Race Five – Rockingham

September 2017: Our final race of the 2017 season would take us to Rockingham, a technical infield circuit inside an oval. James and I both knew the track quite well, but I’d made some changes that warranted testing – one was finally moving to full-specification racing brake pads, fitting Performance Friction 08 endurance-compound pads in place of the Z-Rated that had been in before. The other was far more invasive to achieve, and dramatic in performance enhancement…

One man’s misfortune is another’s gain, and Brian Love’s E36 race car being broken for parts gave some very interesting options. I picked up oil coolers for both engine and differential (neither fitted for 2017), but most importantly a freshly rebuilt 3.91 ratio medium-case diff with four friction plates. This would give an enormous gearing reduction from the 3.15 I’d been using up to now, and far better locking performance too. A two-man job to install, made possible only by the selfless and knowledgeable James Butt! I also failed to mention the new seat in the Cadwell race report – among the best money I’ve ever spent on this car was a Cobra Evolution Pro. The support and control this offered was truly priceless.

When testing the car before I race, I generally find myself worrying or hunting for issues or obsessing over the onboard footage to find the best line around the circuit. Rockingham was the first time for a long while that I just got out of the car smiling. At long last, it felt like a racing car. The directness, the feel, the aggression the diff allowed you to use, the sheer power and impact of those brake pads.. Incredible. All through the development of a car, you only get a few moments like that where it all comes together and makes sense, and it’s a brilliant feeling. I couldn’t wait to get out there and race it.

Race day started out dry, and the car felt great through qualifying. We were both able to get some good space and put in good laptimes, with both drivers clocking best laps within a second of each other and putting the car on class pole for the fourth time that year. I was particularly pleased with my quickest lap, a 1:46.42, putting us 20th of 27 cars on the grid overall. Here it is:

We’d been gifted a dry morning to really feel the performance of the car, but the weather quickly turned threatening, with downpours through the earlier races of the afternoon. We weren’t too fussed, as we knew the car suited the wet quite well and we were both very familiar with it, so we were happy with our abilities in challenging conditions. Challenging, however, quickly became absurd – it’s hard to convey just how black the skies became before our race start, but I hope these two images go some of the way!

Almost every race before us was red-flagged at least once due to incidents, and when our time finally came, James was to lead. The circuit had mostly dried out since the last downpour, but the intent in the skies was clear as James made his way to the grid:

A slightly slow getaway at the start left some work to do, but after only a few minutes’ racing the heavens opened. I was on the pit wall at the time, and the rain came down so hard it actually hurt – you can hear it hitting the car in the onboard video, even over the noise of the engine at wide-open throttle. The race was brought under safety car after just seven minutes, a decision warranted by a Ginetta in our class spinning directly in front of James even with the race neutralised. The safety car stayed out until the 24-minute mark, long through the pitstop window opening. This left me a difficult decision to take – all of our key competition was pitting to take advantage of the slower pace under the safety car, but James had barely had any race time. I left him out in the hope he’d get some chance to drive the car properly, and after the race went live again, I called the car in at the last possible moment before the pit window closed.

There followed one of the best driving experiences of my life. I joined a drenched circuit, so wet that even pulling second gear in the pitlane led to wheelspin, with small rivers crossing the track in half a dozen places. Being the only ones pitting outside the safety car period, we were at the back of our class and, briefly, dead last overall. I had fifteen minutes to fight back.

The circuit was treacherous, faster traffic was coming through, but I felt completely in touch with the car and was comfortable taking it well beyond the grip limit for lap after lap. Racetracks are generally extremely slippery in the wet, and among them Rockingham is famously lethal, giving the impression of driving a colossally powerful car with nowhere near enough tyre to control it. In short, exactly my idea of a good time! The conditions made all sorts of new and interesting passing manouvres possible, including going around the outside of competition, and in the end I was able to fight all the way back to second in class and twelfth overall. Here’s the race video:

I got out of the car feeling absolutely elated. Not only was it a truly wonderful drive to finish on, but we’d made it through the season. This leggy old 90s repmobile had been reborn as a racing car, and two novices had not only got it to the chequered flag in every race, but it had finished on the podium every time as well. The final tally from five races was two class wins, three second places, four poles and four fastest laps. In short – beyond my wildest dreams.

All that was left to do was load the car up, drive it home after the most successful year I could have imagined, and start planning for the next one…