MSVT Trackday Trophy at Brands Hatch with Rob Dowsett

“Yeah, I think it went alright!”

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

Rob Dowsett’s first race at Oulton Park back in August, where we took third place overall sharing this very car in MSVT’s Trackday Trophy, was supposed to be his toe dipped in the high-octane pool of circuit racing. One outing to get a feel for things ahead of making plans for next season. I’m sure we’ve all set intentions like that in one way or another..

..but only days after such a fantastic experience of racing and a superb result,  I had a message pondering whether there might be another chance to get out this year. A Trackday Trophy round presented itself on Hallowe’en at Rob’s home circuit of Brands Hatch, we were both available, and that was that. We duly arrived at the circuit on Saturday morning for another shot at the familiar 45-minute race format.

You can watch the highlights of the meeting right here:

Our previous outing had been bone dry throughout, but the radar promised something quite different this time. A truly enormous weather system marched inexorably towards the 1.2 miles of Kentish asphalt, and the only question was whether the clouds would burst before qualifying or after. It wasn’t cause for concern: this car is typically strong in the rain and, despite Rob only having driven it in the dry, we both felt happy tackling challenging conditions. So much so that we’d prefer they didn’t arrive until the race – so nobody got any practice!

When we were called for our session, it still looked like the weather would hold. We kept the dry tyres on, Nankang’s excellent AR1 semi-slick, and got over to the assembly area as early as possible. The plan was simple: I would go out first and set a laptime immediately, with the rain arriving right behind me and rendering the rest of the session academic. I’d then come into the pits and hand over to Rob for him to familiarise himself driving the car in the wet, knowing we were on pole and couldn’t be beaten. Easy.

Photo by Gary Hawkins

Best laid plans, and all that.

I got straight out onto a clear circuit alright, but the heavens had already opened and the very short lap of Brands Hatch’s Indy circuit meant that when I came around for my first flyer, cars were still joining the circuit from the pit lane in front of me and the spray alone made it difficult to pick a way through. The dry tyres were already very plainly not the right choice! The car was driveable, but not enjoying the conditions and requiring real care on corner exit. I put in a lap good enough for third place, fell off the circuit for a brief excursion at Surtees trying to better it, and decided discretion was the better part of valour. I brought the car in to hand over to Rob, complete with ornamental flora.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

“Just survive,” were my words to Rob. “Go out, treat it like ice, do your three laps and then try and get a feel for things – but these aren’t the right tyres.”

Plainly listening, he had already matched my laptime by the third time around. He went on to take out great chunks of time as the circuit improved briefly, worsened again under heavy rain, and 34 cars of traffic ebbed and flowed around him. He acquitted himself brilliantly, soldiering on while other teams with the crews and kit to do it swapped their cars to wet tyres. We held ninth place overall, one of the very fastest cars on semi-slicks, when a red flag for an accident ended the session. A strong showing, but it left a lot of work to do to even match our last performance in the race.

Photo by Gary Hawkins

Once the car has been checked over and pronounced fit, the usual pastime for the hours between qualifying and race is spectating. Watching the other championships competing that day can be more than just entertainment: it’s a good way to keep an eye on track conditions and, particularly if you’re new to the circuit, watch for creative lines and see which overtaking manoeuvres pay off. This scale of rainstorm was enough to dampen even my enthusiasm for walking the sidelines, though, and much of our break was spent making sure the car was entirely waterproof – spray gets everywhere! – and trying to keep our racewear dry.

As our race time approached, though, the sky lightened and a decision arose. What would be the right tyre? It wasn’t a cold day, and a stiff breeze could be enough to dry the circuit over the 45 minutes of our race. Committing to the wet tyres might mean a lovely drive for the first few laps, but a real struggle to hold position on a drying track at the end. Waiting as long as we dared, we watched the race before – SuperCup – start and the spray they threw up was the decision. We were going on wets.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

Even when that SuperCup race was red-flagged and its restart delayed by barrier repairs, giving the circuit more drying time, we stuck to our treaded guns and spent the time doing pitstop practices. We arrived at the assembly area to find it full of cars on their dry tyres. Were we about to be caught out again?

Not a bit of it. A rain shower came over again while we waited for SuperCup to finish, and their laptimes remained stubbornly eight seconds slower than their dry qualifying had been. We felt sure we were on the right tyre this time – but in any case, it was too late to change and would all come down to how we could drive these conditions.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

I started the race, packed in on the small grid on Brands Hatch’s start-finish curve – it’s not at all fitting to call it a straight. 9th place put me on the inside line for Paddock Hill Bend, but also very close to the pit wall. I expected a good launch surrounded by front-wheel drive cars, much more difficult to get off the line quickly than my rear-wheel drive BMW.

What I didn’t expect was to rocket forward so quickly when the lights went out that almost everyone else appeared to be standing still. I tried to go left, boxed by another car, and tried to go right to find the wall much too threatening. I had no choice but to lift off and hold position behind the pedestrian start of the car ahead, and got thoroughly mugged for it: a stream of drivers passed around the outside of Paddock Hill and left me in 14th place.

I fought back, leaning on the car as much as I dared while it howled and slid beneath me, trying to get through the pack and stay in touch with the leaders. There followed lap after lap of battling lower-class hatchbacks that didn’t have the power, but sure had the weight distribution for an easier time on the slippery surface. I was having to drive by intuition and feel to make progress, and use plenty of imagination to pick a way past the cars ahead.

It was bloody brilliant.

Photo by Gary Hawkins

Racing in a big field, especially on such a small circuit, is a full-time job for your brain and quite simply the harder you can concentrate the better you’re going to do. All the same, I still had a few moments where I could really relish the challenge and enjoy racing this car, out on the ragged edge, and improving our position as the minutes ticked by.

From sixth place I brought the car into the pits for Rob to have his shot. There was time enough to tell him that I thought we had the measure of the cars ahead – we were quick enough to move forward. He rejoined the race in fifth after a smooth pitstop and, again, immediately matched my laptime. This guy has some instincts, alright, and was straight into battle as soon as he hit the circuit.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

His progress was hampered by a short safety car period, during which my frantic signalling from the pit wall conveyed that he was lying fourth and the car ahead was for position: pass Jonathan Candler’s Peugeot 306, and we’re bagging trophies again.

He wasted not a moment on the restart. Following Candler through as he passed not one but two backmarkers on the very first corner of the resumed race, Rob piled on the pressure and got past just a lap later with a brave move around the outside of Paddock Hill. Exulting in the car, he knew he was back on the podium, and by this time we were the only rear-wheel drive car still on the lead lap – but he wasn’t stopping there.

The frontrunning fight of the Lundy / Lundy Toyota Celica against Harvey & Pearce’s Honda Civic was only four seconds up the road, and while they fought for the lead Rob reeled them in relentlessly. Only a minute later he was right on top of them and poised to capitalise on a major mistake from Sam Pearce in the Civic – sliding broadside through Clearways and heading for the gravel, he was a sitting duck for the big BMW.

Not this time. A gut-wrenching failure to select third gear, clutch right down but gearbox steadfastly refusing to go in, stranded Rob rolling through the corner while Pearce recovered. Worse, Candler’s 306 was able to slip by to reclaim third place by the time a quick-thinking rev-match let Rob get some drive. The air in the cockpit turned as blue as the paint as Rob gave chase with only three laps to go.

Photo by Gary Hawkins

Brands is laid out in a natural amphitheatre, and if the justifiably excited car owner runs from the pit wall through the garages to the back of the paddock each lap, they’re able to watch almost the entire circuit. I saw it all happen, and the joy of Pearce sliding wide turned to anguish as my car slowed unaccountably. I later discovered a clutch actuation problem, with work already underway to be certain it can’t happen again. Seeing Rob pick up the pace again at least assured me that there wasn’t a terminal problem, but with four minutes on the clock, I had no idea whether he’d made the position back.

No second chances, no quarter given – of course he got it done. Catching Candler a lap and a half later, Rob nailed the perfect exit from Graham Hill corner and powered past into third, skipping across the kerb as he went up the inside through Surtees right before my eyes. The fear of falling off the podium melted away and turned to a new question: might we get second after all?

Rob drove his heart out and got right on the Civic’s rear bumper, but there just wasn’t enough time. He crossed the line third, less than a second behind Pearce and a bare four seconds off the Lundys’ winning Celica. The reality of scoring an overall podium once more, at Rob’s home race with his parents there to watch, was more than enough to overcome any disappointment at not making it higher up the order – a fist held aloft in the driver’s window as he took the chequered flag told me all I needed to know.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

What a day. What a race. What a driver!

Success in karts and doing sprints and track days in your road car are always strong signs, but jumping into a saloon car and racing it in close quarters on a packed grid of seriously competitive drivers is still a tall order. Rob rose to the challenge fantastically at Oulton Park in August, and to see him repeat it in the wet at Brands shows it was no flash in the pan.

One thing’s for certain: he’ll be back for more trophies in 2021.

Will you be joining him?

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

Sam

750MC Roadsports at Snetterton with Neil Savage

Photo by SJN Photography

A long-standing plan finally came to fruition this month. Since the very genesis of “McKee Motorsport”, not that I had any idea that’s how my journey would turn out, I’ve been competing against Neil Savage. It started in 2014, on sprints organised by a group of petrolheaded colleagues at Nissan’s European R&D base in Cranfield. My near-standard E36 vied for timesheet supremacy against Neil’s Honda S2000.

When I moved away from Nissan, we stood at one-all: Neil put the outright power of the S2000 to good use along Blyton Park’s long straights, but the torque and flexibility of the E36 held the record in Curborough’s tight twisties.

An invaluable connection was forged, though: Neil’s advice and experience was instrumental in me making the leap to first go racing in 2017, and he brought me another fantastic experience in the shape of the 2CV 24hr Race in 2018.

Having battled on the sprint courses and then shared a race car set up by Neil and owned by his sister, there was only one thing left for us to do: we’d have to race my E36 together. There was no better opportunity than 750 Motor Club’s brilliant Roadsports series at Snetterton: I know the car and the competition, while Neil knows the circuit rather better than the back of his hand.

The date was set: on 17th October 2020, we’d find out who really was quickest – and whether we could beat everyone else while trying to outmatch each other.

Testing

We arrived at Snetterton on Friday for a day’s testing ahead of the Saturday race. For Neil it was an opportunity to familiarise himself with the car and to brush off any rust clinging to his skills after more than a year away from racetracks. For me, it was essential to make sure he didn’t have any unfair advantage..

The day turned out perfectly. At 9am we found a circuit that looked damp but swiftly proved to be full wet conditions, providing Neil with a perfect opportunity to learn the balance of the car more quickly and much more sympathetically than is possible in the dry. Never having driven a car with power steering on a circuit, Neil struggled with the assistance, providing him with a golden excuse robbing him of his accustomed fingertip feel at the limit.

The circuit dried by our afternoon sessions and with it came a chance to really push the edges of the car’s performance. A brand-new set of Nankang AR1 semi-slick tyres were fitted to the contentiously anthracite Imola wheels and the result was stunning. Neil went first and got the car around Snetterton faster than she’d ever gone before. With a couple of good, clear laps I was able to pull out even more time, culminating in a 2:16.7 against a previous record of 2:18.6 but the stopwatch only told half the story. The car felt absolutely sublime; poised, balanced, predictable and with a simply colossal amount of grip that felt almost impossible to overstep. After so many years of development it was enormously satisfying, and I knew it stood us in good stead for the race.

Photo by SJN Photography

Qualifying

Saturday: race day, and Neil’s birthday!

Our qualifying session at 9:30 was heralded by a rain shower. The cars on circuit before us seemed to be doing approximately dry pace, so we went on the same semi-slick tyres to see what could be done. We both needed to drive in the 25-minute session to qualify to race, and felt that the latter half of the session would be quickest. I planned to drive first, do my mandatory three laps and then hand over to Neil to try to find space for a quick lap.

It rarely does go to plan, though.

Photo by SJN Photography

I found the circuit pretty close to dry, but cold and not half as grippy as the previous afternoon. My third lap was going well until a Class A car dived past me into Nelson, a costly part of the circuit to give way and frustrating enough to tempt me into another lap. I didn’t want to post no decent time at all. It was worth it: next time around I had an almost clear run at Snetterton’s three-mile circuit and recorded a 2:18.9. I’d kept some margin in hand but it felt good enough, so I came in to hand over to Neil.

No sooner had I got on the pit wall and checked the live timing to find us lying fastest in Class C did red flags come out to stop the session. Mixed feelings bubbled up: Neil had only been out for one minute, having no chance to set a time, but if the session didn’t resume, well.. we were presently class pole..

As Neil returned to the pits, the chequered flag came out to signal the end of the session. The result was sealed: by one exploratory extra lap, we had qualified fastest of the 14 cars in Class C and would start the race 17th overall on a capacity grid of 42 cars – a brilliant showing against such a fast and varied field.

Neil did get a run that morning: to complete his qualifying laps, he and other Roadsports second drivers were allowed out with the Hot Hatch Championship to drive in heavy rain. Laptimes were not on the agenda, but there was plenty of fun to be had skating around the slippery circuit and measuring oneself against unfamiliar competition.

Photo by SJN Photography

Bemused but accomplished, we checked the car over to be sure she was in good shape, fuelled her for the race and went to spectate until our time came.

The Race

I would go first, taking a rolling start to the 45-minute race and aiming to hold our class lead until handing over to Neil around the midpoint of the race. Then all I’d have to do was sit back on the pit wall and watch him win the race for us as a birthday present to himself.

Again: that was the plan.

The disrupted qualifying session meant I was starting very far up the grid with notionally faster Class B and even A cars around me. I aimed to try and put some of them in between me and my class competition, and almost managed it as the race got underway – but it was short-lived, as Liam Crilly’s Z4 tagged the E46 M3 of Wayne Lewis and beached the latter on the huge kerb inside Montreal hairpin. The red flags came out and we were forced to restart.

This time, I managed to capitalise on the pack of cars braking into the first corner, slotting up the inside of another BMW through Riches before moving to the outside to try and drive around the inevitable concertina and possible repeat incident in Montreal. I got the braking bang on, the car right on her toes on the very edge of the circuit as we stopped for the right-hander; sadly Olly Samways in his Class B MR2 alongside did not, slipping past the turn-in point and blocking me from taking any advantage.

Photo by SJN Photography

There followed a scrap with the #188 BMW 325i of Graham Kelly. His car had the measure of me down the back straight, and a superbly executed move around the outside of Nelson and Brundle saw him wrest the lead away. I’ve never been quite so adeptly squeezed to the edge of the circuit in this car – it’s really hard to do that accurately in a saloon car and I expected contact, but it never came.

All my effort was needed to hang onto the back of the newer BMW, and I almost managed to push Kelly into a mistake: he locked his brakes into Montreal the next lap, very nearly spinning and letting me ahead. His return gambit through Oggies didn’t last, as less than a minute later he overstepped the mark in Williams corner and exited stage left. I gratefully reclaimed the class lead, fighting off the attentions of James Scott’s Mini Cooper S and pulling out a short lead.

Photo by SJN Photography

The remainder of my stint followed the Class B Lotus Elise (John Atherton) and VW Golf (Josh Johnson), their battle entertaining and mercifully happening at pace enough not to hold me up. I could see Matthew Creed’s Clio 200 in my mirrors, but he wasn’t gaining and I settled into a confident, satisfying groove of consecutive 2:17 laps. As the clock ticked around to 23 minutes, I brought the car into the pits from first in Class C to hand over to Neil.

With an exuberant howl of straight-six induction, Neil surged out of the pits to join his birthday race. After everyone had made their pitstops we were still in lead, but not for long: Creed’s Clio had found a second wind and it was enough to take him past the E36. He went on to punch in 2:16s, faster than I felt our car was capable of going on Saturday’s circuit. Neil was driving quickly and consistently, creeping down to within two tenths of my fastest lap, but I started to resign myself to a well-fought second place. It still meant a trophy with his birthday on; we’d done a good job.

Photo by SJN Photography

Snetterton’s pit wall affords a good view of approaching cars. You can see them appear into the very fast Coram corner, a long right-hander taken at over 95mph in our car. It’s at the limit of vision, but just about possible to identify the cars as they arrive – and with six minutes to go, the E36 flew into view far closer behind the leading Clio than the previous lap.

Next lap, closer still, actually within reach. The pit board was swiftly rearranged to tell Neil he’d gained two more seconds and suitable gestures were made to gee him up onto the back of the class leader. Then we’d two minutes to wait until they next came around, a sniff of distant possibility now in the air.

Neil didn’t hesitate. His 24-hour endurance racing brain was in the back seat and he was sprint-racing again. Watching the footage back, I now know that he got past Creed that lap but lost the position again. They came onto the pit straight to start the final lap absolutely neck-and-neck, separated by one hundredth of a second over the line but the E36 looked to have the legs and Neil’s nose was ahead into Riches corner.

Then they were gone, and as our cheers subsided we had to wait again to see who would prevail by Coram and the chequered flag, scarce daring to believe that we really could win this race in its dying seconds.

Yards away from a Class B Boxster and closing outrageously quickly, Neil appeared in view mere tenths ahead of Creed’s Clio. No prisoners, not in the last two corners with a rival hot on his heels: he slotted the E36 into a gap that was barely there, diving inside the Boxster with a puff of spray from the damp grass to go ahead through Coram. Even hundreds of yards away it was plain he had the car tiptoe-balanced right on the limit. He got her stopped for the final corner of Murray’s and powered up the straight to take the chequered flag a mere second ahead of Creed. He could probably hear my screams of delight inside the car at full throttle; we had won!

Photo by SJN Photography

There is no feeling like it.

Here’s the race video from our view.

This is the car’s first win in Class C, and in fact my first win since 2017. It’s all the more satisfying because we both had to fight tooth and nail to make it happen. Neither driver could show up and ride on the coat tails of the other; this was a seriously competitive field and it took our very best to beat them.

The stopwatch shows it:
My fastest lap: 2:17.43
Neil’s fastest lap: 2:17.60

It’s a truly fantastic result that demonstrates just what this little home-built, roadgoing car is capable of. Driving her home again with the big pot rolling around next to me was a great feeling.

Neil became the ninth driver to race the E36, the fifth to score a podium, the third bring her home to a win. The records continue to grow, but – crucially – the costs do not. I’m no less focused on making motorsport accessible to as many people as I can, and now we underline that it doesn’t sacrifice competitiveness in the slightest.

If you want to try your hand, be it on a track day or racing anywhere in the country,  get in touch. I’d love to make it happen.

Next up: Rob Dowsett reprises his role at the ‘wheel, heading to Brands Hatch on Hallowe’en. He’s following a third-place finish in MSVR’s Trackday Trophy in his racing début at Oulton Park, and sights are set only one way.

Sam

750MC Roadsports at Silverstone with Iain Thornton

It seems strange that we should reach late August before entering the first round of 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports series, but such is the way of 2020. That belated season opener brought us to Silverstone’s International circuit, which neither I nor good friend and returning E36 racer Iain Thornton had driven before. Some testing was in order.

We arrived in the bafflingly tiny International paddock on the Friday morning before Saturday’s race, each with two half-hour sessions booked. Mine would be used to puzzle out how the car was handling and identify any changes needed; Iain’s would be to learn the circuit and reacclimitise himself to a car he last drove a year ago at Donington Park.

Whatever Silverstone used for their track surface, it wasn’t happy that weekend. I was relieved that other drivers were also finding it very slippery despite the apparently ideal conditions of cloudy, dry and low-twenties temperatures. The car felt very “loose”, tending to oversteer mid-corner and more heavily at exit of the almost exclusively right-hand bends of this layout. Even the usually stunning braking performance seemed lacklustre thanks to the low grip of the circuit and we both felt dissatisfied by the day’s running.

Race day dawned bright and sunny with the wonderful atmosphere that accompanies racing with 750MC. Friends old and new stopped by the garage to catch up, take a look at the car in its latest trim and wish us well. It was hard to feel any less than optimistic as we went into qualifying and tried to find some space to set a laptime among the near-capacity field of 47 cars packed onto International’s 1.85 miles.

Photo by Gary Walton Photography

I went out first, aiming to complete my minimum three timed laps before handing the car over to Iain for the remainder of the session. As it turned out, I needed one more to be totally happy! A small mistake entering The Link a little too slowly cost me valuable pace down the Hanger Straight on my third lap, but I was much more satisfied with a 1:21.49 on my fourth attempt. I got out to find us lying second in class with 10 minutes still to go.

Iain drove well, putting in consistent times near his best testing pace and came back in the pits smiling: “I’ve got my mojo back! That felt much better. I think we’re gonna have a good day.” Relief and smiles all round as we checked the car over and settled down to watch some racing before our turn would come at 2:10pm. Other competitors had improved towards the end of the session, but we still landed fifth of the 14 Class C cars on the grid: a strong result.

Iain would start the race right in the thick of the action, 26th overall of the 43 cars which made it to the rolling start. Ahead, a Porsche 968 Sport and a Renault Clio 200. Behind, a Toyota MR2 and a Caterham 7. Such is the fabulous variety of the cars in Roadsports, all making their laptime in very different ways!

He got away cleanly and was immediately trading places with the #4 MR2 of Peter Higton, the two cars working their way up the field together as they battled. It was a pleasure to see the E36 arriving into view around Club corner right on its toes, with varying amounts of opposite lock in play as Iain pushed ever harder to maintain his momentum. The laptimes were great, quicker than he’d driven all weekend despite the pressure and compromise of busy race traffic.

Then a rare thing happened: the safety car appeared at exactly the right time! We had planned to let Iain race for as long as possible, up to the end of the “window” in which we had to make our mandatory pit stop. That meant I would get in the car just before 30 of the 45 minutes’ racing had elapsed. No sooner had I hung out the pit board telling Iain he had one more lap to go, than the #2 Porsche Cayman of Bradley Ellis & Leonzpas Loucas had a dramatic tyre blowout and beached itself in the gravel before Stowe corner. With the stricken car sitting right at the fastest part of the circuit, there was no choice but to bring out the safety car to allow it to be recovered. Everyone in the pit lane burst into action: making your stop while the field circulates at reduced pace is a major advantage.

Iain threaded the car through the teeming pit lane for a 90-second pit stop; the mandatory time increased by half a minute to allow the departing driver to sterilise the car’s controls before the next occupant gets in. It made for a relaxed affair. I was strapped in and ready to go with plenty of time to spare, Iain assuring me everything on the car felt fine while Mum counted down the seconds before releasing me back into the race.

This time, a less thrilling opening of proceedings as I caught back up to the train of cars behind the safety car before watching, lap by lap, the marshals extricating the sorry Porsche from the gravel. The green flag came out with fifteen minutes to go and finally I could do some racing.

A mid-race safety car always plunges everything into disarray: with competitors pitting at different times, it’s very hard to know whether the car in your mirrors is far behind, battling you for position or in fact a lap ahead and not concerned with you at all. Unless a rival was obviously far quicker, my solution was to fight for every single spot while keeping up as strong a pace as possible. We wouldn’t know our position until the end, but in the meantime I was going to push!

Photo by Gary Walton Photography

After nine laps of some pretty entertaining traffic management, trying to use both quicker and slower cars as chess pieces to pick my way forwards on the busy circuit, the chequered flag came out. I crossed the line 18th of 43 overall, six places up from that strong qualifying result. It put us seventh in Class C and, while far from the podium we’d hoped for before the meeting, we were really satisfied with our performance in surprisingly tricky conditions.

It marked Iain’s sixth race finish from six starts, not only testament to his dependability but also the end of his days as a “novice”. Six finishes makes him eligible for the Race National licence and means he no longer has to display the black cross on the back of the car, so there was more work to do after the race!

Sadly, the ongoing restrictions in Wales meant that the following Roadsports event – scheduled for 12th September at Anglesey – has been cancelled. There’s still more to come in the E36’s September, though.. Watch this space for another new racing driver.

Sam

MSVT Trackday Trophy at Oulton with Rob Dowsett

“It’s really happened!”

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

Every driver remembers their first race, no matter how many years ago it might have been. It’s a unique experience and often represents half a lifetime of hopes, dreams, planning and anticipation finally turning to reality before your eyes. I can recall nearly every minute of my soaking wet day at Donington on 18th March 2017, but I get to relive the feelings even more closely than that: I get to watch it happen for new drivers as they make their racing débuts in my car!

At Oulton Park on 8th August, that happened for Rob Dowsett. A regular Club100 kart racer and competitor in Javelin’s Sprint Series with his Toyota GT86 road car, he’s no stranger to racing or to driving cars at speed – but he had never before put the two together.

Nor had he ever visited Oulton Park, nor driven my car. We arrived on Thursday evening to walk the track before a full day’s testing on Friday, giving the best acclimitisation before the Saturday’s race. To say Rob was excited would be a significant understatement – he positively bounced out of his car and was immediately absorbing every detail of the venue.

I never know what to expect when strapping a brand new driver into my car, but my first impressions of Rob’s ability to visualise the right lines around the circuit and ask all the pertinent questions on the track walk quickly followed through into impressive speed. In his first test session he got a handle on the car swiftly, and by his second he was driving right up to my race pace from 2019’s Club Enduro round.

The day ran faultlessly as Rob clocked up 123 miles along Oulton’s twisting, undulating Tarmac ribbon. It often feels strange running the car all day and not driving it, but I didn’t go short of information: after each session, Rob was able to give me detailed notes on how the car was behaving and how his driving had developed through the day. It was a real pleasure to see his laptimes tumble, and to see his huge grin every time he stepped out of the car.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

Race day dawned damp and drizzly for the second round of MSVT’s Trackday Trophy. I had never entered the car in this series before, its typical home being with 750 Motor Club. The format is a 45-minute race with a mandatory pitstop to be taken between 15 and 30 minutes, and the class structure allows for cars up to 175bhp/ton measured without driver. My car produces around 162bhp/ton by that metric – so while we didn’t expect to be left behind, finishing at the front was going to be a tall order.

As usual, I aimed to give my guest driver as much track time as possible. I went out first in qualifying to put in the minimum of three timed laps to allow me to race, then planning to hand over to Rob for the rest of the session. I found a circuit greasy but improving, and a car which thankfully felt smooth and consistent. It wasn’t without incident, though..!

An unlucky BMW suffered an engine failure and dropped a lot of oil on the inside of Druids, a fourth-gear right-hander which demands a lot of commitment on entry and gives little margin for error. An MX-5 and I were fortunate not to trip over each other as we both fell off the circuit! Completing the rest of my laps unscathed, I handed the car over and watched Rob fly.

By the end of the session, he’d put in two consecutive laps good enough for third place on the grid – and within two tenths of the fastest this car has ever been around Oulton Park. A stunning performance!

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

A five-hour EnduroKa race gave us a short gap between qualifying and race. Fortunately, a very healthy car needed only its brake fluid bleeding to have it as fresh as possible for the race. With that done, I talked Rob through the process for getting from the assembly area to the grid, how to approach the warmup lap and how best to launch the car. I left racecraft out, trusting in his years of karting to have already taught him what to do once the lights went out.

How right that was. Rob put in a superb start to hold his third position away from the grid, and after a brief safety car period was in the thick of a three-way battle for second place. I could scarcely believe the stopwatch on the pit wall: creeping into 2:01 laps around the 2.7-mile circuit, an 80mph average speed despite the closeness of the competition.

I was thrilled to see the car fighting right at the front – at this rate, all I’d need to do was bring it home. I called Rob into the pits after 27 minutes, checking tyre pressures and wheel bolt torques while he sanitised the car to let me strap myself in and go for my own slice of racing.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

I love the bubbling adrenaline of rolling down the pit lane to rejoin the circuit, briefly reined in by the 60kph limit, feeling the engine’s muted howl through all my nerve endings as the car strains to be let loose once more. I cross the pit exit line, snap the throttle open and feel her surge forwards; pitch rising with my pulse. A right-hand curve on the inside of Old Hall, check the mirror as I join the circuit, take the line and we are racing.

I found a car that was hot after her two minutes standing, soaking in her own heat and brake smoke in the pits, but very driveable indeed. After a lap or two of feeling out the limits in each corner, wanting to waste no time but take no risks from fourth position, everything came together. The balance of the car felt superb, totally predictable and absolutely willing to work with me. I pushed on, the lap timer telling me I was into 2:01s as well, thrilled with the performance and the fantastic feel of the car. A yellow flag at Cascades and a Honda Civic stuck in the wall didn’t hold significance for me until I saw “P3” on the pit board – we had just inherited a podium position without needing to pass the unfortunate car ahead.

Here’s the complete race footage:

With five minutes to go, another incident brought out the red flags and the result was sealed – we had brought the car home third overall in a hotly contested field of 24 cars, despite being 15bhp shy of the class limit. I felt euphoric crossing the line, completing the final act of our outstanding weekend where everything had gone even better than we could have imagined.

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

This kind of result was a fairytale: it felt surreal even to me, despite many a podium in my time. How must it have been for Rob?!

I’ll let him tell you himself.

Rob Dowsett, racing débutant in the McKee Motorsport E36 and podium-winner in MSVT Trackday Trophy:

“I had an open mind heading into my first race weekend, with my only objective to be as present as possible to make the most of the experience, as up until 2 years ago I thought participating in Motorsport was a pipe dream.

Thankfully this guy called Sam McKee exists and makes it possible to enter a race without having to sell an organ. Racing in a meticulously maintained and wonderfully set up BMW E36 328i makes for a very approachable driving experience that still feels extremely rewarding when you reach close to peak performance of the car.

More impressive is sharing your first race weekend with Sam, as he made the whole weekend run like absolute clockwork, with every detail discussed, planned and executed seamlessly. As much as there’s plenty of opportunity to feel stressed or under pressure in an event like this, the environment with Sam is totally relaxed but still focussed, so I felt I got the absolute maximum out of my first race weekend experience that I could have, both on and off track, both on topic and completely off topic in our downtime!

Secondary to these factors is the matter that we managed to qualify P3 and finish there as well, which is just bloody marvellous and topped off a weekend that is a clear highlight of my life so far. So with everything that happened last weekend, trying to describe the emotions I feel thinking back to it is difficult to describe but the best word is just utter elation – and because of that, I am well and truly hooked and will be back for Round 2 later this year!”

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

You’re welcome any time, Rob – the car and I will always be ready for more of that!

Photo by Alexey Wood, Thunderwood Racing

CSCC Open at Thruxton with Alex Baldwin

The full report from Thruxton is coming soon, along with a professionally-edited video from Alex himself. In the meantime, here’s my thrilling onboard from the soaking-wet Race 2.

750MC Ma7da at Snetterton

First published in Motor Racing UK Magazine, Issue 11, August 2020

The red lights finally went out on my 2020 season on 19th July at the Snetterton 200 circuit, where I made my début in 750 Motor Club’s Ma7da Series driving James Lewis-Barned’s car. Within seconds, I was plunged into my first experiences of sprint racing, one-make racing and open cockpit racing all at once. Learning curve? That’s Riches, isn’t it?

We had at least been able to set up the car on the Monday preceding the race, being graced with a drier day at Donington Park this time. It didn’t take much to get this straightforward machine handling beautifully. We had already settled on ride heights and the geometry felt fine, so it was a simple matter of dialling out the last vestiges of high-speed understeer with the one-way adjustable dampers, and puzzling out the correct cold tyre pressures.

The result was a riot of a racing car. I’d never driven it in the dry before – my high hopes were met and then some. I don’t know of a more communicative and playful chassis than this one; its willingness to work with the driver right to the limits of its performance inspires such confidence.

If returning to a circuit for that test had felt exciting, it was nothing compared to going to a race meeting. The break of nearly nine months was longer than I’d ever gone without turning a wheel in anger. On arriving at Snetterton to find actual, live motorsport happening in front of me once again (the Toyota MR2 Championship having a remarkably considerate race), I expect my grin must have been visible from Jonathan Palmer’s helicopter.

After the car was unloaded and prepped and Saturday’s competition concluded, a track walk followed by camping at the circuit led me into race day. It dawned drizzly and damp, but without any of the rush and stress that a 9am qualifying session would usually bring: at a Covid-secure event signing-on, scrutineering and drivers’ briefings are all conducted in advance.

Entrants self-declare their cars fit for the event on a web system, listing the compliance standards and expiry dates of their safety equipment and giving contact details of all attendees. Clubs have been doing a fantastic job of laying out every part of the meetings’ procedures clearly online. Two cars from each series are selected at random for a socially distanced compliance check, but the overall tone of the paddock was significantly more relaxed than previous seasons.

By contrast, the wet qualifying session shared with the Sports Specials field was an eye-opening experience. I’m accustomed to a saloon car with ABS and the option of fitting wet-weather tyres; to control costs, all Ma7da cars run a Yokohama A048 tyre which is superb in the dry but gives only a passing nod in the direction of water dispersion. 15 minutes felt precious little to put in a clean lap around a circuit overrun by 40 cars, of which perhaps 30 were still on the Tarmac at any one time. Basic survival climbed my priority list as the session wore on and someone helpfully dropped fuel around Coram, so I was delighted to find that I’d qualified fifth of the 16 cars entered for our two 15-minutes races.

Photo by SJN Photography

With no new issues uncovered and certainly no setup learning to apply to the car for the races, which looked certain to be dry, I reverted to my default role of enthusiastic spectator until my first race. Watching the Locost Championship was particularly instructive – being a similar body but with far less power, their racing accentuates the slipstreaming effects I was about to experience.

On the way to the assembly area, it occurred to me that I didn’t know quite how to start this car from my slot on the third row of the grid. I’d never launched it before and to compound the difficulty of its unwillingness to idle properly and awkward handbrake, Snetterton’s grid is on an incline. With no green flag lap, I needed only a couple of practice starts on my way to the grid to learn enough to completely fluff it when the lights went out.

Photo by SJN Photography

With my three-pedal juggling act distracting me enough to react a little slowly, I then fed in far too much power. The lukewarm Yokos spun right up and I was swamped with cars. No matter – I’m here to do some racing, and the thrill of approaching the first corner three-wide with competitors’ engines roaring through my helmet cannot be found anywhere else. It felt fantastic right from the start and I quickly found myself able to hold my own, especially under braking and into the slower corners of the circuit.

In the faster corners, I had to adjust my racing very quickly: these are small cars, and gaps which don’t bear contemplating in my BMW are easy pickings for these hornets with a tyre at each corner and clear lines of sight everywhere. A glance in the mirror might have me feel safe as I chose a line into Brundle, only to have a car up the inside of me a heartbeat later.

The accelerative advantage to be found tucking in behind another car down a straight makes the jockeying for position absolutely relentless – I could defend successfully and really stick a corner exit over a competitor and then find them right alongside me a few hundred yards later. These were proper battles that called on every ounce of racecraft.

It was utterly brilliant and, in the rare moments in which I wasn’t under immediate fire, I exulted at the sheer experience of it.

My race boiled down to a mano a mano contest with the #56 car of Dan Sibbons, trading places twice a lap until finally an overly ambitious entry to Riches saw him run wide enough for me to break free. More exultation – the triumph of securing fifth place in such a fierce race felt better than some victories I’ve scored. The timesheet told me that that final, comfortable-feeling gap to come home ahead was in fact just four tenths of a second.

Photo by SJN Photography

The frenetic nature of a sprint race isn’t its only joy: you get a second one on the same day. The car had felt so good and I was on such a high as I crossed the line that upon parking it up in the paddock, I didn’t feel a need to do anything beyond putting some more fuel in it and going out again.

I lined up third on the grid for the second race after mechanical failures knocked out two drivers who’d finished ahead of me earlier. This time I made no mistake with the launch and was hanging onto the coat-tails of the leaders until I found a very long brake pedal at the end of the Bentley Straight. A late and confused corner entry saw me rightly mobbed by my competitors, and the race became a fight to lose as few places as possible while I figured out what my middle pedal was telling me.

A real tendency to lock the front tyres and an unwillingness to rotate under trailbraking – all unravelled whilst wheel to wheel in the battle for third place – had me wonder whether I’d any rear brakes at all. By the time I’d started driving around it with all my earlier advantage lost, I’d fallen to seventh wondering how I’d recover when another’s misfortune became my gain.

Locked in a tight battle ahead of me, Danny Andrew in the #27 car missed third gear, and so close was Dan Sibbons in his slipstream that avoiding action was impossible. The two collided, breaking Sibbons’ steering and spearing him across the grass. Andrew seemed, reasonably enough, to have lifted off during the impact and I caught him to inherit fifth place. A lap later I was able to claw past David Jones’ #50 car and finish fourth with no small measure of relief. We later found the all rear brake fluid had drained out through a loose union.

Photo by SJN Photography

Overwhelming and fabulous though it is, the intensity of the racing doesn’t tell the whole story. Throughout those tussles I’d felt comfortable putting my [James’s..!] car right up to these drivers; there was awareness and respect and, when necessary, the foresight to yield a position and come back again in the next corner.

Sprint racing can sometimes seem to descend into a melée, but this field was doing it right – an impression underlined by big thumbs-up all round at race end, and kind words with enthusiastic story-swapping in the paddock.

I knew the formula had potential, with cars cheap and simple to run but enormously entertaining with unbeatable performance per pound (either sort). That it comes with such top-quality racing and a welcoming, supportive paddock is a club racers’ dream come true. They were even kind enough to name me Newcomer of the Meeting!

Cheers for the outing, James – I may just make a habit of this…

You can find out more about the Ma7da Series at https://www.750mc.co.uk/formulae/ma7da