Silverstone – the circuit bites back   1 comment

This corner hates me

To tell the story of Silverstone 2011 from my perspective we have to go back to Donington last month (see previous post). A poor weekend in Leicestershire left me eager to redress the balance when we reached round 9 of the Formula Vee championship at the home of British motor racing.

Silverstone is quite unlike any other circuit on the calendar. There are wide-open corners and run-offs that make the track almost impossibly safe, designed of course to accomodate the F1 boys on their annual visit. The only exceptions are the long straights, and most notably the start/finish straight where the concrete pitwall lines the very edge of the track. There’s no such thing as a small accident here, and any mistake will prove very costly. I’ve raced here before, and after showing half-decent pace in 2010 I decided this was where I’d put the Donington demons to bed and prove to myself, my team and my competitors that I’m not just here to make up the numbers. The 750 Motor Club had arranged a test day on Friday, the day before the race meeting itself, and I wanted to use the occasion to get properly ready.

Friday 26th August – testing

I left home at 5 am on Friday and it was like the apocolypse. Pitch black air punctuated by driving rain, and although the light had improved by the time I arrived at Silverstone some 2 hours later, the intensity of the rain had not, and this would set the tone for most of the day. One or two other drivers had stayed the night before, but most had not, and by the time Tony and Jake rolled up with the car, I counted about 10 other Vees in the row of garages that fringe the pitlane. I would share garage 12C with Matt Tiffin, who’s also being run by Osport these days. Matt drives a similar Storm chassis, and has started to show impressive pace since a recent engine overhaul, so I thought it wise to use him as a benchmark of my progress.

Clearly I had to rethink my strategy for the day though. I’d targetted times of 1min 6 – 1min 7 seconds in the dry, but the wet conditions changed everything. My main concern was not the conditions on the day, but crucially the forecast for raceday. Testing is an expensive business, and if the race turned out dry on Saturday, then any advantage gained in the test would be wasted. If it’s wet today. I thought, let it be wet tomorrow.

Friday’s test would be split into 4 x forty minute sessions for open wheel cars, and we’d share the track with the F4 fraternity and a few Formula Renault teams.  These cars, with wings and slicks, are much quicker than Vees, and the closing speeds in such conditions are a genuine concern.  The first session started in heavy rain, and from the moment I reached the end of the pitlane and opened the throttle I realised this would need my full attention. The car wanted to get away from me even on the straights, where rivers of water washed across the surface, but if I thought that was bad, driving behind other cars really concentrated my mind. Most cars had rain lights at the back. Some did not, and the plumes of spray they left in their wake made visibilty zero. I guess as we get older our self-preservation instincts are harder to bypass, and from a personal perspective I simply didn’t have the balls to accelerate into an abyss, not knowing what lay ahead, so I chose to back out of it on more than one occasion.

I didn’t have to worry about spray for too long though. As I approached the left-hander at Brooklands for the first time that day, I got caught out by the tightening radius, and harmlessly spun the car onto the run-off. Usually I’d simply find first gear, dump the clutch and carry on, but we’d started the session with a bump-start from the pitlane, courtesy of a flat-battery, and since I’d stalled during the spin, there was no way to restart. The car was perfectly healthy, merely asleep, but it brought out the first red flag of the day. I finished the lap on the end of a tow rope, passing disgruntled team personnel as I trundled embarrasingly down the pitlane. Within minutes we were on our way again, and the rest of the session passed without incident. I’d been slow though, and needed a pep-talk from Jake to shake some aggression into my driving. Young Matt was flying however, comfortably quicker than any other Vee, and I needed to find a way to latch on and follow his lines, By the time the last session arrived at 2:30pm, we had a cunning plan.

More of that in a moment, but I can’t let the morning sessions pass without recalling some alarming incidents. My concerns about closing speeds were realised when fellow Vee drivers Steve Ough and Ben Anderson were both assaulted from behind under braking for Copse corner by much faster machinery, and it was fortunate that everyone got off relatively lightly, although Bens car required extensive rear-end surgery.

And so back to the final session, one which was to prove pivotal to my season, yet which started with so much promise. Before we went out for the final time, I discussed the conditions with Matt and Jake, and we decided it would be a good idea for me to follow Matt for three laps, after which he would follow me. This way we could compare driving styles and I might pick up some useful tips on driving in the wet. One thing that became immediately obvious was that all day I’d been driving the wrong line, sticking to the more traditional dry line, hugging the apex of each corner to shorten the lap. In the wet though, you need to find the grip wherever you can, and this is invariably around the outside of the corner, where the surface is more abrasive. Halfway through the session the red flags came out for an incident somewhere on the circuit, and the two Storms drove line astern down the pitlane to claim the first two slots for the restart- all the better to get a clear run with no spray. Jake approached me with a huge grin as we waited, informing me that I’d lopped about four second off my previous time, and was now one of the quickest Vee’s out there. He endorsed my efforts with a hearty slap on my crash helmet. Tony crouched down on the other side of the car, and we contemplated parking up for the day, happy that we’d made great strides in the damp conditions. The rain had eased though, and I was convinced I could find a few more tenths in the remaining minutes of the day. Tony’s faced turned a little more serious, and as I pulled down my visor, he said to me ” Ok Paul, but whatever you do, don’t bin it”. It turned out to be horribly prophetic.

Woodcote

The light at the pitlane exit blinked green, and Matt punched it out onto the track. I followed close behind, and noticed a drying line in the tarmac. Already comfortable with the majority of the lap, I decided to have a look at Woodcote. This is a flat-out, fourth gear, right hand kink in dry conditions, and leads onto the start/finish straight, but all day long I’d been having to lift slightly in the wet, the car stepping out at the back and trying to spit me off the circuit. Now though, I was convinced I could go through flat, realising the importance of carrying speed down the straight. Woodcote is preceded by a tricky right-hander at Luffield, and as I powered away from the corner I accelerated in third to about 7,000 RPM – later than previous laps. This time round, I changed to fourth just as I reached the kink, and rather than lifting off the throttle, I kept my foot in. I assumed the high revs would keep the car stable through the corner, but I hadn’t noticed the damp patch, and in a millisecond the car snapped around to the right, sliding sideways then suddenly gaining traction as it faced the pitwall. The first impact threw me forward. It hadn’t been quite head on, but just enough to launch the car back into the track. It spun backwards through 180 degrees and soon there was a violent rear impact against the concrete. The car rode for a short distance along the wall, coming to rest facing the wrong way. For a moment I sat and regained my senses. I levered myself out of the car and surveyed the damage. The rescue team arrived moments later, and after a quick check by the circuit doctor I was declared fit enough to walk back to the garage to break the news to the team.

Reflection

I can deal with crashing – it’s part of the sport, and even the very best drivers have accidents. What hurts is the financial consequenses of a wrong decision made in a split-second. It hurts to have to drive away from the circuit at least a day before you should be, and it hurts like mad to know your racing colleagues are out competing whilst your sitting at home licking your wounds. The accident at Silverstone means I’ll probably have to miss the one race I looked forward to most, at Oulton Park. But I’m still here, and still hungry, and I’ll be back!

Advertisements

Posted August 30, 2011 by Paul in Race reports

Tagged with , , , , ,

One response to “Silverstone – the circuit bites back

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Chin up Paul,! Sounds like you were getting there with the pace so keep the faith!

    Cheers,

    Ben

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: