Races 11 & 12 – The Endurance Debut

Where to even begin with this one?!

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!

Photograph copyright Jon Elsey Photography

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…


Races 9 & 10 – Donington Park

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?


Race Eight – Cadwell Park

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.



Race Seven – Rockingham

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…


Race Six – Brands Hatch

Photograph by @photojcs

We have a special treat to go with this race report – a behind-the-scenes look at the car in the pit garage and during prep to go out for a session, and lots of on-track action during qualifying and the race itself. Alex Baldwin was on hand to film parts of our meeting, with Jon Simes taking still shots. Alex very kindly shared his edit on YouTube, offering an uncharacteristically high-res look at our activities!

Normally I don’t favour motorsport in a heatwave, but after the snowed-off Donington Park meeting, any weather that absolutely guaranteed we’d get the chance to go racing was more than welcome! The first race of the 2018 season became Brands Hatch Indy, and we arrived feeling well-prepared after racking up 140 laps in varying conditions on a track day beforehand.

Scrutineering in the sun on Friday evening passed without a hitch, and Saturday morning saw us unloading and preparing the car in plenty of time for qualifying at 10:40. It’s moments like these that I need to pause and really appreciate the capability of this car. I’ve driven it here to race it, and yet it’s entirely self-supporting – absolutely all the equipment needed to run a race weekend, from tyres and tools to camp chairs and the kettle, travelled to the circuit in the race car. And it’ll all go back in to drive it home, barely an hour after it takes the chequered flag. It’s hard to grasp that level of versatility until you see it laid out in the garage around you!

With 38 cars sharing 1.2 miles of circuit, qualifying was never going to be anything but busy, and the biggest challenge was finding enough space for a clean lap. The car felt good but the circuit was slippery, particularly on the exit of Druids hairpin and the long sweeper of Clearways. After seven or eight laps of diving in and out of traffic, it became apparent I wasn’t going to get space for a clear run, so I came in and handed the car over to Adam to clock up as many laps as possible. I was astonished to find that my time of 57.21s had us provisionally fastest in class, and only Dan Rogers’ MX-5 was able to best it by 0.55s by the end of the session, which was sadly cut seven minutes short by a red flag. Less warmup than we’d hoped, but P2 of 15 Class C cars in our first dry qualifying session – I was over the moon!

The car was weighed after qualifying, and clocked in at 1274kg, heavier than expected. Given that it currently only makes around 213bhp, that’s 167bhp/ton against a class limit of 180 – in other words, we managed to put it second in class despite a 15bhp deficit! Lots of potential to unlock for the next race.

Photograph by @photojcs

With the car running nicely through qualifying, the break until race start at 3:05 was relaxed and left some time to watch other series qualifying and competing. Then we were off to the assembly area, with me to start the car from 14th on a grid of 34.

Having done a few races now, nerves don’t tend to hit me in the assembly area, nor on the green flag lap. But sitting on the grid waiting for the cars behind to form up, looking at who’s around me and really feeling how narrow everything was and how busy it was going to get into Paddock Hill bend, I almost had time to worry before the lights went out! Here’s the video…

After a hectic start with numerous attempts to get around the outside of battling cars – with mixed results! – it was a straight fight between me and Dan Rogers’ MX-5 for the lead of Class C. I seemed to have a bit more performance in a straight line, but his superior tyres gave him cornering speed I couldn’t match.

We traded yards for lap after lap as I gave chase, making a few attempts in the process, but I finally overheated my rear left tyre and had a big slide on the way out of Clearways. That gave Dan the opportunity to break away, and once no longer having to watch his mirrors so closely he pulled a small gap.

At 17 minutes, the safety car came out, so I dived straight into the pits to try and take advantage of the slower pace on circuit. Our pitstop ran smoothly, with Adam strapped in and on his way 62 seconds after I stopped the car – about right, it’s not worth picking up a penalty by accidentally clocking 59.99! – but then every strategist’s worst nightmare struck. Adam made it to the end of the pit lane before the safety car came back around, exactly as planned, but rather than being allowed to rejoin in our rightful place behind the four cars that were following it, we were inexplicably held for 40 more seconds through a huge gap of empty circuit, until a train of another 13 cars passed, all gaining a position over us.

A few laps of hard driving followed as Adam fought to make up the time we’d lost, showing some brilliant technique in heavy traffic on his race debut, not least a spectacular offense on the #48 MR2 of Mike Nash entering Druids.

But with twelve minutes still to go, another disaster – fuel starvation. Even with over half a tank still on board, the combination of a failing fuel pump and Brands Hatch’s challenging left-handers and huge gradients meant Adam was left quite literally powerless on the exits of Paddock Hill and Druids. Running in higher gears helped, but time was lost hand over fist, with nothing to be done but nurse the car to the end with the fuel pump screaming in protest. I find the last part of the footage hard to watch, I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have felt – it will not happen again.

Photograph by @photojcs

As the chequered flag came out, we crossed the line 16th of 34 starters, and 6th of 15 in Class C. Mixed emotions for us both – we’d shown we had the pace to fight right at the front, and Adam had brought the car home to a good finish after a really challenging debut, but we both knew there was so much more left out there. More careful strategy and some work on the car before Rockingham on 9th June will put us right back at the sharp end next time out!

Thanks again to Alex and Jon for coming along and giving generously of your great work – we hope to see much more of you over the season!


“Race Six” – Donington Park

Not a moment too soon, the car is ready and our story comes up to date. A few finishing touches were still being made on Friday morning before I headed to the circuit for the first race of the season. It felt great being back in the paddock, and even before that driving the car to a race meeting has a nice sense of purpose to it. It seems to be attracting more attention with its aerodynamic appendages, too – I’m sure more kids point at it than before! I got signed on for the meeting and went down to scrutineering, getting chatting to a gentleman racing an AC Cobra-looking machine with a 7.0 V8 producing 657bhp. The car weighs 1100kg. Such is the insanity of the wonderful Bernies’ V8s series!

As usual, the car passed scrutineering without a hitch. Even when you’re happy with your preparation and not expecting any problems, it’s always a sigh of relief to find you haven’t overlooked anything! I got myself set up in a garage, and immediately found my shopping list expanding, as I was sharing with Imran Khan’s very serious 328i coupé. Running at the front in Class B, Imran was all too happy to show me how you get one of these cars down to 1090kg with half a tank of fuel on board, and making 260bhp to boot. Nothing like realising how much work you have left to do than being presented with the same car, but 130kg lighter!

Leaving the circuit for the night, it still felt like beer garden weather, so it was hard to take any sensationalist reports of the notorious “Beast from the East” returning very seriously. But man alive was it cold when I went back in at 7:30, with snow flurries dropping every half hour! Nothing settled on the circuit, so we didn’t worry and I got the car set up for qualifying. By 10am we already had a remarkable support force of friends and family, despite the cold, and were feeling ready to see what we could do on the track. Here’s the qualifying session:

Astonishingly enough, what we could do was place third of the ten cars in Class C. This was a far better showing than I’d expecting, knowing we were making a big leap up to this class and that the car was well down on the power-to-weight limit. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, the car felt great on its Nankang NS-2R tyres. I was very pleased with the 1:55.19 we clocked up, and with Adam’s performance on his very first sight of the Grand Prix loop – we’d only been able to test on the National circuit. We’d sit 22nd of 36 cars overall.

Some race schedules leave you a long gap between qualifying and race, but we had only two and a half hours to wait – barely enough time to worry after we’d gone to the drivers’ briefing, had some lunch and refuelled the car. Perfect. Things started to go a little awry as the next session was delayed and cars held in the assembly area while another snow flurry blew over, though. Rather than send the cars out, an early lunch break was called, through which we could hardly say the weather improved…

But, as snowy as the pitlane and car park looked with nothing moving, the track surface was clear and we were itching to get out and race. We filled the time by making yet more tea and triple-checking everything on the car, the garage full of a dozen expectant supporters.

It wasn’t until Andy Marston and Brett Evans switched their Class A M3 over to full wet tyres at around 2:30 – half an hour after our billed race start – that I felt moved to go and have another look at the track surface. I got on the pit wall just in time to hear commentator Josh Barrett announce that the entire race meeting was being abandoned, Saturday and Sunday, with no prospect of any cars going out again that weekend.

The sense of deflation was profound. All that rush and prep and nerves and buildup, but no chance to go out and race. I felt worst for Adam, who’d got himself properly psyched up for his first-ever race to then have to go through that process all over again for the next meeting – closely followed by his parents, who’d travelled down from the Scottish border! It was a real shame letting down all the family and friends who’d come out to support us. The only thing to do was pack the car up and call the post-race BBQ early – and indoors – and get everyone back home and in the warm.

Thank you to all the friends who came to Donington – your support meant so much to us, it was a real boost having you along, and if you’ll brave it another time your tickets are on us. That means you, Sav, Shiv, Calum, Jack, Adam and Jack!

Next stop, Brands Hatch. It had better not snow in Kent in mid-April…


Into 2018

Present day: Just in time for the first race of 2018 – tomorrow! – our story comes up to date. This afternoon I’ll be driving over to Donington Park to sign on for tomorrow’s meeting, and try to update live as much as I can. But what happened over the winter?

After a couple of months’ well-earned rest, by Christmas time work had already begun on making the car better to drive, more durable and of course faster. We’d be contesting 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports series once again, with Adam now driving alongside me, but this time in Class C. This meant much more than just going from 160 to 180bhp/ton. The competition is much fiercer in Class C, with a lot of very well-prepared and proven race-winning cars from other championships, and budgets are larger. So every area of the car needed to improve if we were to stand up to the test.

This started with a significant amount of undressing! I had three reasons to remove the whole front end of the car. First, I wanted to replace more of the crash-damaged components. Second, there are parts in there  (AC condenser, for one) that we don’t need and are adding needless weight. But third and most important, I wanted to fit an oil cooler and this is the best way to achieve access to do that.

Once we’re in this state of undress, it’s relatively simple to remove the standard M52 engine’s oil filter housing and replace it with the part from an S50, a 3.0 M3 engine. This already has a feed and return to an oil cooler that’s factory fit on M3s, and bolts straight up to my engine block. I could then mount a Mocal 13-row air blast cooler in front of the radiator, hanging from the (new, uncrashed) slam panel on rubber bushes. I used a new slam panel to further straighten things up, and reassembling without the AC condenser, drier, electric fan and the cross-brace to support them all saved me 8.7kg.

Removal of that electric fan that hung on the AC condenser left me with no active cooling at all, since the viscous coupling fan driven by the engine was damaged in the accident and removed. So I added a 12″ SPAL high-power electric fan (1.6kg), mounted directly to the back of the radiator. The car doesn’t need this when out on track, but when in heavy traffic or idling for long periods, it helps manage the temperatures in the rad. I wired it to a simple switch in the cabin so I can turn it on from the driver’s seat when required.

That’s engine cooling taken care of, but what about more power? The 328i is in the fortunate position of having a very simple solution to gain significant power. Due to German tax laws in the 90s, when BMW replaced the 190bhp 2.5-litre 325i with a 2.8-litre 328i, it produced.. 190bhp. Far more mid-range torque, yes, but no more peak power to avoid heavy taxation. This was achieved by restricting the size of the inlet manifold runners. Happily, an unrestricted 325i manifold shares the same bolt pattern to the cylinder head, and requires only some playing about with breather hoses, oil separators and vacuum lines to fit. It helps if you have a James on hand to guide you through the process – thank you once again! The difference is plain when you have the parts side by side:

This lets the engine breathe more freely, unlocking additional power and a much more linear feel as it pulls towards the rev limiter. A typical gain once properly mapped on a rolling road is as much as 25-30bhp. Time didn’t permit getting the car set up ideally for this manifold, but we still pulled a healthy 213bhp on 750MC’s dyno, giving us a target weight of 1183kg to hit the class limit. In the end we got to 1194kg without any fuel, so there’s some work to do over the season to gain some power and/or lose more weight!

Power, as we know, is nothing without control. That’s where these Gaz Gold coilovers come in.

With 750lb/in front springs and 350lb/in rear, they’re not only stiffer than the four-year-old HSD Dualtechs that were fitted until now, but they have vastly superior dampers with a much wider adjustment range. The quality of these parts was impressive, and they felt worth every penny of their £1200 price tag. The reduction in body roll was so stark you could see it from trackside, and after a bit of work getting the car set up right, it felt immeasurably better to drive

Finally, you’ll notice some extra appendages on the car…

As much as it pained me to step away from the “standard road car” aesthetic, performance needs to come first sooner or later, and a race car isn’t complete without some aerodynamic enhancements. Wanting to keep things period and correct, I chose a front splitter and rear wing that are replicas of the parts used on the M3 GT road cars, a “homologation special” for BMW’s touring cars of the time. So not only do they look right on an E36, their function is proven, unlike many aftermarket alternatives.

There’s been a whole host of other little changes and improvements over the winter, culminating in a successful test day at Donington Park last week. We had a little bonus play at Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit as well, courtesy of RMA Trackdays – here’s how the car looked there.

Now, I’m off to get the car finished and ready for tomorrow’s race! Hope to see you there…