Well what a way to begin the 2005 season ! I decided to take up the offer of accompanying another driver from Club 100 to a 250 Gearbox test at the Shenington kart track just north of Banbury in Oxfordshire. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it as he was stranded by snow in Canada so I turned up for a play on my own ! I had always wanted to drive something extremely fast and this seemed to be the cheapest way to feed my passion ! These incredible machines could out-accelerate some serious racing cars with their high power to weight ratio exceeding a Formula 3 car ! I just wanted to see whether the sheer speed would intimidate me at all, and also experience the serious G-forces I had heard about !
Unfortunately the weather was attrocious having been sunny for the past few weeks and to go out on track having this kind of power under my right foot was daunting to say the least.
It felt extremely claustrophobic in the kart with a very tight seat that you had to slide back into as opposed to lowering yourself into. My mechanics gave me a bump start and then I had to pull the gear lever back from its neutral position to engage 1st gear and then we were off !
Then on the straight for the first time I thought I’d better see what all the fuss was about and set about accelerating hard and up through the 6 speed gearbox pushing the lever forward to find another gear, and then just as quickly down the box to brake for the 1st gear hairpin. It felt like something on a video game as it was very quick. Oh, and this first lap actually taught me which way the track went, let alone which gear to take each corner in, so it was very much a steep learning curve, especially considering the dangerous wet/foggy conditions which made it hard to even see to the end of the straight at times !!
Well what a buzz ! Mark Allen, who owned Jade Karts reckon i’d have been doing as much as 93mph down the straight seeing as I was hitting top gear and he also said they had timed one of these things from a standing start to 60mph in 3.2 seconds, so we are talking serious Super Car statistics here !
The kart was extremely easy to drive in that it communicated so well with you and was very predictable, even in the slippery conditions. When the back went out, which it could easily do, even whilst driving in a straight line, it was easy to guage the amount of opposite lock to apply in order to get it pointing the right way again. The thing that impressed me most was that the braking was very powerful and exact seeing as each wheel had a brake, unlike the one brake shared between the two rear wheels I was used to on a Club 100 kart. You could also use the gearbox to help slow you, a technique that you really needed to adopt in these kinds of conditions.
However on the third lap coming down the straight into the 1st gear hairpin, I locked up and didn’t come off the brakes or change down and BANG !, I was into the bails ! Blimey, I nearly needed a spade to dig the kart out. It was quite a hit and it damaged the front nose cone, but after I finally dragged the kart back onto the track, it was back to business as usual, unphased by the slight mishap I had just had !!
Even though I was on wet tyres, I was understeering into the corners which Mark said was down to me carrying too much speed in as a result of being in too higher gear. I gradually improved throughout my five 8-minute sessions and even overtook another more experienced competitor who was described by Mark as “doing alright” ! The last session found me on slicks driving on a track with a dry line emerging, although it was treacherous off line so I didn’t chance it by going flat through one of the more notorious corners, but as the track got drier, so too did the G-forces get higher and I did start to feel how physical these things must be to drive in dry conditions. The braking must be awesome in the dry and I have to say I would need a few goes before attempting to race such a machine as I didn’t find 8 minutes for a session enough time to really get into a rhythm especially in drastically changing conditions like we had. At the end of the day Mark reckoned I had done alright for a first time and I think I may have to go back for another go some day, but next time on a dry day ! It was definitely a good way to blow away the cobwebs from the long winter break and prepare for a very interesting 2005 to say the least......
As a result of entering the competition in their magazine, I was chosen by Auto Express to share their entry in the 2005 Uniroyal Fun Cup along with two other magazine staff drivers, in the process providing me with my first season racing cars, my ambition since the age of 10 !
I saw the competition for the race seat whilst flicking through the magazine one lunch time. 25 random readers would contest a pro-kart sprint race at Milton Keynes with 5 going through to a shoot out to be held at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground in Leicestershire.
I figured I had a good chance from the start, especially as I won the kart event pretty convincingly ! At Bruntingthorpe we each had a go in the car and had to impress Owen Mildenhall, the team's second driver, ex sportscar racer and race instructor. Well at the end of it all, I was the one selected to race !
The prize also included getting you through the ARDS test in order to get the race licence, but I had already booked to attend the 4 day ARDS Race Intensive course at Silverstone. I had booked this before Christmas as I wanted to do the single seater race at the end of the course. That was probably going to be the only race I would ever do until the competition win !
I managed to pass the ARDS test easily enough and at end of March found myself in my first car race in a mixed field of Formula Ford and Formula First single seaters, most of the drivers coming straight off the 4 day course.
By looking at the practice qualifying we had from the final day of the course, it looked like we had the hardest race as the other drivers had all been at the top of the timesheets.
Qualifying saw my car with new brake pads which needed bedding in for the first couple of laps. After that I set about setting a decent lap. I didn't push hard enough and ended up 4th out of the Formula Firsts.
I made a good start in the race but so did everyone around me so no positions were gained or lost. The Fords went away at the front but we were only concerned about slow ones that would be difficult to pass in a straight line ! The leading First had a spin coming out of the North hairpin which put me up to third, but I needed to push and try and get with the other two in front. I tried everything to try and close the gap but we were lapping at similar pace so I gained hardly anything on them. Then with about 4 laps to go, we caught up with a back marker in a Ford of all cars, brilliant ! The two firsts caught the Japanese driver in the twisty Esses section where it was difficult to pass. Fortunately for me, they were baulked and I made my move ! I got the 2nd placed First before he passed the Ford and also did the Ford into the South turn and my better momentum through that corner meant I ended up on the rear of the leading First as we went up the pit straight as he had also been badly held up. I slip streamed and then dived up the inside into braking for turn one but locked up and went wide which allowed the Greek guy to drive on the inside line down the back straight into the next corner which I had no choice but to concede. I kept with him through the esses as I had forced him off his optimum line going into them and again made a better exit this time allowing me to pass him earlier up the pit straight. After that I pulled away gradually and won the race for the Formula Firsts, a positive start to my car racing career !
We tested at Snetterton the day before the race, the first time I had sat in the Auto Express Uniroyal Fun Cup Beetle. The track was wet but a dry line emerged throughout the first hour long session so lap times tumbled as confidence was built. The second session later in the day was dry so I could really see how the car drove.
On race day we were greeted to a snow covered Snetterton ! This was great for the nerves, especially after the action had started on track, and a Global GT Light car had smashed heavily into the pit wall right in front of us ! Owen qualified us 5th on the grid although the actual starting grid is drawn from a hat so we actually started about 15th. Kim was out first and brought the car in after 50mins in 10th having been slightly higher earlier on. I jumped in at the pitstop and off I went for my first stint. The first mistake, I had already made before even reaching the first corner was that I had positioned my seat too far forward and when I went from 5th gear to 4th to 3rd at the Esses after the main straight, I kept hooking 5th again as I couldn't easily operate the gear change. As a result of this my lap times were a bit inconsistant. However I carried on and at the end of my stint I think we were about 6th so I must have passed a few people ! Owen went out and went faster again really getting used to the car after his lack of practice and then Kim was out again. We were in a solid 7th with just under 2 hours to go of the 5 hour race and gaining quickly on 6th when Kim limped into the pit lane with fuel problems. It turned out that we had a blocked fuel filter due to some rubbish in the fuel filler. We lost 3 laps which dropped us to 13th as I went out for my final stint which was much more consistant and confident although annoyingly for me, I didn't manage to better my lap times as light rain fell and slowed the track up slightly. No dramas occured and I handed over to a fired-up Owen to bring the car home. He went ballistic setting our fastest lap some 2.9secs better than my fastest but still about 8 tenths off the fastest lap of the race in total. He was making good ground but we ran out of time and we came in 9th, a good start and something to build on for Donington.
I wasn't that pleased with my times on average being about 2 secs slower than Kim and Owen but I suppose I had only had an hour or so's practice in a car and on a track I didn't know ! There is definitely places I can make up time and I need to brake harder and later so that is what I will be practicing as soon as we get to Donington !
During bone-dry testing on the Friday, I set about getting my braking later and also about getting more comfortable with the car on the limit. I had it out of shape at the old hairpin a few times at speed but felt comfortable getting it easily back on the straight and narrow !. Whilst, not quick, I at least got some good experimentation time in ! I was also driving the car for the first time with only half a front splitter after someone managed to knock it off somewhere !
Qualifying on Saturday was annoyingly soaking wet, but at least we got some wet weather practice in, incase the weather turned, as it easily could during the five hour race period. I took it steady making sure we got our mandatory 3 laps in per driver to make sure we were allowed to compete in the race. I felt fairly comfortable in the wet conditions and found that I was able to push more and more each lap, despite limited traction and unpredictable conditions which were affected by the legend of Donington that tells us about the aviation fuel which can be dropped by the planes taking off and landing and nearby East Midlands airport !
Kim started the race in warm and sunny conditions which became much warmer as the race progressed. I think we were about 11th when he came in disappointed (as we had started 6th) and handed over to me. I had a solid first stint, lapping on average about 1.5 secs slower than the other guys although my best time of a 1:33.2 was a second quicker than in testing although I was still a bit miffed to be that far off, so I again sat down and thought about where I was losing time, what revs the others were pulling out of the corners and clarified the lines I was taking just to make sure. Owen had a fairly uneventful first stint and then Kim had his second stint, to consolidate our then, 10th/11th position, but not really improving his times by much. Armed with all the information I had put together during my break, I charged out on track and set about improving my times, and reputation ! After about the 3rd lap out and as a result of carrying more speed through the corners and getting the clipping points right, I was able to shave a whole second off my time and that had come down by another 8 tenths by the time my stint had finished. I was really flying and was on the general pace of Kim and Owen for the first time in only the second race. At this point, my 1:31.2 was only 4 tenths of a second behind Kim’s and only 6 tenths off of Owen’s best lap time. During my first stint we had a safety car, but we pitted under the yellow flags to sensibly refuel and change drivers, but we had another one during the second stint, and happily, I got to take the restart which worked out great, probably as a result of using some of my karting experience with regards to rolling starts. I kept tabs on the Audi Estate safety car until its lights went out down the back straight, put our Beetle into 3rd gear and then got right on the next car’s tail before slip streaming down the pit straight and overtaking into turn 1 neatly. I came in and handed over to Owen for the final fling in which he caught and pulled away to consolidate our finishing position of 9th despite fears that we might not make it to the end as Lisa had accidentally short filled us by 5 litres at the final fuel stop ! Owen, again drove the wheels off the car, almost literally as there was plenty of (minor) body damage when he bought the car back into the pits at the end, minus another splitter, the second of the weekend !! He had eaked another couple of tenths out of the car making a best time of 1:30.28, just under a second quicker than my best. However, he reported that we had a down-on-power engine that was causing us to lag behind the ultimate race pace. Hopefully we can get the engine changed for Oulton Park and try for our first podium as my (now realistic) aim is to be on the pace again and beat one of my team mate’s times !! Chris has managed to procure a new lap timer for Oulton Park which will help and it sounds like quite a few drivers on the grid will not have driven the circuit before, which makes it more of a level playing field for me to show my skills !
I was asked by Owen Mildenhall to help out reviewing the best driver’s cars of 2005 (picked by Auto Express) up at Anglesey in May. How was he going to sell that to me ? Well BMW M5 V10 500bhp, was enough to do it ! Ironically, the Beemer didn’t impress me in my hands as the traction control was always cutting in and we weren’t allowed to turn it off, but in Owen’s hands and as a passenger it felt awesome. Anyhow, 20 cars, which we had to drive and comment on. What a day ! A lot of driving but it was great. We all had a meal out the previous evening after being introduced to everyone, one person of which I recognised immediately as one Robbie Head, former WRC Subaru test driver and now, Channel 4’s WRC rally pundit. We arrived at the cold and horribly wet track and after a while we were let loose with the long line of motors, hmmm which do I choose first, a dream situation surely ? It was like Gran Turismo but for real ! The weird thing is that because of the conditions, I decided to try the less powerful cars first and because we were comparing them, decided to do all the hot hatches first even though there were all these high performance and very expensive saloons there as well like the Mercedes CLS AMG 55, Porsches and even a couple of Rally stars in the form of a Scooby Imprezza WRX and Mitsubishi Evo 9 ! My personal favourite of the whole day was the new Porsche 997 Carrera S, ooh lovely !
As soon as we arrived at the circuit we immediately caught site of the famous Eau Rouge corner and it was incredible how steep the climb was. The Pits area was built on a hill and it was tiring walking up the slopes to go to the toilets and down to the end of the pitlane at the base of Eau Rouge.
I went out for two sessions of testing on Thursday to get used to the awesome 4.3 mile world famous Grand Prix circuit. It was damp but a dry line had emerged so I was able to set some reasonable times and become comfortable, ready to tackle the weekend’s main task which lie ahead.
Well what a fantastic experience racing with 146 other cars on one of the best known tracks in the world.
Owen eventually managed to qualify 24th (4th best UK car) which was a very promising start and we decided only to venture out into Friday's afternoon free practice to give Kim a run and then just for myself and our other driver for the weekend, former Auto Express journalist Mike Askew (who I met for the first time at Anglesey) to set minimum 3 laps, in order to preserve the balance of our Beetle which was running the best it had all year so far.
But after a very promising first half-hour when we were comfortably running in (UK) 3rd position our first driver out Kim was turned-in on at the quick double left hander at Pouen and we had our first bout of repairs which took about 15 mins to check out, fix and gaffer tape up !
My chance arrived and I too had problems, with the clutch failing about half an hour into my first 1 hour 30 mins stint. I managed to limp into the pits with 3rd gear the only one I could find, and another 45 mins wait ensued before I could continue. However when I did rejoin, the night was drawing in and as I headed down the pit straight, the pit boards were all lit up, 100's of people all leaning over the pit wall, in the hospitality suites and grandstands, and as I was looking at the cars in front snaking down and up through Eau Rouge flat out, loads of fireworks lit up the sky. A bit off putting actually but amazing nevertheless !! I was WOO HOOing in the car and then found out later we had a SKY TV Camera in there ! I didn't do more than about half an hour night driving, but as it got darker, the less experienced drivers were losing their bottle a bit as the lights on the cars weren't exactly brilliant and you were able to catch them quite quickly as it was easy for drivers to miss their braking points. The good old Belgians and Italians though just stuck their high beams on and blinded you, flashing at you to put you off etc and it was quite difficult to see where they were coming from and how close they actually were etc But you needed to jump out of the way now and again as they just drove up the inside of you whether you were there on not ! The other technique they loved to employ was cutting across on you when overtaking up the straight so as you had to back off and that prevented you from getting back in their tow ! Still it was OK once you got used to it. Towing was quite good fun actually. You could come out of Eau Rouge flat and see a gang of cars in front. If you managed to pick up the tow, you'd soon be dicing with them all at over 120mph and then just as you thought you'd be the first one into Les Combes, someone would come piling through the middle of all of you and beat you all to it !
Kim and Owen double stinted over night (2 X 1hr 30min sessions) lapping very consistantly and on our daylight pace to help gain lots of loss time. Unfortunately due to the amount of laps we were behind, it took us ages to make up an actual position, sometimes being 7 or so laps down on the car ahead of us.
At the end of Owen’s second night stint around 0700 he reported that he’d lost 5th gear but thought it was just a selector problem. Sod’s law, it actually required a new gearbox, most probably because someone in our team was being a bit heavy handed with their gear changes ! This was actually our last hold up and after getting back on track after another hour, still struggling to break the 100th position barrier, we all drove the last ten hours gaining around 20 laps to get back up to 81st position, 8th UK car home.
I enjoyed my second stint the most, lapping on the general pace of Kim and Owen and slightly quicker than Mike although I was slightly slower through traffic, as I was being extra careful not to trip over anyone seeing as what had gone on during the previous 15 hours or so ! I had a moment when I hit oil in the middle of Eau Rouge which we were taking in the region of 100mph, and someone very politely tried to squeeze me into the pit wall on the way down to Eau Rouge, a bit of a wake up call to say the least !
Anyway, it was amazing experience, and I hope I get to go back there some day.
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