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.

Race 16 – Donington Park with Iain Thornton

We are back. After six weeks the stricken E36 returned home from the bodyshop, and she’d never looked so good. It was remarkable how well such serious damage had been repaired, everything looked straight and fit perfectly. The only downside was that the new paint finish was so good, it made the rest of the car look a bit shabby!

Driving the car again after such a long absence was wonderful. I’d forgotten just how right it feels.. agile, urgent and alive beneath you. And it sounds so, so perfect. The acid test would be a geometry check, to make sure it really was straight – and the result was the most accurate setup I’ve ever had on the car. Fantastic news. All that was left to do was race it..

And to tell you all about that, we have another guest driver – the fifth novice racer to be strapped into this car. Iain Thornton made his debut in our comeback race at Donington Park, competing in 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports series. He was kind enough to put his own words to the experience.

After a hiatus since the damage at Croft and plenty of blood, sweat and tears on Sam’s part, the 328i was back to race Roadsports Class C! For me it would be the start of my racing career, under Sam’s guidance.

I turned up to Donington at 8am on Friday the 6th to be greeted by a wonderful sight – a real race car with my name really on the rear windows! This was probably the most nervous I’d be all weekend, which is a real testament to the confidence the car would give me throughout the day. Sam and I chatted as he set up the car ready for the first test and he showed me around it a bit, telling me bits about it that I didn’t know. He chose a worn set of Nankang AR-1s for the test day, on the basis we would save the fresh ones for qualifying and racing.

Before we knew it, it was time to get dressed for the first test session. Sam sent me out and timed me from the pit wall. It was a relatively slow session as a bit of a warm up, but lap times tumbled as the day went on. I came into the pits at the end of the session and reported to Sam that an indicator bulb had blown, judging by the fast flash. He pointed out that actually the whole indicator assembly had fallen out. Oops!

By the second session I had started to understand the car and circuit a bit better and things were really coming together. Sam kept asking how the car felt – I couldn’t find a thing wrong with it. I think he was just itching to get on track himself, but we needed him to coach me from the sidelines!

After the second session, the heavens opened so we retired to my car to sit, eat some lunch and chat about plans for the day. We agreed to continue with the balding Nankangs (despite having a set of wet weather tyres) as it would be a good chance for me to explore car’s dynamics in wet weather without pushing it too hard. As we discussed the afternoon and weekend ahead, we expressed pity for those who were getting soaked outside, such as the marshals and staff around the track. It was around this time that I realised that one sleeve of my race suit was stuck outside the car door, so with a sopping arm I headed back out on track.

I soon forget about the wet arm – this was the most tiring session of the day, requiring a lot of concentration. The track was sodden and grip was non-existent. The car was behaving very well, however. Predictable and easy to control. Sam continued to time and I was lapping faster than I had in the first session of the day, so there was clear progress. Again Sam was desperate to know if I had any car faults to report – the worst thing I could think of was a tiny wobble at cool down speeds, which I’m confident was nothing more than slight flat spots on the tyres.

Excellent trackside photography, as usual, by SJN Photography

I had been struggling to do Redgate and Coppice quite right all day. Sam told me that I just needed to trust the car more – turn in harder and more decisively as it could do it. I finally built up to this in the fourth session – lo and behold, he was right. This final session was dry and the track had dried out, so it was a great opportunity to practise building pace again. I came into the pits at the end of the session to find Sam very, very pleased – my laps had been consistent, improving incrementally each time. This was music to my ears as I had made more progress in one day than I could have imagined and addressed something I’ve previously found quite difficult – setting consistent lap times. Now we had to be ready – whether we liked it or not – to qualify the next morning.

The car had been weighed earlier in the day, exceeding the minimum weight and when we presented it and ourselves for scrutineering, we all passed quickly and easily. It all seemed too easy!

On Saturday we got to the track a couple of hours before qualifying started to check the car over and to swap to the fresh AR-1s I had been denied the previous day. We were greeted by a lovely morning – crisp but sunny and with the smell of petrol and oil from the V8 MGBs and Cs that were doing their qualifying session. The 328i was exactly as we expected – faultless and ready for us to hit the track.

Sam went out first and I prepared to take over. I didn’t realise that he only planned to do the three laps required for him to qualify to race. Despite putting in only the minimum number of laps and having driven for none of the testing the day before, his time put us 3rd in class. We thought that we had qualified 2nd in class, but then discovered that there was a car [Chris Morton, you git – S] missing from the live timing list due to not having a transponder. Oh well, we couldn’t be disappointed with 3rd!

I went out with the goal of doing three laps so that I could race. All other considerations were secondary, so I started with three safe laps to get me race eligibility. After that I started to feel at ease and fell into a rhythm. I used the rest of the half hour session for more practice and somehow I managed to impress Sam again – my lap times were still consistent and still dropping!

My qualifying session was uneventful, for the most part, but it was invaluable for the experience it gave me before the race. Having dried completely overnight, the track was great and the fresh AR-1s were even better. I could scarcely believe the amount of grip I was getting and the way the front end was biting – it stunned me after the damp weather the previous afternoon. It would be in this session that I would decide I had finally conquered Redgate – my confidence there had been knocked by a spin in the third session of testing.

Sam used the time between the qualifying session and the race to thoroughly check the car again. Although we had agreed that it felt excellent, we also didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Everything had run like clockwork until that point and neither of us wanted that to stop. We practised our driver changes, which we were managing in 45 seconds – this left us a 15 second margin for error in the race as the car had to stop for a minimum of 60 seconds. Sam briefed me on what I needed to know about how we would handle pitting and anything I needed to know about the format of the race and the drivers’ briefing filled in the other blanks. At this point I simply couldn’t believe it – we were about to race!

As planned, Sam went out first and I waited in the pits for him. At Coppice on the first lap our streak of good luck ended – a competing BMW with dirty tyres slid into the side of 36, denting the driver’s door and sill. Despite being obvious, I wouldn’t find this out until the end of the race. I didn’t notice it as I got in due to the pressure of the situation!

This photograph courtesy of Jonathan Elsey Motorsport Photography

The race itself was marred by several periods following the safety car. Being inexperienced, I wasn’t ready for the sudden disappearance of the safety car and immediately lost several positions as it entered the pits. Never mind – I was determined to hold onto my new position the best I could.”

Here’s the race footage:

“Finally the chequered flag came and we had come 17th overall in a field of 40 and 9th of 17 in the class. Sam showed me the news on the pit board and I came in to be stopped by a very stern marshal who asked me to go to Race Control. I had no idea what the problem was but Sam filled me in on the accident. I was feeling guilty that stones had flicked up from the tyres of another car and chipped the windscreen and headlight, so it was a real shock to see the big dent in the sill from the incident in the first lap. Apart from this, we also had a 5 second penalty for breaching track limits, for which we took joint blame – luckily it didn’t cost us a place.

We had finished and I hadn’t disgraced myself! This was my main aim, and Sam had a final surprise for me. I had reached my target time of 1:25. Given that and the fact that we and the car had made it through the race and the car was not damaged beyond repair, we agreed that the weekend had been a resounding success. I’m very much looking forward to the next chance we get to do it all again!”

Race 13 – Brands Hatch with Alex Baldwin

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye…

After a long winter of work and upgrades on the 328i, the 750 Motor Club’s 2019 racing season finally kicked off at Brands Hatch in April. This first meeting came with a difference – it would mark the debut of Alex Baldwin, shooting the “Dream Chaser” documentary about entering club motorsport.

Alex first got in touch with me 12 months ago, looking for a car and willing participant for his project. Never being one to turn down the opportunity to promote club racing and get more drivers involved, I jumped at it, and the plan evolved into running the car at Donington Park for Alex to acclimatise to it, then test and race at Brands Hatch in the first round of the 750MC Roadsports series.

That acclimatisation at Donington was very reassuring. You can generally get quite an accurate idea of how someone will drive by their attitude and approach, but you’re never quite certain until you sit beside them on a circuit! I was immediately put at ease – Alex clearly knew exactly how the line was supposed to look, and had a good feel for the car straight away. We spent the day at Donington developing him rapidly, including several solo stints of near-race length into the afternoon, clocking up over 200 miles. The improvement was marked, and as you can see from the trackside photography, commitment levels certainly weren’t lacking!

Two weeks later we arrived at Brands Hatch for the race weekend. We booked an afternoon’s testing on the Friday, for a number of reasons: Alex knew Brands already, but an hour’s running to adapt his knowledge to driving this car here would be very valuable. It also gave him his first exposure of driving in “live” motorsport traffic, which is a very different experience to a track day! Testing is much more like a qualifying session, with a wide variety of race cars all being driven at their limits, and overtaking permitted wherever possible.

The results, again, were extremely encouraging. Alex improved his laptimes steadily down to 58.09 seconds around Brands’ 1.2 mile Indy circuit. Compared to my qualifying time of 57.21 last season, this was fantastic work for a novice driver at his first-ever meeting! Perhaps more impressive and certainly useful for race pace was his ability to put in consistently quick laps, once managing 5 in a row all under 59 seconds.

We wrapped up Friday’s running feeling very pleased with both car and driver. That is, until a faint battery charge warning started flickering on the dashboard while I was in the scrutineering queue.. The car passed through with no problem and was declared fit to race on Sunday, but expired in the paddock shortly afterwards. It wasn’t clear whether battery or alternator had failed, so at 8pm I was wandering the paddock to borrow some of the few pieces of equipment I don’t usually carry – a voltmeter, and a jump pack! The kindness of fellow competitors had the car started again for long enough to tell me that yes, the alternator wasn’t charging. 8.5 volts across the battery with the engine running. After checking wiring throughout the car for any broken connectors or potential drains, I resigned to trying to find a spare alternator the next day.

Saturday presented a rare “spare day” at a circuit, so I put myself to work helping guide Hot Hatch novice Tom Day through his first race meeting. I remembered the stress and doubt of my first time well enough, so I hope having someone on hand to get him in the right place at the right time, give times and feedback on the pit board, and generally talk through everything was helpful! Certainly he seemed to have a great day and made an impressive debut in challenging conditions. Cheers Tom!

I also met another budding driver in the form of “Race Dreamer” Rob Dowsett, who’s touring the country’s paddocks and speaking to drivers from big names in Blancpain right down to, well, me.. Rob’s racing in karts while building up knowledge and budget to make his entry into circuit racing with cars, and I was more than happy to talk him through what I’m doing and break down some of the perceived barriers to going racing.


Back to work, I found that David Drinkwater actually had an E36 alternator, for his Compact race car and to my eternal gratitude handed it over for me to try. The mounting points for his four-cylinder engine turned out to be totally different to my six-cylinder one, so I couldn’t use it, but the gesture really illustrates how much a family the club paddocks are.

Speaking of family, they became the saviour. As my only transport – the race car – wasn’t going anywhere, I couldn’t get parts, but my long-suffering Mum picked up a new alternator en route to the circuit Saturday evening. Half an hour later it was fitted, the car fired, and I saw the most relieving electrical readout of the year!

The car was running, charging, and we were going to go racing the next day.

Sunday dawned cold and changeable. No sooner had I fitted dry tyres than a hailstorm started, and the weather for the next two hours into qualifying looked decidedly uncertain. As it became clear the session would start wet but likely dry towards the end, we chose to send Alex out first. Not only would it let him get some wet-weather experience in case it rained during the race, but it also let us run him for longer, so I could jump in towards the end of the session and try and set a laptime. Alex pointed out that he’d never actually driven a wet circuit in a car at all, and precious little even in karts, a thought which appeared front and centre in his mind as he waited to go out..

Predictably, he needn’t have worried. The circuit was much wetter than it looked, but Alex kept the car smooth and consistent and completed his qualifying laps without incident. After ten laps he came into the pits to hand the car over to me on a rapidly drying circuit. I hadn’t driven at Brands for ten months and really had no idea how the car would behave, but there followed a rapid session of adapting and that hugely satisfying feeling of the car being faster every lap. Not only was I improving but the circuit was drying, so grip got better every time round, and the times tumbled until a 57.54 was produced. Emily told me via the pit board that put us first in class, but not for long.. right at the end of the session I got bottled up behind a Class A car, and wasn’t able to improve while the circuit dried a bit further and the 328i of Lee and Jeff Piercey was able to beat us to pole by half a second.

We found afterwards that we were going to start 10th overall, of 35 cars. Not bad for Class C…

Four hours later, it was showtime. I’d used some of the time in the break to check everything on the car – particularly as I’d rebuilt most of the rear end, it was good practice to ensure everything was torqued properly and still on its paint marks. All looked well. We also changed both left-hand tyres for some spare part-worns, still the same Nankang AR1s, but with much more tread life remaining to see out the 45-minute race.

We elected to put me in the car for the start, as Alex wanted to take the chequered flag and avoid the risky business of a 35-car start into the infamous Paddock Hill corner. I planned to drive for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping the car safe and as far up the order as possible before handing over to Alex to make his racing debut and bring the car home.


Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. I had a good start and after a few short battles maintained position, though the tyres fitted since qualifying were clearly not in such good condition and I was struggling for grip in right-handers. Not being one to miss a chance, Dan Rogers pounced, and after running his MX-5 side-by-side for three corners finally got the better of me into Graham Hill Bend. I hung on as best I could, but ultimately decided third place was a good position to consolidate.

There I stayed, carving through the traffic presented by the 116i Trophy guests on our grid. Such was the pace difference that in some cases, two or even three 116is needed to be passed in a single corner, which made for some interesting set-pieces as I tried to get through without disturbing their race, or losing time in my own! I was enjoying myself as the race leaders in Class A came through, and interested to note that I struggled to turn into Paddock Hill when directly behind the huge rear wing of Matthew Weymouth’s E36 M3. Perhaps that front splitter is doing something after all. I was still close behind him through the Druids hairpin, and again suffered understeer on exit, running wide onto the aggressive exit kerbs. It’s something you try to avoid doing for the whole race, but not uncommon. Nonetheless, the car felt strange afterwards – I was holding some left steering lock to keep her straight.

Immediately I wondered if the geometry had been knocked out by the kerb, but through the left-handed Graham Hill Bend everything felt OK. I commited to the left-hander of Surtees at full pace, but the moment I tried to turn right into Clearways, a serious problem became obvious. The car felt like it was collapsing over its front-left corner as soon as I loaded it up, and the steering forces were all wrong. I immediately brought it into the pits, jumped out, shed helmet and gloves and ran around with the jack to check the front suspension. I found a front tyre sitting like this.

Hoping against hope that there was a simple failure like a snapped or missing bolt – despite them all being tight before the session – I lifted the car and got the wheel off while Alex strapped in. I found a terminal failure.

The wheel hub’s top bolt had torn out of its mounting eye on the suspension strut. The uncontrolled cornering loads had bent the bottom bracket so far that it couldn’t be reseated, and wouldn’t have been safe even it we’d got it clamped. There was no way we could send the car back out. We were forced to retire from the race, and Alex didn’t get his shot.

The pain of a retirement was entirely new to me. Over the last five years, this near-bulletproof car had seen the chequered flag at every single track day and race meeting she’d ever entered. While it’s seen as a part of racing, inevitable sooner or later, not finishing a race wasn’t really ever on the agenda. The feeling was made altogether worse by denying Alex his long-awaited chance to realise his dream, though he handled the situation like a professional, which helped.

Not only were we out of the race, the car couldn’t be driven, and I needed a way to get it home. Some brainstorming in the garage found a couple of half-feasible ways to get the car straight enough to drive, but this wasn’t a short hop, I had to do 140 miles of M25 and M40 and I wasn’t prepared to risk a temporary fix. It was the racing family that saved me again. Neil McDonald of Automac not only had suspension struts that would fit, he turned out on a Sunday evening to meet Mum (told you she was long-suffering) and hand a set over. I’m incredibly grateful to Neil for going out of his way to help us. Two hours later they were in the garage, and shortly after that I had a car I could safely drive home. Despite her unluckiest meeting yet, she made it back.

Which was a good job, with only eight days until the opening round of the Club Enduro Championship…

Much of this photography kindly furnished by AFR Productions and @photojcs