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Croft 2016 – Rounds 5 & 6

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I made the call with Glenn to travel 180 miles up to Croft on the Saturday morning, rather than the night before. Glenn used to do this all the time when he raced, so I figured I’d try it and see how tired I was – assuming we made it in time for qualifying!

Glenn has remounted the rear suspension lower down. This means we get a lot more suspension travel than before which should help with set-ups, and it’s lowered the rear and thus the centre of gravity. The aim of the weekend was to see how this all worked, and also run in some brand new brake pads – so Croft would be very much a learning weekend rather than anything competitive.

I used to like the track on the old TOCA Touring Cars computer game, and spent some time watching onboard videos to try and remember which way to turn, but a lot of other drivers were there testing all day on the Friday, so it was looking like a weekend to stay safe and accept we’d be at the back.

Qualifying

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One thing you can’t account for is the weather. As we rolled into the collecting area, the rain absolutely hammered it down on us. With track conditions being borderline dangerous (they cancelled the following sessions for safety), we trundled out into the puddles.

I followed a group of cars all tip-toeing around in the treacherous conditions, eventually skating passed Tony Mitchell, but was pretty much just driving around the track boring myself.

After the first 2 laps, just as I was learning the track enough to pick up speed, the rain increased even more. It paid off for those who’d tested or raced at the track before, as they could get straight on it in those 2 laps, and lead to some excellent surprises such as Alex Jones snagging 5th place on the grid, and David Leniewski qualifying 10th!

I dribbled my way home in a deserved 19th place to start from the back in both races.

Of course, we found out absolutely nothing about the handling changes, and I had no idea if I’d even started to bed the new brake pads in. I was kicking myself, because I knew I’d wasted my time by not trying to push – but then I guess stating at the back is better than finishing in the armco barriers…

Race 1

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A mere four hours later, in scorching sun (I have pale blue, Polish skin, ok?) we lined up to go out again. Despite the drastically improved conditions, it wasn’t actually very much help to me, as I’d never driven a lap in the dry before!

I’ve had major self-doubt creeping in following a few disappointing results, and so had a lot to prove to myself to justify spending all my money on this racing malarkey…

The lights went out at the start and I got a pretty good start. As I changed to 2nd it turned into a belter of a start, as I flew passed a few cars in a hole up the middle, and then after a hesitation dived to the outside into the first turn to pick up another few spaces – 6 in all!

I was already up with David Leniewski, and having no clue what I was doing, just figured I’d copy him only brake later, carry more speed in, and get on the power sooner – and just hope I could hang onto the car! Back to my old “Throw it into the corner and sort out whatever happens” philosophy! I kept it absolutely nailed through the 4th gear Jim Clark Esses, and through the following rights as I hoped I’d remembered which of them you had to brake hard for.

I eventually eased passed him when he had some mechanical problems, but not before my next biggest obstacle – the 2nd gear hairpin.

2nd gear is such a low ratio it’s very rare that you have to find it in a Formula Vee. Which is just as well, as you can’t find the damned thing.

As I fished around in a bag full of crunching neutrals, a few cars streamed back passed me onto the pit straight. Eventually I found 2nd and fired off after them all.

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The red and white car of Darren Lomas was filling my mirrors as I tried desperately to keep on the racing line, now Jake Hockley ahead in the GAC with exactly the same dry Croft experience as me – i.e. none.

As I came back into the flat-out section my car lurched left in the turn, making me run wide and drop two wheels down the small cliff on the exit at 120mph+. I caught the resulting slide quickly and kept my foot planted, turning the wheel back the other way to recover, and by some miracle stayed not only on the track, but still stayed ahead of Darren.

He chased me hard for the rest of the race, and it was probably quite funny watching us at the hairpin as neither of us could get 2nd gear!

Martin Snarey was right on the back of us, but I held on for an excellent and much needed 13th place and 4th in class B!

More importantly, I knew I could hold my own against faster cars, and hit a brand new circuit first time out and be quick. I’d started to doubt this. And I knew I could knock a good 2 seconds of my time even if I still couldn’t find 2nd gear!

As I climbed out in parc ferme, Darren pointed at the back of my car.

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Ah.

The weld holding my anti-roll Z-bar had snapped – explaining my high speed moment in the race!

So we still didn’t really know what the rear modifications had done for the car. One thing I did know for sure was that the new brake pads were awesome already!

At the pointy end Paul Smith romped home to another win, with the 2 Bears cars of Dave Hughes and Paul Taylor coming in a chuffed-to-bits 2nd and 3rd

Race 2

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After a hot and sunny Sunday, precisely as we were kitting up, the skies went black again!

All thought of knocking those 2 seconds off my times were washed away in the waterfalls that hit Croft as we waited for 20 minutes for the officials to decide if it was safe to go out.

Sat under umbrellas, joking with Sam Engineer, Adam McCauley, Glenn Hay and Chris Wilshire, I figured there was no chance of them starting us, and was tempted to be the first to start up and drive back onto the trailer.

Suddenly, they waved us out on track. Good – because I couldn’t live with my wet performance from qualifying.

Already soaked, I could barely see the track even on the slow lap around to get on the grid, let alone the car ahead. And there’d be about 20 of them off the start!

The lights went out and I got away without wheelspin, but as soon as we were in 2nd gear I couldn’t see a thing through the spray. I hit the brakes about 4 times before I even got to the first corner, and could see carnage through the deluge.

I held an inside line and skittered passed a few spinners, wary of anything going into the back of me, and tried to find a compromise between having some visibility and getting between the puddles without them ripping the car off the track.

I was determined to use the conditions to get the car a bit sideways (it’s easier to do in the rain) and try and get more comfortable doing that, and found that I was really enjoying it!

Cars kept appearing out of the spray, and I was able to get by them despite locking up a lot, getting wheelspin in 4th gear on the straights, and having to save a good few slides.

Ian Buxton slithered passed me, and I hung on to the back of him fairly easily (that’s a first!) so knew I must be doing something right!

Martin Snarey was ahead, and I was flying up behind him when I had a major loss of 2nd gear at the hairpin. I watched Martin drive away down the straight, and was about half way down myself before I found a damned gear again!

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I kept powering on, actually hooking my front wheel into some of the puddles to get the car turned in better, and knew where I could grab loads more time, and then disaster struck.

I had a huge lock up as I braked for Tower, and drifted out very wide – not a problem, as I eased a bit of throttle back on to slide it back into the corner when the back end twitched again as the re-welded Z-bar broke again, spinning me off into some filthy great muddy field.

Even that wasn’t so bad, as I was ready to drive out, but the car had dropped as the z-bar disconnected, and I got beached in the mud. I tried in vain to reverse out, then had a vague recollection of an off-roading technique of rocking it out, but it was no good.

I waved for the marshalls and the race was red flagged as conditions were too bad and nobody wanted a stack of Vees growing in their turnip field on top of me.

A quick push and I was on my way again, but despite having been up to at least 12th when I went off, I was only classified in 19th at the finish.

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I’m not disappointed with that in the slightest – because I also set the 9th fastest lap overall!

That’s a huge confidence booster on its own – but combined with my dry performance in the first race it was a psychologically fantastic weekend for me!

I had brilliant fun in wet and dry, and my confidence in the car is coming on in leaps and bounds. I know I’m headed back in the right direction at last, and I know I can do much, much better – and that’s all with a damaged car!

There might be 2 James’ in Formula Vee doing rain dances for the rest of the year!

Speaking of which, James Harridge came in 2nd behind the seemingly unbeatable Paul Smith, with fellow n00b Harry Webb picking up an excellent 3rd on the podium!

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