After my last emo blog, if you’ve seen my Twitter and Facebook updates of how the day went, you might be expecting me to be a bit gutted.
If you haven’t seen, yet, my day ended during qualifying when the engine blew big-time, leaving a fist-sized hole in the engine block.
So, yeah – that part was a bit crap. Especially after that blog exposed my self-doubt that had crept in, and I’d had such a struggle to get focused to get back out there again.
The whole day was a bit of a mess, but surprisingly not for me. I’ll have to gloss over some of that stuff as it will get me in Trouble again if I have a full rant on here about it, but let’s jump in…
I missed out on racing during the Covid pandemic, when many rules changed to keep everyone safe, so I had a bit of catching up to do on how race days are now run.
The biggest change is an online sign-on process and scrutineering declarations, which, to give them their due, 750 Motor Club have done a brilliant job with, and was all nice and easy.
The bad news for us is that some cars still have to go through scrutineering, and at Donington the Formula Vees were chosen. This meant a much earlier start for us, and in reality consisted of waiting in the queue for ninety minutes when all the cars should have been done in 30 minutes. This meant my nice relaxed day started off with having to rush to get ready for the qualifying session by the time we’d actually been checked.
As it turned out, I needn’t have rushed, as we then sat in another queue for a sound test that took so long I wasn’t even allowed on track by the normal entrance, and had to drive across the other side of the paddock to go out through the pit lane.
I don’t know what the cock-up was, and for the sake of this I don’t care, but I will note that I’m paying a Hell of a lot of money to drive around a race track – NOT to do a noise level check. Also, someone really needs to be made aware that you cannot have aircooled cars sat with their engines running for very long – we will literally all blow up.
As many cars didn’t even get out on track before the session ended, we had to go out a second time, which again I’m not going to get into here…
So, first session:
Despite any anxiety I may have had before the day (or is it excitement? The two are very similar, and can be just the difference between a positive outlook!), I was straight back into it, falling asleep in the car as I was waiting to go out!
In my defence, my 3 year old niece Bella, was also spark out, soothed by the sounds of revving race engines!
My aim for this was to stay on the track, stay out of everyone’s way, and try and get some sort of feel for the car back. And see if we had full gear selection.
It was frustrating seeing cars pass me, but the first lap or two felt pretty horrible. The car felt very wallowy – but not just because I’d opted for a softer set-up – I’d just forgotten what it felt like to drive it. That’s something no race sim can replicate, and clearly it had been long enough that even my visualisations of laps was off. I didn’t want to disgrace myself by being dog-slow (especially knowing my former close rivals are all now much faster), but I also didn’t want to throw it in the gravel or worse just trying to look fast when my head wasn’t.
Looking back at the onboard footage, it doesn’t look anywhere near as bad as it felt to me. My vision around the track was completely dropped in favour of trying to hit a few braking points without locking up, and trying to get the car moving around a bit in the corners without binning it.
It was horrible, but also instantly great to be back behind the wheel. I could feel myself getting better and better with each corner, and my lines were still good. I attacked my nemesis corner -Old Hairpin – right from that first lap, getting back on the power as soon as I turned in, and taking a massive chunk of the inside curb. A slight lift as the car ran deep over the exit curb, but then straight back on the power knowing I hadn’t needed it.
I knew I’d be owning that corner for the rest of the day, and it felt good!
My braking into the chicane was terrible. Far too early. Too worried about taking too much of the left and right curbs. Far too slow in.
I locked up at the hairpin, then found I couldn’t get second gear, but it was so close I figured I’d work out a way to select it, or just do it in third (slower, but better than missing gears).
I got second at the second hairpin, controlling the wheelspin in the instant before changing back up to third for the finish straight, and was already vowing to brake much deeper for Redgate, visualising how much curb I’d take to the late apex just after the service road…
By the fourth lap I was still terrible, but definitely getting there. I knew where I could gain full seconds of time, and exactly how I’d do that, and was already getting the car sliding around a few corners without worrying about catching it.
By the in-lap I was starting to use proper vision through the corners, and driving and trail braking more on autopilot. If only I’d had more laps… Could I scrape into my target top 20?
14th and 8 seconds off pole was a surprise. I was even 4th in Class B, but also found some cars had never even made it out after the sound checks.
Not that it mattered all that much to me whether I’d been 1st or 30th – I knew I was getting faster and knew exactly what I needed to do. Should I firm up the dampers? Can Glenn fix the notchy throttle pedal? Damn it was good to be back!
There were a lot of irate drivers around the paddock who’d missed laps or the session, but I was feeling very zen and focused.
My race target would be a clean start, get a few laps in trying to hang on the back of people, and then I was confident I’d be able to start pushing forward.
Word came through we’d be running another 10 minute qualifying session, and before I knew it I was putting my kit back on and sliding back into the car. I clipped the AIM Solo 2 into place on my dashboard (I’d forgotten it before) so I could get some sector times.
This time I joined the track with more other cars around me, and had a brisk outlap to get some heat into the Hoosier tyres, thinking I’d build up from the first lap. I absolutely nailed the final hairpin, trail braking to perfection whilst keeping it in 3rd, but having to lift on the exit behind another driver who’d missed a gear.
I still wasn’t even holding it flat out down Craners, but this time I had a light feather and kept it in 4th just to see if I could carry the speed through Old Hairpin, see how it pulled up the hill, and conserve the engine a little until I was ready to drop the hammer.
I was seeing green LED’s from the AIM Solo letting me know everything I was doing was getting faster but I knew I’d be needing 3rd next time.
I floated it through McLeans, threw it over the blind crest at Coppice and squeezed the loud pedal…
… and the sound changed.
I had about a second to look in my mirrors for any signs of bad stuff happening before a shockwave felt like it almost lifted the car up in the air. What I couldn’t see, and what the reflections in the back of my helmet showed, was the fireball:
I stood on the clutch, knowing the engine had seized, and had a good look in my mirrors to make sure I wasn’t on fire, coasting down the back straight looking for a marshals post with a big old fire extinguisher just in case…
As it turned out, the fire had already happened by this point! Adam Macaulay watched my onboard video when I uploaded it a few days later and pointed out that you can see the fireball of the explosion reflected in the back of my helmet!
I also didn’t know at the time I’d had blown so violently that shards of piston/engine casing had punctured my own left rear tyre!
After the session finished I walked back to the car and saw the huge hole in the engine. A quick check showed I didn’t seem to be leaking more oil, so I got towed back in, and that was the racing over for me.
So it should be a terrible tale of a disastrous day after years of waiting… but do you know what?
I was so happy with the way my driving was improving, and how the car was before that, that I just couldn’t feel down abut it all. Of course I was gutted not to have more track time, and not to experience that long-awaited intensity of a race start, but I’d already extinguished all of those Demons nestling in my head from my last blog.
It was so good seeing the other drivers again after so long, and great to have Glenn, my sister Michelle and her boyfriend Mark there helping out (and supplying so much food we could have fed the entire paddock!), and I still enjoyed just being back in the thick of it all.
The biggest let-down was my knee, which did not cope with the day at all, and prevented me wandering around the paddock as much as I’d like as I tried to hide how bad it was from the other drivers. It’s properly knackered with a torn meniscus, ganglion cyst, and 20 degree flexion deformity. Somewhat ironically, it was absolutely fine for the driving, but standing, walking and anything else outside the car killed it. Luckily I’m having surgery to fix it in a few days, so that will be the last gremlin out of my way.
Oh, and we might need a few bits of engine, too…
Thank you to everyone who helped out, welcomed me back! And to my supporters Primrose Hospice and The Birmingham Superprix Project, who I kept in the dark a little after letting them down with false-starts over the last few years.
As soon as my knee and engine are back together, I’ll be back out there again – and that shouldn’t take too long, this time!