June 2017: Brands Hatch is a fabled stretch of tarmac, and with good reason – it’s set the scene of many an iconic race, from Grands Prix to Group C. The full GP circuit is fast and flowing, but rarely used for club racing, which tends to keep to the Indy loop. This is only 1.2 miles long, around the pits and back, but far from tame – the elevation changes are dramatic and there is plenty to upset even the best set-up cars. Paddock Hill bend sees you commit to an apex you can’t see, blind over the crest like the start of a rollercoaster. Anticipation was high!
This was another circuit that I’d never driven, so two weeks prior found us testing in the pouring rain. So wet was it, in fact, that it wasn’t worth swapping off the Uniroyal Rainsports tyres I use to get the car safely to events in all conditions – they were ideal for the job! Conditions like this demand confidence from the off, and are great to learn the car, allowing you to overstep the limit with minimal risk…
Fortunately, it dried up over lunch and we were able to get some good dry running done to figure out the quickest way around the circuit. In what felt like no time at all, I was sitting in Friday afternoon traffic on the M25 in 32°C heat getting the car down to scrutineering.
Qualifying two drivers at Brands is a little easier, since the circuit is only a 58-second lap, so we got 18 racked up in the session. James went out first to do eight timed laps, then I jumped in for a turn. Annoyingly, we started to suffer from fuel starvation going over Paddock Hill, so ultimate pace wasn’t to be found, but we still did enough to beat the only other car in our class and put ourselves 30th of 37 overall.
We’d planned for James to start the race, which meant my very first time standing on the pit wall to watch my car leave the grid in the middle of the pack. It felt like quite a momentous occasion, enough to move me to actually face the camera for once…
James got through the busy start without incident, and set about doing some good racing, putting in some laps even quicker than his qualifying run. The car managed to produce some extra drama of its own five minutes in – in making a particularly hurried third-to-fourth gearchange to complete a pass on our Class D competitors Ollie Steek and Matthew Ellis, James pulled the gearknob off, not realising this until he next needed it.. braking late and off-line into Paddock Hill!
Showing impressive presence of mind and keeping his cool, James realised what had happened, got the gear with his palm and not only kept the car on the black stuff, but held his position. Long after the circuit got busy with Class A cars carving through the field, he handed the car over to me from the class lead.
Sadly, the rules in Roadsports include “success penalties”, whereby cars that have won or finished on the podium in previous races must serve a time penalty in their pitstop. I was held for an additional 25 seconds for having won the previous two races, more than enough for the #24 BMW Compact to retake the lead. After just six short laps of reeling in our opposition, an incident brought out the safety car and ate up valuable race time. We were only live again for another three laps before a heavy crash at Druids stopped the race six minutes early.
The final tally shows we finished 25th of 34 starters, but thirteen seconds behind our class competition of Steek/Ellis. Mixed emotions – we’d been the faster car, we’d passed them on the circuit and set the class fastest lap, but the race was cut short and our success penalty had robbed us of another win. It seemed a shame to realise that Ollie and Matthew also felt a hollow victory, knowing that it was only the “balancing” rules that had handed it to them – a strong argument against such artificial influence in race results, we thought. Here’s the footage from onboard the car:
The report of this race wouldn’t be complete without talking about the heat. The temperature never dropped below the high twenties all day, and in the car – with no insulation at all between us and the engine and exhaust heat – the conditions were punishing. I take my hat off to endurance drivers who can stand hours-long stints in cars that run even hotter than ours – twenty minutes was more than enough to leave us gasping! The need for driver fitness and taking proper care of oneself was underlined by seeing Petteri Jokinen, whose turbocharged Mini would certainly have been harder work than our car, collapse from heat exhaustion after the finish.
Still, we left the circuit feeling we’d had another successful day. We’d got through scrutineering, qualified the car, shown good pace and finished a hectic race without incident. That can never be a bad result when competing in a road-going car with such limited budget.