Wednesday, 24 October 2018

89 days and counting. Formula Fast, 21 October 2018

The stars aren't quite aligned for me today.

I'm subsisting on four hours' sleep because my daughter has monsters under her bed. I have a stinging wound in my back from a minor operation two days ago. And I have mixed up the arrival and start times for this Super Sunday member's session at Formula Fast, which has made for a stressful 90 mile dash from Winchester.

Possibly the world is trying to tell me I shouldn't be karting today. But here I am, kitted up and more or less ready to go as the drivers in the first of 10 sessions roll out of the pits below. There's a quiet buzz about the place; some familiar faces about, some fast names on the timing screen. Manley, Jute, Llewellyn, Mays, Truman. The beast hasn't awoken just yet, but with 12 weeks and change to go, BRKC is on everyone's mind.

There are two groups, which means everybody gets five sessions of 10 minutes each. I'd prefer slightly longer sessions, but no matter. At £31.50 for 50 minutes of track time, it's superb value for money.

Today is all about experimentation. I can lap competently and (with practice) consistently around here, but I'm fundamentally not quick enough. Something in my technique is holding me back, and I'm reasonably sure it's my tarmac-honed tendency to pivot the kart on corner entry. On this slick surface, it simply doesn't work: I can get to the apexes very quickly, but am unable to stop the rear of the kart sliding soon enough to carry speed through the exit.

Over my five sessions I try a number of different techniques, with varying degrees of success. In the breaks, I spend time watching and listening to the others - Lewis Manley in particular - from the gantry. Not for the first time, I marvel at his incredible feel for the grip available, the kart sweeping into the Snail with barely a hint of tyre squeal.

It's a little frustrating, and sometimes hard to tell whether progress is being made, but I'm putting valuable mileage in the bank. Everyone is at different weights - most well below the BRKC regulation 90kg - so I do my best to focus on my own laptimes and ignore everyone else's.

I end the evening wanting more, and am half tempted to ask the staff if I can have another go on my own. But I'm exhausted: it's time to call it a day. When I return, I'll apply what I've learned today in a proper comparison, by matching my weight to one of the pace-setters and comparing laptimes in the same kart.

In the meantime, something else is keeping me awake at night: my first ever international competition. I'm hugely excited (and more than a little terrified) to be competing in the Belgian National Championships at HDKart on 18 November. The format is very similar to BRKC (5 heats of 15 minutes each, single lap qualifying), the circuit looks fast and grippy, and the beer, I'm told, is excellent.

Currently I'm the only Brit. I'd love that to change - travel and accommodation is cheap, as is the event itself. There are still spaces available...

Solo or not, there'll be a story to tell. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

BRKC 0-Plate. South Coast Karting, 27 August 2018.

It feels like 2011 all over again.

There are 33 of us in a briefing room beside a small but nicely formed kart circuit in a leafy corner of Dorset.  Beside me is British Rental Kart Championship founder Brad Philpot. Also in the room are Sean Brierley, Stephen King and Paul Handley - all of whom raced in the BRKC's inaugural season. During that year and the following two, we travelled the length and breadth of the UK, visiting a multitude of circuits very like this one. Current-day BRKC, with its huge popularity and live streamed stadium-level intensity, is a beast of an event and I love it. But it's fun to have the old days back for a little while.

This is the 0-plate, a one-off event with free entry to the main championship in January at stake. South Coast Karting is new to the BRKC, but circuit owner (and former Super One superstar) George Lovell is an old friend. His previous circuit, Matchams, hosted a BRKC round in all three of its multi-circuit years. Now closed, Matchams retains a place in my heart: few circuits packed as much character (or as many bumps) into such a short stretch of tarmac.

SCK has been open for just eighteen months and already has a strong local following. I like the place instantly. Rather like another old-time favourite BRKC circuit run by a top karter (Herefordshire Raceway) SCK has been sensibly designed for drivers and spectators. You can see the whole circuit from the paddock, there's plenty of shade/shelter, and food, drink, toilets, briefing and changing rooms are all close at hand (and clean and tidy). Simple things which so many circuits seem to ignore.

And there's added entertainment: we're just across the road from Bournemouth Airport. Every half-hour or so, everything on the ground is rendered silent by the takeoff of a Ryanair or TUI Boeing 737.

With lower numbers than expected (a surprise), a planned two-day event has been shoehorned into one - meaning an early start to a long day. After a short wait for stragglers, George runs us through the format, start procedure and track etiquette before issuing each of us a driver number board, Club 100 style. We'll clip this board to every kart we drive today. I'm number 19.
"Good strong number," says Brad, as we head out to the pitlane for the start of practice.

I had some misgivings about the circuit itself beforehand, but am reassured as soon as I see it in the flesh: Youtube does not do it justice. The karts are faster than they look, dispatching a 500 metre lap in around 28 seconds. By the time the first 15 minute practice session ends, I can't wait to get going.

We're running the standard BRKC weight limit of 90kg today, which is an ideal opportunity to test my new lead weights. With some creative use of duct tape, I've managed to get my seat insert up to 6kg, and I now have a further 8kg in four sheets of varying thickness. It's only just enough - I register 90.6kg on the scales. I wasn't planning on using all four sheets at once, but they fit under my backside with no issues and I forget about them.

At first glance, the circuit is a flat-out blast with one 'proper' corner: a very tight chicane. But as I quickly discover, there are subtleties to be mastered here. After five laps of clobbering the high kerbs at the chicane I start to overcome my tendency to turn in early; I'm later on the brakes, trusting the loaded tyres rather than overwhelming them by flicking the kart, getting back on the throttle earlier. The following double right hander is an acceleration zone but again, it's important to pick the line of least resistance. Turn in too early and you'll be spat wide onto the concrete runoff, which feels fast but isn't.

The sequence of corners before the pit entry (turns 5 and 6 by my count) is a not-quite-flat left hander followed by a double-apex right - deceptively simple. It's a challenge to carry just the right speed into the left hander, to kiss the kerb and manage the fast change of direction without sliding. After 30 laps I still haven't got it right, but I'm loving it.

With 33 drivers and 11 in each heat, there won't be much waiting around today. I'm in heats 1, 4 and 8. As practice ends, the atmosphere changes, the tension palpably mounting. I'm not nervous - I've done this too many times over too many years for that - but the tingle is there as I draw my kart number - written on a plastic spoon instead of the regulation BRKC ping-pong ball. I'm in 18 - the kart I used in practice. I've no idea how it compares to the rest of the fleet, but at least I know how it feels.

The format is very similar to the BRKC proper, with single lap qualifying preceding each 20 minute heat; I try and switch my brain off, and bang in what feels like a solid enough lap. We're brought to a stop on the back straight, and I get a familiar sinking-heart sensation as karts are called forward to the grid. I'm seventh. Not great.

It's a standing start, which I usually prefer. The kart is tardy but I react well to the lights, just about hanging onto my place. We're using a cut-through instead of the chicane on the first lap, to avoid total carnage; as it is, there's a lot of bumping which culminates in a heavy punt into the chicane on lap 2, and the loss of a place. The culprit does me a favour, though, by taking out two others in one swoop a couple of laps later.

But very soon I come under pressure from a dark-suited driver in a black-white-red helmet, who turns out to be Brad's brother Paul Handley. He's much faster, ducking this way and that, pushing me along the straights - which is fine by me. He's the first of a train of karts, and I need all the extra speed I can get. My memory is a little hazy here; I'm nose to tail with Jacob Lewis, trying to harry him into a mistake while keeping Paul at bay - when the track behind suddenly clears. Apparently, Paul and Brad tangled while Brad was trying to lap me. I'm focused on Jacob, who is a little slower but defending well - but I run out of laps. We're side by side at the flag, separated by 54 thousandths of a second. Brad wins, followed by unofficial BRKC photographer Tim Andrew - a superb result - and Mario Blanco.

It's been an eventful start, and I've moved up from my grid position. Could be worse.

I grab a coffee and retire to my car for a few minutes of peace and quiet, returning in time to see BRKC regular Jamie Henderson top the second heat. Sam Slater holds off local driver Steve Hawes for second by the skin of the teeth; Kyle Power chases them home in fourth.

Heat three is all about the locals. Bradley Sheppard's name will become a familiar sight at the top of the leaderboard; he wins comfortably from Matthew West, with BRKC old-timer Sean Brierley third. Sean is a full lap down, and it's obvious that there's a big speed discrepancy across the fleet of karts. Circumstances and poor weather scuppered SKC's plan to equalise the karts on Sunday; they've done what they can this morning, but this field of drivers is much more demanding than their usual clientele.

Kart testing continues between heats; I spot what looks like George Lovell's red, green and white helmet out on track, but George himself is in the pitlane. When I quiz him about it, he explains that it's a family theme; the driver on track is his brother Jim. Their ancestry is Italian, hence the colours; George's son, who has recently started racing, also wears red, green and white. I reflect, not for the first time, that I'd like a colour scheme other than black. And, if and when my little girl starts racing, she could continue the family theme.

Heat four. My turn again. I'm joined by Sean, Brad, Stephen and Paul, plus regular BRKCers Robin Kassam and Dwayne Stoddart. Kart draw time is a little more tense now; the consensus is that karts 6,8,10 and (especially) 12 are the pick of the fleet.

I draw kart 12. Now I am nervous. This is an opportunity for a serious points haul, but I'm not confident in my ability to make the most of it. I focus on the process, try and shut out the nerves. Clip number board on, get comfortable, wait for the signal, go. I'm first out of the pitlane and take it very easy on the outlap, wary of tripping over other drivers on my flying lap. Probably too cautious, in fact - Paul overtakes me, and the slow pace prevents me learning much about the kart. I turn in a slightly cautious lap, but the kart is a rocket; I line up third behind Sean and Stephen, feeling that I've fluffed it somewhat. But there's no time to fret, the red lights are blinking on.

What follows is a 41 lap duel as intense as anything I've experienced in karting. The three of us are never separated by more than half a second; Stephen is hounding Sean, pushing for a mistake, while I wait to pounce if they trip over each other. Sean resists the pressure for lap after lap, the three of us quickly pulling away from the field. Stephen looks to have run out of options when we start to reel in the backmarkers. Blue flags are being shown on the start finish line; with less than three minutes on the clock, newcomer Justin Elliott does his best to jump out of our way. But he inadvertently blocks Sean; Stephen seizes his chance and I follow him through. I can sense Sean seething behind me, nudging, looking for a chink. But I hold on and take the flag less than a second behind Stephen - and a mere quarter of a second ahead of Sean. We've all set fastest race laps within the same few hundredths. Stephen is delighted, as am I. Sean, not so much.

Back in the paddock, another BRKC veteran has popped in to say hello: Anwar Beroual Smith, with other half Beth and their little boy in tow. It's good to see him; when I ask him if he misses racing, he laughs.
"Nope. I can just turn up and not get angry..."

With an hour or so in hand, I retire for lunch and miss the next heat, which sees Jacob Lewis win ahead of local driver Adam Bussell. KWC semi-finalist (and BRKC frontrunner) Sam Slater is a disgruntled fifth, and taking some lighthearted abuse for having ventured out of his usual habitat - indoor circuits.

Bradley Sheppard makes it two wins from two starts in heat six, while Kyle Power makes it two fourths. With everyone having completed more than 55 minutes on track, we're starting to feel it a bit; several drivers are bemoaning their decision to work tomorrow.
"Sod it," Kyle says. "I'm booking the day off. I need to take my dragon to the vet anyway..."
Which isn't something you hear every day.

Having driven the circuit clockwise all day, we'll be running in the opposite direction for the last round of heats. Prompted by George, Brad and I watch Jim run a few laps, trying to discern his lines and throttle application; we crowd the barriers for heat 7.

By all accounts, it's a bit of a non-race, after some titanic on-track battles in earlier heats. Stephen King romps home by a full lap from Bradley Sheppard - beaten for the first time all day - and Sean, who now has a complete set of third-place finishes.

I'm tenth on the leaderboard after two heats, with the top 11 making the A final on merit; I need a strong result in my final heat. But the kart draw is crucial, and I'm out of luck. I elect not to swap kart 5 for a kart from the spares pool, which may well be a mistake.

I qualify 9th, last but one. With my A-final ambitions looking more like fantasy, I try to get stuck in anyway. With a good start, I make up a couple of places in the first-lap chaos, but I have little to work with, and soon slip back. Mid-race, the velcro strap on my rib protector finally gives up the ghost; the seat angle and cornering forces shove it into my right armpit hard enough to break the skin. Karting is generally varying degrees of pain, but this is excruciating; I can hardly turn the wheel. The circuit is fun in this direction - the new turn 2 and the entry to the chicane in particular - but I'm not in a position to appreciate it.

It ends, mercifully, and I slink away to lick my wounds. I mean, there's no actual licking. Just a bit of groaning and scowling, and necking of coffee. Brad seals his second win of the day ahead of Mario Blanco and David Paisley.

Kyle breaks his duck in the final heat, winning comfortably from Sam; both of them sealing a place in the A-final. Local hero Bradley Sheppard tops the leaderboard after the heats, with Stephen King a superb second ahead of the other Bradley. I'm relieved to see that my disastrous third heat has only dropped me four places, to 14th. With no qualifying for the B and C finals, I'll be third on the grid for the B final.

At this point the format becomes a mix of old and new BRKC: everyone gets a final, and the winner of the C and B finals will progress to the next, just like old times. The A final will be run just like the main event, with superpole qualifying in the same kart, then kart selection by position (leader gets first choice, etc).

The C final seems like a very long 30 minutes. Debutant Ryan Sedgewick seals a confident win in his first proper karting event - a great result at this level - ahead of Matthew Bishop and BRKC regular Robin Kassam. Ryan becomes the first of two drivers to earn another race today, taking his total to more than 2 hours 15 minutes on track.

I'm feeling the effects of more than 150 hard racing laps, with at least 60 more to come, and mainline caffeine, nuts, raisins and digestive biscuits to try and revive myself. It hasn't escaped me that from third on the B final grid, I have half a chance of winning... which becomes three-quarters of a chance when I draw the coveted kart 12 again. I query it to be sure that I'm not breaking the rules, but only in the heats are you not allowed to drive the same kart twice. Game on.

As I settle myself in, Brad gives me a thumbs-up from the pitlane. I roll to the grid feeling more confident than I have in years, simultaneously telling myself not to get cocky. I have Matthew West and Adam Bussell in front of me - both of whom have outscored me so far today.

Red, red, red, Adam gets a great start, alongside Matthew almost before the first corner; I tuck in behind and follow him through. One down. He's defending hard, but I'm biding my time. I know I have a pace advantage; it's crucial to pick my moment and not do something silly.

Then I do something silly. At least, that's what I thought at the time.

I get a slightly better exit out of the penultimate corner and get my nose alongside Adam. Perhaps not seeing me, he jinks across and catches my front bumper with his rear, the impact pitching him broadside. I'm unable to avoid a second impact which spears him off the circuit. It was totally unintentional and in other circumstances I'd have given him the place back. But short of stopping, there's no way of doing that; I continue, half-expecting a penalty.

But there's no signal from race control. I pull steadily away from the field, trying to let the kart do the work, mindful of the fact that - barring a post-race penalty - I have another race to come. Nevertheless, I set a 27.650 lap, within a couple of hundredths of my best during the battle with Sean and Stephen in the heats. We're halted by a crash about midway - driver fatigue, I suspect - which gives me a short respite. I take the flag 23 seconds ahead.

In the pits, George is immediately alongside me.
"You're first out to qualify for the A-final."
Which is actually a relief. I'd forgotten, momentarily, about the superpole format. Once I'm done, I'll have a few minutes' rest while the others do their thing. The first priority, though, is to find my hapless victim and apologise. He seems happy to shake hands and move on, which I appreciate.

I'm sent straight out to kart 5 - my favourite. With nothing to lose, and the adrenaline of 55 laps still buzzing in my system, there's no room for nerves. I just get in and drive.

Three minutes later I'm back in the paddock, where the A finalists are clustered around the screen. I've done a 28.5, and eyebrows are raised.
"That's a good lap in that kart..."

And so it proves. The next two drivers can't get within half a second of it. Mario Blanco is the first to beat it, by a tenth of a second. Sean, sixth to go, holds provisional pole for an age, as both Stephen and Sam fluff their laps. Brad beats it by four thousandths of a second; his 28.399 stands, as Bradley Sheppard, last to qualify, goes fourth. I'm seventh, less than two tenths away, and perfectly happy with that.

With only the dregs of the fleet to choose from, I select kart 18, which I've driven twice already today. I reckon it's the best of what's left.

And off we go again. This time, it's my turn to be mugged at the start; I hang on to my position for a few corners, but Stephen soon barrels past. A lap or two later, Sam - also out of position on the grid -  comes through and pulls steadily away.

At the front, Sean has jumped Brad and is clinging to the lead for dear life, with all of the drivers behind him in faster karts. There's a lot of jostling and at one point I spot Brad down as low as sixth, but I've got my own problem to deal with, in the form of a very determined Jamie Henderson.

For lap after lap I'm forced to defend hard, until finally I make a small mistake into the chicane and he nudges past... but I'm straight on to his bumper, my kart leaping forward in his draft. A few laps later, I make a nice move stick under braking, and we're back where we started. And repeat, at least twice more, with the added complication of the leaders lapping us a few minutes from the flag. Having dropped behind again, I sneak through with a couple of laps to go - fatigue starting to bite through the adrenaline - and hold on to take the flag ninth. After 55 laps, Jamie and I are separated by 0.242 seconds.

Having dominated for most of the day, Bradley Sheppard wins from 'other Brad' - again, by less than a second - and Stephen King, who has had a belter of a day. Kyle Power is fourth (again), ahead of Sean - stymied in the end by his slightly weaker kart. The super-consistent Jacob Lewis is sixth ahead of Sam Slater, myself and Jamie, with Steve Hawes and Tristan Windebank occupying the final two places.

Congratulations to Bradley, who wins a BRKC entry (I think). It will be interesting to see how he gets on in the pressure-cooker environment at Formula Fast in January.

I'm very happy with my ninth place, having been tenth before my 'heat from hell'. I was a little lucky, but I made the best of my opportunities; today's racecraft was a huge step forward from my error-strewn outing with Covkart in July.

Well done to everyone who turned up (and read this far) and thanks to George and the SKC team for a brilliant day. It's a great little circuit, and I look forward to returning.

BRKC 2019: 142 days and counting...

Photo: Tim Andrew Instagram: @timandrewphoto

Monday, 6 August 2018

Boil in the bag. Formula Fast, 5 August 2018

"Andrew, do you want to go out again?"
My core temperature is somewhere north of boiling point. My heart is a jackhammer, my breathing sounds like a donkey on its deathbed, and all of my bodily fluids now reside between my skin and the inside of my overalls. But I look into the enquiring face of the Formula Fast staff member, nod, and croak, "Sure."
"Okay. Jump in kart 16 for me then..."

Sunday 5 August 2018. It's 31C in Milton Keynes. Parts of Spain are in the mid-forties. And under the metal roof of British Rental Kart Championship venue Formula Fast it's like wearing a wetsuit in a sauna. As usual, the weather's playing a bigger part in proceedings than you'd expect for an indoor kart circuit. Just not in the way we're used to.

In early July, on a similarly scorching day at Red Lodge in Suffolk, I raced outdoors for the first time since 2016. Besides being enormous fun (great circuit, strong karts, excellent organisation by Covkartsport) and modestly encouraging (pace respectable, racecraft rusty) it was also the hottest race day of my life. Four weeks later, that benchmark's been knocked out of the park.

It's my first ever Super Sunday - three hours of all-you-can-eat karting - and it's fallen on Formula Fast's fifth birthday. Which means slightly more track time and an excellent burger courtesy of Formula Fast co-owner (and Gordon Ramsay fan) Phil Stanley.

With only ten drivers present for the start, there's a near-total lack of faff: we're directed down to the pitlane at 5pm, allocated a kart each and sent out. I'm conspicuous carrying my weighted seat and bum-shaped piece of lead - nobody else is bothering. It might still be five months away but for me, this is all about the BRKC; there's little point in running light. Having lost weight since January, I'm still underweight at 85kg with all of my lead. But it's close enough to be representative.

Without BRKC levels of preparation there is perhaps four tenths of a second covering the fleet of karts. During the course of the evening we cycle through them all.

There are some quick regulars about. Richard Jute and Gary Llewellyn have racked up some strong results in BRKCs past, and Lewis Manley has reached the final more often than not. The differences in weight are clouding the order, but from the outset it's clear that Lewis has a couple of tenths in hand over everybody else. I focus on nailing a quick lap straight out of the pits, as I'll need to do in qualifying, then finding and maintaining a rhythm. I try and do a better job of nibbling at the limit without overloading the tyres - something I always struggle with on this low-grip surface. And I work on my biggest weakness, which is carrying speed out of slow corners.

As the sessions roll by I take occasional breaks to neck bottles of water, and pile on the laps. Gradually the fog between my senses and my brain starts to lift. I adapt more quickly to the differences between karts, post quicker 'qualifying' laps, improve both raw pace and consistency. In my fifth session of the evening, I set a 31.591 - smashing my previous personal best by more than half a second - with a stint average laptime of 32.072. The circuit is very fast - Lewis sets a 31.3 during the same session, then goes faster still at the very end of the evening in slightly cooler conditions - but I'm pleased with my progress. We're not officially racing, but we all take a couple of opportunities to practise overtaking and defending.

The seventh session is one too many. My fitness is pretty good, but 95 minutes on track (170 or so laps) in stifling heat has taken its toll; it's a relief to shed my soaking overalls, sit outside in the relative cool, and munch a superb burger.

Today is part of my ongoing mission to rediscover my mojo and take my karting further than ever before. It's been fun of course. But even better, I can see - and feel - progress being made. My next outing is the BRKC 0-plate at South Coast Karting near Bournemouth, with a free BRKC spot up for grabs.

In the meantime, following Ruben Boutens' successful defence of his Kart World Championship title, I've been musing... but that's for another blog. Watch this space.

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.