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The Ash factor – the making of a champion   2 comments

As Ashley Sutton raised the 2017 BTCC championship trophy in a cascade of tickertape behind him, Tim Harvey announced during ITV’s coverage that Ash had ‘crept up under the radar’ whilst the more established stars we’re fighting for honours. Really? To me and many others who’ve witnessed his rise it came as no surprise to see him in the thick of the title hunt.

I was given a unique privilege to see the Sutton phenomenon at it’s very beginning, and looking back on that day the early signs of champion DNA were evident.

Arrive

March 2010 was an important month for me. Already a middle-aged bloke, I was about to embark on my first competitive season of Formula Vee, and had arranged a test session at Snetterton with the OSport team, run by established Vee frontrunners Jake and Tony Oliveira. I would be testing one of the teams Storm cars, and I turned up for the test ahead of the team truck, so waited in the paddock car park for its arrival.

In the meantime, a flatbed with a trailer had parked a few metres away. On the trailer sat a red Storm, similar to the car I’d be using. From the Veecentre online community I’d learned that this was the car bought by the Suttons for the coming season after a successful spell in karts. I also knew that OSport would be running Ash alongside me at the test, so I stepped out of my car and made my way over to introduce myself.

I leaned through the drivers window. Ash’s dad Warren was behind the wheel and turned to speak. After a few seconds a fresh-faced 16 year old leaned forward into view from the passenger seat opposite, the now famous grin framed by a mop of blonde hair. ‘You must be Ash?’ I said. I don’t recall his reply, but I remember thinking ‘this kid’s gonna get a big wake up when he leaves the pitlane today!’

Drive

The first session loomed. Ash was fairly quiet in demeanour but attentive to everything that was going on. The first thing that struck me was the close bond between Warren and his son. They had a synergy that’s hard to explain, and I think Warrens pride and confidence in Ash must have had an energising effect.

We strapped in to the Vees and made our way line astern out across the paddock and onto the circuit, Ash ahead and me following closely. The out lap was predictably cautious – we were in a string of cars, and as we made our way out of the Russell chicane at the end of the lap Ash signalled me past and peeled off into the pitlane. I stayed out and gunned it for several laps, came back in and hopped out of the car. In the meantime Ash had gone back out, turned in some laps and came back some ten minutes later. I was pleased with my first efforts in the Storm. I’d shaved a few seconds already off my previous times at the same track, set the previous year in the OSport Sheane car. I compared my times to Ash, and was deflated to find he was comfortably much quicker than me. It dawned on me that he’d used the first out lap simply to assess the car, and it was all he needed. On his return he was able to report back the cars behaviour in astonishing detail, and his instinctive racing brain belied his young age.

The rest of the day followed a similar pattern. I made marginal gains but in truth lacked the technical ability to feed anything useful back to Jake and Tony, other than the odd bit of mid-corner oversteer or understeer. Ash on the other hand had grasped every nuance of the car and delivered it with a calm assurance the like of which I’d never witnessed from one so young.

I left the circuit that evening having been given a masterclass in how to approach a test session, delivered by a 16 year old, and it was obvious from this moment that AS had the right stuff.

Thrive

For the record, by the time we got to round four at Brands Hatch (we’d both made our debut at  round 3 at Mallory Park in April) Ash was comfortably in command of his driving, and his competitive instinct was potent. We did a track walk on the morning of the race, and whilst Ash pointed out the characteristics of each corner in encyclopedic detail I struggled to take it all in, not able to process much more than the turn-in and braking points. In qualifying I threw the car into the Paddock Hill gravel trap after one flying lap, and spent the rest of the session watching the red Storm mixing it right at the sharp end, and he never looked back. His maiden victory came at the same circuit a little later after a fierce battle with Martin Farmer. He went on to win twice more that season, and had it not been for a blown engine at Cadwell Park I’m convinced he’d have taken the title in his first year.

Since that year I’ve watched Ash’s progress closely, and have genuinely never, ever seen him make a mistake. The assured, confident approach to his racing has endured throughout, and has culminated in a dream realised.

We had a conversation during the Snetterton test day. “So Ash, what’s the plan, F1?” “Nah, not bothered about that. I want to race tintops. My aim is to be a touring car driver”.

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Donington 2012 – testing times   2 comments

noise test

“Sorry mate, I can’t hear you”

August 2011 seems a very long time ago now. My unplanned attempt to destroy the car at a Silverstone test was the prelude to a stagnant period in my racing programme, so you can imagine my relief and excitement when the opportunity arose to get back behind the wheel of the Storm Formula Vee with Osport this June. I’ve already missed the first half of the season though, so I’d be joining the fray at rounds 7 and 8, ironically at Donington Park, the circuit where I last finished a race almost twelve months ago.

In the meantime, the 2011 title had been settled in favour of Martin Farmer, and Osport team boss Jake Oliveira had committed to a full season in the second Storm for 2012. Jake’s results so far this year have been impressive, including a win at Cadwell and numerous podium finishes. He’s well placed in the title hunt, and is giving both the Osport colours and my company branding some useful exposure. My contribution, however, has so far been to turn up at a few races with my camera, make some coffee and pick stones out of the tyres in the pit garage.

Watching as a bystander has proved eye-opening though. It’s really hit home to me how utterly useless I am mechanically, and I’ve come to realise how much of a disadvantage it can be not knowing what really makes racing cars work. Honestly, when I stand and look at bits of engine and suspension lying on the floor, It looks to me like they’ve disassembled R2D2. Stick a spanner in my hand and all I’ll be able to do is stir my tea with it. I’ve made it a personal mission to learn more about these cars, and so should anyone like me who wants to get the most out of this sport.

Nonetheless, I have a licence to race and I intend to use it. Donington would be a good place to re-introduce myself to the old girl, since it’s my favourite circuit. Circumstances away from racing have taken up much of my time and energy over the past few months though, so I would have to accept that there would be no opportunity to test the car before the meeting.

The Donington double-header would take place over the Saturday and Sunday 23rd and 24th June, with just the one qualifying session on Saturday morning. The format is simple. Your fastest lap determines your starting position for race one, and your second best lap deals with race two. I had more pressing concerns though, and yet again needed to use Qualifying to get used to the car. It’s not too bad as long as you stick to a plan. You only need two quick laps to get a good grid position, and so with a fifteen minute session there should be time to get in the groove and do something meaningful.

Beer, curry, football

I arrived at Donington on the Friday evening, and found Jake in the pits. We took a stroll round the circuit and discussed it corner-by-corner. It all looked very professional, so eager to continue the theme we behaved like true racing drivers the night before a race and went to a pub in Castle Donington for a few beers. With the Germans playing Greece on the telly in the background, a good night was had by all, and it culminated in a chinese takeaway at Jake’s mates house nearby.

After sampling the delights of Sam Oliveira’s Clio on the way back to the circuit, we turned in for the night. I love my little tent, but only in the garage. I wouldn’t dare use it outside unless I want to be found in the branches of a tree frozen to death the next morning.

Saturday

I woke up in a good frame of mind on Saturday, despite the fact my airbed had gone down overnight and I smelt of petrol. The usual routines went without drama – signing on, scrutineering etc. and at 10:00am we were in the cars and off to the assembly area. Jake suggested we get there first to get a clear couple of laps. He would drop his pace at first and I would follow to speed up the familiarisation process, after which it’s every man for himself. The two black and yellow cars sat at the head of the queue, and I glanced across at Jake. He was focussed and ready, so I decided to mentally drive the track, recalling my better laps from last year.

As if to snap me from a dream though, a steward knelt beside my car with a noise-testing instrument that looked like a microphone. I instinctively wanted to lean into it and go through the opening verse of Copacabana, but thought it might be more useful to rev my engine to the required three-quarter limit. This is all part of the noise-test procedure, and has never been a problem before.

This time however I was puzzled to find him coming back round to the front to tell me I’d recorded 111db, above the required limit. He went off to test the other 30-odd cars in the queue and came back to re-test me some 15 minutes later. I was again recorded too high and became seriously concerned. The stewards stood around me having a secret chat the way people in orange coats do, and they agreed that I couldn’t go out to qualify without quietening the car. I set off at the head of the pack and peeled immediately into the pitlane, whereupon Tony fiddled around at the rear and sent me back round to the assembly area for a re-test. This alone is not the work of a moment, and involves driving to the end of the pitlane, turning sharp left through the scrutineering area and out through the car park amongst other traffic and people going about their business. I drew up in the assembly area again expecting to be given the green light to join the qualifying session, only to be re-directed down the pitlane – still too loud. This time Tony spent longer working on the car. All the time I could here the others go by at racing speed, and it slowly dawned on me that I was running out of time. Eventually we got round to the assembly area again, but the re-test once again showed us to be too noisy. I gave the steward puppy-eyes, and it must have worked because he allowed me to join the session to get my mandatory three laps in, on the strict understanding I should have the noise sorted before the race. Starting from the pitlane I floored it onto the circuit, but had only enough time to record one timed lap before the flag fell.

Rules and regs

Every race in Formula Vee has been over-subscribed this year, and while this is great news generally, it does mean that some of those entering later on get placed on the reserves list. For Donington we had three, and unless someone dropped out before the race they would not get a start. However, they are allowed to (in fact they must) take part in official qualifying, and since all of them recorded three timed laps, it left me in no-mans land. The rules dictate that in such circumstances I will be ‘bumped’ by the reserves, effectively becoming the third reserve driver, and while this was music to the ears of James Millman, it spelt disaster for me.

I had brief respite when I lined up with the other drivers for a lunchtime photocall on the startline, but when we got back to the business of race one I had to suffer the frustration of sitting in my car at the pit exit waiting for a red flag in the race and a subsequent call-up to the back of the grid, assuming there are cars that cannot take the restart. The red flag duly came, but only after three laps had elapsed, and the rules state that after this time no reserves can take the restart.

Saturday was a crushing disappointment, not just for me but for the team in general. Jake had led the race for much of the time, but ended up in the gravel after a clash with brother Sam on the very last corner of the race. The resulting back pain almost put paid to his weekend, but a good night’s rest and a few painkillers seemed to do the trick, and he was clear to take part on Sunday. I was cheered a little by the prospect of getting a race too. A few cars looked unlikely to make the grid the next day, so I kept my fingers firmly crossed.

Before I leave Saturday I would just like to mention the barbecue put on that evening by Pete Belsey and Ben Miloudi of the Veecentre comittee. They put a huge amount of effort into getting it organised for the benefit of the drivers, their families and friends, and I’d like to place on record my thanks for a great evening.

Sunday

For many people Sunday is a day of rest, and unless three cars withdrew from the race it would be for me too. The truth is I would not know until we joined the assembly area as to whether I’d take the start, but as I rolled up to the markers I was directed to row 18,  outside berth. I was in! Plum last, but at least I’d get a race. The noise test was passed comfortably now – a new silencer had been fitted on Saturday night, so all I needed to do was focus on getting a good start and make my way through the pack.

The start itself was fine. As the lights blinked out I got a little wheelspin but short-shifted to second and got away clean. Our engine seems to be performing nicely at the moment, and by the time we’d got to Redgate I’d cleared about four cars. I went in a lttle deep though and had to back off. My confidence was a little low after the nonsense of the day before and in retrospect I might have kept my foot in a bit more.  But this was literally my first meaningful lap in the car for a year, so I needed to keep a sensible head on and build up my pace.

Throughout the first lap I drove conservatively and crossed the line about fifth from last. I shaped up Sam Engineer for a pass having got good drive out of the chicane but had to pull out of it. There were waved yellows warning of a car (Tim Probert?) sideways on the apex of Redgate. I should have tucked underneath Sam’s gearbox, then the pass down through Craner curves would have been easy. Instead I backed off too much and found myself playing catch-up. I got angry and frustrated – I could see the pack putting more distance on us and I needed to get at them.

We streamed under Starkeys bridge and towards McLeans, a slightly uphill but fairly easy right-hander which is taken in third. I left my braking late for this one and slotted it into third, but crucially came off the brakes too early and locked the rear wheels. Using the heel-and toe technique would have balanced the revs with the road speed of the wheels, but I didn’t do it here. I usually heel-and-toe only when going from third to second, and more frequently in the wet, but this time I simply got it wrong, and the car protested by spinning to the right across the kerb. I kept the steering lock on, hoping I could loop it through 360 and carry on, but I’d scrubbed off too much speed and found myself broadside across the track. I had just enough time to glance left and see the AHS of Rhys Bennett about to collect me amidships, and as he did so my body strained against the straps and the impact left me dazed. I unbuckled and started to climb out, but found it awkward because the chassis rail had folded in on my left leg. To add insult to injury the onboard extinguisher had decided to empty it’s contents into my face, so I hopped out and away from the car. Poor Rhys was beside himself. He’s suffered more than his fair share of bad luck this year and I hope good fortune smiles on him soon.

Summary

I’m getting fed up with crashing to be honest. I’ve only had two significant ones but they happen to have taken place the last two times I sat in the car, and it’s getting a) expensive b) annoying and c) painful. I don’t doubt my ability to drive the car, and I put it down to simply not having enough practice/momentum/track time, whatever you want to call it.

Racing gets under your skin, so I’ll be back for more. In between times though I shall continue picking stones..

Onboard footage can be viewed here

Driving the deal – how to get sponsorship in the new age   Leave a comment

Hands up if you want some money?

Every time we pick up a newspaper or turn on the television, someone in a suit is quick to remind us how broke the world is. Cutback this, Austerity that, it’s really quite depressing to be told there’s no money around, particularly if you’re an aspiring racing driver looking for backing. We all know there is money around though, just some of it in the wrong hands. This is quite a stark backdrop for the sponsorship-hunter, and one question that I hear time and time again is ‘how can I find some money to let me go racing?’  It’s everywhere, from drivers online forums, to club bulletins to agony aunt columns in the daily press.

Before I go any further I have to say I don’t have a definitive answer. If I did I wouldn’t be facing the coming Vee season so nervously, since cash for racing is hardly in plentiful supply in my gaff. However, what I do have is experience of running a business, so I know how business people think when it comes to shelling out money for marketing, and I do have experience of pitching for (and getting) a little backing for my racing, even though it’s come from my own company.

Consider your position

Let me get this bit out of the way first. In my view there are two key components that will make attracting a sponsor easier, though still tricky. One is guaranteed TV exposure, the other is an impressive racing CV, perhaps with a championship win or two thrown in. But let’s assume for now we have none of those, and just want to get someone to pay us to indulge our hobby. This is where the clever stuff is needed, and with the explosion of new-media and social networking channels, there are some great opportunities for those prepared to work at it.

It’s worth saying at this point that of course not everyone needs sponsorship. Grass-roots racing is relatively inexpensive, and those with their own cars are frequently able to pay their way through a season of something like Formula Vee. This is as it should be really – it’s what club competition is all about. Even so many in this position have had to compromise somewhere along the line, by competing in fewer races perhaps, reduced testing,  or just backing out of a 50-50 move so you don’t land yourself a crippling bill for damages.  Then consider the rental drivers (of which I am one) for whom the season cost can be five-fold that of the owner/driver.

One thing that strikes me is that no matter what level of racing you’re at, and therefore how much money you’re asking for, the barriers faced are exactly the same, and that’s because whether you’re a company being asked for £1,000 or £100,000, the question remains: ‘what’s in it for me as a sponsor?’  I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who sell the dream to a potential sponsor by offering simply to put a couple of stickers on a car. I suspect this isn’t enough. It should be a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and this should be the first thing to remember when putting a pitch together. Branding a car is only part of the jigsaw, although of course it can still be a great way of getting awareness for your sponsor.

Reel ’em in

Recently, I had a couple of overseas FRenault drivers contact my company asking for £50’000 in order to compete in the 2012 BARC championship, and apart from an email and a couple of photos of the car in the pit lane, that was it. It doesn’t take a genius to see that’s hardly going to entice a company to part with a large wedge of cash. So what might have worked?  There’s a saying that ‘people buy people’, so it would have been nice to at least have a bit of background on the drivers, even if their achievements don’t amount to much. A short, well-crafted summary of the journey so far can help the potential backer to warm to the personality. It’s about empathy, and in my opinion this will encourage the reader to at least find out more about what you’re proposing.

I think a polished, well-thought presentation is essential. Remember this is a business transaction, so it needs to be made as business-like as possible. Get a small brochure together, and remember to make an ‘online’ version as well so you can exploit the  wide reach of the internet. Get a mate to design it if you have to. These days you can get short-runs printed digitally and they’re dead cheap. Use good photographs, be creative, but most importantly sell the benefits to the sponsor. A sponsor will want maximum (if not guaranteed) return on their money, so they’ll need to know what they get from you. The stickers/branding has already been mentioned, but don’t forget to offer hospitality. Get them tickets to race events or test days. Be prepared to make your car available for promotional events (you might have to butter up the team owner for this!) Get a nice framed print of you and the car for their office wall. get press releases to the local papers and national motoring journals. These promises should all be in your pitch, but you absolutely must be prepared to honour them! All good stuff, but now we need to use the power of new media to push it further.

Go viral

The good thing about the internet is that it can be used to both gain sponsorship and support your sponsor. Twitter is a great way of linking yourself to relevant people, so plan a strategy depending on who you want to reach. Get a promo video together (easy these days) and get a YouTube channel. If you have a sponsor it’s a great opportunity to sell them and yourself to the wider world. Facebook is the other obvious choice. It’s easy to link to all the other popular media outlets, so you can quickly get lots of coverage, and with a little planning you can make a powerful case. This is probably the single most important part of your strategy in today’s market. Never, ever underestimate how impressed your sponsor will be if you raise their profile and their reputation with some clever and carefully-targeted digital marketing.

Also consider this. Many potential backers may find it a more attractive option to sponsor a team rather than individual driver. If you’ve no track record (pardon the pun) then this is a good workaround. There’s more appeal and ‘romance’ about backing a racing team than there is backing a forty-something bloke with a mid-life crisis, and it gives you so much more in terms of offering value for money.

Final word

If you’re still awake, here’s a couple of final points to consider.

The quickest way still to get someone to sponsor you is to find someone with a big ego and big wallet who loves racing. Period. The fact remains that most sponsorship at club level comes from someone you know, friends, family or your own business. But I have my own business and it’s still damned difficult to justify putting money into racing when times are so tough. Just ask my shareholders. But as I said at the top, there is money around, and who knows, there may be someone out there itching to pump some cash into a viable racing venture.

Lastly, you may be wondering why I’m not keeping these tips to myself, after all the last thing I need is competition in the cash hunt! The answer is simple. There are many young, talented, much more deserving drivers than me who have no money and need a break. Anything I can do to help, based purely on my experiences on both sides of the fence, I’m only too happy to do.

So let’s get busy over the winter guys. I’ll race you to the cash. 3-2-1 GO!

Posted December 10, 2011 by Paul in general racing stuff

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Formula Vee – A route to the top for the young guns?   4 comments

Max on Vee

Go on Max, you know you want to!

The curtain has come down on another hectic season of Formula Vee in the UK. Last year’s champion Martin Farmer has retained his title after a thrilling, down-to-the-wire battle with series rookie Michael Epps. Fresh from a stint in Karts, Michael is one of several young drivers who’ve chosen Formula Vee as a launchpad (hopefully) to better things. And it’s got me thinking, Is this series a genuine option for young drivers pushing through the ranks? The accepted route for many is Formula Ford, Formula Renault, GP3, GP2 then the ultimate prize of an F1 seat. Looking through the recent history books there’s no evidence of Vee as a popular choice for aspiring F1 champions, so why have these young drivers chosen Vee? How can their achievments help to get the recognition they deserve from the people that matter?

Some of these answers should come from the drivers themselves, since each will have a different motive. Before the 2011 campaign started I discovered that my teammate in the second Osport car would be Fraser O’Brien. We’d actually met briefly at Silverstone the year before, and from the first test session at Mallory Park in March it was clear that this 16-year old has plenty of raw pace. After a slow start in the Storm, his first victory came at Snetterton in May, after which he switched to the AHS squad for the remainder of the season. The pace has been there throughout, but he has also thrown it at the scenery more often than he would like, and this is a shame. With the right guidance he can go far, and this sentiment applies to all of the young guns in 2011.

During the early part of the season, I found myself locked in combat with Matt Tiffin. Driving the ex-Steve Glasswell Storm, Matt’s yet another Karter with great promise. Matt has been his own worse critic on more than one occasion, but the decision to enlist the help of Tony and Jake at Osport mid-season saw a dramatic turn-around. An engine revamp signalled a serious injection of pace, and his results since have been impressive. He excells in the wet, and should be a force next year if he chooses to stay in Vees.

Another notable performance came from Henry Chart. A racing rookie in every sense, Henry brought his GAC home third in the Season opener at Mallory Park, and has shown strongly in many races since. He’s had his fair share of bad luck too, and it will be interesting to see what he does next year should he choose to stay.

Aaron Trigwell switched to Vees from the Saxmax series this year, and his season highlight came at Snetterton in July with a podium finish after a strong weekend all round.

GAC driver Michael Epps almost won the championship in his first year in cars. The 19-year old has shown a cool head throughout the year, and His double win at Donington Park in July was as dominant a display as I’ve seen in recent times. He also found the time to test a Formula Renault mid-season, and seems willing to promote himself through the popular media channels the way no other driver does. Michael seems very media-savvy, qualities that will give him the edge in his journey through the ranks.

So what can we draw from all this? Having competed in the UK championship for the last two seasons, it has become obvious to me that Formula Vee is the hidden gem of single-seater racing. In truth I’ve known this for a while, and it’s the reason I decided to start racing in the first place. It ticks all the boxes, proper racing cars, large grids, relatively low costs and a friendly paddock. However, as with many (or most) grass-roots series, it lacks any real exposure, other than in the dedicated racing press and perhaps the occasional local rag.  To me and some of my peers this doesn’t really matter. We’re doing this purely for fun and the thrill of racing, and it’s got to be a better way of spending a weekend than digging up molehills in the garden. But for the young career-minded drivers it’s a serious matter.

The fact is this. Formula Vee is accessible, and racing drivers want to race. Budgets even for Formula Ford are prohibitive for many, so the door to the conventional route is shut immediately. My personal view is that drivers will learn a great deal from spending time racing Vees. Many well-heeled youngsters who step straight into a wings-and-slicks formula like FRenault will not have proven skills, and I honestly believe that a shortcoming in talent will not be as easy to spot as it will be in the raw, no-nonsense world of Formula Vee. Perhaps this is why some young drivers stay away from Vees. Is it too risky to lay your career on the line before it’s begun? If you’re lucky enough to have the option, then fair enough, but there’s plenty of talented drivers that don’t, so how can the sport help them? I think there is an opportunity here, not only for the drivers but also Formula Vee itself. What better endorsment for a racing series than to have an F1 champion who cut his teeth there?  If the pattern continued the series would have the cream of british talent queuing up to take part.

And this is the dilemma. None of this is possible without creating exposure. I think Formula Vee (or any other series for that matter) has a moral responsibility to push young talent, but I do understand that this involves large chunks of TV and popular press coverage, and I also understand that the money is simply not there for the most part. What we need is a PR and Marketing guru who a) loves Formula Vee, b) has a genuine desire to see young talent blossom, and c) wants to change the face of British motor sport.  Any takers?

Posted October 10, 2011 by Paul in Uncategorized

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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!

Posted August 30, 2011 by Paul in Race reports

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Donington – parked   1 comment

The majesty of Donington Park

Rounds 5 and 6 of this years championship looked tantalising. My first meeting at the Donington Park circuit on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border began on Friday night with a leisurely drive from my home in Essex. On arrival at the circuit I wasted no time and set off walking the track. Round the first turn at Redgate, then through Hollywood, the track opened up to reveal a swooping, plunging ribbon of tarmac that disappeared into the distance. I knew instantly this was going to be a huge challenge, and started photographing as I went, recording every kerb, camber and surface change to try to understand the quick way round.

The car was yet to arrive, and it would be around 10:30 that evening when Tony drew up in the Osport truck. In the meantime, I’d used the time to catch up with some of my fellow drivers who’d also turned up – Tim Hill, Alan Swain, Aaron Trigwell and former team-mate Fraser O’Brien amongst them.

A fitful nights sleep followed, camped in the marshalls pitch nearby. I was kept awake by an assortment of aircraft noises from the adjacent airport, and by burps, farts and snores from every direction.

Saturday dawned blistering hot, and it would stay that way throughout the weekend. For double-headers like this, you only get one qualifying session. Your quickest lap determines your slot for race one, and your second fastest lap places you for the second race.  The pressure was on then, and I sat down with team boss Jake to discuss our approach. Jake went through the corners one by one, and also made it clear I needed to ditch my bad habits and adjust my driving style if I want to be competitive. First things first though, and we decided that since I’d never been here before, I should spend the first three or four laps learning the lines, picking my turn-in points and generally getting used to the circuit. After that I should work on my braking, taking less speed into the corner and getting on the power early to get a good exit. This is the fundamental rule of a quick lap – slow in, fast out. That would leave four or five laps to go for a time.

Qualifying

At 11:20 the boys had checked the car, got me strapped in and off to the assembly area. I felt slightly more apprehensive than usual, probably through recalling the magnificent rollercoaster that lay ahead. As we were sent out onto the track I thought hard about my game plan, and the first three laps went accordingly. Already my confidence had grown, and as I approached Redgate for the fourth time I decided to push a little harder. Down through the Craner Curves, I jabbed it into third for the old hairpin, and found instead I had no gears. The lever just wouldn’t engage, and it felt like I was pushing it through a bag of jelly. I managed to find second, but it was clear something was wrong, and It was all I could do to get it back to the pits. On inspection, we found the gear linkage tube had sheared off, and it signalled the end of our qualifying session. This meant we would start both races at or near the back, since all I’d had were effectively sighting laps. and I felt a huge sense of anticlimax.  Tony and Jake set about repairing the car, and with the help of Dave Jordan and his welding kit, we had it patched up in plenty of time.

Race one – Saturday

Lining up 24th of 28, I had it all to do, but I felt if I used my head I could still get into the top 15 or so. The red lights went out and I nailed it beautifully. Starting from the outside actually turned out to be an advantage. Many of the cars ahead had hugged the inside line, squabbling amongst themselves, and this left a huge inviting space around the outside of Redgate, and I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. By lap three I was about 16th, and the car felt great, but I threw it all away midway through the race with a schoolboy error – taking too much speed into Redgate and getting wide on the exit. Usually, with two wheels on the dirt, I would relax my grip on the steering wheel then ease the car back on line. This time though, I was being harried by Jack Wilkinson’s AHS, and in my eagerness not to give him track position I kept my foot in. The car looped across the track backwards onto the large grassy infield. By the time I got going I’d lost about 30 seconds, and the red mist descended. I drove hard for the rest of the race, determined to rejoin the pack of cars I’d lost with my spin, and by the end of the race I’d caught them, passing one of the train at the very last corner of the race. I was classified 20th, with a best lap of 1 minute 23 second dead. It was ok, but I felt mad at myself for spinning away a certain top 15 finish.

Race two -Sunday

Sunday’s race would start at 3:40 pm, and with no qualifying to get through, I joined the rest of the drivers in moping about waiting for things to happen. I spent some time with regular sparring partner Matt Tiffin. Matt’s another young driver from the karting ranks who’s joined Vee this year and shows early promise. It can be hugely frustrating at a race weekend, particulary if the car needs no work – I was delighted with the set-up of the car on Saturday and asked the team not to change it. It’s actually quite difficult to sit around all day, then have to go straight out to the grid with your head in race mode, and I suspect this is why some drivers say they’re always slower on the second day.  Nonetheless, that’s what we had to do, and I lined up full of confidence after showing some good pace the day before. I started fourth from last, and as the lights went out I had my sights set on the cars immediately ahead. I knew we were much quicker but it would be important to clear them early to get at the midfield pack. I accelerated away and short-shifted to second, but couldn’t find the gear, so de-clutched and tried again. I got it into fourth and tried to settle down, but going into the old hairpin I struggled to get third gear. Down the long back straight I comfortably passed a couple of cars, but under braking for the chicane I once again struggled to get third gear. My heart sank. Surely not the qualifying problem again? The car seemed to behave for the next lap, and I  began to wonder if I’d simply been too agressive with the shifts, but at the end of the third lap I lost all but fourth gear, almost coming to a stop at Coppice. I retired the car, where Tony confirmed the re-occurence of the fracture in the gear linkage. It was hugely disappointing for me, and poor Tony was mortified. I desperately want to do well for the team, and I genuinely thought this would be a breakthrough.

Reflection

I should have been driving back to Essex with a heavy heart. My first non-finish in nine races was a milestone I wasn’t in a hurry to reach. But I’ll let you into a secret, I spent nearly three hours on the Road to Colchester with a grin on my face. Donington Park is an experience to behold, and I think that’s the essence of why I’m in love with this sport.

Posted July 5, 2011 by Paul in Race reports

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A racing milestone – 6 down   Leave a comment

Pushing hard at Snetterton, May 2011

It’s been a long two years since I first stepped into the Sheane Formula Vee  for my first taste of car racing. A chance meeting at Snetterton on a chilly March test day in 2009 led me to the door of team Osport, run by Jake and Tony Oliveira. I’ve driven for them ever since. Jake has been a frontrunner in the series for several years, and with many wins under his belt he’s perfectly placed to offer practical advice on how to drive these machines.

My first test was a disaster, purely due to the unpallatable combination of  having no experience and  venturing out onto a track pounded by heavy rain. Indeed, as I trundled down the Snetterton pitlane for my first ever session, I remember glancing to my right at the other cars, motionless and unready in their garages, and thinking ‘why am I the only one going out?’

The answer came rather too abruptly . After barely half a lap the Sheane snapped into oversteer at the esses, and after I instinctively corrected the slide the car simply aquaplaned on the soaking wet surface at the tight right-hander and took to the grass. From there on there is no escape, and in fact the car seemed to accelerate on the grass. I knew braking was pointless, so tried to coax the car off the grass with gentle steering input. All too soon though the car had spun through 180 degrees and buried itself backwards in the tyre wall. It was a baptism of fire and water, and a very expensive end to my day.

I’m nothing if not resolute in these situations, and I returned to a dry and sunny Snetterton some months later for another go. This time it passed without incident, and although my lap times weren’t great I’d finally got some valuable experience behind the wheel of a Vee. The next March we were back for more testing at Snett, this time in one of the team’s Storm chassis. These cars, built by Steve Glasswell in Bury-St-Edmunds, are a popular and successful marque in Formula Vee, and this became apparant when I recorded lap times more than four seconds quicker than I had in the Sheane at the same track, almost without trying.

Testing is all very well, but there’s nothing like race experience, and so I took the plunge in 2010 and entered round 3 of the UK Formula Vee Championship race at Mallory Park in Leicestershire. This was a fitting venue to start my racing career, for it was here that dad brought me regularly from our home in Coventry from the age of six to watch motor races. This was where dreams were made, and this is where I turned to dad as a young boy and said ‘ I’m gonna do this one day’.

My first race yielded an 18th place finish, from a field of 26, and I left Mallory content. My next race came at the legendary Brands Hatch circuit in Kent in June, and the weekend started badly with a trip to the Paddock Hill Bend gravel trap after only one flying lap in qualifying. Starting near the back, with no circuit knowledge and no testing, my plight was hopeless, and I struggled home a lapped 22nd of 24. Even at this early stage, I got a taste of the crushing disappointment that racing can bring, but I put it all behind me for my third race, round 12 at Silverstone in August. Here I finished tidily in midfield, and for the first time felt that I could look for more time in the car.

2010 had been a satisfactory start to my racing career, but now the bug had bitten and I wanted more. A deal was done with Osport to complete a far more comprehensive race programme in 2011, and now as I write we’ve completed 4 more races – the season opener at Mallory, this time in appalling weather, round two at Brands Hatch, and my first double-header at Snetterton. I currently sit 15th in the 2011 Formula Vee championship, and look forward to the next installment at Donington Park in July.

Importantly though, with six races down I’ve reached a milestone, and at Snetterton we were able to remove the yellow and black novice cross from the car, which I guess makes me a proper racing driver!

So far my journey has taken me to some of the UK’s most prestigious racing venues, and I’ve met some truly wonderful people along the way. Formula Vee is a blast, and I enjoy a great relationship with Jake and Tony at Osport, who I consider to be true racing people and who work hard to give me a car that runs reliably and competitively. The rest is down to me. I can find much more speed in myself, and will take the next step in a few weeks time…. detailed report to follow.