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?