffic, which is a very different experience to a track day! Testing is much more like a qualifying session, with a wide variety of race cars all being driven at their limits, and overtaking permitted wherever possible.
The results, again, were extremely encouraging. Alex improved his laptimes steadily down to 58.09 seconds around Brands’ 1.2 mile Indy circuit. Compared to my qualifying time of 57.21 last season, this was fantastic work for a novice driver at his first-ever meeting! Perhaps more impressive and certainly useful for race pace was his ability to put in consistently quick laps, once managing 5 in a row all under 59 seconds.
We wrapped up Friday’s running feeling very pleased with both car and driver. That is, until a faint battery charge warning started flickering on the dashboard while I was in the scrutineering queue.. The car passed through with no problem and was declared fit to race on Sunday, but expired in the paddock shortly afterwards. It wasn’t clear whether battery or alternator had failed, so at 8pm I was wandering the paddock to borrow some of the few pieces of equipment I don’t usually carry – a voltmeter, and a jump pack! The kindness of fellow competitors had the car started again for long enough to tell me that yes, the alternator wasn’t charging. 8.5 volts across the battery with the engine running. After checking wiring throughout the car for any broken connectors or potential drains, I resigned to trying to find a spare alternator the next day.
Saturday presented a rare “spare day” at a circuit, so I put myself to work helping guide Hot Hatch novice Tom Day through his first race meeting. I remembered the stress and doubt of my first time well enough, so I hope having someone on hand to get him in the right place at the right time, give times and feedback on the pit board, and generally talk through everything was helpful! Certainly he seemed to have a great day and made an impressive debut in challenging conditions. Cheers Tom!
I also met another budding driver in the form of “Race Dreamer” Rob Dowsett, who’s touring the country’s paddocks and speaking to drivers from big names in Blancpain right down to, well, me.. Rob’s racing in karts while building up knowledge and budget to make his entry into circuit racing with cars, and I was more than happy to talk him through what I’m doing and break down some of the perceived barriers to going racing.
Back to work, I found that David Drinkwater actually had an E36 alternator, for his Compact race car and to my eternal gratitude handed it over for me to try. The mounting points for his four-cylinder engine turned out to be totally different to my six-cylinder one, so I couldn’t use it, but the gesture really illustrates how much a family the club paddocks are.
Speaking of family, they became the saviour. As my only transport – the race car – wasn’t going anywhere, I couldn’t get parts, but my long-suffering Mum picked up a new alternator en route to the circuit Saturday evening. Half an hour later it was fitted, the car fired, and I saw the most relieving electrical readout of the year!
The car was running, charging, and we were going to go racing the next day.
Sunday dawned cold and changeable. No sooner had I fitted dry tyres than a hailstorm started, and the weather for the next two hours into qualifying looked decidedly uncertain. As it became clear the session would start wet but likely dry towards the end, we chose to send Alex out first. Not only would it let him get some wet-weather experience in case it rained during the race, but it also let us run him for longer, so I could jump in towards the end of the session and try and set a laptime. Alex pointed out that he’d never actually driven a wet circuit in a car at all, and precious little even in karts, a thought which appeared front and centre in his mind as he waited to go out..
Predictably, he needn’t have worried. The circuit was much wetter than it looked, but Alex kept the car smooth and consistent and completed his qualifying laps without incident. After ten laps he came into the pits to hand the car over to me on a rapidly drying circuit. I hadn’t driven at Brands for ten months and really had no idea how the car would behave, but there followed a rapid session of adapting and that hugely satisfying feeling of the car being faster every lap. Not only was I improving but the circuit was drying, so grip got better every time round, and the times tumbled until a 57.54 was produced. Emily told me via the pit board that put us first in class, but not for long.. right at the end of the session I got bottled up behind a Class A car, and wasn’t able to improve while the circuit dried a bit further and the 328i of Lee and Jeff Piercey was able to beat us to pole by half a second.
We found afterwards that we were going to start 10th overall, of 35 cars. Not bad for Class C…
Four hours later, it was showtime. I’d used some of the time in the break to check everything on the car – particularly as I’d rebuilt most of the rear end, it was good practice to ensure everything was torqued properly and still on its paint marks. All looked well. We also changed both left-hand tyres for some spare part-worns, still the same Nankang AR1s, but with much more tread life remaining to see out the 45-minute race.
We elected to put me in the car for the start, as Alex wanted to take the chequered flag and avoid the risky business of a 35-car start into the infamous Paddock Hill corner. I planned to drive for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping the car safe and as far up the order as possible before handing over to Alex to make his racing debut and bring the car home.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. I had a good start and after a few short battles maintained position, though the tyres fitted since qualifying were clearly not in such good condition and I was struggling for grip in right-handers. Not being one to miss a chance, Dan Rogers pounced, and after running his MX-5 side-by-side for three corners finally got the better of me into Graham Hill Bend. I hung on as best I could, but ultimately decided third place was a good position to consolidate.
There I stayed, carving through the traffic presented by the 116i Trophy guests on our grid. Such was the pace difference that in some cases, two or even three 116is needed to be passed in a single corner, which made for some interesting set-pieces as I tried to get through without disturbing their race, or losing time in my own! I was enjoying myself as the race leaders in Class A came through, and interested to note that I struggled to turn into Paddock Hill when directly behind the huge rear wing of Matthew Weymouth’s E36 M3. Perhaps that front splitter is doing something after all. I was still close behind him through the Druids hairpin, and again suffered understeer on exit, running wide onto the aggressive exit kerbs. It’s something you try to avoid doing for the whole race, but not uncommon. Nonetheless, the car felt strange afterwards – I was holding some left steering lock to keep her straight.
Immediately I wondered if the geometry had been knocked out by the kerb, but through the left-handed Graham Hill Bend everything felt OK. I commited to the left-hander of Surtees at full pace, but the moment I tried to turn right into Clearways, a serious problem became obvious. The car felt like it was collapsing over its front-left corner as soon as I loaded it up, and the steering forces were all wrong. I immediately brought it into the pits, jumped out, shed helmet and gloves and ran around with the jack to check the front suspension. I found a front tyre sitting like this.
Hoping against hope that there was a simple failure like a snapped or missing bolt – despite them all being tight before the session – I lifted the car and got the wheel off while Alex strapped in. I found a terminal failure.
The wheel hub’s top bolt had torn out of its mounting eye on the suspension strut. The uncontrolled cornering loads had bent the bottom bracket so far that it couldn’t be reseated, and wouldn’t have been safe even it we’d got it clamped. There was no way we could send the car back out. We were forced to retire from the race, and Alex didn’t get his shot.
The pain of a retirement was entirely new to me. Over the last five years, this near-bulletproof car had seen the chequered flag at every single track day and race meeting she’d ever entered. While it’s seen as a part of racing, inevitable sooner or later, not finishing a race wasn’t really ever on the agenda. The feeling was made altogether worse by denying Alex his long-awaited chance to realise his dream, though he handled the situation like a professional, which helped.
Not only were we out of the race, the car couldn’t be driven, and I needed a way to get it home. Some brainstorming in the garage found a couple of half-feasible ways to get the car straight enough to drive, but this wasn’t a short hop, I had to do 140 miles of M25 and M40 and I wasn’t prepared to risk a temporary fix. It was the racing family that saved me again. Neil McDonald of Automac not only had suspension struts that would fit, he turned out on a Sunday evening to meet Mum (told you she was long-suffering) and hand a set over. I’m incredibly grateful to Neil for going out of his way to help us. Two hours later they were in the garage, and shortly after that I had a car I could safely drive home. Despite her unluckiest meeting yet, she made it back.
Which was a good job, with only eight days until the opening round of the Club Enduro Championship…
Much of this photography kindly furnished by AFR Productions and @photojcs
October brought Snetterton, scene of the finale of our racing season with 750 Motor Club, and our most ambitious meeting yet. Rather than testing a couple of weeks in advance then competing in Roadsports on one day, we booked ourselves a three-day extravaganza: testing on Friday, 45-minute Roadsports race on Saturday, then the car’s endurance racing debut on Sunday in the two-hour Club Enduro race. It was a serious undertaking – the sheer amount of tyres and equipment we needed was a real effort to pack in, but the car was still driven to the circuit in Norfolk, and clocked her 190,000th mile on the way.
Friday was only the second motorsport test day (as opposed to a track day) that I’d ever been to. I wasn’t even planning to drive – having done many hours’ racing at Snetterton already this year, I elected to give Adam as much seat time as possible in his first visit to the circuit. It didn’t pan out that way, with the two half-hour sessions both cut short by red flags, but Adam did at least find his way round and put in some respectable times. The car seemed pretty solid, particularly the Performance Friction brake pads, and we also learnt (deliberately!) how low we could run on fuel before the car started to get starvation issues. We were able to use 58 of the 62 litres the tank holds, thanks to the dual fuel pumps, which was an encouraging sign for Sunday’s endurance race.
This view of Dan Rogers’ MX-5 on its way to the assembly area says it all about Saturday’s weather. After testing in 22°C warmth and blazing sunshine, we had rain overnight to wash the circuit clean and then grey, cold skies all day. Qualifying was at least dry-ish, and we managed to put the car 5th of 16 cars in Class C with a 2:18.90, but the heavens opened big-time between then and our race, which was going to be full wet throughout. As only his second-ever race start loomed in challenging conditions with forty other cars around him, Adam didn’t look nervous at all…
Oh, no. Wait. He did.
As it turns out, he needn’t have done, because after two tentative green-flag laps to allow the field to figure out the conditions, the race got underway without incident. Adam did a great job of getting into the thick of the action and pushing the car up to, and often over, its limit right from the off. Particularly for a rear-wheel-drive car with relatively little weight over its rear axle, trying to find traction on a properly wet circuit is treacherous, and your reflexes to catch the near-inevitable oversteer need to be cat-like. There’s plenty of that in the opening lap video below, which also shows why racing in the wet is so dicey: it doesn’t matter how good your wipers or how polished your windscreen, the sheer amount of spray thrown up by racing cars with wings and diffusers means the air becomes opaque if you’re within fifty feet of another driver! It takes careful judgement to be remotely competitive in these sort of conditions.
After a great drive adapting to such lethal conditions on a circuit he’d only first seen the day before, Adam came into the pits with a big gaggle of cars who had all missed an unluckily timed safety car. I wasn’t even expecting him in that lap, finding out when I saw the roof of my car enter the pitlane, giving me barely enough time to dash into the garage to swap raincoat for balaclava and helmet! I arrived at the side of the car still pulling on my gloves as Adam got out. This, as it turns out, isn’t ideal preparation for entering a soaking wet motor race.
I misjudged the grip on the exit of Riches, gave her too much throttle too soon, and had a half-spin that pulled me to the inside. I just kissed the barrier, spending the whole time watching it approach thinking “Oh please no, we’ve got another race tomorrow, don’t wreck the car ten seconds after leaving the pitlane”…
I got away with it. As this post-nudge photo shows, there wasn’t a mark on the car, it really was a very gentle tap. But it taught me a valuable lesson. Two seasons of campaigning this car successfully and always managing to be on the pace had left me complacent, and apart from not even having my kit on when the car might have come into the pits at any time, I didn’t have my mind in the right place to race it. I can’t overstate how important mental preparation is to delivering your best performance as a driver – the circuit was incredibly slippery and the rate of attrition was really high, with cars falling off left right and centre and the race eventually being red-flagged, but I knew that was a mistake I would never normally have made. Lesson learned.
Between getting caught out by safety car timing and promptly throwing myself off the circuit, the rest of my race was pretty uneventful with very few cars left around me. Being lapped by Michael Price’s race-leading Porsche 997 towards the end was quite impressive – the power that thing could put down even before the apex, thanks to its rear-engined weight balance, was astonishing! Eventually bringing the car home 9th in class and 27th of 40 starters wasn’t what we’d hoped for, but at least she was intact and in good shape for Sunday’s endurance race. We cleaned the car up, took the wheels off to spanner-check all the major components and found everything in order. Off for a beer and a look at the day’s race footage.
Sunday dawned a much prettier day, with no threat of rain. “Moving up a league” felt quite real when applying the Club Enduro sponsor and championship stickers, and refuelling the car for qualifying with the “dry break” dump churns we’d use to take fuel during the race.
Qualifying was a busy affair, with no fewer than fifty cars on Snetterton’s three miles of tarmac. We eventually found some space and scored a half-decent laptime to put ourselves once again 7th of 17 Class C entries, and 37th overall. This didn’t really worry me, two hours is a long time and grid position isn’t everything – going the distance was what concerned me. The car had never been driven at racing speeds for more than 45 minutes at a stretch, and what happened after that was a complete leap into the unknown. With the tank brimmed all the way up the filler neck and everything we could think of double- and triple-checked, it was time to go.
This was my twelfth race, I’m not really new at this any more. I’d never touched another competitor in any of them, never had to make an unplanned pitstop, and I was strapped into easily the most dependable car I’ve ever owned. But a rolling start in a field of fifty, from MX-5s to fully-fledged GT4 cars driven by professional racers, asking this home-prepped car to do a genuine endurance race? I was nervous. I had no idea what was going to happen out there.
After the usual agonising wait in assembly, the car felt fine through the green flag lap, everything seemed to be warming up well, the field looked in good shape and as I came around Coram towards the pit straight I could see the red lights on the gantry to signal the start was going ahead. Close right up to the car ahead, third gear, get ready.. hear the engine notes rise as the race leaders open the throttles, and go!
You might be entirely unsurprised to hear that when the lights go out, all thoughts of “it’s a long race” fall away. By the end of the first lap I’d put nine more cars in my mirrors, and it felt absolutely awesome! There followed half an hour of feeling out for the limits and settling into a groove, putting in times neatly in the 2:18.6 – 2:20 range, pretty much as in qualifying and fighting up to third in class. A safety car period at the half-hour mark gave a bit of time to cool the car and myself, before resuming into a great battle with the #52 MX-5 of Paul Sheard and Steve Dolman. It was really hard work to break away from this obviously well-set up and nicely driven car, but I finally managed it by the time I came into the pits after an hour and ten minutes.
But this was to be no simple driver change. In this two-hour race we’d cover 144 miles of Snetterton, three-quarters of a Grand Prix distance, and the car’s standard fuel tank wasn’t enough. So we’d need to refuel during the stop. Club Enduro’s rules allow for this, giving a mandatory pit stop for which the car must be stationary for three minutes (compared to 1min in Roadsports), but it’s still tight getting enough fuel into the car in that time. The Tuff Jugs we were using are less than a tenth the cost of the ATL closed-loop system you’d see professional teams and some of our competitors using, but they’re slow, and each 20-litre jug takes about a minute twenty to drain into the tank. Practicing the stop beforehand with Storming Camel Motorsport‘s Nik Grove, who’d selflessly offered to help us during our stop and lend his experience of running an E36 in Club Enduro, the fastest we’d managed was 3min35 including the driver change. In the real pitstop I took a bit of a judgement call and gave less fuel than we’d planned, 30 litres instead of the full 40, and after a pretty seamless stop we got the car out with Adam at the wheel after 3min17.
Rejoining fifth in class, Adam was straight into the thick of battling cars for position, and any thought of a gentle rhythm was lost – afterwards he described it as a sprint race that happened to last nearly an hour! After being strapped in and focused for almost 90 minutes, I finally got to release the tension and reflect on what we’d achieved so far. Thanks to Josh Barrett, that included the opportunity to share my somewhat excited post-stint thoughts on the air!
It felt great standing on the pit wall seeing the car come through lap after lap, with Adam clearly pushing hard and going faster almost every lap. So much was he improving that he set his fastest lap of the race, indeed the quickest he’s ever driven around Snetterton, on the very last lap after almost an hour in the car! I can’t imagine better proof of car and driver being entirely up to the task. It felt quite surreal seeing him take the chequered flag – the car still looked immaculate and clearly wasn’t carrying any issues. She was now a bona fide endurance racer. Unbelievable!
We finished 7th in class and 27th of 50 starters overall – the latter being particularly satisfying, with 12 cars from classes above failing to outperform us or even finish at all. But the position wasn’t really the point, our goal was to try Club Enduro ahead of entering the championship in 2019, and find out whether we and the car were going to be able to do it competitively. The answer was a resounding “Yes!”, and just getting across the line in a car that was still fit to drive home afterwards felt better than some podiums I’ve scored. To have been fighting near the front and feel the car still performing her best after dozens of laps was incredible. I’d been on high alert feeling the brakes, the tyres, the suspension and listening for any telltale whine or knock or rattle that told me we were in trouble and I’d need to back off.. but it never came, she was just as good at the end as in that opening lap. What an achievement. What a car!
Rare anyone can say they were smiling the whole way up the A14…
It’s funny how events line up. Two weeks after my 24hr racing debut came my first sprint races! This car and I had only ever done 45-minute races in 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports series, but now we came to Donington Park for a new experience. Neil McDonald of Automac, one of the very few who’ve been trusted to work on my car, has collaborated with BMW Car Club GB to set up a new series for 2018 – BMW Car Club Racing. The format is two 15-20 minute races at each meeting, with classes catering to everything from fairly standard four-cylinder BMWs up to 400bhp+ M3s. Despite that the class structure doesn’t suit my car – I’d fall in Class 6, but around 45bhp away from the limit! – I wanted to give it a try. The more experience of different kinds of racing I can build up, the better, and with Donington being the scene of my first-ever race it seemed a shame not to have competed there this year.
Happily, I had plenty of familiar elements to make the meeting run smoothly. Much of BMW CCR’s calendar was run at 750 Motor Club meetings, so all of the brilliant club staff and scrutineers were familiar faces, and it also coincided with our 2017 driver James Lewis-Barned’s first outing in his newly purchased Locost. Cue a photo opp for “Team 36” together for the first time in their garage!
Come Sunday morning, qualifying was of special interest to me. This was an entirely new field of cars against which I’d never lined up before, and I was very keen to see where the car and I stacked up. There were a lot of very serious M3-powered machines out there, including in my Invitational class, so silverware wasn’t going to be on the cards this weekend – but there were also plenty more attainable targets to try and beat.
My first time competing on the National circuit brought a nice new experience – rather than being in a paddock or behind the garages, the assembly area is actually on the circuit. You line up on the Grand Prix circuit loop that’s not currently being used, and simply drive around onto the track proper once the series running before you have finished. This gives a nice grid-walk kind of feeling as you unstrap and wander around the cars, rare in club racing!
Unfortunately, qualifying didn’t quite go to plan, with a Cup-class E46 Compact off into the gravel at the Old Hairpin on our first flying lap. Depending where the car ends up, that can often trigger a red flag, but half a lap later I found another Compact stranded at Coppice with his bumper off in the middle of the circuit – that left it in no doubt. After we all got back to the pits and the cars were recovered, we only got three timed laps done before session end, none of which I was happy with. The result surprised me, though. I’d managed to put the car 16th of 25 overall, and was the second-fastest of the ten not powered by Motorsport engines. Maybe we were on for some good racing today after all! Here’s some footage, including the incidents:
Please note – right-hand corner, steering wheel pointing a little left of centre after turn-in. This is how we like our race cars!
Race One got underway at 12:10. The green-flag lap was a bit of an eye-opener! I’m used to longer races and a relatively relaxed drive to the grid, but everyone was weaving and brake-heating and rolling-starting like it was BTCC! For a 15-minute sprint, having your car at temperature and the tyres fully switched on would be a much more significant advantage. The start was a bit hectic, but by the end of the first lap my challenge was clear. A black E36 coupé, which turned out to be driven by Charlie Dark in his racing debut, was running very close to my laptimes. The car clearly had a lot more straight-line performance, but over a lap I was able to stick with him by carrying more corner speed, making for an interesting battle. I had to keep the pace up and stay as close behind as I could, as “driving in one’s mirrors” – watching the car behind you, rather than focusing on your own driving – is a surefire way to make mistakes and lose time! We were set for a good battle to the finish, but sadly a clutch problem meant Charlie had to retire the car, and I drove on to 13th overall.
You may recall us running out of front brake pad at Cadwell the last time this car was raced. Possibly a legacy of that issue, the pedal still seemed disconcertingly long and lacking in feel, so I used the gap between races to bleed the brakes again to try and improve it. We’re not called McKee Motorsport just because of me, as my wife Emily got on the tools while I played at being a gentleman driver!
With that done, lunch eaten, some setup changes made to James’s Locost and a few other races watched – nice long break between our events, this! – the time for Round Two finally came. This would be an interesting race.. The earlier results had shown that my car was too fast for the Cup-class E46 Compacts to compete, yet much too slow to stick with the M3s. Charlie’s 328i was the one to beat, and his retirement from the first race meant he was starting several cars down the grid, needing to fight his way past the Cup cars before he could deal with me. There were certainly plenty of cars ahead to aim for!
Uncharacteristically, I managed a great launch from the grid for the second time that day, again nearly hitting the back of the M3 in front before his power advantage started to tell. After a busy first two laps with many cars starting out of their natural positions, I found some clean air and could set about building up as big a lead as possible. I knew Charlie’s car was faster, and knew he would likely catch me – I had to prolong the inevitable for as long as I could! There followed a really satisfying drive. I clocked in eleven consecutive racing laps with all the times falling between 1:23.73, the fastest this car has ever been around Donington, and 1:24.55. I don’t have a lap timer in the car but could feel as I drove that I’d settled into a really great groove and was getting the job done.
It still wasn’t enough, though, not when 260bhp plays against 220 – on the last lap, Charlie was looming larger in my mirrors. I’d tried to manage the gap, but now he was coming whether I liked it or not, and by the back straight an attempt to get by was coming – spotted by Sy Skerton marshalling two corners back, so obvious was the intent! Coming into the final corners of the final lap, I tried to close the door on the inside, but Charlie successfully sold me a dummy by moving across in my mirrors, and – who’s the novice here?! – I took the bait and ended up leaving him space. There was nothing else for it but to make sure I held the position on the brakes. I left just a car’s width on the inside, pushed as far as I dared and then a tiny bit more before finally hitting the anchors. It worked – Charlie was overcommitted, locked up and shot straight past the apex just in time to let me turn in. That was a major relief!
Here are the highlights of both races, including a view you may not have seen before..!
Straight after that I passed the chequered flag flashing my lights with a fist held aloft, quite elated at achieving the goal I’d set for myself, despite it coming right down to the wire. What a great day’s racing! But what I didn’t realise until afterwards was that Neil had decided the Invitational class should be split into two categories, one for M-engined cars and one for standard engines… which made that battle of wits in the final corner the deciding move in a totally unexpected class win.
I’ve never been quite so surprised to receive a trophy – I’d come into this meeting for a bit of fun with no expectations, so I was absolutely made up to have scored a result. And to Charlie’s huge credit, after we finished he drove up the paddock to follow me to my garage and shake hands after a good contest, all smiles and no hard feelings at all. I do like this whole club racing thing…
What next? Snetterfest. Back into the fold of our usual 750MC series, Adam and I will be racing in Roadsports at Snetterton on Saturday 6th October.. But then we’ll also be entering our first Club Enduro race on Sunday 7th, a two-hour challenge of car and drivers to finish our season. I can’t wait to see how that turns out. See you there?
One of the wonderful things about motorsport is that the community is very open, very inclusive and very willing to share. Nowhere is this more true than when a friend offers you a drive in another car, which is exactly what’s happened to me – but no ordinary racing car.
I’m delighted to announce that, come August, I’ll be entering the annual Classic 2CV Racing Club 24hr Race with Team Stinky*, running the car you see here. The car has been owned and raced by Christine Savage for the last 21 years, and has won the 24hr in the past. My entry into the team came via her brother Neil, who you may recall being my nemesis through my years competing in sprints in my E36. It’s always a great compliment to be trusted with someone else’s racing car, but in such a long race where consistent pace is so important, that’s even more true. Between Christine, Neil and Graeme Smith, I’ll be sharing the car with three very experienced 2CV racers so expectations are high – and I can’t actually remember the last time I drove a front-wheel-drive car on a circuit! *the car smells just fine, but was christened Stinky almost immediately on account of its number plate – and yes, it is still road legal and has been driven to races in the past, so it qualifies the McKee Motorsport principles!
One of the first things you notice about the 2CV is how bizarrely well-suited to racing it is. It’s simple and lightweight, its panels are thin and easily battered back into shape, and any of them can be removed in a matter of seconds. The engine, a 602cc flat twin, can be comfortably lifted by one person and it’s already geared quite optimally for circuit use. Naturally there are a whole host of modifications, most of which are covered on the 2CV Racing Club’s website here, but its layout is still very true to the original – it’s no silhouette racer.
The air-cooled engine is fed by a control carburettor, revs to 7000rpm and produces around 45bhp, enough to propel the 650kg car to a top speed of 80mph in clean air – somewhat more if you’re tucked in the draft of competitor! Most teams carry several engines, and in case of a failure an experienced team can replace it in under ten minutes. The 24hr has been won by teams who had to do an engine change mid-race!
The tyres are control Toyo road tyres, in 135-section. These are perhaps my favourite feature. Despite that the car can corner and brake at 1g on these tyres, they quite literally last all day – it’s possible to do an entire 24hr on one set. If it’s dry all race and you drive it hard, you might need to change the front left. Once. For someone who’s used to tyres being the biggest worry and largest budget-eater, this is a wonderful new world!
Equally wonderful is the fuel consumption through this little Weber. Teams are limited to only adding 20L of fuel per pitstop, but despite Snetterton circuit being over 95% flat-out in this car, that’s good for two hours – even longer if it’s wet, or you have a good draft from other cars. The fuel warning light in our car comes on when there’s six litres left, and then it’s the driver’s call whether to come into the pits. If you’re in a good groove and putting in quick times, you could stay out for another fifteen laps and still have a litre in reserve.
With a lot of preparation and testing to do on the car, and with me very keen to find out what it’s like, we’ve already done a track day at Snetterton. I had no real idea what to expect, even having watched videos of the car being raced in the past, but I was in for a real treat. It’s brilliant fun. It’s amazing how little an issue the lack of power actually feels – you’re still doing all the normal tasks of planning ahead, spotting your markers, getting the downshifts perfect, balancing the car, using all the space available and conserving as much momentum as possible. If anything, having a short break on the straights once you’re in fourth gear is quite pleasant and gives you time to analyse your last few corners and take lessons into the next. That’s a luxury we won’t often have during the race, with drafting and traffic management being absolutely key, the straights will be just as busy as the corners!
I was really pleased with how the car handles, thanks to decades of development work that’s gone into it, and it inspires quite a lot of confidence. You can commit to many corners flat out, and drive the car right to and beyond the limit knowing that it’s low-inertia and very responsive, so any slip can be quickly managed. It seems to really enjoy being thrown at lower-speed corners, and getting the perfect line through faster ones to minimise tyre scrub is very satisfying.
Here’s how it looks from onboard:
Stay tuned for more updates as the race approaches!
Where even to begin, writing about an event like the 2CV 24hr race? You may already know how I ended up here, though if not, take a look at the background – which also has some more information on the car and some testing footage. The story now resumes on Thursday 16th August, arriving at the circuit to see the car already in its garage, buried in the midst of a paddock that looked entirely more serious than any other club race I’d been to! Everyone seems to have motorhomes, caravans, huge awnings and gazebos, entire kitchens built opposite the garages and almost all the cars were already here. Our neighbours Jelly Snake Racing were already filling the atmosphere with the smell of scorched metal as they took the grinder to the rear of their car at 10pm. The mood was well and truly set.
After a couple of hours getting the garage sorted out and the car mostly ready for the test day that would start on Friday morning, we took advantage of the darkness to set up the headlamp aim in preparation for night qualifying. I got my first taste of the surreal feelings a 24hr race can give you.. Standing in a pitch-black pitlane, a place typically filled with noise and light and people, and drinking in the absolute emptiness of it all.. four hours after everyone would normally have packed up and gone home. Quite a special feeling, and it brought real excitement for the meeting to come. And a real awareness of just how bloody dark it was going to be out there!
Friday was a normal test day, as typically precedes any club racing meeting.. Though despite having been to nine races of my own in the past, I’d never actually run on a test day before! Very different to a track day, this runs essentially like a series of qualifying sessions, with driving held to motorsport standards and groups of comparable cars let out for 30-minute sessions over the day. With no briefing to sit through, live timing permitted and the ability to run side by side with other cars, it was a useful initiation for me, having never driven the 2CV in close combat before.
There was still much work to be done, though – we had three engines with us, one of which we were reasonably happy with, and two that needed setup work on the day. So as well as adapting to the car and circuit, and seeing if our times were in the right ballpark, it was also a day of carb jetting, brake bedding and fault finding, with a customary lunchtime engine change. By 5pm we’d finished our last session and had a couple of hours to grab some food and make final adjustments before day qualifying started at 7pm.
This is when the event started to feel real. I’d already wandered up and down the pitlane and taken stock of the competition – 24 UK 2CVs to the same specification as our car, plus six 1275cc Minis and three Belgian Dyane/2CV hybrid cars running alongside us as guests. The latter are a world away from the near-standard 602cc UK cars, and run 850cc BMW bike engines with full aero packages and sequential gearboxes. They ran Snetterton 200 in around 1:36, with the fastest UK club car lap over the weekend being a 1:51! The Minis were also considerably faster over a lap, so like all good endurance racing, the multi-class element was present and correct. But now, testing was finished and all these cars were lined up the pitlane for the first competitive session of the weekend.. after months of planning and anticipation, it was all about to start.
We elected to run our drivers in the same order we planned for the race, as good practice both for us and for the pit crews adjusting our belts and strapping us in – so Graeme Smith would start, car owner Christine Savage next with me to follow before handing over to Christine’s brother Neil. We’d each run five flying laps, but sending Neil out last meant we could leave him out to the flag after we’d all done our laps – advantageous, since he’s the quickest driver and you can only achieve a really good lap in a 2CV if you have an aero tow from another car, which can take a while to find.
Graeme and Christine both ran good pace for their sessions, and I went out keen to put in a strong performance – but found myself marooned, with no other cars anywhere near me! With contending for the car’s fastest lap out of the question, I could concentrate on attacking the circuit as cleanly and consistently as possible. The lap timer made me smile each time I crossed the line, clocking 1:56.32, 1:56.27, 1:56.43, 1:56.71 and finally making a small mistake for a 1:57.13. The rhythm was very reassuring for putting in a smooth race stint the next day, and I got out quite happy.. Until Neil immediately got under my lap times in clean air, that is! Turning in 18 laps with an astonishing average pace of a low 55, he finally found the perfect tow – behind the slower of the Minis – and turned in a 1:53.92 with 15 minutes of the session remaining. The fastest the car had run for the whole of 2018, it was still only enough to put us 11th in class and 20th overall on the grid of 33 cars. Clearly, the pace of the frontrunning cars – UK pole being a 1:51.21 – was on another plane and we’d need to push hard to stay competitive.
I was pretty comfortable driving the car in daylight, but night qualifying was next and I had never driven a circuit in the dark before. To give me maximum exposure, we swapped the driver order to put me last after Neil. Everyone else would only do the minimum required three laps to let me run as long as possible – at least, that was the plan until Neil picked up a great tow and carried it for two extra laps to clock a 1:54.95, putting us a brilliant 6th in class for night quali! Watching this was plenty exciting, but it left me more than enough time standing on the pitwall in my helmet and suit, stewing about how dark it was out there and how much was riding on me not screwing up and bending the car.. Apparently this is the face you pull in such situations.
Before I knew it, Neil was in, I’d been strapped in and waved out of the box. You don’t really think, you just put your foot down and drive up the pit lane, with the pit exit into first corner being all flat out up to fourth gear in a 2CV. I did this on routine, figuring the circuit should be where I left it and trying to ignore the nerves – but the moment I turned in and saw the apex kerbs lit up in the headlamps, I felt absolutely euphoric. The car was just doing what it always did, but your visual cues are so limited, everything appears ahead of you just when you need it.. Sometimes slightly after! The darkness forces you to focus on the next job and nothing else. There’s the bollard on the second apex.. there’s the white line on the outside, just picked out at the edge of the headlamps, aim for that on exit.. I can see the brake markers up ahead, I’m pulling roughly the correct revs in 4th.. hit the anchors, drop two gears and turn into Montreal. Look right over through the corner, can’t see the inside kerb yet, just blackness.. it should be there, commit and keep turning.. there it is! Power over it, around Turn 3 and onto the straight.. this is awesome!
I managed to clock consistent laptimes that were on the same pace as the daylight run, so I came in happy at the end of the session at 10pm. We all felt the car was pretty much where it needed to be mechanically, so after a Strategy Group Meeting – drivers huddled around the car to debrief – and a swift beer, it was off to bed to sleep for as long as possible.
Even now, having done it all, it seems surreal looking at the photo of the car sitting there waiting to race for a full day and night..
Race morning dawned late for me, aiming to get to the circuit just in time for the briefing at noon, and to do final prep before the 20-minute warmup session at 13:20. That would be the only running available before the race start at 5pm, so we elected to trial a couple of final carb jet tweaks. I drove, feeling the mounting anticipation, but the car felt good so we settled into final tidying and prep.
Just before the pitlane opened at 16:30, all the cars and teams were brought out of their garages for photographs and an open pit walk for the spectators and supporters. Quite a special moment – yes, they’re only simple little cars and nobody was going to be setting a circuit record that day, but these crews had spent a year preparing to try and do over seven hundred laps of Snetterton, stopping for nothing but fuel and driver changes. An enormous undertaking.
With the fuel tank brimmed right to the top of the filler, Graeme cruised around to the grid before the field were waved away for their green flag lap and the rolling start. Right on cue at 17:00, the lead Belgian cars powered down the pit straight for the first time to start the 2CV 24hr race.
Graeme got on it straight away and kept with a reasonably-sized pack of cars, after a bit of battling for position settling into some good tows and clocking consistently quick laps. Aside from a brief safety car period at Lap 15, the race got off to a smooth start with little incident. We settled into tracking Graeme’s progress from the pit wall, in lap times and gaps to the cars around him, before showing him the FUEL ? board at 7pm, after two hours racing. That tells the driver that the refuelling crew is ready for them, and it’s now their discretion when to come in – as only they know how much fuel they have on board, how the car feels and whether they think it’s worth staying out to take advantage of good track position.
But almost immediately, a problem – Graeme lost two seconds’ pace the lap we showed him the board, and then four seconds’ more the next lap, where he passed us waving his right arm to indicate he was coming into the pits. He arrived in the pit box reporting the engine losing power and unwilling to rev out, and the moment we opened the bonnet the reason became obvious – almost all the oil was spread across the front subframe and crankcase, rather than in the engine. “No decision – we’ve gotta change it”.
Of all the starts we envisaged, this was the very worst! But no time to worry or resent the fact, we are racing, so we pushed the car back into the garage and began methodically stripping the front end off and getting the condemned engine removed. Foresight of many 24hr races had led us to lay out kits of the tools needed on both sides of the garage, so everything we needed was largely to hand, but not remotely helped by being coated in oil! Thirteen minutes after being pushed into the garage, the car fired with its second engine installed. We wheeled it out, refuelled it, and strapped Christine in for her one and only stint. Handshakes all round as she drove up the pit lane, and much further relief when she came past with a thumbs-up out of the window after her first lap!
An engine change was something we expected at some point in the race, it’s not uncommon, but to need one straight away was worrying. At least the car seemed OK, with Christine putting in 62 consistent laps into nightfall before diving into the pits the moment we showed the FUEL ? board. I was on the pit wall, suited up and helmet on ready to get in the car, and partly grateful at not having to wait for lap after lap to get going, but it seemed a short stint at only 2hr08. The moment Christine pulled up, she reported the engine running much too lean – the lambda gauge telling her that the fuel/air mixture was too little fuel and too much air, giving us a risk of overheating and damaging the engine. While fuel was poured into the tank at one end, new carb jets were screwed in at the front, before I could leap into the car and get strapped in. After a few moments’ pause, I was waved up the pitlane to join my first endurance race, my first night race, my first 24hr, my first racing laps in this car…
And man, was it incredible. I was determined to get it nailed right from the off, and put in a 1:56.88 on my first flying lap – with a different engine and now in full dark, that was only half a second off my day qualifying pace, and put a huge smile in my helmet. Adapting to the race traffic at night was easier than I expected, with the noise and the changing light making it quite obvious where cars were around me, but what took more acclimatisation was just how close you can race these things. Being side by side, close enough to tweak a rival’s door mirror, for an entire corner is not at all unusual. Nor is going three-wide into a corner which only has one sensible line! After all the preparation and apprehension, and the early dramas with the engine, getting out there and really racing this car hard felt absolutely amazing. How does it really look? A bit like this.
A full highlights video will come eventually, but this – the first four minutes of the first clip I happened to pull off my GoPro – hopefully gives you some idea. It is unspeakably brilliant. I could wax lyrical for hours on every aspect of night racing, but I’d bore you all in the end, so suffice to say that I punched in 78 laps over 2hr38min, and only came in the pits – still with a healthy amount of fuel on board – because the team signalled me in, thinking I was about to run out! I could cheerfully have run right to the 3hr driving time limit, so fantastic a time was I having.
I jumped out of the car thinking it was still running a little lean, so while Neil was being strapped in, I grabbed the carb jet box and made a change I’d decided on a few laps before – fresh out of the car and still in full race kit, I was surprised with myself getting it done in good time before sending Neil off into the night at thirteen minutes past midnight. The camaraderie of 2CV racing shone through a little when a driver from another team congratulated me on some “top spannering” getting the jetting change done in the dark without a torch to hand – a little boost on top of the massive high I was already on from one of the drives of my life!
Ideally, you’d be asleep or at least resting the moment you get out of the car, such is the need to conserve energy. But funnily enough, when you’ve just been dicing wheel-to-wheel with the leader of the race for an hour straight, sleep isn’t first on your mind, midnight or no! So I did a stint on the pit wall seeing how Neil was getting on – bloody quickly, naturally, but happily for me only around three quarters of a second faster than I’d been going in clean air. A good showing for a 2CV novice, and more than close enough for me to pretend to him that it was down to the improved jetting I gave him..! I then popped up to Race Control to say hello, and finally up to the commentary box, where I found 750 Motor Club regular Josh Barrett, who was kind enough to give me a microphone. I’m quite sure I talked absolute nonsense for the quarter-hour he had me, but I appreciated the conversation and the opportunity to share my very fresh thoughts on how utterly brilliant this whole endurance racing malarkey is.
Finally, my head went down in the tent at around 1am, with Neil barely a third of the way into his stint. He would go on to set the sixth fastest lap of the race, a 1:53.07 – yes, nine tenths faster than we qualified, and yes in the black of night. We’d climbed back to 7th in class despite our engine change. Maybe we could get a result out of this?
I woke a little earlier than planned at 3am. A text from Christine. “Graeme is in the car.. has been since 2:20 but had to be towed back in for a disconnected gear linkage. We’re in 15th”. The heart sinks – all the further when a moment later, the phone rings with Neil: “We’re in the garage, gearbox change – better get ready, Graeme’s getting near his driving time limit”.
A gearbox?! That’s half an hour, and we’re already down in 15th. But the effort put in by the crew, who had already been up for at least 18 hours at this point, was nothing short of stellar and Graeme was back out on the circuit by half three and got 25 more laps done to round out his stint. At half past four, I was out on the circuit and ready to drive on into the dawn.
I’d been a bit worried about this stint, aware I’d be far more tired and prone to errors, but in fact the muscle memory from the earlier night driving was present and correct and I was able to get onto a consistent pace fairly quickly. I was just starting to appreciate the brightening eastern sky, and the ability to see things that were just outside the range of my headlamps, when after 26 laps I saw something far less welcome. Smoke. Oil smoke on the left side, just as I was driving past the pits.. Argh! I gestured wildly to let the team know I’d be coming in, and started short-shifting to nurse the car back. A little dejected by yet another failure, we pushed back into the garage and the crew set about changing to the third engine carefully, making sure everything was exactly as it should be. A fairly shattering process for all involved, by this stage of the race.
At ten to six, I was pushed out into the dawn light with engine number three turning and burning, and powered up the pit lane to finish my stint. The perils of mid-stint engine swaps became apparent straight away when I struggled to find second gear into Montreal on the outlap – whoops – this clutch bites far lower than the old one, and once I get lost in the intricate 2CV gear selection, it’s hard to find the reference plane again! But with that embarrassing episode out of the way, I settled into the most satisfying drive of the race. I had traffic around me, but was faster than every other UK 2CV I came across, carving past slower cars and tucking onto the back of quicker ones for a few laps’ tow before leapfrogging to the next one. It felt fantastic, and was also the most consistent drive I’ve ever done – of the 32 flying laps in that run, 24 of them were 1:56s. The slowest over that hour was a 1:57.1!
The IN board stopped my fun at ten past seven, 2hr40min after I’d first got in the car, but thanks to the engine change only 65 laps further along. 742 miles completed, ten hours’ racing left to go. After checking Neil had settled in OK, it was back to the tent to get some more rest before being due back out at around 11:30.
That didn’t turn out to plan.
The third engine had started to develop a death rattle just before 9am, towards the end of an awesomely fast stint with Neil doggedly dragging us back up the rankings. The team decided to pull it out to save it for the end of the race, to make sure we could finish, and sent Neil back out with the first engine in. It was no good, 18 hours’ cooling down hadn’t saved it, and after one lap it was back in the garage covered in oil again. That was it, no more quick swaps, we didn’t have another running engine..
There was nothing else for it but to try and produce one running engine out of numbers one and two. Stripping them on the garage floor, Neil and Jon found that both had wrecked their right-hand pistons, with excessive knocking damaging them so badly part that the ring lands were gone, letting the oil through.
So it was that the left-hand piston and barrel from one engine became the right-hand of the other! The joys of working with such a simple engine were not lost on me as I got kitted up while this Frankenstein’s monster of a power unit, rebuilt and sealed up on the garage floor, was bolted back into the car for me to go racing again. Try doing that with any other endurance racer…
And you know what, it felt pretty good. A bit tight.. that’s perhaps to be expected.. I had to nip into the pits again for a carb jet change, but only once, which is pretty good for saying this engine didn’t exist two hours prior! I was able to run only two seconds per lap slower than before, no longer able to keep pace with the fastest cars out there, but well in range of towing and dicing with much of the field. It led to a uniquely 2CV game of chess, with a car that was considerably faster than me in a straight line but that I could still just about hang onto over a lap – the battle was to make sure that I used all the other traffic to the absolute maximum, pulling myself along and nipping past slower cars as quickly as possible, to stay in touch. After losing contact and being stuck behind someone else for a few laps, getting back through and back where I needed to be was a fist-pump moment!
Apart from an electrical failure that cut all power, which fortunately happened in the penultimate corner so I was just able to coast to the pits without needing a towback – the points box was the culprit – all went fairly smoothly. I got out of the car for the last time at just gone 2pm, having notched up a total of 185 laps over 6hr10 of driving time and feeling very happy with my endurance racing debut. What’s more, I felt like that engine could actually go the distance. Off Graeme went to put in another hour, before we’d run Neil to the finish. With that final change made and Neil out to bring the car home, I wandered off for a shower, my driving work done for the day and my kit in the worst shape it had ever been, after 26 hours’ wear! Sleep deprivation might be starting to tell, too.. in drivers and crew!
Imagine my dismay to get back at 3:40 to find the car in the pit box, in a cloud of its own smoke. Can we not catch a break?! Engine number four, as I’ll call it since it certainly didn’t arrive with us like that, had brilliantly done three hours before finally expiring in a similar failure mode of huge oil blowby. We parked the car with an hour and a quarter to go, fitted the saved number three engine, and waited for the last few minutes.
A quirk of 24-hour racing is that in order to be classified, you must finish the race – which means the car needs to be on the circuit to take the chequered flag. In 2CVs (unlike Le Mans), you’re also classified if you’ve done 80% of the race winner’s distance, but you can imagine with 6hr40min unscheduled pitstop time this wasn’t the case for us – we had to get over the line. So it was that Neil lined up at the end of the pit lane at 16:57 to get out and do one final lap.
A party atmosphere was already in evidence, with the pit wall crammed with teams waiting to applaud the cars as they came through. The chequered flag came out at 5pm, twenty-four hours of racing complete, and the lead Belgian car came through to take it after 788 laps – 1,576 miles of Snetterton in a day and a night. The winning UK 2CV had racked up 708 laps. Team Stinky crossed the line with 491 laps to its name, making a godawful rattle, but taking the flag to complete the 2CV 24hr race!
Getting back to the pits, on the other hand…
The engine we’d saved had been pulled out of the car not a moment too soon, and expired halfway round Coram on the cooldown lap. Fortunately, the spirit of helping others get the job done is alive and well in 2CV racing, and we were pushed back to the pits and up to parc fermé by our neighbours Jelly Snake Racing. An adjacent team manager summed up the situation when the last car had rattled through: “Right. Let’s get the beer open.”
A disaster it may have been in competitive terms, certainly the worst race Team Stinky had ever known, but we’d got the car across the line and I had had the experience of a lifetime. I’ll never forget that first lap in the dark, and the thrill of night racing – yes, I know I mentioned it – is unbeatable. But more than that, 24-hour racing demands something totally different to sprints or even shorter enduros. While you are racing everyone out on the circuit, that’s not really the job. You’re trying to beat the event. Your job is to get as many laps done as quickly as you can, but you can only do it with smoothness, consistency, mechanical sympathy, and a brilliant team behind you to keep the car out there and pick up the mantle when you’re done. And that means everyone from the drivers, the mechanics, the cooks, the fire marshals, the fuel-fetchers, the poor souls on the pit wall with the stopwatch day and night.. It’s a team sport, and getting through it together is fantastic.
Yes, Emerald went the distance! As always.
Thank you, Team Stinky. Absurd the name might seem, but great the achievements are. Christine, Neil, Linda, Graeme, Kevin, Jon, Chris, Jesus, Karen, Sarah, and as always Mum & Emily – and all the rest of the paddock who kept us fed, advised, pushed home. Unforgettable. Same time next year?!
This and much of the other great work in here is credited to Joshua Barrett Photography
Cadwell Park is a magical place. I don’t like how far away it is, I don’t like the A46 and I definitely don’t like not having pit garages – but all of the hassle and grumbles fall away the moment you do even one lap around this circuit. It’s just incredible – the best in the country. Tell me I’m wrong. After a year away I almost forget how good it is, and then I get out of the car absolutely beaming after the first session.
That first session on our track day on 9th July, by the way, saw me post a laptime (checked afterwards from the onboard video) of 1:45.6, 1.7 seconds faster than the best we could do at last year’s race meeting. A strong start that only got better through the day, as we eventually got down to a 1:44.6 by mid-afternoon. The car and circuit both felt fantastic, and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves! We also managed to confirm that the dual fuel pump setup was working perfectly, and we could run down almost to the fuel warning light before we got any hesitation. Since Cadwell has a very long right-hander that’s flat out in fourth, absolute worst-case for starvation, that’s a great result. We finally put our latest weapon, Nankang’s AR-1 tyre, on the car for the last few sessions. The result? Another 1.7 seconds carved out, and a final lap time of 1:42.88. Compared to last year’s timesheet, that was nothing short of remarkable, and I was over the moon with the performance. Here’s that lap:
With that under our belts, I didn’t touch the car at all before the race meeting, being totally happy with how it felt. Less happy was the drive to the circuit, in 32°C ambient and unspeakable cabin temperatures. The car was absolutely fine, even stuck in traffic around Newark, and the SPAL electric fan did the job perfectly – the driver coped less well! It was worrying for race day, as dehydration and heat exhaustion can be real problems even in a relatively short stint, but our worries were short-lived and the weather broke spectacularly the night before the race.
Result: totally green circuit with all its rubber washed away for qualifying. It really showed in the laptimes, with a 1:45.02 being all I could squeeze out of the car on a circuit that felt like it had been greased since I last drove it – 2.2 seconds slower than in testing. That was still good enough for second in class and 9th overall, though, which was very satisfying and set us up well for the race. A long wait until the 15:40 race start gave plenty of time to watch other races and generally lounge around and enjoy playing at being racing drivers..
Come the race, I was to start. I had a clear plan in mind. Class pole was Dan Rogers in his MX-5 (which you might remember from a long battle at Brands Hatch), but there were four Class A and B cars between us on the grid. I needed to jump these guys somehow, and get behind Dan so I could hang onto him. Fail to get that done early and he could he get away, so going maximum-attack straight away was the only option.
Astonishingly enough, after a frantic pullaway from the grid with some cars slow, some off the edge of the track and Dan performing what he described as “the worst start in the world”, I found myself alongside him into the first corner! Try as I might I couldn’t get the pass done around the outside through Charlies corner, and I tucked in behind. There followed the best racing stint I have ever driven. Between battling Dan, holding off Class B cars and then, after losing ground in a pretty scary error in the penultimate corner that almost had me in the wall (7:05 in the video), trying to re-pass them, it was non-stop action. Raving about it in print won’t do it justice, so here it is…
I had a non-stop run of battling other drivers, driving at qualifying pace (and faster, now the circuit had rubbered in!) lap after lap to keep in touch with Class B guys ahead, with lairiness and incidents aplenty to watch from cars around me. It was equal parts punishing in terms of how hard I had to drive and how near the edge I had to push, and incredibly enjoyable for being rewarded by close, clean racing. It’s exactly what we put in all this work for, and it felt absolutely fantastic.
After 15 minutes, other cars were out of the way and I was hot on Dan’s heels again. He bravely ran away, pitting as soon as the window opened! Deprived of the opportunity to overtake him but promoted to the class lead with a relatively clear track ahead, I pushed as hard as I dared to try and build a gap. What’s not obvious from the video is I was also trying to shake off the very quick Mini Cooper S of Andrew Stacey and James Cameron, which was filling my mirrors and occasionally my side window!
I came into the pits to hand over to Adam with 26 minutes gone, having maximised the clean air ahead of me. We got the car out in the class lead after a perfectly timed pitstop with 60.6 seconds spent stationary (minimum requirement 1 minute), and Adam set to work bringing the car home.
There was no small task ahead of him, though. A few minutes’ clear lapping was all he got before Dan’s second-placed MX-5 loomed in his mirrors, and a daring move up the inside into Hall Bends got him through, with Adam fighting to keep the car on the circuit!
His wrestling the car wasn’t done, though. With eight minutes to go, rain started to fall in the pits, and unbeknownst to me on the pit wall it was much heavier around the back of the circuit and starting to make things slippery. We were also about to be struck by one of every racer’s biggest fears – we ran out of brakes. The first Adam knew was trying to pass Esther Quaintmere’s Nova up the inside into the Mountain complex, failing to get the car stopped and sailing incongruously straight onto the grass (41:40 in the video). A bemused Esther got herself around the corner just fine, and drove past to unlap herself! It became clear over the next two laps that this wasn’t Adam’s error, but the front right brake pads wearing out completely, leading to a particularly scary moment trying to stop the car from 110mph down to 60 or so to turn into Park corner. With only a lap to go, he was able to nurse the car home without further incident.
The result? Third in class, and ninth of 28 starters overall! We were extremely happy to not only have beaten ten cars in our class, but also fought at the front and with cars above our class throughout the race. Our first silverware in 2018 felt very sweet indeed, especially after so much work before and during the race to make it happen.
Next up? Replace what my brake pad supplier tells me was a very old-spec compound sent in error, tidy up the car after a slight altercation with a bollard at three-figure speeds into Coppice corner, and then try my hand at sprint racing. I’ll be competing in the newly formed BMW CCR championship at Donington Park on 1st September. Can’t wait! For now, congratulations to Adam on your first-ever race podium, and to #36 for proving she can make it in Class C. Emerald approves.
Ah, Rockingham. You wouldn’t expect an infield circuit pegged inside what’s primarily an oval course to be much good, but actually, I really enjoy the challenge this track offers and the car has always felt happy – and fast! – around here. It has a bit of everything, from awkward off-camber entries to a low-speed, high-grip chicane, and one of your few opportunities to commit to a turn flat-out in fifth gear.
As always, despite both being quite familiar with the circuit, we did a track day before the race meeting to make sure we were happy with the car and get our eye in. This was also the debut of McKee Motorsport Budget Solution #17, an alternative to the thousands you can spend on pit-to-car comms from Autotel. Very straightforward – a pair of standard Cobra two-way radios that might normally be used by hikers, and a pair of headsets aimed at motorcycle use. These came with surprisingly high-quality earpieces and microphone, with a remote push-to-talk button. Once each helmet was equipped, we could connect to the car by plugging in just one cable to access the radio and the PTT button.
Amazingly enough, for a total outlay of £55, it works brilliantly and we could communicate around roughly two-thirds of the Rockingham circuit! This not only makes conversation and planning during testing far easier, it also means there’s no need to try and get lengthy or complicated messages onto a pit board. Very pleased, and all the more so upon finding that the extra fuel pump meant we could run the car halfway into the red zone of the gauge before getting any starvation.
With a successful test day in the bag, two days later qualifying was upon us. Finally, a chance to find out how the newly upgraded car would perform against the clock! Adam went out first and produced a 1:47.32, before handing the car over for me to take a longer run at a quick laptime. Consistency was no problem with five 1:45s rattled off, but I could go no faster, posting a 1:45.02 which had felt pretty good. I was a bit gutted to see P4 on the board as I drove past, but found that the next two cars – Liam Crilly’s RX-8 and the ever-quick Orr/Winchester E36 Compact – were only four tenths away.
Come 2pm, Adam’s first-ever race start was looming. We got him strapped into the car and settled nice and early – nerves can be a real struggle for your first few races, and starting mid-pack at a circuit with a tight first corner is a tough gig. The best thing is to stay methodical and avoid being rushed. After a last chat with girlfriend Natasha, it was time to ride around to the assembly area.
The long wait while the previous race finishes can be nerve-shredding if you don’t have some company – or so I told myself, sitting in the car taking photos after running through the start procedure one last time!
Finally though, it was into Adam’s hands alone as he sat 19th on the grid of 27 cars to take the start. Rockingham offers us a great vantage point on the roof of the pit building, so I could see the clean getaway and, even better, his unscathed progress through the first corner – but only one turn later there was some drama to deal with as the BMW 130i of Colin Gillespie fell victim to a tankslapper and spun across the field.
Adam kept his cool and guided the car around the wreckage in something of a baptism of fire, but it wasn’t long until the safety car was called out to give the marshals time to clear the circuit. He was afforded just a couple more racing laps until another safety car period to clear a Seat bizarrely abandoned at the pit entry. The time window for mandatory pitstops opened with the safety car still out, and the pitlane suddenly became busier than the circuit as everyone dived in to take advantage! Aware that it was strategic suicide, I left Adam out on the circuit as long as possible so he could do some racing. This gave the unlikely, but brilliant outcome that Adam was the outright leader of the race for a lap and a half!
Finally, I called him in at the very end of the pit window, taking over the car with 16 minutes left to run. It’s sometimes nice to have a lap or so of clean air to bed yourself into the car and the circuit, but I was given no such luxury – the moment I left the pits, I had the #101 BMW 328i of Nik Grove and Carlo Turner right on my tail!
Nik, feeling like all his Christmases have come at once
The pressure Nik poured on straight away was phenomenal, and against a car that had qualified 1.7 seconds quicker, my only option was to give it everything right from the start. In this sort of situation it’s important to try and avoid “driving in your mirrors”, reacting only to what the car behind does, but with feints to the inside and attempts to move around me at almost every corner, Nik made it extremely hard not to! It was all I could do to keep hitting my marks, control the car’s inherent oversteer and keep him behind. I did finally relinquish the position to a classic move into Tarzan, and lost the chance to fight back by locking up the brakes during the heavy stop into Deene.
The battle was so intense and enjoyable that it couldn’t really be captured from my car alone. Thankfully, Nik shared his footage with me, so we can show split-screen action from both cars together! Below is our whole race onboard, from Adam’s evasive start through some quick, clean laps and into that battle after the driver change at 29min30.
This meeting really stands out for me because troughout the day, the support we had in the garage was absolutely phenomenal. Adam’s parents made the trip down from the Scottish borders and actually got to see him race this time – unlike the cancelled Donington meeting! – but that’s far from all, with my ever-dependable mum and grandad in attendance, and more friends than we could have hoped for. Sav, Urvi, Calum, Joe, Courtney, Tyrrell, Geoff, Neil and of course Em and Natasha – thank you! It’s amazing to be able to share this with you.
The final tally shows we finished 5th in class, and a respectable 13th of 29 starters overall. Not the result we’d hoped for, but given the conscious decision to give time away under the safety car and an apparent lack of straightline speed, we were happy enough. I put the car on the dyno after the race, and it delivered only 204bhp and 274Nm – a significant drop from the last time it was tested, and meaning we raced at 164bhp/ton in a class that would allow up to 180. Diagnostic work and a proper ECU calibration on the dyno is needed to put that right for next time out, but it underlined the great effort in staying competitive!
Next up, Cadwell Park in late July. We’ll have more power, stickier tyres, and a shot at some silverware…