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, red...green. 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|