The final round of the 750MC Club Enduro Championship took us to Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit. Simply driving the GP layout is a rare privilege, doing a two-hour endurance race on it in my own car the stuff of dreams. It became a reality on October 27th 2019, with friends and family beside me.
This time, we worked harder than ever to capture every aspect of the race weekend on camera. Ride along with us for a full lap of the Grand Prix circuit in testing, hear our thoughts about each session live and direct from the pitlane (including during the race!), and see the highlights from our point of view.
In place of a race report, come with us in the film below.
Buoyed by the success of a comeback race at Donington Park, the following weekend brought our return to the Club Enduro Championship at Oulton Park. This is a beautiful but deeply challenging circuit for both car and driver – not only are few of the corners straightforward, nor are the straights! It’s bumpy, undulating and constantly curving one way or another. There’s no respite, the work rate is relentless over the 2.7 miles of the International circuit, and we’re here to do a two-hour race against 33 other cars.
Oulton hadn’t featured on our calendar until now, and I hadn’t driven it since February 2016! It’s Adam’s local circuit so his track knowledge was fine, but since he hadn’t sat in the car since its accident at Croft three and a half months prior, we both were both in dire need of some testing before we’d be ready to race. We booked onto a full day of the Friday test directly before the race, at the slightly eye-watering cost of £380. But we know how 2019’s fortunes are playing out by now…
Twenty minutes into the day, I made a small and very costly mistake. I dropped the rear-left wheel off the edge of the kerb on the exit of Britten’s chicane, heard a loud bang, and immediately the revs flared and drive to the left wheel was lost with a metallic clattering noise. I could drive the car under very gentle power, as the limited-slip differential worked hard to divert all the torque to the one connected rear wheel. I got it back into the paddock fearing the worst: a differential failure would be the end of our weekend. The car went high up on axle stands so we could see what was happening, and to my immense relief both diff output flanges were turning. The failure was the driveshaft inner CV joint, which seemed to have snapped clean in two. That SKF shaft had been on the car for about four hours’ use, which others now tell me seems to be par for the course. Avoid, despite the strength of that brand..
The relief was short-lived when we found that no local parts shop had a shaft that would fit. Nor did the breakers, the main dealers, anyone in the paddock, nor the motor factor Adam to which drove an hour to find a completely wrong part. The test day dwindled away as the car sat immobile, until Brad Wallbank came to the rescue with a shaft from an E36 being broken for parts. We got it fitted in time to scrutineer the car on Friday afternoon, but not in time for Adam to do any testing at all. We’d be going into qualifying quite blind the next morning.
The day dawned crisp and clear, and I was immensely relieved to see Adam come past the pits in qualifying.. the soundtrack and stopwatch both told me the car was performing well. Our last-ditch driveshaft appeared to be doing its job. I took over halfway through the session to find a car that felt familiar again, but I was treating it more cautiously than ever before: stay off the kerbs, keep some margin, don’t go throwing everything away with the race starting in three hours’ time. Whilst briefly second in class, we finished the session fourth of the ten Class C entrants. We chalked this up as quite a success, considering the débâcle of our test day.
As the race approached we found ourselves in the eerie quiet of an endurance race’s assembly area. Usually bustling with crews and family, the wait to go to the grid is always to the backdrop of dozens of race engines idling away, from the quiet and smooth to the lumpy and aggressive. The air is usually filled with the rich, sweet scent of unburnt fuel as everyone warms their engines.. but not so before Club Enduro. Every drop of fuel burnt here is another drop we need to replace in a pit stop, so not a single engine is running. It brings a totally different feeling of anticipation, and makes the endeavour feel very serious and very real.
Adam started the race, with my nerves jangling on the pit wall to see if he could survive the hectic first few laps and find the car robust at full pace. I needn’t have worried. He excelled himself, fighting almost constantly throughout his entire hour stint. I’ve never seen such a protracted struggle for positions in Club Enduro, with Adam battling the #81 MX-5 of Matthew Tidmarsh, then the championship-leading #79 BMW 330i with Andrew Lightstead at the wheel, and finally Darren Kell’s #68 MX-5. For much of the first hour, all four cars were on top of each other and trading places lap by lap. It made for fantastic viewing!
A safety car at 53 minutes race time gave us the opportunity to save time in our pitstop, so Adam came in from third in class to take on fuel and hand the car over to me. He got out looking harder-worked than I’ve ever seen him but reported no issues with the car, so out I went to try and bring home another podium finish. By the first three corners, all my worries had melted away and I felt completely at home. The circuit was starting to make sense, and the car felt fantastic – sharp, agile and stable lap after lap. I settled into consistent, smooth laps with more than a few Class B cars overtaken in the process.
I don’t wish to write a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened in the race, partly because I could reach 5,000 words, but mostly because the stunning footage captured by Alpha Live Productions and commentated by Ian Sowman and Joshua Barrett does a far better job. I did my best to condense this into the shortest highlights video possible. It’s incredible to think that this is my car, my five years’ work starting from a tired 90s repmobile, captured in such a professional way. I hope you enjoy it!
The end result? A desperate wheel-to-wheel battle with Darren Kell that counted three body contacts, two cars off the circuit, and enough excitement to justify two full laps of uninterrupted coverage from the commentary team! During a safety car period I’d heard telltales of that driveshaft pulled from a scrap car starting to fail, so was doing my best to nurse the car home. With ten minutes to go Darren had other ideas, turning the fight for second in class into the closest, toughest racing I’ve ever had to do.
Finally winning through to stay ahead of Darren’s MX-5 and pull out a bit of a gap, I had a new challenge to face: the inexorable march of the fuel gauge’s needle towards zero. Club Enduro has a mandated pit stop time, every car must be stationary for three minutes to refuel – but the dry break refuelling rigs we must use to minimise the risk of fire take a long time to fuel our car through its standard filler. We always have to take a judgement call and fuel the car as lightly as we dare to avoid wasting time in the pit lane, and the endless battles of this race had nearly burnt it all. I was short-shifting and throwing the car around the circuit to move the fuel to the useful part of the tank, full of doubt until the deliverance of the “last lap” board and finally the chequered flag. Hard in my mirrors for the last few laps, Darren finished nine tenths of a second behind me after two hours of racing.
We’d done it – our comeback race had seen us finish second in class! I was absolutely euphoric as I crossed the line, scarcely able to believe we’d achieved this result after practically nothing going to plan since we’d arrived. It felt fantastic, and all the more so for having been a true team effort. Both drivers had fought tooth and nail for positions, both had punched in laptimes as fast as the car could do that day, and both left with a trophy to be seriously proud of.
Next up, Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit on October 27th. With a third place finish at Donington and second at Oulton, there’s only one step left to climb…
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…