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


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

Race 19 – Silverstone Grand Prix Enduro

“Was it good?!”

The final round of the 750MC Club Enduro Championship took us to Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit. Simply driving the GP layout is a rare privilege, doing a two-hour endurance race on it in my own car the stuff of dreams. It became a reality on October 27th 2019, with friends and family beside me.

This time, we worked harder than ever to capture every aspect of the race weekend on camera. Ride along with us for a full lap of the Grand Prix circuit in testing, hear our thoughts about each session live and direct from the pitlane (including during the race!), and see the highlights from our point of view.

In place of a race report, come with us in the film below.

We hope you enjoy the finale of our 2019 season.


Number 36 will return…

Race 17 – Oulton Park Enduro

“That was wheel to wheel!”

Buoyed by the success of a comeback race at Donington Park, the following weekend brought our return to the Club Enduro Championship at Oulton Park. This is a beautiful but deeply challenging circuit for both car and driver – not only are few of the corners straightforward, nor are the straights! It’s bumpy, undulating and constantly curving one way or another. There’s no respite, the work rate is relentless over the 2.7 miles of the International circuit, and we’re here to do a two-hour race against 33 other cars.

Oulton hadn’t featured on our calendar until now, and I hadn’t driven it since February 2016! It’s Adam’s local circuit so his track knowledge was fine, but since he hadn’t sat in the car since its accident at Croft three and a half months prior, we both were both in dire need of some testing before we’d be ready to race. We booked onto a full day of the Friday test directly before the race, at the slightly eye-watering cost of £380. But we know how 2019’s fortunes are playing out by now…

Twenty minutes into the day, I made a small and very costly mistake. I dropped the rear-left wheel off the edge of the kerb on the exit of Britten’s chicane, heard a loud bang, and immediately the revs flared and drive to the left wheel was lost with a metallic clattering noise. I could drive the car under very gentle power, as the limited-slip differential worked hard to divert all the torque to the one connected rear wheel. I got it back into the paddock fearing the worst: a differential failure would be the end of our weekend. The car went high up on axle stands so we could see what was happening, and to my immense relief both diff output flanges were turning. The failure was the driveshaft inner CV joint, which seemed to have snapped clean in two. That SKF shaft had been on the car for about four hours’ use, which others now tell me seems to be par for the course. Avoid, despite the strength of that brand..

The relief was short-lived when we found that no local parts shop had a shaft that would fit. Nor did the breakers, the main dealers, anyone in the paddock, nor the motor factor Adam to which drove an hour to find a completely wrong part. The test day dwindled away as the car sat immobile, until Brad Wallbank came to the rescue with a shaft from an E36 being broken for parts. We got it fitted in time to scrutineer the car on Friday afternoon, but not in time for Adam to do any testing at all. We’d be going into qualifying quite blind the next morning.

The day dawned crisp and clear, and I was immensely relieved to see Adam come past the pits in qualifying.. the soundtrack and stopwatch both told me the car was performing well. Our last-ditch driveshaft appeared to be doing its job. I took over halfway through the session to find a car that felt familiar again, but I was treating it more cautiously than ever before: stay off the kerbs, keep some margin, don’t go throwing everything away with the race starting in three hours’ time. Whilst briefly second in class, we finished the session fourth of the ten Class C entrants. We chalked this up as quite a success, considering the débâcle of our test day.

As the race approached we found ourselves in the eerie quiet of an endurance race’s assembly area. Usually bustling with crews and family, the wait to go to the grid is always to the backdrop of dozens of race engines idling away, from the quiet and smooth to the lumpy and aggressive. The air is usually filled with the rich, sweet scent of unburnt fuel as everyone warms their engines.. but not so before Club Enduro. Every drop of fuel burnt here is another drop we need to replace in a pit stop, so not a single engine is running. It brings a totally different feeling of anticipation, and makes the endeavour feel very serious and very real.

Adam started the race, with my nerves jangling on the pit wall to see if he could survive the hectic first few laps and find the car robust at full pace. I needn’t have worried. He excelled himself, fighting almost constantly throughout his entire hour stint. I’ve never seen such a protracted struggle for positions in Club Enduro, with Adam battling the #81 MX-5 of Matthew Tidmarsh, then the championship-leading #79 BMW 330i with Andrew Lightstead at the wheel, and finally Darren Kell’s #68 MX-5. For much of the first hour, all four cars were on top of each other and trading places lap by lap. It made for fantastic viewing!

A safety car at 53 minutes race time gave us the opportunity to save time in our pitstop, so Adam came in from third in class to take on fuel and hand the car over to me. He got out looking harder-worked than I’ve ever seen him but reported no issues with the car, so out I went to try and bring home another podium finish. By the first three corners, all my worries had melted away and I felt completely at home. The circuit was starting to make sense, and the car felt fantastic – sharp, agile and stable lap after lap. I settled into consistent, smooth laps with more than a few Class B cars overtaken in the process.

I don’t wish to write a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened in the race, partly because I could reach 5,000 words, but mostly because the stunning footage captured by Alpha Live Productions and commentated by Ian Sowman and Joshua Barrett does a far better job. I did my best to condense this into the shortest highlights video possible. It’s incredible to think that this is my car, my five years’ work starting from a tired 90s repmobile, captured in such a professional way. I hope you enjoy it!

The end result? A desperate wheel-to-wheel battle with Darren Kell that counted three body contacts, two cars off the circuit, and enough excitement to justify two full laps of uninterrupted coverage from the commentary team! During a safety car period I’d heard telltales of that driveshaft pulled from a scrap car starting to fail, so was doing my best to nurse the car home. With ten minutes to go Darren had other ideas, turning the fight for second in class into the closest, toughest racing I’ve ever had to do.

Finally winning through to stay ahead of Darren’s MX-5 and pull out a bit of a gap, I had a new challenge to face: the inexorable march of the fuel gauge’s needle towards zero. Club Enduro has a mandated pit stop time, every car must be stationary for three minutes to refuel – but the dry break refuelling rigs we must use to minimise the risk of fire take a long time to fuel our car through its standard filler. We always have to take a judgement call and fuel the car as lightly as we dare to avoid wasting time in the pit lane, and the endless battles of this race had nearly burnt it all. I was short-shifting and throwing the car around the circuit to move the fuel to the useful part of the tank, full of doubt until the deliverance of the “last lap” board and finally the chequered flag. Hard in my mirrors for the last few laps, Darren finished nine tenths of a second behind me after two hours of racing.

We’d done it – our comeback race had seen us finish second in class! I was absolutely euphoric as I crossed the line, scarcely able to believe we’d achieved this result after practically nothing going to plan since we’d arrived. It felt fantastic, and all the more so for having been a true team effort. Both drivers had fought tooth and nail for positions, both had punched in laptimes as fast as the car could do that day, and both left with a trophy to be seriously proud of.

Next up, Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit on October 27th. With a third place finish at Donington and second at Oulton, there’s only one step left to climb…


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 15 – Croft Enduro

“I suppose we did well to get this far..”

Trackside photography kindly provided by Mick Palmer of Motor Racing UK Magazine

The next round of the Club Enduro Championship took us to Croft, a less well-known circuit 195 miles away near Darlington. I vaguely recalled the layout from playing TOCA 2 in the early 00s, but I’d never been there. Adam spectating in 2003 was the sum total of our experience on the ground! It’s a long old way up the A1(M) when you’re driving your competition car, and I’d planned to stop for dinner halfway there to stretch my legs, but actually I did the three-hour run in one hit and felt none the worse for it. It speaks volumes for the versatility of this car that even now, in full endurance-racing spec, it can still do that with ease.

Barely knowing which way Croft went, it seemed prudent to book some testing. We arrived on Friday morning to find a quaint little pit lane leading onto a circuit that looked fast, flowing and with very few textbook corners. Everything is either compound, bumpy, off-camber or all three – a simple airfield circuit this isn’t! It seems to have its own microclimate too, with our test day bringing us three seasons in one day. We found the newly laid surface remarkably good in the wet, and when it finally dried in the afternoon, we had a car that was fast, balanced and extremely satisfying. We managed to record the second-fastest time of the day for Class C cars. It’s rare to get to a stage with setup where you feel equally happy in the wet as the dry, but we’d managed it. A good job, since the forecast for race day looked likely to throw both at us.

Testing on Friday and racing on Sunday gave a rare treat – a “day off” at a circuit. While the car needed checking over and tidying up after the soaking test runs, we were generally free to soak up some racing, and what a treat 750 Motor Club had in store for us. We discovered Croft is a pretty nice spectator circuit, with banking giving us birds-eye views of 38 Locosters trying to negotiate the first chicane, the stunningly fast F1000s whose full wet laptimes outpace our dry ones, and proper eleven-tenths driving from the brilliant MG BC V8 series. These cars have to be heard to be believed – just wonderful.

Race morning dawned dry with threatening skies, but we felt content either way. We’d learnt the circuit in the full spectrum of conditions, and while we weren’t certain whether we’d been able to cure an ABS problem, we felt confident in the car. For a change, it was even looking clean and presentable before the qualfiying session!

We’d had the car on axle stands overnight to make a call on tyres in the morning. The weather looked almost stable before qualifying, so Adam drove down to assembly on dry tyres.. upon which it immediately started to bucket down good and proper. The circuit was drenched, and the focus changed. The first laps wouldn’t be any use for trying to set a time, not until Club Enduro’s capacity field of cars had circulated for long enough to dry it out. Instead Adam focused on finding where the best grip was in the wet, working to get the car around safely and smoothly to complete his laps before handing over to me to finish the session.

Unfortunately, that didn’t go quite to plan.

After his third lap, Adam came over the radio to say that he’d been hit. From the pit wall only the left-hand side of the cars can be seen, and there wasn’t any obvious damage. He reported it was driving OK, so he stayed out and kept punching in faster laptimes as the circuit dried. After three more, he came in to hand the car over to me. I found a very bent driver’s door that was a struggle to open, but the rush of a mid-session driver handover was no time for close inspection. I strapped in and went out to try and put us on pole position once again.

The car felt unbalanced, requiring some left steering lock to keep it straight, and considerably more keen to go right than it was to turn left.. but qualifying is a short session and only the laptime counts. Under those circumstances it’s possible to force your brain to ignore most issues, so as I’d done at Donington, I switched off my mechanical sympathy and pushed as far as I could. The lap times tumbled as the circuit improved and through the pit board Mum and Emily told me the story: 36 P3, 36 P2, and finally 36 P1. We were the fastest of the fourteen Class C cars, but in the dying minutes of the session I knew there was far more time still out there.

Finally I overstepped the mark into Clervaux, Croft’s unforgiving first corner. You hit it in fourth gear, and with gravel on the outside your instinct is to clip early – but the inside kerb is enormous, and there’s a savage dip right in the apex. It’s the toughest test of dampers I’ve found on any circuit, and this time I asked too much and had a big sideways moment. Remembering we had an endurance race starting in an hour and a half, I backed off and brought the car back to the pits. It was a shame to see we slipped to fifth place by the end of the session, but it was the right call to resist pushing too hard.

It wasn’t until I got out in parc fermé that I saw what the contact Adam reported had done to the car. It wasn’t just the doors – the entire bodyshell had caved in as far as the rollcage. The B-pillar was hard against the cage, the sill rail was a crumpled mess, and the floor was rippled up. The body was visibly bent around the point of impact. It was the kind of damage you only get in a serious shunt, so the footage from our camera went straight to the stewards. I shuddered to think what would have happened without the rollcage, then started to wonder if this car was even raceable.

We later heard that the stewards found Adam at no fault for the collision. The other driver involved was excluded from qualifying and their licence endorsed with four penalty points.

Just our luck that the schedule was another short gap between qualifying and race start – we had only an hour before we would be called to the assembly area. The shell looked like it could be terminally damaged, but with no reserves left on the entry list and no refund for withdrawing, we had to try and race it. Priority one was to get the driver’s door working properly, so that marshals would be able to extract us from the car in the event of an accident. Thankfully it did reseat and could be operated from inside or out. The rear door was “persuaded” back into an aperture that was no longer big enough for it, the hole torn in the floor was patched, the tank was brimmed with fuel, and we had time for no more than a wheel torque check before it was showtime.

But racing is an amazing thing. There I sat strapped into a car that had been five years in the making, with blood, sweat and yes, a few tears poured into the endless development that got it from a tired repmobile to a race winner. I knew she’d been dealt a serious blow and I had no idea whether she could ever be repaired. I’d never considered looking past this car, but now it could be the end of the road. Yet when I pulled around the hairpin for the rolling start among the biggest grid of cars Croft had ever seen, the lights went out, I opened the throttle, and everything else fell away. All that was left was the desire to win, the almost instinctive control of the car, the constant judgement of the drivers alongside and ahead, and hunting for any gap or any mistake I could use to get in front.

I passed five cars in the opening lap, and it felt absolutely incredible. There is nothing like pushing a car right to the edge of the envelope, inches from another, and winning through. Here’s the start of the race:

Crushingly, it wasn’t to last. There was a brief safety car period during which a lot of rain fell, but when we resumed racing there was obviously a problem with the car. I couldn’t pinpoint it at first, there was just an instability somewhere, and it felt like the oversteer to the right had worsened. I subconsciously started to back off, losing third place to the #68 Mazda MX-5 of Darren and James Kell.

On the exit of Tower corner I realised this was serious and I was going to have to pit, just 12 minutes into the race. But this was halfway around the lap, and I had over a mile to nurse the car back. Even at reduced pace, a vibration rapidly became what felt like a shredded rear tyre, with the car crabbing right and dragging heavily. I got as far as the Complex, three corners to go, before a heart-stopping bang shook the whole car. I immediately had no drive and it was obvious that at least one wheel had completely locked. I could hear the tyre screaming against the tarmac, and the drag was huge. I tried to use the momentum to get out of the way, but in the end only made it a few feet off the circuit into the grass. After trying in vain to move the car, I had to abandon it.

The moment I looked back, my hopes sank. This wasn’t a damaged tyre, it was a complete collapse of suspension or wheel hub. There was no prospect of getting that car back out into the three-hour race.

Croft’s excellent marshalling and recovery team got the car off the circuit and sympathetically lifted back to the paddock where I could work on it. On removing the wheel, which was only kept tethered to the car by its brake disc being trapped in the caliper, we found the driveshaft end had sheared off. The huge nut on the end of that shaft holds the wheel hub together, so with it gone, the bearing had collapsed and the wheel came completely free of its mounting. It looked like the car had been running on a cracked shaft which had progressively bitten through until complete failure. A cracked shaft such as you might expect if your car had been thrown bodily across a racetrack by a collision two hours previous…

It really hurt to see the car lifted onto a truck for the first time in my entire ownership. Reliability had been so key in everything we’d done, and the car had proven itself time and again, so it felt absurd to retire with two and three-quarter hours’ racing still to go. It was small consolation that the failure didn’t seem to be down to our preparation or our driving. We had little to do but watch the more fortunate drivers still racing, load all our equipment back into the stricken car, and wonder about how to get it home.

The marshalling team at Croft went above and beyond to help us with that. They put us in touch with a local recovery firm and even tracked me down in the paddock later in the day to make sure I’d been able to get something arranged. At not-insignificant cost – even in the context of endurance racing! – I had, and by 10pm that evening the car was home.

What happens next for #36?

Well, in the cold light of Monday morning, the car looked no prettier. The further I inspected the more damage I found, and the bodyshell looks well beyond what you’d consider saving on a road car.  Motorsport is different – not only in the value of the car, but also in the effort required to transplant everything to another shell, with welded rollcage feet and plumbed-in fire extinguishers to name just two jobs requiring a lot of work. Saving this car could still be the most cost-effective way to get racing again, and if there’s any chance she can live on, I want to take it. Work continues now to rebuild the rear left corner and get the car driveable, so it can be properly assessed and a decision taken. In the meantime we’ve had to withdraw from the next two rounds at Spa-Francorchamps, a real disappointment that – along with our failure to finish at Croft – also puts us out of contention for the championship.

I’ll keep you updated as I try to bring the car back.


Race 14 – Donington Park Enduro

“It’s getting a bit serious now, isn’t it?!”

This is the big one – the opening round of the 2019 Club Enduro Championship. We plan to contest every one of the eight races organised by 750 Motor Club, spanning the biggest circuits in the UK and even further – to the legendary Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Five years on from a humble beginning as a standard road car used in a few track days a year, my 192,000-mile E36 is now a genuine endurance racing car fighting for a championship. Even seeing it in the assembly area alongside GT4 and TCR cars, it doesn’t quite seem real. Nor did seeing our names on the same entry list as a multiple BTCC race-winner. Still, best to approach this meeting like any other – I drove the car to the circuit on Sunday evening before the race on the bank holiday Monday, passed scrutineering, and parked up in the garage.

It had been a busy week getting the car re-prepared after Brands Hatch seven days before, featuring this car’s first-ever retirement from an event. A replacement front left suspension strut was bought from Gaz, the geometry reset, and brand-new Nankang AR1s fitted to the new wheels. This would be our first time ever racing on fresh tyres, having done all of the previous seasons on part-worn tyres to reduce costs. I was nervous about the durability of the car, but very keen to see how it could perform.

Trackside images by Jon Elsey Motorsport Photography

Adam went out first in qualifying, and completed only two laps before reporting a vibration in right-handers. He brought the car into the pits to be checked – suspecting an issue with the recently replaced front left strut I took that wheel off, looked for any clearance issues and spanner-checked everything. It looked fine, as did everything at the rear, so I sent Adam back out to build up pace and report if anything worsened. It didn’t, so with a sigh of relief I received the car with 15 minutes remaining to try and set a laptime.

Sure enough there was a dire vibration somewhere, but dynamically the car felt OK, with huge grip and excellent balance from those new AR1s. Finding space amongst 49 cars wasn’t easy, but at the end of the session, I managed to get under the lap record and put in a 1:51.97 followed by a 1:51.79. Here are those two laps..

Seeing 51s pop up on the lap timer was fantastic, I knew that laptime should have been enough to be on the pace, but I didn’t expect to be right at the front. At the end of the session we stood second of 16 cars in Class C, but later found that there’d been a timing error with the one car that recorded a faster time – in fact, we were on pole. I could scarcely believe we’d opened the season by qualifying fastest of such a huge field!

Getting back from qualifying at 11am before a race at 14:05 would normally be a pleasantly short gap, but this time it presented real pressure. We had two and a half hours to diagnose and try to repair whatever was causing the vibration, refuel the car, eat something, prepare ourselves and get it out to start the race. We found that the freshly mounted tyres were out of balance – they can often slip on the rims when first used on a circuit, thanks to the soap used to mount them. But the real issue was finally uncovered with the rear of the car in the air and the wheels turning – the left-hand driveshaft had spat some or all of the grease out of its inner CV joint and was knocking heavily as it rotated. An unlikely failure and unrelated to the previous weekend’s issues, something I don’t carry parts for, and we didn’t have time to get it off the car anyway. We elected to go, but to try and keep off the kerbs as much as possible.

Adam would start the two-hour race, and ideally drive until around the one-hour mark before coming into the pits to get out, refuel the car and let me take over. But endurance racing forces you to be adaptive, and if there was a safety car period earlier in the race, it would be advantageous to pit early… so long as you could then carry enough fuel to finish the race. We calculated the “stop / no-stop” race time and agreed to give a lap’s notice before coming in – two minutes I’d need to swap stopwatch and radio for helmet and gloves!

I was almost as nervous on the pit wall as I would have been sitting in the car, powerless to control what would happen in the middle of a pack of 49 cars crammed onto Donington’s front straight.. but I oughtn’t have been. Adam drove superbly, fast and consistent, staying out of trouble but refusing to give ground. Imran Khan and Andrew Lightstead’s mighty #79 330 Challenge car pulled out an early lead, but regular battles with the #73 Mazda MX-5 of John Munro and Nick Dougill kept Adam busy. After 30 minutes he fought them off for good and held 2nd place in Class C.

Here are the highlights of Adam’s stint:

I’ve long said that endurance racing brings so many new elements and experiences that are missing from sprints or shorter events. One of them is standing on the pit wall watching the car you built fight for podium places in a huge race like this, with your friend at the helm driving his best yet. It was absolutely brilliant – and I hadn’t even got to race it yet!

A safety car at around 35 minutes’ race time tested our strategy – it wasn’t really soon enough for us, so Adam stayed out while some cars pitted, and as it turned out, the two-lap safety car period wasn’t long enough to confer a real advantage. Adam pushed on for five more laps before coming into the pits at 55 minutes, having reported a fuel starvation issue.

With some quick discussion beside the car as the fuel poured in agonisingly slowly, it became clear there was a new problem. We could normally run the tank down to five litres before getting any issues with fuel delivery, but Adam had reported it from two-thirds of a tank. We decided to put the full forty litres in, costing us almost an extra minute stationary but reducing the risk of not getting to the flag.

Finally, I got to strap into the car and go do some racing. Here are the highlights:

It’s strange jumping into a car halfway through a race. Your first lap is normally an act of bringing tyres and brakes up to temperature and getting the car into its natural groove, whilst surviving the hectic traffic of a race start. But driving second, you arrive quite by surprise into a racing car that’s already in its operating window, on a circuit that’s much clearer. Right from the first corner it felt brilliant, the brakes bit hard and the tyres were still properly switched on. Such was the immediate confidence that I made up two positions on my outlap.

A second safety car period curtailed the fun for seven laps, but after that, I had a fresh mind and 45 minutes of racing ahead of me. I used a relatively clear circuit to break the Class C lap record twice consecutively, despite a nearly full tank of fuel on board. Sadly my 1:53.07 won’t make it into the record books, as Imran Khan had turned in a 1:53.02 in his 330i to claim the bonus championship point for fastest lap. Next time!

I thoroughly enjoy multi-class racing, I think the “set pieces” effect of having a wide range of pace on the circuit adds a lot of interesting opportunities. It’s not without risk, though, as I found out halfway through my stint. On the run down the hill into the tight Melbourne hairpin, the second-placed BMW M4 GT4 passed me on the inside. Being a Class A car with 430bhp and already two laps ahead, it was no challenge for him. Unfortunately, the #51 Class B Honda Civic of Luke Handley tried to follow him from a little bit too far back, locked his brakes and ran into the back of the M4. The impact threw the rear corner of Luke’s Civic into the side of my car. The whole episode only cost five seconds, but I spent the next few laps listening carefully to the car, checking its handling, and watching temperatures – from my tightly strapped position in the driver’s seat, I had no idea what had been hit. I decided the car felt pretty good, and pressed on. Unbeknownst to me, the impact avoided the wheels, but made a nice mess of the driver’s door, which could no longer be opened from the outside!

Having left the pits 11th in class, I’d made it back to 4th place before the fuel starvation issue Adam had detected came back with a vengeance. You can read about the measures I’d taken to avoid the fuel handling issues that plague all standard E36s here, and they’d been very effective, so clearly something wasn’t working properly. After a few laps I switched off the secondary fuel pump to see if it made a difference – it didn’t, so apparently I had nothing transferring fuel across the saddle-shaped tank. The result was no power on the exit of right-handers, when the cornering forces threw all the fuel away from the engine’s supply pump located on the right side of the tank.

Come race end, I’d find a break in the earth wire to that secondary fuel pump. Such a simple failure had serious consequences, as without the pump transferring fuel, the only alternative was to take a shallower line through right-handers and then forcibly “transfer” the fuel myself by throwing the car to the left! Only then was power restored. It cost around three seconds a lap and I was constantly worrying that it would worsen to the point of being undriveable. Fortunately for me, before that point I found the #316 BMW 330i of Ivor Mairs, who was lying 3rd in Class C, the final hurdle before climbing onto the bottom step of the podium. Desperate not to give away how my car was ailing, I put everything into passing Ivor as quickly as possible and pulling a gap. Once a few seconds ahead, I was able to relax a tiny step and focus on bringing the car home.

The clock ticked down tantalisingly slowly, but at long last it hit 120 minutes and Adam confirmed over the radio that this was the final lap. I don’t remember ever being so happy to see a chequered flag waving! After the momentary thrill of qualifying first, through the rush and stress of getting the car fit to race and finally having to drive around issues and nurse it to the end, crossing the line third place was the most enormous relief. I felt deeply proud of everything that had got us there – Adam for fighting so hard right from the start, Mum and Em for working strategy and tracking the race and making sure we knew when to push and when to consolidate, and the car for whilst never being perfect, refusing to let us down.

What a stunning start to our first championship campaign. Next up, Croft on 2nd June, for the even greater challenge of a three-hour race. Via a bodyshop first, I suppose…


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

Races 11 & 12 – The Endurance Debut

Where to even begin with this one?!

October brought Snetterton, scene of the finale of our racing season with 750 Motor Club, and our most ambitious meeting yet. Rather than testing a couple of weeks in advance  then competing in Roadsports on one day, we booked ourselves a three-day extravaganza: testing on Friday, 45-minute Roadsports race on Saturday, then the car’s endurance racing debut on Sunday in the two-hour Club Enduro race. It was a serious undertaking – the sheer amount of tyres and equipment we needed was a real effort to pack in, but the car was still driven to the circuit in Norfolk, and clocked her 190,000th mile on the way.

Friday was only the second motorsport test day (as opposed to a track day) that I’d ever been to. I wasn’t even planning to drive – having done many hours’ racing at Snetterton already this year, I elected to give Adam as much seat time as possible in his first visit to the circuit. It didn’t pan out that way, with the two half-hour sessions both cut short by red flags, but Adam did at least find his way round and put in some respectable times. The car seemed pretty solid, particularly the Performance Friction brake pads, and we also learnt (deliberately!) how low we could run on fuel before the car started to get starvation issues. We were able to use 58 of the 62 litres the tank holds, thanks to the dual fuel pumps, which was an encouraging sign for Sunday’s endurance race.

This view of Dan Rogers’ MX-5 on its way to the assembly area says it all about Saturday’s weather. After testing in 22°C warmth and blazing sunshine, we had rain overnight to wash the circuit clean and then grey, cold skies all day. Qualifying was at least dry-ish, and we managed to put the car 5th of 16 cars in Class C with a 2:18.90, but the heavens opened big-time between then and our race, which was going to be full wet throughout. As only his second-ever race start loomed in challenging conditions with forty other cars around him, Adam didn’t look nervous at all…

Oh, no. Wait. He did.

As it turns out, he needn’t have done, because after two tentative green-flag laps to allow the field to figure out the conditions, the race got underway without incident. Adam did a great job of getting into the thick of the action and pushing the car up to, and often over, its limit right from the off. Particularly for a rear-wheel-drive car with relatively little weight over its rear axle, trying to find traction on a properly wet circuit is treacherous, and your reflexes to catch the near-inevitable oversteer need to be cat-like. There’s plenty of that in the opening lap video below, which also shows why racing in the wet is so dicey: it doesn’t matter how good your wipers or how polished your windscreen, the sheer amount of spray thrown up by racing cars with wings and diffusers means the air becomes opaque if you’re within fifty feet of another driver! It takes careful judgement to be remotely competitive in these sort of conditions.

After a great drive adapting to such lethal conditions on a circuit he’d only first seen the day before, Adam came into the pits with a big gaggle of cars who had all missed an unluckily timed safety car. I wasn’t even expecting him in that lap, finding out when I saw the roof of my car enter the pitlane, giving me barely enough time to dash into the garage to swap raincoat for balaclava and helmet! I arrived at the side of the car still pulling on my gloves as Adam got out. This, as it turns out, isn’t ideal preparation for entering a soaking wet motor race.

I misjudged the grip on the exit of Riches, gave her too much throttle too soon, and had a half-spin that pulled me to the inside. I just kissed the barrier, spending the whole time watching it approach thinking “Oh please no, we’ve got another race tomorrow, don’t wreck the car ten seconds after leaving the pitlane”…

I got away with it. As this post-nudge photo shows, there wasn’t a mark on the car, it really was a very gentle tap. But it taught me a valuable lesson. Two seasons of campaigning this car successfully and always managing to be on the pace had left me complacent, and apart from not even having my kit on when the car might have come into the pits at any time, I didn’t have my mind in the right place to race it. I can’t overstate how important mental preparation is to delivering your best performance as a driver – the circuit was incredibly slippery and the rate of attrition was really high, with cars falling off left right and centre and the race eventually being red-flagged, but I knew that was a mistake I would never normally have made. Lesson learned.

Between getting caught out by safety car timing and promptly throwing myself off the circuit, the rest of my race was pretty uneventful with very few cars left around me. Being lapped by Michael Price’s race-leading Porsche 997 towards the end was quite impressive – the power that thing could put down even before the apex, thanks to its rear-engined weight balance, was astonishing! Eventually bringing the car home 9th in class and 27th of 40 starters wasn’t what we’d hoped for, but at least she was intact and in good shape for Sunday’s endurance race. We cleaned the car up, took the wheels off to spanner-check all the major components and found everything in order. Off for a beer and a look at the day’s race footage.

Sunday dawned a much prettier day, with no threat of rain. “Moving up a league” felt quite real when applying the Club Enduro sponsor and championship stickers, and refuelling the car for qualifying with the “dry break” dump churns we’d use to take fuel during the race.

Qualifying was a busy affair, with no fewer than fifty cars on Snetterton’s three miles of tarmac. We eventually found some space and scored a half-decent laptime to put ourselves once again 7th of 17 Class C entries, and 37th overall. This didn’t really worry me, two hours is a long time and grid position isn’t everything – going the distance was what concerned me. The car had never been driven at racing speeds for more than 45 minutes at a stretch, and what happened after that was a complete leap into the unknown. With the tank brimmed all the way up the filler neck and everything we could think of double- and triple-checked, it was time to go.

This was my twelfth race, I’m not really new at this any more. I’d never touched another competitor in any of them, never had to make an unplanned pitstop, and I was strapped into easily the most dependable car I’ve ever owned. But a rolling start in a field of fifty, from MX-5s to fully-fledged GT4 cars driven by professional racers, asking this home-prepped car to do a genuine endurance race? I was nervous. I had no idea what was going to happen out there.

After the usual agonising wait in assembly, the car felt fine through the green flag lap, everything seemed to be warming up well, the field looked in good shape and as I came around Coram towards the pit straight I could see the red lights on the gantry to signal the start was going ahead. Close right up to the car ahead, third gear, get ready.. hear the engine notes rise as the race leaders open the throttles, and go!

You might be entirely unsurprised to hear that when the lights go out, all thoughts of “it’s a long race” fall away. By the end of the first lap I’d put nine more cars in my mirrors, and it felt absolutely awesome! There followed half an hour of feeling out for the limits and settling into a groove, putting in times neatly in the 2:18.6 – 2:20 range, pretty much as in qualifying and fighting up to third in class. A safety car period at the half-hour mark gave a bit of time to cool the car and myself, before resuming into a great battle with the #52 MX-5 of Paul Sheard and Steve Dolman. It was really hard work to break away from this obviously well-set up and nicely driven car, but I finally managed it by the time I came into the pits after an hour and ten minutes.

But this was to be no simple driver change. In this two-hour race we’d cover 144 miles of Snetterton, three-quarters of a Grand Prix distance, and the car’s standard fuel tank wasn’t enough. So we’d need to refuel during the stop. Club Enduro’s rules allow for this, giving a mandatory pit stop for which the car must be stationary for three minutes (compared to 1min in Roadsports), but it’s still tight getting enough fuel into the car in that time. The Tuff Jugs we were using are less than a tenth the cost of the ATL closed-loop system you’d see professional teams and some of our competitors using, but they’re slow, and each 20-litre jug takes about a minute twenty to drain into the tank. Practicing the stop beforehand with Storming Camel Motorsport‘s Nik Grove, who’d selflessly offered to help us during our stop and lend his experience of running an E36 in Club Enduro, the fastest we’d managed was 3min35 including the driver change. In the real pitstop I took a bit of a judgement call and gave less fuel than we’d planned, 30 litres instead of the full 40, and after a pretty seamless stop we got the car out with Adam at the wheel after 3min17.

Rejoining fifth in class, Adam was straight into the thick of battling cars for position, and any thought of a gentle rhythm was lost – afterwards he described it as a sprint race that happened to last nearly an hour! After being strapped in and focused for almost 90 minutes, I finally got to release the tension and reflect on what we’d achieved so far. Thanks to Josh Barrett, that included the opportunity to share my somewhat excited post-stint thoughts on the air!

Photograph copyright Jon Elsey Photography

It felt great standing on the pit wall seeing the car come through lap after lap, with Adam clearly pushing hard and going faster almost every lap. So much was he improving that he set his fastest lap of the race, indeed the quickest he’s ever driven around Snetterton, on the very last lap after almost an hour in the car! I can’t imagine better proof of car and driver being entirely up to the task. It felt quite surreal seeing him take the chequered flag – the car still looked immaculate and clearly wasn’t carrying any issues. She was now a bona fide endurance racer. Unbelievable!

We finished 7th in class and 27th of 50 starters overall – the latter being particularly satisfying, with 12 cars from classes above failing to outperform us or even finish at all. But the position wasn’t really the point, our goal was to try Club Enduro ahead of entering the championship in 2019, and find out whether we and the car were going to be able to do it competitively. The answer was a resounding “Yes!”, and just getting across the line in a car that was still fit to drive home afterwards felt better than some podiums I’ve scored. To have been fighting near the front and feel the car still performing her best after dozens of laps was incredible. I’d been on high alert feeling the brakes, the tyres, the suspension and listening for any telltale whine or knock or rattle that told me we were in trouble and I’d need to back off.. but it never came, she was just as good at the end as in that opening lap. What an achievement. What a car!

Rare anyone can say they were smiling the whole way up the A14…


Races 9 & 10 – Donington Park

It’s funny how events line up. Two weeks after my 24hr racing debut came my first sprint races! This car and I had only ever done 45-minute races in 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports series, but now we came to Donington Park for a new experience. Neil McDonald of Automac, one of the very few who’ve been trusted to work on my car, has collaborated with BMW Car Club GB to set up a new series for 2018 – BMW Car Club Racing. The format is two 15-20 minute races at each meeting, with classes catering to everything from fairly standard four-cylinder BMWs up to 400bhp+ M3s. Despite that the class structure doesn’t suit my car – I’d fall in Class 6, but around 45bhp away from the limit! – I wanted to give it a try. The more experience of different kinds of racing I can build up, the better, and with Donington being the scene of my first-ever race it seemed a shame not to have competed there this year.

Happily, I had plenty of familiar elements to make the meeting run smoothly. Much of BMW CCR’s calendar was run at 750 Motor Club meetings, so all of the brilliant club staff and scrutineers were familiar faces, and it also coincided with our 2017 driver James Lewis-Barned’s first outing in his newly purchased Locost. Cue a photo opp for “Team 36” together for the first time in their garage!

Come Sunday morning, qualifying was of special interest to me. This was an entirely new field of cars against which I’d never lined up before, and I was very keen to see where the car and I stacked up. There were a lot of very serious M3-powered machines out there, including in my Invitational class, so silverware wasn’t going to be on the cards this weekend – but there were also plenty more attainable targets to try and beat.

My first time competing on the National circuit brought a nice new experience – rather than being in a paddock or behind the garages, the assembly area is actually on the circuit. You line up on the Grand Prix circuit loop that’s not currently being used, and simply drive around onto the track proper once the series running before you have finished. This gives a nice grid-walk kind of feeling as you unstrap and wander around the cars, rare in club racing!

Unfortunately, qualifying didn’t quite go to plan, with a Cup-class E46 Compact off into the gravel at the Old Hairpin on our first flying lap. Depending where the car ends up, that can often trigger a red flag, but half a lap later I found another Compact stranded at Coppice with his bumper off in the middle of the circuit – that left it in no doubt. After we all got back to the pits and the cars were recovered, we only got three timed laps done before session end, none of which I was happy with. The result surprised me, though. I’d managed to put the car 16th of 25 overall, and was the second-fastest of the ten not powered by Motorsport engines. Maybe we were on for some good racing today after all! Here’s some footage, including the incidents:

Please note – right-hand corner, steering wheel pointing a little left of centre after turn-in. This is how we like our race cars!

Race One got underway at 12:10. The green-flag lap was a bit of an eye-opener! I’m used to longer races and a relatively relaxed drive to the grid, but everyone was weaving and brake-heating and rolling-starting like it was BTCC! For a 15-minute sprint, having your car at temperature and the tyres fully switched on would be a much more significant advantage. The start was a bit hectic, but by the end of the first lap my challenge was clear. A black E36 coupé, which turned out to be driven by Charlie Dark in his racing debut, was running very close to my laptimes. The car clearly had a lot more straight-line performance, but over a lap I was able to stick with him by carrying more corner speed, making for an interesting battle. I had to keep the pace up and stay as close behind as I could, as “driving in one’s mirrors” – watching the car behind you, rather than focusing on your own driving – is a surefire way to make mistakes and lose time! We were set for a good battle to the finish, but sadly a clutch problem meant Charlie had to retire the car, and I drove on to 13th overall.

You may recall us running out of front brake pad at Cadwell the last time this car was raced. Possibly a legacy of that issue, the pedal still seemed disconcertingly long and lacking in feel, so I used the gap between races to bleed the brakes again to try and improve it. We’re not called McKee Motorsport just because of me, as my wife Emily got on the tools while I played at being a gentleman driver!

With that done, lunch eaten, some setup changes made to James’s Locost and a few other races watched – nice long break between our events, this! – the time for Round Two finally came. This would be an interesting race.. The earlier results had shown that my car was too fast for the Cup-class E46 Compacts to compete, yet much too slow to stick with the M3s. Charlie’s 328i was the one to beat, and his retirement from the first race meant he was starting several cars down the grid, needing to fight his way past the Cup cars before he could deal with me. There were certainly plenty of cars ahead to aim for!

Uncharacteristically, I managed a great launch from the grid for the second time that day, again nearly hitting the back of the M3 in front before his power advantage started to tell. After a busy first two laps with many cars starting out of their natural positions, I found some clean air and could set about building up as big a lead as possible. I knew Charlie’s car was faster, and knew he would likely catch me – I had to prolong the inevitable for as long as I could! There followed a really satisfying drive. I clocked in eleven consecutive racing laps with all the times falling between 1:23.73, the fastest this car has ever been around Donington, and 1:24.55. I don’t have a lap timer in the car but could feel as I drove that I’d settled into a really great groove and was getting the job done.

It still wasn’t enough, though, not when 260bhp plays against 220 – on the last lap, Charlie was looming larger in my mirrors. I’d tried to manage the gap, but now he was coming whether I liked it or not, and by the back straight an attempt to get by was coming – spotted by Sy Skerton marshalling two corners back, so obvious was the intent! Coming into the final corners of the final lap, I tried to close the door on the inside, but Charlie successfully sold me a dummy by moving across in my mirrors, and – who’s the novice here?! – I took the bait and ended up leaving him space. There was nothing else for it but to make sure I held the position on the brakes. I left just a car’s width on the inside, pushed as far as I dared and then a tiny bit more before finally hitting the anchors. It worked – Charlie was overcommitted, locked up and shot straight past the apex just in time to let me turn in. That was a major relief!

Here are the highlights of both races, including a view you may not have seen before..!

Straight after that I passed the chequered flag flashing my lights with a fist held aloft, quite elated at achieving the goal I’d set for myself, despite it coming right down to the wire. What a great day’s racing! But what I didn’t realise until afterwards was that Neil had decided the Invitational class should be split into two categories, one for M-engined cars and one for standard engines… which made that battle of wits in the final corner the deciding move in a totally unexpected class win.

I’ve never been quite so surprised to receive a trophy – I’d come into this meeting for a bit of fun with no expectations, so I was absolutely made up to have scored a result. And to Charlie’s huge credit, after we finished he drove up the paddock to follow me to my garage and shake hands after a good contest, all smiles and no hard feelings at all. I do like this whole club racing thing…

What next? Snetterfest. Back into the fold of our usual 750MC series, Adam and I will be racing in Roadsports at Snetterton on Saturday 6th October.. But then we’ll also be entering our first Club Enduro race on Sunday 7th, a two-hour challenge of car and drivers to finish our season. I can’t wait to see how that turns out. See you there?