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…