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MSV Formula Vee Festival – Brands Hatch 2015

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MSV run a yearly festival for Formula Vee at Brands Hatch, with some of the Irish Vee drivers shipping their cars over and getting out there with the UK spec cars.

We should be extremely grateful to the five drivers who made the trek this year, as not very many UK drivers entered – without the Irish it would have been very poor, and possibly been the last time MSV asked us to race…

That said, they were all really bloody fast, so without them, I’d have definitely got much better results!

Part of the poor turn-out may be because it’s mid-November, and it was so cold I thought I might actually die spending a few nights in the VW camper van in gale force winds, pouring rain, and temperatures close to freezing! How James Harridge survived it sleeping in his car next to us is even more of a miracle!

I’ve never been on track at Brands Hatch before, and not being able to afford the testing on Friday, I was planning on treating the weekend like a test session to learn the track for next season.

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Qualifying

Despite the promise of a dry qualifying, it rained just as we were going out on track, and by lap 3 any chance of a fast lap was over. To highlight this, I spun on the exit of Graham Hill Bend, ending up facing the right way but on the grass. As I went through the next corner, the mud on my tyres combined with a cold, wet track resulted in a huge tank-slapper that I held on to – but the forces involved had done something to the car that wasn’t immediately obvious… I’ll come back to that later.

From there it was survival, with cars off all over the place – every time I touched the throttle the car went sideways. This was not ideal to learn the track.

All of the fastest times were set in the first few laps, and so I was pleasantly surprised to be 12th on the grid for the first race, when I fully expected to be last. Over from Ireland with his newly built UK spec Sheane, Adam Macaulay snatched pole over James Harridge, with another of the Irish – Joe Power – taking third.

The Irish Vees run on what looks like a dry track day tyre, and I thought they’d have no chance in the rain – but I was very wrong! For those who don’t know, Irish spec cars are 1600cc as opposed to our 1300cc, but they have smaller wheels, which changes the gearing and it all balances out quite well.

In the gap between races, I finally got to have a bit of a chat with Paul Taylor and his lovely other half (noticeably missing from my thank you blog as I hadn’t managed to get around to them earlier in the year). I don’t think it was related, but his car then burst into flames in the garage (nobody was harmed), which pretty much did for his weekend due to a few issues once they’d scraped the powder off!

Race 1

The camber of the track at Brands Hatch is like Rockingham – except it’s not a constant through a corner, and even the start straight has all kinds of crazy undulations that I’d never even noticed as a spectator. From my 12th place on the grid, I was pointing downhill, and had to grow an extra leg to operate brake, clutch and the loud pedal all at the same time. I actually use heel and toe braking in my road car as second nature, but not in the race car (which is what I learned it for!).

I didn’t make the greatest start, and Alex Jones stalled on the grid immediately in front of me, so I had to get around him, and Michael Sammon and Jamie Harrison both beat me to Paddock Hill bend. I tucked in behind them in a gaggle with Tony Mitchell and Colin Gregory, and whilst I was just about holding onto them, I wasn’t able to bother them at all.

I got an excellent view of James Jones getting very sideways on the power after an incident at Druids, and then with Joe Power still stationary there and Alex Jones throwing it in thepit wall, I had my very first experience of a safety car.

The course car was very slow at first, but it was a million times better than the red flag that would otherwise have been thrown, and after a couple of laps it pulled in and we blasted into the spray once more.

Tony Mitchell got a slide on out of clearways and slammed into the pit wall at the front of the group I was trailing, sadly ending his weekend (he was fine, though). Colin Gregory then spun coming onto the back straight, with Tim Probert doing the same a few laps after.

In 8th place, I could see Tim reeling me in, but there was no chequered flag to save me with MSV allowing us longer races than usual, and when he caught me with a few laps to go, I waved him straight through rather than try and block him when he was clearly much faster.

And that meant my first ever top 10 result, following Tim home to a 9th!

Better yet – I then found out the grid for race 2 would have the top 10 places reversed, meaning I’d be starting from the front row in 2nd place!

Ian Jordan brought it home first for the Brits, followed by Gavin Buckley and James Harridge.

Race 2

After having a quick chat to Colin Gregory, who’d be the pole man, about tactics and survival from the front row, Glenn Hay pushed me back out of the garage into the (still pouring) rain, but I had no gears. Fumbling around, I found something to get me down to the holding area, and Glenn got on the spanners trying to get me something driveable before we headed onto the grid.

As they waved us out, the 2nd gear I thought I could manage with turned out to be the first time all year I’ve got it into reverse gear! With the reactions of someone who realises they’re looking like a Knob-Head, I narrowly avoided putting Glenn through the fence, and found something to get me moving forwards.

I took my place at the front of the grid, hoping someone was getting some photographs, as it may be a while before I get there again – but as they waved the green flag for the sighting lap I found I was now in 3rd gear, stalling it and hoping all the rest of the cars saw me waving frantically.

I found 1st gear and blasted away, wondering whether I should be reclaiming my grid spot for the start of the race, or whether I should start at the back? Struggling to find any gears, it became a moot point, and faced with starting in 3rd gear or reverse ahead of everyone else, for safety I reluctantly peeled off into the pits. I figured I’d either find a gear and do a pit lane start, or retire so we could fix it for the final race.

Watching all the grid blast away, the marshal finally waved me onto the track. I had a pretty lonely race, but had fun with the car and finished 10th.

At the pointy end, an ecstatic James Harridge took his first ever win in the Maverick Vee built by him and his Dad, Dave – it’s still far from the fastest down the straights, but makes up for it all in the twisty bits! I don’t think the winners cap left his head for the rest of the weekend – and rightly so! Snapping at his heels was James Jones, on his first time at the track, and his fellow Irishman Gavin Buckley running at the front again.

Race 3

After a very windy but dry (apart from the Irish lads in the Kentagon bar!) Saturday night, the final race on Sunday afternoon seemed set to favour me a bit more. I’d be starting from 10th on the grid, but these would be my first dry laps of the track, and I wouldn’t have the luxury of a few laps practice to get used to it – the lights would go out and we’d be straight into the race!

Except the lights went out and I went from 1st gear to 4th, as even though we had all the gears back, they weren’t quite where they had been for the rest of the year!

This dropped me right to the back of the field yet again!

I passed a few as I got used to the track in the dry, and then I could see Alex Jones up ahead of me. After a few laps I wasn’t getting any closer to him – so I dug deep and started pushing harder.

This worked, and I found myself right on the back of him through Clearways. I knew I was still being too slow and gentle on the throttle around there, so upped my game a bit and got some great drive from the Sheane’s brilliant little engine down the main straight, pulling just in front but not able to hold the outside into Paddock, and then I made sure I got well out of the way as James Harridge blasted through to lap me into Druids.

Surtees was the only corner I’d got nailed, taking it flat in 3rd, and showed my nose up the inside but backed out when Alex kept his foot in as well, setting me up perfectly to cut back on a tighter line around Clearways. I also gave a thumbs up to the black and white #18 flag being shown for exceeding track limits at Graham Hill.

I was getting faster into Paddock, but still braking far too early, and Alex latched onto the back of me down the hill, diving to the inside into Druids (another corner I’d been pretty useless at all weekend!) and then had to back off again to let Adam Macauley come through on the lead lap.

Again my improvements around Clearways put me ahead into Paddock, and I held onto it this time and braked in the middle of the track into Druids on a defensive line even though I thought Alex had gone off, but he appeared out of my blind spot on the grass to the inside and slithered past me again!

I kept all my wheels on the track for once around Graham Hill, so I didn’t pick up a penalty, and still managed to launch well down the straight to pull alongside Alex. I moved to the right to leave him racing room as I tried to take as fast a line as I could into Surtees, but the curve of the track caught me out a bit (I actually thought Alex had moved across into me, at the time) and I had to jink left very hard to prevent our wheels touching. What I didn’t know is that Ian Jordan was also there ready to lap us (I thought we’d get through Surtees before he was on us and then I could let him through at Clearways), and he had to take to the grass as well.

I pulled out a bit of breathing room, waving Ian and Paul Taylor through when they lapped me, and then got my head down for a few laps trying to drop Alex, who was around a second behind me.

He then pulled his fastest lap of the race out of the bag on the last lap, closing right up on me through Graham Hill before I got very sideways into McLaren bend, just managing to hold a slide leaving big black lines on the track. I knew he’d move to the inside, so just straightened up and headed right for the outside of clearways to get my speed back up, before easing back over to block the tight line against the pit wall, and crossed the line 4 tenths of a second ahead for 11th place!

As an overall race weekend, it feels like I wasn’t really on the pace – but having said that I was only around 3 seconds off the lap times of the winners, so maybe it was just that all the racers who turned up were fast!

The gear selection problem was just an unlucky thing to happen, and it is very tricky to sort out gear problems on a Formula Vee because the gearbox hangs out the back of the car, and the mechanism is so long back to the gear stick that a tiny change somewhere in the linkage has a massive effect. For Race 2 I had to literally use my fingertips to change to 3rd and 4th gears up against the chassis tubing. Added to this, when I let go of the steering wheel, the car turned left, and so there must still be some damage from Donington that we need to find. Luckily, my wrist was much stronger, and was only hurting lowering myself into the car.

One bonus for us was that MSV allocated the pit garages to the open wheel cars. This is a massive thing to us, as we basically have a camper van and maybe an umbrella, and when it’s pouring with rain there is nowhere to shelter or do any work to the car. The Formula 4 boys probably weren’t quite as grateful, with their 40ft trailers and partition building teams on hand, but it makes life so much easier not to have an open topped car sat filling up with rain between races!

The festival is always good – loads of track time, great racing on a great track, and even the food is pretty decent at MSV tracks! Hopefully next year’s event will attract a lot more of the British drivers. A grid of 16 is far too low for a championship that had 37 cars at Silverstone, and again we can’t thank the Irish lads enough for not only making up the numbers, but giving us a bit of a hiding!

Massive congratulations also to Ian Jordan for his win, and James Harridge for his first ever two wins.

And so we go into the long Winter… I’ll still be finding things to blog about on here, but we won’t be expecting to turn a wheel until March.

If you want to get involved in Vee by helping us out at races, we’d be honoured with any sort of help! We’re still doing this on a shoestring budget against people spending ten times (and more!) what we are, and so any sponsorship you can offer, big or small, would be greatly appreciated – and we will work something out so all parties benefit.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed my blogs this season, and hope to see you all out there again next year!

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