Archive for the ‘Snetterton’ Tag

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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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.