To read the short version, please visit the RTV team page or watch the onboard videos at the bottom of this page: https://racingteamvee.com/2017/04/03/oulton-park-international-rounds-1-2/
It was all a bit close to make it – but finally, on Thursday evening, Glenn fired up the Sheane and we knew we had a car to race on Saturday!
Of course there was still a lot of prep work left, and that meant getting up stupidly early on Saturday morning and heading up to Cheshire for a very rushed race day.
Rolling the car off the trailer, it was great to be back amongst the Formula Vee paddock. It’s a long Winter off-season, but as soon as you meet everyone again it’s as if you’ve never been away! And it was good to see some of the new drivers this season, as well as a few faces returning to Vee after a break.
After the mandatory new driver briefing, scrutineering, and getting signed on, I found I wasn’t feeling very nervous about it all.
We’d gone back to using the engine from early last year that we knew was good (albeit with the same internals as the other engine), so although we had confidence in having more power, we’d had no time to test anything – in fact only a few months ago I’d thought my racing was pretty much over as Glenn wouldn’t be able to work on the car or have any time for racing, due to sickness in the family.
With all that in mind, we were taking the reluctant but sensible approach of using the day as more of a shakedown run. The brief was to ease the car in, get a feel for driving again after the Winter break, and above all to keep everything safe and out of trouble. If that all went ok, then I’d see if I could pick up a few places by working on getting the power down earlier – but realistically, with so many having tested at the track the day before, we would treat anything inside the top 20 as a bonus.
This was a shame for me, as I’ve done maybe as many as 200 laps of Oulton on 600cc sportsbikes, and so know it better than any other track. And the reason I was there that much was because I absolutely love the track! Still, the last time I was there was about 7 years ago, and I didn’t know how that could be translated into driving the car…
The track was cold and damp as I rolled out of the pit lane, dropping down towards the familiar sight of Cascades. I steadily eased the throttle on from mid-corner and heard a popping sound, followed by rattles and tapping.
Worse still, the car didn’t slew out of the corner sideways under power, as I’d been provoking – I’d lost all power.
I couldn’t see smoke in my mirrors, and pressing the loud pedal didn’t seem to make anything worse, so I quickly eliminated the horror of a blown engine from my mind – my initial thought being I’d popped an air hose off, before I realised Vee’s don’t have any air hoses! Was it yet another snapped engine stud?
If you don’t do 3 laps of a circuit then you don’t qualify to race, and you’re going home. As I cruised around the rest of the lap listening and watching the car very carefully, I figured the problem wasn’t getting any worse, and so I’d try and crawl around to get the 3 laps in, and then bring it in and hope Glenn could work his magic in time to get us out for a race.
I spun once in the Hislops chicane as I tried to keep up some kind of speed as I followed the racing line – but realistically I didn’t have the power to learn anything at all from the track as I limped around on 3 cylinders trying to keep out of everyone’s way. I was locking up on the brakes everywhere, someone else had thrown oil over the track, and I had absolutely no feel for the car.
If the gate at Lodge had been open I might have just drove straight out and gone home. As I drove in through the pits and back towards the garage, the revs suddenly shot up and I quickly killed the engine before it blew completely. Another problem?
A quick look over the car found the left rear sparkplug had torn itself out, along with all the thread.
Glenn said it was fixable at the trackside if he could find someone with the tools, but making the first race in less than 2 hours was unlikely. Disaster.
As I embraced the depressing realisation, whilst seeing my name on the time sheets in 26th and 25th places for the races, Alan Harding and the AHS crew swarmed over to my car and got to work with helicoils and inserts, and before I knew it they’d done their thing and fixed the issue!
It never fails to amaze me how even rivals in the Vee paddock will jump to help you in your hour of need. For how fiercely competitive AHS are, they’re always willing to help save your day at a moments notice, and I owe them a huge thanks for that!
So it looked like we’d make the grid – however, we still didn’t know what cause the throttle to jam open, and it wasn’t happening again when we fired it back up. It was either fixed or it would happen again – looking to the skies we now had another problem…
Rain was pounding down from the black skies…
As we’d found out absolutely nothing in qualifying, we were re-setting and using this as the shakedown run, hoping everything with the car was now ok. With nothing to lose, I went for a radical set up and softened the dampers more than I ever have before, as I like it pretty stiff.
With the monsoon it was unlikely we’d get a great deal from this session, either, but after Croft I have learned to love the rain. I wasn’t going to take any chances, but part of me had confidence that I could claw something back from the day. If I could stay out of the inevitable carnage that was about to happen, and keep it out of the barriers myself…
The start lights went out and I rocketed off the line despite the wet, angling for a narrow gap along the pit wall, and making up 3 or 4 rows before getting blocked in and having to brake well before the first turn.
Blinded by the spray, I stayed tight to the inside at Old Hall, aware of something happening to the left of me, but more concerned with finding my own way through .
I believe Steve Ough and Adam Macaulay touched wheels, causing all kinds of drama as Adam spun off to the outside, and an unlucky Rickard Rainbow, who’d already taken to the grass in avoidance, was a passenger as he t-boned Adam hard.
Both drivers were ok – the cars not so much so. They weren’t going to race any more today.
My heart sank a little as the marshals called everyone back past me to the original grid positions, but as the race restarted I made a carbon copy start, diving past everyone again along the pit wall.
I settled into a paced cruise that I normally use to feel out a new track, but seemed to still be passing people without trying.
Coming down towards the Hislops chicane I hit the brakes and it was so slippery the front wheels locked instantly, and despite frantic cadence braking I couldn’t find any grip to pull the car up. I bounced straight across the grass along with a few others who’d done the same, Darren Lomas spinning off in front of me just before Knickerbrook.
I carried on with what felt like a bit of a Sunday drive, still making really good progress on the treacherous track – I was loving every second!
Braking into Hislops again alongside Steve Ough, and I did the same again, with Steve alongside me bouncing over the grass. We both slithered around Knickerbrook and I was able to out-drag his Dominator up Clay Hill towards Church. In fact all through the session I was having to lift off the throttle behind people when I didn’t think I could make a safe, clean pass.
That second excursion had lost me a fair few places, and I assume it might be frowned upon to overshoot the same corner on 3 consecutive laps, so made sure I was braking stupidly early and gently for that one for the remaining laps.
Others were still having problems as conditions worsened, however, and David Leniewski spun to the inside at Shell as I caught Jamie Harrison and a 4 way battle with them, Mark Egan and Andrew Cooper.
Another mistake from Dave at Hislops let me through, as I chased down Jamie Harrison for 11th place, bearing down on him 2 seconds a lap faster on my charge, but unfortunately the chequered flag came out after only 4 laps.
Jamie, me and Dave were all covered by just 4 tenths of a second at the line!
I had absolutely no idea where I’d finished, but had enjoyed it all immensely. If I’d known Jamie was actually 3rd in class at the finish I’d have got more aggressive about things, but I had no idea how far up the grid I’d climbed! You can see on the video how much I was lifting off the throttle, still cruising, rather than stuffing it up the inside.
Don’t get me wrong – I was trying to go quickly, but I was still driving more as I would in qualifying. What I’m not sure of is if I was just naturally fast there because of my bike track days, or if the more relaxed approach brought the extra speed?
All I knew for sure is that I wanted more rain – the more the better – and then I’d show what I was capable of…
Thankful of my blue iridium tinted visor, I rolled into the holding area under the burning sun, on the bone dry track, only 3 hours later. So THAT’S how it’s going to be, is it?
This would play directly into the hands of everyone who’d tested in the dry the day before, and I’d never been around a single corner in the dry in the Vee in my life, so for the second time that day had absolutely no idea where to brake, or how fast to take any corner on the circuit. Great.
Expecting everyone to just drive away from me as I struggled to learn the track, we once more opted to just bring it home safe, and get a feel of what the car was like in the dry.
Because I was so desperate for the rain, I even left tyre pressure and damper settings on the extra soft ones I’d used in the first race, still hoping the skies would open again to give me a chance.
For the third time in a row I blasted off the start and again tore past half the grid against the pit wall, having to hit the brakes behind John Hartin as he fluffed a gear change and I had nowhere to get by.
The problem now was that I was right in the mid pack, hammering down to Cascades, and not having an idea how fast I could go around the corner!
I chose the trusty technique of giving everyone a bit of room and then just braking when they did, then concentrated on getting on the power as early as I dared.
After following Hartin and returning Vee veteran Andrew Crighton around, slipping past Vaughn Jones and then Crighton just before Lodge, I got a good run and passed Hartin out of Lodge, then had a bit of a guess how fast I could get through Old Hall – straddling the curb precariously on the exit but managing to get it back on the black stuff still ahead.
I kept leaning steadily on the car – not getting out of shape and yet still seeming to carry a good pace. I bore down on David Leniewski who upped his own pace in return.
In hindsight we should have worked together more, but we did slow each other up a bit from there. Leniewski had the speed in the first chicane, whilst I was much faster in Island and the run up to Church. Unfortunately, sticking it up the inside in either of those places, especially as he defended, would likely have led to wheel contact and me cartwheeling off into trees and lakes.
Not the thing the way to end your first few dry laps in a car that was feeling good!
Despite slowing each other, we ripped into the gap to the next battle – Jamie Harrison and Neil Aldridge – and were soon swarming all over the back of them.
As we came out of lodge, Leniewski had a huge run on both of them, but I had an even better one on them all. Harrison jinked right to block, and I put two wheels on the grass, aiming to pass the lot of them on the green stuff down to Lodge, before my brain kicked back in and I abandoned the overtake.
Unfortunately, the chequered flag was out, and I didn’t get the chance to use my momentum… Again I had no idea where I’d finished as I came back in to the garages.
I went to speak to Harrison to tell him I would have had him, and was gobsmacked when I asked where he’d come in B Class and he said he’d won! I congratulated him and then suddenly realised that I must have been 2nd!
I was chuffed to bits to pick up my trophy (plus one for 6th in the Class B championship from last year), and I was actually half way home before Steve Bailey posted a Facebook message telling me I’d actually got the fastest lap in class for that race!
Not only that, but I was now 2nd in the B class championship and 11th in the overall standings!
I was buzzing about it for days afterwards – and what a present on my 40th birthday weekend?
So we’d gone from abject despair, barely getting around a damp track, to an amazing comeback drive in torrential rain, to an even better drive on a warm dry track – all in one day! My best results ever, and on my favourite track.
I was amazing to be back with the Vee crowd again, if the day was a bit rushed, and I can’t wait to get back out there on May 1st for the full GP track at Brands Hatch.
Brands is my least favourite circuit, so it should give us a good idea whether my Oulton track knowledge was what made me fast, or if we’ve got as good a car this year as I think.
I’ll also be announcing something else in a few days time, so watch this space!