Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Not the BRKC: Formula Fast members' night, 27 March 2018

"Oh dear," I think. "We're going to crash."

Time is frozen in a spot familiar to many who read this blog: around two-thirds of the way down Formula Fast's bumpy back straight. On a normal lap you'd be thinking about braking for the hairpin or defending your position as if your life depended on it. And you'd be sitting in a standard single-seater kart.

Not tonight.

Tonight I'm in Formula Fast's two-seater kart for the first time. Beside me is Aslam, veteran of one previous session at this circuit. Five metres in front of us is a pair of tyre barriers, laid across the track in a staggered formation to create a tight chicane. Aslam is in charge of steering this dual-control kart, and I have the pedals. I've just braked very late, giving my rookie teammate the very big ask of threading a wide, unfamiliar machine through a narrow gap at speed. The tyres loom, I fight the urge to stab the left pedal again... Aslam flicks us neatly left, then right - and we're through without a touch. I'd breathe a sigh of relief but there's no time: the hairpin is upon us.

This, then, is Member's Night - one of several a month at Formula Fast. At £25 plus a one-off lifetime membership fee of £20, it's excellent value. The formats vary according to the number and standard of drivers, and the mood of FF top bods Phil Stanley and Ollie Fox. Phil's on duty tonight and has devised this skills test - two laps of two different layouts in the two-seater - to set the grid for the one hour endurance to follow. There are time penalties for hitting the barriers.

Aslam and I have a clean run aside from a brush with the barrier just past the finish line, but qualify down in fifth: he's on a steep learning curve and, like all rookies, is working the steering too hard and spending too much time going sideways. But no matter: the two-seater is a hoot. It's surprisingly grunty considering its size, and driving as a pair is easier than you might think.

For the race, we're back in familiar territory: in single-seaters on the standard layout, although we're lined up on the back straight for a standing start - another first for me here. I'm usually better at these than the rolling starts, but as soon as the lights blink out I sense a problem: the kart is very reluctant to move. I spend ten frustrating minutes being passed left, right and centre, pit and hand over to Aslam. The leaderboard shows me over a second a lap slower than local hero Lewis Manley. Lewis is lightning quick of course, and I'm a bit steady - but that's more than steady. I ask Phil if we can swap.

He's happy to oblige: at the next driver change, I jump in a cold kart which instantly feels more lively. Despite a long brake pedal and an unusually (for this fleet) tail-happy balance, I'm lapping a full 1.8 seconds faster by the end of my stint. Aslam starts the race nearly three seconds a lap slower than me, and closes that to 1.7 by the end - solid progress.

Having fallen to the back in the first half of the race, we claw back a place by the end. During my second and final stints I string some modestly quick and consistent laps together. Aside from being a blast, it's all vital experience. I've already spent more time in a kart this year than in the whole of 2017.

My next visit to FF will probably be a Sunday unlimited session. Before then, I'll acquire some extra lead in order to bring me up to BRKC-regulation 90kg. I've used Formula Fast ballast in the past, but keeping the weight as close to the centre of the kart as possible (ie in the seat) will improve the balance slightly. Success here is all about marginal gains.

Talking of marginal gains, the driver is slightly improved, I think, since January. If nothing else, I don't need to rewire my brain when I get in the kart. There's a lot of work still to do before I qualify as 'competent'.

But the process on and off track is a lot of fun. I can't wait to go again.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Finding the edge

This post doesn't entirely belong here.

If I were to succumb entirely to OCD I'd create a whole new blog called 'Miscellaneous ramblings of a disgruntled fortysomething'. But like Steve McQueen said, racing is life. So here it sits.

From 2011 to 2013, karting was a major part of my life. I competed all over the UK in the British Rental Kart Championship, took part in five 24-hour races, and racked up a string of strong results in individual and team events at my local circuit - Thruxton. When the competition was world class - as it is in the BRKC and the British 24 Hours - I was respectable. A safe pair of hands.

And even then, at the height of my results, I was holding back. Compared to the most dedicated of my peers, I lacked commitment. Fitness, mental preparation, practice - all could have been improved upon. I often cited my relative lack of seat time as an excuse, but the fact is I could have raced more than I did. I could have been fitter than I was. And when the pressure was on, I could have been sharper mentally. I was simply a little lazy. Because I was (and remain) terrified of committing everything I have and still falling short, I was unconsciously setting myself up to fail.

In karting, as in life.

From 2014-2016, life took a couple of difficult turns which I've blogged about elsewhere. My health suffered and racing slipped a long way down the list of priorities. After a low point in late 2015, the Duff household was well on the way to mending by the time my daughter was born in May 2016. But I was on strong medication, in no state to race, and had no business competing at the British 24 Hours in August 2016. I was a shadow of my normal self and let my team down badly. After a brief (and abysmal) outing in a 2-stroke Daytona DMax kart a month later, I decided to stop racing until I was well.

For old time's sake I joined the BRKC - by now an annual tournament style event - in January 2017. And I did enjoy myself. But that was it. I focused on healing, on being a dad, on losing the weight that a combination of medication and fatherhood had piled on.

It would have been so easy to give up racing. I'm bearing down on my mid forties. My body aches. My daughter, whom I adore to the moon and back, is demanding as only a toddler can be. I hate being away from her and my wife. As a writer of novels that attract glowing feedback but few sales, my disposable income is somewhere below zero.

But I couldn't quite bring myself to miss the BRKC - I've taken part in every season since its inception - so signed myself up to be thrown to the lions. By January 2018 I was fit and well in body and mind for the first time in four years. With minimal racing for 18 months - none at all in the previous year - I finished 78th out of 100 entrants. I was shocked at how far off the pace I had fallen. And I found myself yearning for more.

I'm no driving god. No undiscovered Verstappen-esque genius lurks under the seat of these pants. But I am far more capable than I've shown in recent years. And I'm hungry. It's a long time since I've achieved any sort of success in a kart, and I'm keen to change that.

Over the coming months I plan to show my face at BRKC venue Formula Fast as often as time and funds allow. And having had an absolute blast in the first round of Swindon Karting Arena's open championship, I will return in March. I will be competing in the BRKC 0-plate at South Coast Karting in August, and plan to enter at least one of their championship rounds in preparation.

The holy grail for 2018 is to make it across to the continent for one of the national championships - and above all, to be as competitive as I know I can be. Away from the circuit I'll be working harder than ever on my physical and mental preparation.

Of course, I'll record the inevitable trials, tribulations, ups and downs here. 'That old bloke that writes the blog when he can be arsed' is finally going to put some effort in.

Quake in your boots, Ruben Boutens (Kart World Champion 2017)


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

BRKC 2018. Milton Keynes, 19-21 January. Preview


It's the answer to life, the universe and everything, as anyone who's read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will know. But where the 2018 edition of the British Rental Kart Championship is concerned, it's quite the opposite. It's the number of names on the entry list that I don't recognise. And I've been around this series a while. Since the very beginning (March 2011) in fact.

Having said that, there will be other old-timers better informed than I am, for BRKC 2018 marks something of a comeback for me. I haven't sat in a kart since my final heat at Formula Fast in 2017. The combination of a small child and an embryonic writing career have left little time or money for racing.

On the bright side, I won't have much in the way of outdoor karting technique to unlearn, and there's a wealth of onboard and trackside video footage to help bring me up to speed. I'm fitter and lighter (by 7kg) than at this time last year. I'll not dwell on the lack of seat time. If I've learned anything from racing against the best - and be in no doubt, BRKC attracts the very best - it's that going in with the right mental attitude is the key to success.

This is BRKC's fifth year at Formula Fast in Milton Keynes. Every year, series organiser Bradley Philpot, together with FF top bods Ollie Fox and Phil Stanley, somehow manage to raise the bar; I've no doubt that 2018 will be the same.

From its slick website to the custom-built laser pitstop system, every aspect of this championship oozes quality. We now take for granted - though we shouldn't - that crucial kart parity will be maintained throughout three days of practice and racing. As other circuits demonstrate on a regular basis, that's a remarkable achievement.

There are those who fondly remember the days when BRKC was a six round, mostly outdoor championship that travelled the length of the UK - I'm one of them. But in 2018, Formula Fast has long established itself as BRKC's spiritual home. And the experience - a three day pressure-cooker of adrenaline and biting cold - is firmly etched in the minds of every previous competitor.

If 2018 is your first year, you'll have some idea by now of what to expect. The vagaries of one lap qualifying, pitstops, pizza and so on will probably be familiar. If you're new to the circuit, the volume of video footage from previous years will be more than enough to show the circuit's two layouts, overtaking opportunities, even some technique.

What no amount of video or Facebook chatter will convey is how it feels. The atmosphere is unlike anything I've experienced anywhere else; every year I'm shocked at the intensity of it. Because every race is filmed and broadcast live, there are cameras all around the circuit and in the pitlane. James Auld, voice of the BRKC, booms over the PA and ratchets up the excitement to fever pitch. The cold burrows straight through layers of clothing and skin into bone. And whether you're the reigning champion or a hopeful newbie, you'll be acutely aware that you're sharing the building - and the circuit - with the best indoor karters on the planet.

When it's time to put your helmet on, select your kart number and wait in the pitlane to be called, it'll be a struggle to shut it all out, to stop your teeth chattering from a combination of chill and adrenaline. But as I've said before, shut it out you must. The circuit is a fickle beast - deceptively simple to drive but devilishly tricky to be quick on and incredibly sensitive to minute changes in temperature. Single lap qualifying demands a particular type of mental strength, and come the races, twenty minutes will never have seemed so long. The best drivers here are hyper-tuned to tiny changes in grip, approaching every millisecond of every lap with just the right blend of focus, determination and aggression. Make one tiny mistake, and someone will make you pay for it.

I've managed to get this far without mentioning Ruben Boutens, which must be some sort of record. The reigning BRKC champion has held the title since 2014, and is arguably more formidable than ever in 2018 - having finally added the elusive World Champion's trophy to what must be a room-sized cabinet. Ruben has competed in 23 BRKC heats, semifinals and finals since 2014. He's won 18 of them, and hasn't been beaten in a race at Formula Fast since 2015.

He faces most of the usual suspects, including all but one of last year's finalists and two British returnees: former double champion Lee Hackett and three-time finalist Ed White. Beyond that, 89 of the great and the good will converge on Milton Keynes from eight countries. They include Kart World Championship finalists, national championship podium finishers, tintop and single seater aces, MSA Rotax frontrunners, Formula Fast locals who can set a 32 second lap with their eyes shut... I could go on, but I'm starting to scare myself.

There's plenty to savour between races. The BRKC is almost as much a social occasion as it is a karting championship; I look forward to catching up with friends from the UK and abroad for the first time since the last time we collectively froze our extremities off. For those new to the championship, the friendly, inclusive vibe of the Facebook group very much extends to real life. Formula Fast's raised gantry and trackside viewing spaces make for great spectacle - just don't drop your drink on the track...

Talking of savouring, the aforementioned pizzas deserve their accolades, but the catering hit new heights in 2017 with the arrival of the Bandit food truck, which takes pulled pork sandwiches (among others) to a whole new level. The Bandit makes a welcome return in 2018.

As usual, there will be multiple ways to follow the BRKC. Darren Cook and his Scruffy Bear Pictures crew will be in charge of filming and broadcasting again, and the inimitable James Auld will be joined by a steady stream of assistant commentators over the course of the weekend. Formula Fast's own live timing system will be up and running from the start of practice. Links will be posted on Facebook and BRKC's Twitter feed.

BRKC 2018 will turn a wheel for the first time at 10am on Friday 19 January, when the karts roll out for practice. Racing starts at 8am on Saturday; 36 hours after that, the champion will be crowned. Will Ruben make it five in a row? You'd be brave to bet against it - but the competition has never been tougher.

More than five months since it sold out in an incredible 24 hours, BRKC 2018 is about to get real. I'm counting the minutes, and I'm sure there are 99 others out there doing the same.

Game on, folks...

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A weekend in dire straits: British 24 Hours. Teesside, 13-14 August 2016

After a promising buildup, the 2016 British 24 Hours descended swiftly into farce. Not just for the Corporate Chauffeurs team, but as a whole.

I'm not going to go into my usual minute detail because I don't think anyone wants to read it and frankly, I don't want to write it. So we'll stick to the highlights - or lowlights, as one team put it.

The Corporate Chauffeurs team - and in particular captain Alex Vangeen, team manager Luke Jones, Bradley Philpot and George Lovell - spent four months, hundreds of man hours and a not inconsiderable amount of money preparing for the biggest race weekend of the year. No stone was left unturned in the quest to be the best prepared, best drilled, best equipped hire team in the paddock.

Meanwhile, there were encouraging signs from the Teesside management, with two positive rule changes for 2016: kart selection by random draw, and a fixed-length mid-race maintenance stop for every team. They agreed to let us attach lights to our kart and posed no objection to our large awning. They were a pleasure to deal with, as they have been every year since our debut in 2011.

The good news continued through both setup days: kit, drivers and helpers all present and correct, Friday practice completed without a hitch, the usual radio glitches ironed out. Even the weather seemed to be on our side for once: we've never been warmer or drier at Teesside.

But by 9.05am on race day we were beginning to wonder why we'd bothered.

George Lovell, out first in practice in the kart allocated to #11, declared it virtually undriveable. Since he runs his own kart circuit, we tend to trust his judgement. Race instructor and double British 24 Hours winner Bradley Philpot was faring little better in #22, with major handling and engine issues evident within half a lap.

By the time our karts returned to the garage, less than 10 minutes after practice started, they joined a lengthening queue of ailing machines. At one point, a third of the hire kart field was in for remedial work ranging from incorrect tyre pressures to total engine failure.

Despite several return visits to the pits and a kart change for #11, the Corporate Chauffeurs teams qualified 18th and 22nd - both over a second away from the pole position laptime with world-class drivers at the wheels. Up and down the hire kart field were similar stories of zero kart parity and woeful reliability.

Last minute changes to tyre pressures and engine valve clearances - which the drivers had to persuade reluctant mechanics to undertake - enabled both crews to unlock some pace at last, and in the early hours of the race we rose swiftly through the field, running as high as 3rd and 4th at one point. That, we realised later, was as much down to others' misfortune as our searing speed.

But in the second hour, #22 slowed with an ailing left engine and pitted. The cause: an oil-filled carburettor. In hindsight - and with hard-won mechanical insight - we should have insisted on a new engine. But the mechanics, knowing full well that our left engine would almost certainly seize before the end of the race, nevertheless changed only the carburettor. Remarkably, the engine would last into the 20th hour before finally succumbing - costing us a needless 10 minutes on top of the 11 minutes we lost with the original repair.

After their kart change during practice, the #11 crew fared better, although niggling fuel feed problems, brake discs covered in chain lubrication oil (by the mechanics) and a shattered sprocket at half distance dropped them out of podium contention.

The troubles suffered by both Corporate Chauffeurs crews paled next those of the Leicester Lightning team, whose race 'lowlights' are immortalised on Youtube. Imagine our surprise when, in the closing hours, they appeared in 8th place in class, having been credited the laps lost to unreliability. To my knowledge they were the only team thus gifted and I'd love to hear the rationale for that. Had the Corporate Chauffeurs crews been similarly compensated (14 and 21 laps), we would have finished 1-2 comfortably. I'm sure there are other teams who could stake similar claims for the victory.

I'm not in possession of all the facts, and there may have been contributing circumstances beyond the organisers' control. I can only report on our experience, and that simply wasn't good enough. We spent the thick end of £3,000 in race fees plus the same again in travel, accommodation, kit hire, food and drink, clothing and branding, to field our two crews. Like many hire teams, we have sponsors involved, whose return on investment depends on us fighting for the win, not sitting in pieces in the garage. At a bare minimum, it costs a hire team £2,000 and a huge amount of energy to support the British 24 Hours. As far as we could tell, the hire fleet's race preparation amounted to a hosing-down and a new set of tyres.

Sorry, but that's unacceptable.

Nobody expects guarantees of 100% reliability. It's a 24 hour race, after all. But it's not unreasonable to expect the karts to have been fitted with fresh consumables, to have been tested and equalised to within say half a second over an 80 second lap. In other words, in return for their money and attendance, every team deserves to start the race on as even a footing as possible.

As it was, not even the tyre pressures had been checked, with wild variances across the fleet and across individual tyres on karts.

Despite our woes, every member of our 14-strong team put their hearts and souls into making the best of a bad situation. We kept our heads high even when Luke Jones fell seriously ill overnight and had to be admitted to hospital. In the end we finished 5th and 11th in class - testament to relentless pace especially from newcomer George Lovell and Teesside old hands Philpot and Weddell, and superb work in the pits.

But it's hard not to feel that all that talent, effort, money and time was wasted. Hard also not to feel that despite positive early signs, the hire teams were treated very poorly by Teesside in 2016. I gather that for 2017 the Club Hire class will replaced by a more expensive 'Rookie Extreme' class with new karts closer to the owner karts in specification. That sounds promising, but the quality and extent of kart preparation and parity will have to be leagues ahead of what we experienced this year. And the cost will put it out of the reach of many current Club Hire teams.

It's a shame to lose Club Hire. Done properly, it could be highly competitive and excellent value. As things stand, Corporate's Chauffeurs' plans for 2017 are fluid. But without some real commitment to the hire class from the organisers, and published details of how 2016's failings will be rectified for 2017, I very much doubt that we'll be returning.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

British 24 Hours 2016. Teesside, 12-14 August. Preview

This is where it gets real.

There are plenty of 24 hour kart races, but none quite like this. The European Prokart Endurance Championship (EPEC), of which the British 24 Hours is part, includes two other 24 hour races at the Isle of Man and Le Mans. But the British 24 Hours, held at EPEC's behemoth home circuit in the northeast of England, holds a special place in our hearts. With up to 70 owner and rental kart teams sharing track and paddock space, its scale and carnival atmosphere have no equal.

Everyone goes to Teesside. It's The One, the most coveted prize of all.

At its heart, a race - any race - is a simple thing. Get to the finish line first. And at Teesside, as in any race, the devil is in the detail. We must push our machines and ourselves to the limit but no further, treading the knife edge for over 1200 racing miles. We must balance speed on track with mechanical sympathy; use our collective years of experience to make sure that not a single second is wasted in the dozen or more scheduled pitstops we will make. We must plan down to the last detail yet be ready to react on the fly. We must be lucky, and we must make our own luck.

Only then will we have a shot at taking the chequered flag ahead of the 41 other teams also striving for the same glory. With a single hire class in 2016, our usual (fearsome) competition - Northampton Maidens, Teesside Tigers, CD31, a host of Elite Karting League regulars - are joined by a host of strong newcomers from the defunct Standard Hire class. The fight at the front is going to be tougher than ever.

Corporate Chauffeurs has, over the years, become a well-drilled racing team. We've put a lot of effort into preparing for the British 24 Hours; in 2016, we've raised our game again. Equipment, logistics, planning, analysis of past triumphs and mistakes... no stone has been left unturned. For me, fatherhood has dictated a quieter race buildup this year, but I've been blown away by the commitment and sheer hard work of my teammates over the past few months.

As usual, we'll field two karts, numbers 11 and 22, crewed by a mix of Teesside old hands and talented newcomers. Russell Endean and Jonny Spencer return to defend their Club Hire title at the wheel of #11, joined by Club100, BUKC and BRKC front runner David Longman and former Super 1 star George Lovell - who also happens to run his own kart circuit.

Having missed the podium by a hair's breadth in 2015, #22's crew have a point to prove. Corporate Chauffeurs captain Alex Vangeen, Michael Weddell and I are joined by teenage superstar-in-waiting Piers Prior and Race of Champions quarter-finalist Bradley Philpot, who swaps from #11.

Also for the first time, we'll be without the services of my wife Marianne, who will be following the action from home while extolling Daddy's heroics to our three month old daughter. She's devastated to be missing the race and not at all secretly glad that she won't spend the weekend working flat out on her feet beside a noisy, windswept and rain-lashed kart circuit. We'll miss her in more ways than we can count.

Work commitments have sadly claimed our excellent 2015 team manager Arnaud Tinet. But his shoes have been enthusiastically filled by top 2-stroke racer and PR guru Luke Jones, who is responsible for our new sponsors and expanded social media presence. Having done sterling work in the buildup, Luke will run the pitwall and direct strategy for both karts during the race, He'll be assisted by returning karting widows Charlie Fitton and Marie Mcgeachie - respectively, Jonny's and Michael's girlfriends.

Once again, we're hugely grateful for the continued support from the Vangeen family business, along with T.B. Mackay Energy Services and new-for-2016 sponsor Opie Oils. As always, we'll put our hearts and souls into delivering the perfect result for them, and for ourselves.

Testing for the British 24 Hours will start on Friday 12 August. Official practice and qualifying will start at 9am on Saturday, and the lights will go green at midday. For race updates and live timing, visit our Facebook page

To everyone racing this weekend: good luck, and stay safe.

I'm counting the minutes, and I know I'm not the only one.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

A long hard look at the Elite Karting League

Round 1. Whilton Mill, 6 March 2016

Mothering Sunday, 7.55am. In a leafy corner of Northamptonshire, Mother's Day seems to have been cancelled - or at least postponed. More than a hundred sons and daughters have forsaken their elders to spend the day tearing around a greasy strip of tarmac in a fleet of even greasier four-wheeled rollerskates. There are a few long-suffering mothers about; I imagine an outing to Whilton Mill wouldn't have been their first choice of Mother's Day treat.

I'm keeping my guilt in check. I've sent her a card.

Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us all for our transgression: the sun is shining - for now - but the cold is trying to bite through two layers of thermal underwear. The pitlane tarmac sparkles; every surface on the twin rows of silent karts looks dusted in icing sugar. 

This feels like my debut in the Elite Karting League, the pan-UK championship run by Bob Pope and his Teesside Karting team. But it isn't; I joined the Newmarket Hornets team last September for the round at Clay Pigeon in Somerset. I have never written about that day and never will, not because of the karting - which I remember little about - but because 5 September 2015 ended horribly, with my newly pregnant wife and a friend seriously injured in a freak road accident. Six months later, she is on the mend; while I race outdoors for the first time since, she has strict instructions not to leave the house.

So for me, this is a reset. EKL day 1. In the paddock, it takes me all of ten seconds to spot familiar faces, though - my British 24 Hours team, Corporate Chauffeurs, effectively joins the EKL for one weekend a year at Teesside. And there's a scattering of British Rental Kart Championship refugees about - Matt Curtis, Jordan Donegan, Connor Marsh, Rhianna Purcocks, my Hornets teammate Kyle Power... I'm pleasantly surprised to run into Ryan Smith and dad Neil, who have made the long journey down from Dunbar.

The EKL format is unusual in that it combines sprint and endurance races into one event. Teams of three or four drivers share an hour's practice, twelve sprint heats and a two hour endurance race between them; points from all the races are added together.

The teams are named for their home towns - Bristol Bandits, Coseley Cougars, Northampton Maidens, and so on. The Newmarket Hornets, run by Carl Vella, is one of the founder EKL teams and has morphed into a behemoth: today, seven driver crews will race under the yellow and black banner.

I met several of the regulars last year: Kyle, Steve Dodds, Dan Hemmings - but many of the faces are new to me. As the typical race morning flurry - signing-on, briefing, changing and (most important) acquisition of coffee and bacon butties - begins to settle, I'm united with my teammates for the day. I'll be racing with Tim Marangon and Jonathon Seekings, neither of whom I've met before. We're the Mighty Hornets, number 59, the least experienced of the Hornet crews. Tim is a circuit local, but I've only raced here once before and Jonathon will be turning his first ever laps here in practice. 

In classic sprint event style, every team is allocated a range of grid slots from front to back over the 12 heats, giving everyone an equal shot at glory. For simplicity we elect to rotate our drivers through the heats. I'm third in the lineup, meaning I will race in heats 3, 6, 9 and 12.

By 9.30am, the engines are clattering; we find number 59, load it up with a perfectly-formed 2kg lead disc (one of dozens smelted by the multi-talented Kyle Powers) and send Tim on his way. We'll each have 20 minutes to dial ourselves in before the mayhem begins.

Although the weather is dry, the circuit is cold and damp; it's a voyage of discovery for those first out. By the time I take over from Jonathan for the final 20 minutes, the laptimes have come down to around the one minute mark - still several seconds away from fully dry pace.

My only previous experience of Whilton Mill is a soaking wet day in Club100 2-stroke karts. I know which way the corners go, but that's about it. In 20 laps I learn the basics: hold on tight and take turn 1 flat; brake late and hard for Christmas corner, the highest point on the circuit; brake early and gently for the downhill right-hander at Ashby; turn in late for the tricky left-right at Chapman; turn in ridiculously early for the Boot, which leads into the final two corners.

At Teesside, the failings of the cumbersome EKL karts are partially masked by its fast, flowing layout. But they're brutally exposed here. Within two laps I find myself reminiscing about the (relatively) balletic old EKL fleet used until 2014.

The engines and brakes are strong, but the extra 25kg in this newer chassis makes itself felt in a front end that stubbornly refuses to go where it's aimed, and a rear that snaps into oversteer if you try and pivot the kart into slower corners with a rapid flick of steering input. It's as if the front and rear halves of the kart weren't designed to be attached to each other. Cold tarmac is a contributing factor, but the balance is poor.

When I return to the pits I'm shocked at the reading on the weighbridge - over 245kg with a quarter of a tank of fuel. My seat insert is still set up for the BRKC, so I'm a little over the 85kg minimum limit for drivers - but the maths doesn't add up. My understanding of the EKL rules is that driver and kart combined must be over 235kg at all times, and drivers must weigh 85kg. But if I took all the lead out of my seat and stripped naked, I'd still be over 235kg in the kart - while weighing significantly less than 85kg on my own. So which rule applies? When I query it, nobody seems to have an answer.

As the heats get underway, I'm forcibly reminded of the lack of downtime on an EKL race day. Contrary to something like the BRKC, where you often wait for hours between heats, here there's barely time to ingest calories. And in a three-man team, all of us need to be on hand at the end of each race, to move our numbered Nassau panel to the correct kart on the grid for the next heat. It's chaotic, but it works: the Teesside staff are efficient and faffing is kept to a minimum. I'm pleased to see karts being swapped from front to back, to stop the inevitable migration of the fastest machines towards the sharp end.

I'll be starting 4th, 5th, 18th and 19th (out of 25) in my heats. I'd prefer to save the higher grid positions for later heats, but no matter. As the race director - whom I recognise from the British 24 Hours - blows his whistle to get heat 3 rolling, things nearly go pear-shaped for me straight away. The right engine stalls, the field streaming by as I stutter towards turn 1 on the formation lap. I manage to reach the pullcord without stopping, coax the engine into life, and regain my position on the rolling grid before we exit the final corner. The drivers to my left seem to bolt a moment before the lights on the gantry blink green, taking several others with them - but the driver in front of me hesitates. Stuck behind him, I lose three places instantly. I spend eight laps chasing hard and take the chequered flag in 7th place, less than a second behind the driver in 3rd and slightly annoyed at the baulked start. 

There's barely time to gulp half a bottle of water before I'm on again, starting 5th in heat 6. This time I'm luckier at the start and nick a place on the run up the hill. But there the luck runs out. I'm struggling for pace, dropping half a second to the leaders and vulnerable to attack from behind. I hang on until halfway around the final lap, but am powerless to stop a three kart train streaming past. 7th again. But I'm not actually driving too badly, and the racing so far has been much cleaner than my hazy memories of Clay Pigeon last year.

So far.

In my final two heats I learn that there are two mindsets in EKL. If you start in the top eight, you drive with commitment and respect for your fellow driver and the rules. If you start any further back, you drive like a red-misted loon on a stag do. From 18th on the grid I spend a very long 8 laps being shoved, rammed and squeezed; drivers barrel into non-existent gaps, brake-test each other and generally ignore the basic rules and etiquette. I'm not sure what the marshals and stewards are doing, but they certainly aren't paying any attention. It's a sad excuse for a race.

Heat 12 gets underway in a hailstorm, which is a first for me. Not surprisingly, it's like driving on ball bearings. People spin off on the formation lap. My left engine stalls and I'm forced to jump out. But it won't fire; a marshal comes to my aid and gets it going after 10 or so attempts, by which time the field is almost at the final corner. I have no chance to take up my 19th position on the grid, and am 10 metres from the back of the field as the lights go green. 

Still, I keep it on the road when many others don't, pick my way through the carnage, and have made up around 10 places before somebody either runs out of talent or decides to use me (rather than the left pedal) to slow down for Ashby. I'm hit hard from behind, the kart pirouetting through ten metres of grass and mud, and bouncing off the tyrewall. It takes me and a marshal more than a minute to haul it back to the circuit, by which time I'm a lap down. 

My teammates have had a similarly mixed time in the heats - including a disqualification for Jonathan, for being 0.1kg underweight (but over 235kg in the kart). We're a glum threesome as we prepare for the endurance race - which, we learn, has been extended to 2 hours 20 minutes. The Race of Champions (a 20 minute race for a cash prize) has been scrapped, and the time added on to the endurance.

Our spirits are lifted when Jonathon qualifies a good 7th; at last, a chance of a decent result. But we fall victim to another EKL oddity: the karts are not refuelled before the race start, which means everybody starts with differing amounts of fuel. And when you arbitrarily lengthen the race, it's quite likely that any team with less than half a tank of fuel at the start will have to make an extra fuel stop.

In the end, we lose a whopping 8 laps to the leaders. We're far from the fastest team in the field, but more than half of our deficit is the result of a second stop for fuel, plus a litany of misfortunes in the pits. Stalling engines, lead weights that weld themselves to the chassis, and my personal favourite - the sight of our kart jammed in the tight fuel bay exit. By the time I take to the circuit for the final 45 minutes there's little left to fight for, but at least the circuit is dry. I concentrate on extracting some sort of pace and consistency from our unwieldy beast, whose sloth-like handling is further hobbled by a steering wheel that looks big enough for a Transit van. Given the way it corners, that's probably apt.

By the time the chequered flag falls, I've managed to set our team's fastest lap of the day and bank some useful mileage for the British 24 Hours, so it isn't a total loss. The Newmarket Hornets are a friendly, welcoming bunch and it's a pleasure to have joined them again. In fact, the EKL as a whole is better natured than you might expect, given some of the antics on track.

But it's a difficult championship to take seriously. Some of the rules are inconsistently applied or downright unfair, kart parity is less than brilliant and driving standards are shoddy. At nearly £140 for a total of just over 90 minutes on track it isn't conspicuously cheap, either. It's a friendly day's racing with good variety, but for serious rental karters it leaves a lot to be desired.

Photo: Connor Marsh Racing

Photo: Connor Marsh Racing

Thursday, 21 January 2016

BRKC 2016 rounds 3 and 4. Milton Keynes, 16-17 January

"At least it's not snowing", I remember thinking yesterday while scraping ice off the car.

Sunday, 8am. I sit in the breakfast room of the Milton Keynes Holiday Inn Express. Outside the windows, the world is wonderland white; I'm staring at a miniature snowman built with great care atop one of the waist height lamp posts that flank the path outside. Cereal and tea churn uneasily in my guts.

Saturday evening did not go to plan, my 3 year-old nephew having fallen ill after dinner and necessitating a swift change of accommodation for Marianne and I. She's already trying to grow a baby while healing a broken leg; a stomach bug isn't going to help.

The move meant a late start to the Saturday blog and a late night; I'm exhausted and jumpy, struggling to control a surprising level of competition nerves. On my phone, the BRKC live timing page flickers to life; across town, Annelien Boutens, David Longman, Robin Kassam and others are heading out for qualifying. Round 3, heat 6. 25 races down, 19 to go. I'll be out in the last race of round 3, in two hours' time. I gather my gear, ignore my guts and head out to scrape snow from the car.

In Thunderdome, the engines are roaring, the heaters fighting their interminable battle against the frigid air; my cup of coffee slips through my nerveless fingers and nearly falls onto the circuit. I step away from the railings, wondering how often drivers get doused by hapless spectators here. Later I learn that my British 24 Hours captain Alex Vangeen managed to halt a race last night by dropping a Coke from the viewing gantry.

Beside me, reigning champ Ruben watches the on track action - BRKC newcomer Régis Gosselin leading Jake Campbell-Mills and Mateusz Bartsch. It's my first chance to chat to him this weekend; so far things are going to plan - two wins from two starts - but he has two tough heats today and is taking nothing for granted. He's making notes of the highest finishing karts in each heat, trying to spot any which might have a tiny advantage: he will have to select a kart for the final and at this level, every nugget of knowledge could make his championship. He tells me that two years ago, the driver above him on the leaderboard hadn't done his homework, selected a slower kart, and lost out as a result.

Not for the first time, I'm struck by the attention to detail and work ethic of those at the sharp end. Ruben has huge natural talent, without doubt, but he works exceptionally hard to maintain his stratospheric level week in, week out. Nobody is going to turn up, jump in a kart and beat him. No matter how gifted you are, you'll have to put in some serious hard graft to have any hope of matching him.

Talking of which... we're on. Round 3, heat ten. Which features three race-winners (Boutens, Bayani, White), one former F2 racer (Pineiro) and the stealthily fast Slawek Piskorz. As I settle myself into kart 18, calm descends. I have Ed White ahead of me, which should guarantee me a clear lap.

My second qualifying attempt on the original layout feels, if anything, better than the first. I line up a respectable fifth this time - the four superstars ahead, Slawek behind. As we get under way I ignore the threat from behind and focus on the distinctive yellow, orange and blue livery of Ramon Pineiro. Ahead of him, Oliver Bayani is a little slow out of the Snail and has to defend hard from Ramon as we concertina into the hairpin. They're both slowed and I close up; Ramon has another go into the final corner. It doesn't come off, and I'm brushing his rear bumper all the way into the Snail, looking for a gap as we get on the brakes for the hairpin. But Ramon just about keeps the door closed, then seems to find another gear and pulls away as I start to come under pressure from Slawek.

I'm driving neatly enough but struggling for pace; Slawek is quicker, hustling me hard into the Snail and forcing me onto a defensive line. I hold him off and maintain my position as both of us complete what turn out to be slow pitstops. Mine's a touch less tardy, which gives me a moment of breathing room - but the clear track shows Slawek's true pace for the first time. He's at least a couple of tenths faster than I am, and gobbles up the gap before finally making a move stick into the Snail. We're side-by side all the way down to the hairpin, but Slawek has the line; swearing, I'm forced to concede.

A couple of laps later, what looks like a backmarker comes out of the pits beside Slawek, and tussles with him all the way through the Snail before emerging ahead. Bemused at his driving, I take advantage and repass Slawek into the hairpin. Behind us, unseen, Ruben pits to avoid our battle but second-placed Ed continues. The 'backmarker' turns out to be Daniel Nicholls, who has jumped both Slawek and I in the pits. Cue more swearing.

And more still when, a lap later, what I took to be Slawek trying to nudge his way past actually turns out to be Ed, trying to lap me and get on after Ruben. Having already missed a blue flag, I jump out of the way and lose a little momentum. Slawek, who by now has a touch of the red mist about him, forces his way past me at the Snail - a little messy, but he just about gets away with it. He pulls away as I pay more attention to the blue flags and get out of Ruben's way. For a couple of laps I'm given a masterclass in indoor karting technique; the speed that Ruben carries out of the corners is simply breathtaking.

Slawek catches up to Nicholls and hassles him all the way to the line, the two of them making hard contact within metres of the flag. Slawek comes off worse and is less than impressed. I take the flag seventh, wondering where my pace went, and annoyed at my continued tardiness in the pits. It's cost me places in all three heats so far. When I return upstairs I discover that ours was the fastest race of the championship so far: Ruben broke the lap record in qualifying - unprecedented - and then repeatedly lowered it throughout the race, Ed just a tenth or so slower.

A quarter of an hour after clambering out of the kart, I'm in the car, rushing back to the hotel to collect Marianne and all our gubbins before my final heat in an hour's time. When we return, she comes face to face - on crutches - with Formula Fast CEO Phil Stanley - also on crutches. He was walking around yesterday... turns out he tripped over a kart in the pitlane and has done something nasty to his foot. The cameras caught his mishap, which I watch much later.

As we used to say in South Africa: Eina! Hope he's back on two feet soon.

After a disjointed morning, it's time to catch up on the state of the leaderboard. With three rounds complete, only Ruben Boutens and the scalpel-like Lewis Manley (the only driver in the building that makes Ruben look a touch lairy on occasion) have won all three of their heats. But the usual suspects (Ed White, Annelien Boutens, Matt Bartsch, Stefan Verhofste) are snapping at their heels along with a host of the great, the good and the stealthy. Lee Hackett has been flawless on his BRKC return, while Brad Philpot is having a superb weekend after an up-and-down 2015 - despite losing time in the pits to Alex's coke can gaffe yesterday. Having been disappointed last year, Oliver Bayani has spent a year building up to this, and it's paying off.

With three second places, Sean Brierley has been relentlessly consistent, as have newcomers Régis Gosselin, Rico Haarbosch and Lorenzo Stolk, and old-timers Jonny Elliott, James Martin and Bjorn Vermuelen. F4 racer Michael O'Brien has also been piling up points, while slow starts have given way to top results for the likes of Daniel Healey, Kamil Gorlo, Russell Endean, Kim Enson and Sander de Baets.

Still more are there or thereabouts. Spinnael, Campbell-Mills, Snoep, Pineiro, Longman, Duma, Jones, Beroual-Smith... such a glittering array of driving talent that you practically need sunglasses to look at the leaderboard.

With the final round of heats already underway, I install Marianne on a comfy sofa in the viewing area, close to a heater, with Geoff White and Lawrence Hackett for company. Two other karting widows - Brad's girlfriend Becca and Sophie, Russell Endean's other half - have come to spectate; I wander over to catch up. I haven't seen either of them since this time last year, but it's a brief reunion: Marianne is the main attraction and rightly so.

Round 4 starts with a bang, as Ramon Pineiro misses the last-chance-to-pit board, takes a penalty, and hands a shock win to Thomas Zels, whose previous best result was a sixth place. My sometime EKL teammate Kyle Power follows him home to cap off a strong BRKC weekend. Two new winners follow - Sean Brierley and James Martin finally getting the job done after threatening all weekend.

As heat three gets underway, journalist and F1 commentator Will Buxton is jumping for joy in the reception area.
"Fifth! Get in!" He's just chased Sean, semi-finalists Ryan Smith and Ben Greenwood, and Raeed Ali home in heat two - his best result of the weekend. Will's enthusiasm and support for our championship is invaluable; he's given generously of his time this weekend, helping James Auld with the commentary while regulars Anwar and Sean are on track. That says it all about BRKC 2016: our backup commentator's day job is in F1...

Suddenly, it's my turn. As I suit up, Sean is giving me advice: "Don't watch the guy in front in qualy, it'll just distract you. Focus on your lines and braking points..." I pass Geoff White on the way downstairs and get an encouraging "Get stuck in, mate..." Which is exactly what I intend to do.

They aren't getting any easier, though. Round 4, heat four features no less than four race-winners (Hackett, Philpot, O'Brien, Enson) and at least four more drivers who have been racking up solid results since Saturday morning (Austin, Gray, Leppan, Zaluski). Chris Brookshaw has been less consistent, as have I - but I know him to be mighty quick on occasion. It wouldn't take a big slip to bring up the rear in this one.

But my lap is neat - one area where I've improved on last year - and I line up sixth, with the three superstars plus Steve Gray and Karol Zaluski ahead. I've outqualified Kim Enson, which goes some way to illustrating just how close this is.

Green light. Lee Hackett - on pole in kart 9, which seems to have developed a tiny advantage - bolts straight away, pulling a gap on Michael O'Brien. But the rest of us are nose to tail; in third place, Brad is being kept honest by Karol Zaluski and Steve Gray. By all of us, in fact.

Nine laps in, Kim Enson takes advantage of a slightly tardy exit from the Snail and edges me wide into the hairpin, meaning that I've been passed in every heat this year - a first, and not a statistic I intend to repeat. I pull myself together and stay close, hassling when I can, constantly aware that the rest of the field is right there behind me. Nobody's falling off the rear this time.

I make a better pitstop than I did on the alternate layout yesterday - 1.3 seconds quicker in fact - but it's still a second away from the best and I narrowly lose a place to Luke Austin. Kim is one of the last to pit and just holds on to his sixth place. In these final laps, the field has split in three: Lee out front on his own, second (O'Brien) to fifth (Gray) covered by less than 2 seconds, and sixth (Enson) to tenth (Brookshaw) covered by even less. We're all driving out of our skins, matched to the tenth; probably the closest race I've ever been part of here.

At the flag I'm eighth, just six tenths behind Kim Enson in sixth, and less than a second ahead of Brookshaw in tenth. The entire field is covered by 22 seconds after 35 laps, with half that covering the second to tenth placed drivers. On laptimes, the whole field is covered by 0.421 seconds; second to seventh fastest covers just 0.127. I have set a faster race lap than fourth-placed Bradley Philpot; so has tenth-placed Chris Brookshaw.

Back upstairs, I gulp my 50th cup of tea as the action roars on; James Auld goes falsetto as Anwar mistimes his pitstop and exits to take the flag in a photo finish with former Formula A world champion Colin Brown - who has struggled this weekend, but is already making ominous noises about a full-scale return to karting after seven years away. Oliver Bayani takes his second win ahead of Tyler Mays - massively improved this year, and through to the semis with three fourth places and a second to his name. Newcomer Bartosz Malutko is third, having shown consistently strong form since a steady first heat.

Anwar's penalty, like Ramon's, drops him out of the semi-finals - a shame, as both had had strong results in the opening three rounds. On the upside, it does free him up to continue his sterling work in the commentary booth, playing James Hunt to James Auld's Murray Walker.

Barely has the dust settled when Slawek Piskorz brings the house down by nabbing pole position ahead of Sam Spinnael and Sander de Baets - the top three covered by less than a tenth... we're glued to the screens, hands white-knuckled on the railings as the lights go green. Will he hold on? Or will the sheer weight of top-level competition experience behind crush him?

There's not a hint of visible tension; Slawek simply gets his head down and drives as the others squabble for position behind; seriously quick all weekend, he finally has a chance to show it, and nobody else can live with him. Like me, he's been slow in the pits, but finally nails a fast (sub-45 second) pitstop lap when he most needs it, and romps home to one of the most popular heat wins of the weekend. He's followed by Régis and Sander, with Sam fourth.

I cheer Slawek into the pits and stay put for the next heat, which contains an astonishing 7 race-winners including my British 24 Hours teammate Russell Endean. As expected, it's tight and tense, Ruben leading a battling quartet: Verhofste, Bartsch, Vermuelen and Endean. There are some great moves for position, and some dodgy ones (Matt Bartsch receives no less than 3 bad pass flags - ten points for effort). Poor David Longman scuppers his semi-final hopes by locking up on the pit entry, sliding over the first stop line, and triggering the dreaded yellow light. The penalty pitstop drops him to tenth.

Russell gets a mauling from the Europeans; forced to defend hard for 35 straight laps, he looks a touch relieved to cross the line fourth, behind Ruben, Stefan and Bjorn and ahead of Mateusz. Beside me, Brad has been hopping around throughout the race, willing Russell to take points off Bartsch and Verhofste, which will give him a better shot at the final.

The final three heats seem to rattle by in no time. Daniel Healey notches up his third win on the trot (only Ruben, Lewis and Lee have matched him). Both this and the following heat feature impressive drives from midfield runners - Sam Slater and Darren Pearce ahead of Round 3 heat winner Craig Mcallister, Adam Davis second to Lewis Manley in heat nine.

BRKC 2016's final heat is won by Ed White ahead of impressive newcomer Rico Haarbosch and yet another of my Corporate Chauffeurs teammates - Michael Weddell. Both he and longtime friend/rival Ryan Smith ("we've been joined at the hip since 2009") have driven superbly this year and I'm pleased to see them make the semifinals - for the first time in Ryan's case.

At this point, my very patient wife calls time and asks to be taken home.

As the semifinal grid lists are posted - Tyler Mays and Thom van Dijk just making the cut (the latter despite a disastrous 9th place in round 4's Death Heat), Bartosz Malutko and Slawek Piskorz just missing it (the latter despite his round 4 win), we're saying our goodbyes. I'm sorry to be leaving before the climax, but circumstances meant that Marianne has spent far more time than intended at the circuit today. She's enjoyed catching up with the karting crowd, but the cold is seeping and it's time to go.

Of course, we stay up to date throughout the journey home, Marianne feeding me lap by lap updates from the live timing. I nearly mount a roundabout in Bicester when Ed and Annelien finish, respectively, sixth and tenth in semi final 1. It's a shame to see the likes of Daniel Healey, Rico Haarbosch and Michael O'Brien just miss the cut after superb results through the heats.

As to the final itself... a staggering third title for Ruben, and what a return for Lewis Manley after his stumble last year. Stefan Verhofste is as relentlessly consistent as ever. It took just one heat for Régis Gosselin to morph from BRKC unknown (he's a former Clio Cup winner so hardly a rookie) to heavy-hitter; making the final on his first appearance is a great achievement. There were six Brits in the final - the most we've had at Formula Fast, I think - I'm especially pleased for Sean and Oliver who put some very big names in the shade to get there.

I know that Lee and especially Ed will be disappointed, which is what happens when winners don't win. They also pick themselves up and go again. And they remember, I hope, that they're among the best in the world at what they do.

Besides the podium, there are two special awards. The Kam Ho memorial trophy, in memory of the veteran karter and friend to many in the BRKC, goes to the driver who finished 28th overall - the position Kam finished in on his last BRKC appearance in 2014. This year, that driver is Michael Weddell, who is, I know, very honoured. For 2017 there is talk of awarding the Kam Ho trophy to the highest placed driver aged over 35 - something to strive for, and a fitting tribute in my opinion.

The Genevieve Reason trophy, for the BRKC's most determined driver, goes to fourth-placed Matt Bartsch and rightly so. Nobody hunts down their opponents on track quite like he does; his overtaking moves sometimes blur the line between inspired and insane - which makes him one of the most exciting drivers to watch.

Genevieve Reason was part of the Formula Fast family, working on the BRKC in 2014 and 2015, before her life was tragically cut short in a road accident last May. I remember her as an utterly charming lady whose loss will have been devastating to the FF staff and her loved ones; naming a memorial trophy after her is a lovely gesture.

And with that, we're done. BRKC 2016 consigned to history, immortalised here and in hours of video and thousands of photographs; Tim Andrew's black and white shots are some of the most evocative I've ever seen in karting. I said in the preview that this year's championship would scale new heights in every area. And it did. Venue, circuit, organisation, commentary, broadcast, competition standard, atmosphere, pizza... all stratospheric.

Brad, Ollie and Phil and all at Formula Fast: thanks for making it happen, and for the huge effort that went into making it fair and smooth-running and well-catered and warm(ish).

Everyone that came and raced and supported: thanks for making it special. Please come back next year.

Everyone that's still reading: Jeez, have you got nothing better to do?!