Monday, 28 January 2019

BRKC 2019. Milton Keynes, 19-20 January. Part 3

5pm, Sunday, and we're into the closing stages of an epic race weekend. The circuit, for now, is silent; the reception area and viewing gantry are abuzz as the semi-final lists are posted and those on the bubble send up a quiet prayer. Weddell, Lovell (G) and Hollink (M) are in; Sheppard, Jute and Llewellyn (G) have narrowly missed the cut.

We crowd the railings, waving to the crane camera on demand as the engines clatter into life again and the drivers for semi final 1 begin to filter onto the circuit. This is the most Brit-heavy of the three semis, so it's not a surprise to see one on pole. But it's fair to suggest that Dean Hale wouldn't have been the obvious choice. He's squeaked ahead of Logan Sougné and Sean Brierley; former champion Lee Hackett is a shocking ninth - still less than 0.3 seconds away from pole.

Dean holds Logan in the early laps, slowing the pace as he takes the inside line into the Snail and hairpin, and drivers behind them begin to pit in the hope of clear air. Dan Healey comes in first, from sixth place, as karts scatter across the track at the exit of the final corner. Dante Dhillon and Brandon Williams are the beneficiaries, as Ryan Smith and Mariusz Nowicki lose places.

Sean Brierley pits at the end of lap 4, the black-and-yellow striped helmet followed in by Lee Hackett. Upstairs, we're intent on the big screen as Sean creeps forward at the second light... which blinks yellow! He's banging the steering wheel in fury as he exits shot, the camera showing Lee completing a perfect stop... but after scintillating speed all weekend - and a thousand or more practice laps - Sean's podium dream is gone in the blink of an eye. I'm devastated for him.

Logan is released when Dean Hale decides he's had enough of the pressure from behind and pits, elevating Dante Dhillon and Brandon Williams into the podium positions. But there's a threat further back: Dan Healey is flying and has already done enough to jump the pair of them. Once the pitstops shake themselves out, and poor Sean has taken his penalty stop, Logan has a clear lead from Dan - who has put in a stunning drive to rise from sixth on the grid and will narrowly miss out on a spot in the final. Polesitter Dean Hale is third ahead of Brandon Williams (waved past by his teammate Dhillon in the closing stages) and Ryan, who barges past Lee Hackett for sixth on the penultimate lap.

Up on the gantry, we take a breath, try and stamp feeling back into our feet, and get ready for the second semi-final. The lineup has collectively lifted enough trophies to fill this warehouse; we have two-thirds of last year's podium and eight of the ten drivers have won races this weekend. Yoan Medart takes pole ahead of Polish Junior Champion Mateusz Matys and - whisper it - Ruben Boutens. Only third. As commentators Spanners and Auld point out, this is a mouthwatering prospect.

They get off to a quiet start by recent standards, nose to tail, no barging... until Connor Marsh pits from eighth place. The second pitstop light stays blank. He hesitates, throws up his arms and exits as the pit marshals run over to the stricken light. After a couple of minutes of head scratching, during which (thankfully) nobody else pits, the race is red flagged. It's a problem with the laser trigger system.

It's fixed in minutes; Yoan gains a couple of kart lengths on the restart as Matys defends from Ruben - but it's all in vain as Ruben lunges past into the hairpin. Matys is pushed wide and narrowly holds on to his place as they go two-wide into the final corner; Chris Daines elbows his way past Patryk Nieroda. Meanwhile George Lovell has cleverly pitted from last place while the others were getting up to speed, and jumps the unlucky Connor Marsh.

For several minutes the race is locked in tense stalemate, the two Bluestar suits slowly pulling away from Matys, until Matej Vrana emerges from the pits in front of Connor Marsh, who gets the bit between his teeth and pulls a lovely move into the hairpin. But he's too wide on the exit and Vrana is back alongside... and Connor makes a rare mistake at the risky final corner, aiming his kart into a narrowing gap and hitting Vrana broadside. Connor drops to last as George Lovell and Vrana barrel side-by-side into the Snail... and it all ends in tears on the exit, with George buried in the wall and Vrana facing the wrong way. Red flag.

The marshals shuffle Vrana back in front, and as the lights go green, Lovell is all over the bumper of the red-suited driver. There's more drama in the pits as both Nieroda and Matys suffer brief engine cutouts at the first light; Nieroda scrapes ahead on the exit. Yoan Medart takes the flag ahead of Ruben Boutens, Patryk Nieroda, Mateusz Matys, Chris Daines, Lukáš Englický. Opnithi Puyato and Connor Marsh. George Lovell is penalised for his spat with Matej Vrana and drops to tenth. For all but the top three, that's game over for BRKC 2019.

After recent delays the third semi is underway in the blink of an eye, the final pieces of the puzzle beginning to fall into place. Onscreen, founder BRKCer Alex Vangeen is down in the pits urging Michael Weddell on as the commentators abuse him for not racing this year. Joining Weddell on track are Lewis Manley, Ed White, the Grzyb brothers, Guillermo van Pamelen, Sam Spinnael, Adrian Ziejewski, Christophe Verhoeven... and some joker called Findley Plantpot. Something like that, anyway.

After a mixed run through the heats, Ed White needs this one. And he delivers, taking pole ahead of Sam Spinnael and Michal Grzyb. In the early laps these three slowly pull away from Brad Philpot and van Pamelen as Lewis Manley pits after being dumped from fifth to seventh. Further back, Wojtek Grzyb, Weddell and Verhoeven are locked in battle. Ziejewski drops to the back - where he qualified - after a slow pitstop. Every single driver has vocal support from the viewing gantry now, every inch of the railings, stairwell and pitside space packed with spectators.

After a lot of bump 'n grind in the first two semi-finals, this is poetry in motion, as drivers reel off lap after scintillating lap. Guillermo van Pamelen executes possibly the fastest pitstop of the weekend and squeaks ahead of a charging Lewis Manley. As it begins to shake out with the clock ticking past three minutes, Ed retains a comfortable (2.5 second) lead ahead of Michal Grzyb (or Grzyb the Greater, as the commentators delight in calling him) who has jumped Sam Spinnael - a costly half second lost in the pits by the former finalist.

At the flag, Ed takes a flawless win ahead of Grzyb and Spinnael. Brad ends his up-and-down weekend with a strong fourth place ahead of Guillermo van Pamelen, who possibly looks a little less youthful having somehow held off Lewis Manley for the last ten laps. Christophe Verhoeven is under the radar in seventh ahead of Michael Weddell, who's pleased to have held off Grzyb the Lesser (©BRKC commentary team) for eighth place. Adrian Ziejewski is tenth, a low-key finish to a superb debut BRKC for the last-minute entry. Ed and Michal are safely through, Lewis also making the cut courtesy of his superb run through the heats; for the rest, it's time to take a breath and reflect on what might have been.

The break before action resumes for the last time is a chance to catch up with some old friends. Brad's long suffering other half Becca has made my evening by a) turning up and b) buying me tea. Arnaud Tinet, knocked out in the heats like me, has also stayed on; the three of us colonise the sofa in front of the big screen on the viewing gantry as the final ten prepare to go for glory.

Qualifying is a more protracted affair, as the format switches to a one-by-one Superpole format. There are raised eyebrows all round when Lewis Manley fails to beat first qualifier Dean Hale. Brandon Williams is visibly disappointed to be a couple of tenths further back before Lee Hackett - only just making the final after a seventh place in the semis - blows them all out of the water. He rushes back to the pits to keep the kart as warm as possible for his friend and teammate Ed White. But Ed can't get within a tenth, and nor can Logan Sougné.

There's a great roar from the gantry as Michal Grzyb snatches pole away by 0.016 seconds, then further gasping as Patryk Nieroda slots into third - the top three now covered by 0.024 seconds. Or, by my calculation, 26 centimetres. And there's a chorus of groans as Yoan Medart pushes a little too hard and drops a couple of tenths, which puts him seventh with one to go. He leaves the pitlane without removing his helmet, presumably to have a quiet word with himself.

Last to go is Ruben, of course. He looks as unflustered as ever, the kart pivoting neatly around its centre line and beautifully flicked into the last corner... but it's not enough! Incredibly, he's slotted into third, between Hackett and Nieroda, which means four drivers covered by that 0.024 second gap. Michal Grzyb has pole for the Grand Final.

As they line up on the back straight and wait for the signal, somehow the tension ratchets up still higher. Somehow the commentators find new superlatives. And as the wheels start turning, we wonder who has it in them. Who is best able to shake off the fatigue of a gruelling weekend and give everything they have, one last time. Who wants it most?

Grzyb leads them away and holds a tiny lead over Lee, who has possibly the most difficult job in karting right now - keeping Ruben Boutens behind him. I find myself talking under my breath, urging Lee to watch for the lunge... but he doesn't need to be told, of course. Yoan Medart is the only casualty of these early laps - hung out to dry on the exit of the Snail, he drops to last place and immediately pits.

Ed White is in too, on consecutive laps, getting both of his pitstops (two mandatory in the final) out of the way. Out of sync with the others and in clear air, he puts the hammer down. But Grzyb is mighty quick in the lead, Lee coming under ever-increasing pressure from Ruben... and the world champion is through at the hairpin. Lee fights hard but begins to lose ground to Ruben, coming under yet more pressure from Patryk Nieroda and Logan Sougné. Nieroda pits in the hope of jumping them, but can't find any more pace. Lewis Manley is now up to fifth from ninth on the grid and starting to light up the timing screens. He's only four seconds behind the lead battle... but our attention is drawn away as at the bottom of the screen, the driver in last place sets a purple (fastest) lap.

Ed White.

I turn away and murmur to Arnaud, "Ed can win this..."
The gap to Grzyb - still leading but being hunted down by Ruben - is 23.5 seconds. Lap by lap, tenth by tenth, it's coming down. By lap 25 it's down to 22.8 as elsewhere in the field, Dean Hale pulls a questionable move on Yoan Medart and gives the place back; Logan Sougné and Patryk Nieroda are nose to tail again in reverse order, Sougné having jumped ahead in the first pitstops. Brandon Williams is out on his own in fifth while Hackett and Manley cling to the tail of the lead battle in third and fourth.

On lap 29, unseen by the cameras, Ruben catches Grzyb by surprise at the final corner and takes the lead. Knowing that Grzyb has his favoured spot - the hairpin - covered, he's spent a few laps sizing up his rival and takes a calculated risk at a corner where it so often goes wrong. He's through, but has lost time - suddenly, the gap to Ed is less than 22 seconds. I'm having to remind myself to breathe; I can't imagine what his father Geoff is going through right now.

Over the next ten laps the gap slowly drifts up again as we will Ed to dig still deeper... and it steadies as Ruben is briefly delayed by the Sougné/Nieroda battle, then pits. It's clean, but not the fastest... and the gap is under 12 seconds. On lap 50, he's back in again for the last time in BRKC 2019, no hint in his body language that his championship rests on the next 11 seconds... two green lights and he exits less than a second ahead of Ed as James Auld finds another octave over the commentary.

With a minute to go there's eight tenths between them and we're screaming from the viewing gantry; Ed responds by setting the fastest lap of the weekend - 31.562, including two purple sectors - on the penultimate lap. But Ruben is only three thousandths slower... and the flag is out. After 55 breathtaking laps, Ruben takes his sixth BRKC title by 0.813 seconds from Ed White, with Michal Grzyb a further three seconds back. Lee Hackett is fourth ahead of Lewis Manley - a stunning recovery from ninth on the grid. Yoan Medart, Logan Sougné, Patryk Nieroda, Dean Hale and Brandon Williams complete the final order.

It's nearly 37 hours since Sam Spinnael led the round 1, heat 1 field out of the pits. It was hard then to believe that BRKC 2019 had finally begun; now, it's tough to come to terms with the fact that it's over, that soon we must return to normal life.

But the Fat Lady has sung. I'm sure Ruben's been called many things, and I'm also sure that's not one of them. Congratulations, again. Six BRKC titles. There are no more words. I've watched and raced against - and sometimes got in the way of - Ed White since 2012, and I'm delighted to see him on the podium. He's been flawless this weekend, as usual, and put the World Champion under extreme pressure when it really counted. Michal Grzyb is a new name for BRKC, but a glance at the KWC 2018 results will instantly reveal his pedigree. A fantastic debut for him, and worth the trip from Poland I hope. Lee and Lewis make up the top five, which contains three Brits for the first time; like Ed, they've dragged themselves up the final leaderboard after some bad luck in earlier races: triumph in adversity. Lee is rewarded with the Genevieve Reason Trophy for his efforts: congratulations to him, thoroughly well deserved.

Richard Jute wins a tight battle for the Kam Ho Masters trophy - pushed hard all the way by Gary Llewellyn and Slawek Piskorz. I'm delighted for him and his devoted other half Belinda, who is rarely to be seen far from the viewing gantry - and never without her camera.

The general consensus seems to be that this is the best BRKC yet and I agree. After a thoroughly miserable championship in 2018 I arrived better prepared and determined to improve - but beset with self doubt. 57th is nothing to shout about, but still represents my best result since 2015; I've thoroughly enjoyed myself on and off track. In darker moments I wonder why I put myself through it, whether I should call it a day; but mostly I simply can't imagine not doing it.

To the people that make BRKC happen - Brad, Phil and Ollie and the amazing Formula Fast team, Darren Cook and the film crew, James and Spanners, Luke Austin and the Alpha Timing team: heartfelt thanks for another incredible championship.

Of course, it's nothing without the drivers and supporters from across the UK, from Belgium, The Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, France and Spain. Thanks, again, for making it awesome.

BRKC 2020: 354 days and counting!

Photo by Tim Andrew

BRKC 2019. Milton Keynes, 19-20 January. Part 2

Saturday, 8pm.

On Formula Fast's plush viewing gantry, the towering heater flames are flickering on pale faces, the dimmed spotlights in the ceiling adding to a slightly eerie campfire-in-the-woods feel. But that's all about to change, as the engines begin to start in the pitlane and James Auld booms from the loudspeakers again. The screens fill with Arnaud Tinet's darkened visor, the red light of his GoPro camera winking in the gloom.

Lee Hackett shares the honour, with Owen Burton and Shaun Mcgrath, of the shortest wait between heats of the weekend. Having won the last heat of round 2 barely forty minutes ago, he's back again, joined by a host of familiar names: Spinnael, Weddell, Slater, Tinet. Lee takes a comfortable pole from Matej Vrana and, after a race-long game of cat and mouse, denies Vrana a first ever BRKC win by the skin of his teeth. Spinnael is third, with Michael Weddell squeaking through in fourth ahead of a charging Phillippe Denooz. Sam Slater is a subdued sixth, his weekend of woe continuing.

I'm slumped on the sofa, in the warm, with a belly full of pizza and fourteen hours of piano-wire tension behind me. Suddenly, the prospect of another race is almost too much to bear as my spirits dip and a dozen aches make themselves felt. I've spent just over 40 minutes on track today - not much - but the peaks and troughs of adrenaline, caffeine and sugar, the cold and the hours on my feet have taken their toll. I force myself upright and head into the driver's changing area to check my kit and get myself in gear for my third heat in an hour's time.

Ruben, out in the heat before mine, has had the same idea; after a brief chat earlier it's good to catch up with the reigning champion. He has two wins from two starts - business as usual - but sensibly, is taking nothing for granted. I ask after his girlfriend Edyta, whom I met in my final heat here last year. She has since notched up a podium finish in the women's class of KWC (a strong 54th overall) but is sadly absent this weekend due to work commitments. It's good to talk about something other than the here and now for a few moments, and my spirits are lifted as the drivers in heat 2 roll out of the pits.

Heat 2 is all about KWC superstars present and past, with Yoan Medart taking the pole by just 0.034 seconds (the tightest margin of the weekend so far) ahead of Michal Grzyb. 2008 world champion Gregory Laporte is third ahead of Dan Healey (by nine thousandths of a second!) and Opnithi Puyato. In the race, Yoan looks unflustered in the lead, as does everyone in a Bluestar Racing Team suit, despite huge pressure from Grzyb. As Dan Healey pits early and Laporte covers him, Puyato takes advantage of their squabble to jump them both with a beautifully judged pitstop. At the flag, Dan is less than 3.5 seconds behind winner Medart and has set the fastest lap of the race... yet is only fifth. Tough heat.

With heat 3 rolling out for qualifying, my world is doing that closing-in thing again, as Ramon Pineiro sets tongues wagging by outqualifying Ruben. Brad Philpot changes karts after qualifying out of position in 6th. After a false start, Pineiro leads them away, but Ruben makes an optimistic move from a very long way back into the hairpin. He's through while Pineiro, hung out to dry, is bundled down to fifth in the next couple of corners. There's talk of a bad pass flag, but it doesn't materialise; Ruben builds a comfortable lead while all hell breaks loose behind him. Pineiro's race goes from bad to catastrophic when he triggers the dreaded yellow light twice on separate visits to the pits; Ed White resists extreme pressure from an unexpected source - Adam Davis. And while they fight amongst themselves and get held up behind backmarkers, Remik Drzaga undercuts his way past them into second place. And there they stay until the flag: Boutens, Drzaga, White, Davis (bouncing back from a disastrous ninth place in round 2) and Brad, who has battled his way up from last on the grid.

I'm only peripherally aware of all this. The cold is biting now, and I'm jumping up and down in the pitlane to stay warm. Heat 4 includes two big names (Bartsch, van Pamelen), one strong newcomer (Ziejewski) and a couple of under-the-radar hands (Steve Gray and Gary Jones). Steve and Gary have had mixed fortunes so far today - I'm currently ahead of both of them on the leaderboard - but I know they'll be tough to beat.

And so it proves. Matt Bartsch takes the pole ahead of Adrian Ziejewski and Guillermo van Pamelen, with Steve, Gary and I making up the top six. I'm quite comfortable with the layout now, but the circuit seems to have cooled - I struggle to get the kart pointed where I need it. This continues into the race, where despite another good start I slip back in the early laps and am forced to defend from Darren Bird Pearce - who pits early to try and jump me. On lap 10, it's as if the lights have been switched on: the kart comes alive in my hands and I start to reel Gary in again. The laptimes show an improvement of only a tenth or two, but such are the margins at this level that it transforms my race.

Up front, Matt Bartsch leads a tight three-way battle from van Pamelen, who catches Ziejewski napping with a beautiful move into the first hairpin on lap 7, and slips past Bartsch with similar finesse a few laps later. Bartsch retakes the lead with brutal efficiency out of the first hairpin - but the Bad Pass flag is shown and he drops to third, with Ziejewski now leading. Suddenly Bartsch has a rear bumper full of Steve Gray.

Meanwhile I'm hounding Gary and deliberating whether or not to pit, as there is space behind me. I decide that I'm quicker giving chase than I would be on my own - but hindsight exposes the weakness in my racecraft. As we catch Harvey Baul into the new section, I make a small mistake, rapping the inside barrier at the tight left hander - then am badly delayed passing him. I lose two seconds on track and a further second in an inexplicably slow pitstop, condemning me to finish where I started.

Steve Gray has stayed with the leaders throughout, and jumps Matt Bartsch with a superb pitstop, while van Pamelen barges past Ziejewski rather less elegantly than earlier on. Bartsch tries an optimistic move into the hairpin but instantly - and sportingly - gives the place back. The finishing order is decided in the last three metres of the race, as Gray and Bartsch tangle again at the final corner and Gary Jones slips through to take fourth place by three hundredths of a second. A brilliant, hard fought win for the absurdly youthful Guillermo van Pamelen.

Out of the kart, I'm surprised to find Ryan and Neil Smith, and Michael Weddell, still trackside at this late hour - they've stayed on to support Calum Conway in the last heat of the evening. They're both very complimentary, which means a lot to me. Despite a few niggling errors I have been better this year; my mood is much improved when I realise that I have already scored more points after three rounds (15) than I did in the whole of BRKC 2018.

I miss the final heat, but it's no longer a surprise to see Dean Hale at the sharp end. He's closely followed by Lukáš Englický (bouncing back from an eighth place in his second heat), while Chris Daines holds off Mario Blanco Gonzalez for third. After his fine fourth place finishes in rounds 1 and 2, Dan Truman is a disgruntled seventh having lost out to Phil Prior in the pits.

Now it's time for a change of clothes, a shower, and a reminder of what warm feels like. Having come off track at 10pm I'm asleep before midnight. With my final heat a whopping 16 hours away I'm planning a long lie-in on Sunday.

My body clock has other ideas, waking me up exactly seven minutes before track action resumes; by 8.10am I'm in the pub beside my Premier Inn in search of breakfast and - most importantly - coffee. Lawrence Hackett - father of Lee - has nabbed a table facing the lake and invites me to join him; Geoff White - father of Ed - turns up shortly afterwards. Over the next two hours we consume a mountain of breakfast and an urn apiece of coffee, as the sun streams through the windows. For a little while, it's good to have nowhere in particular to be, to talk about something other than the BRKC.

I'm struck anew by the commitment of the hardy souls that support their loved ones in this and other competitions all over the world. Besides my breakfast companions, the likes of Neil Smith (father of Ryan), Belinda Norris (Richard Jute's other half), Joanna Piskorz, Mandy and John Marsh (parents of Connor), Jo Healey, Anthony Mays, Wendy Manley, Richard Spinnael, Guy and Janneke Boutens, dozens of others... unsung heroes all. They give generously of their time, energy and money, share the euphoria and the heartbreak. They help make this the very special event it is.

We're keeping tabs on the action; after Wojtek Grzyb holds off Christophe Verhoeven in heat 6 (with Jim Lovell an excellent third) and Patryk Nieroda does the same for Lewis Manley in heat 7, I'm pleased to see Ryan top the list in qualifying for heat 8. He narrowly loses out to Brandon Williams in the race, with Connor third; all three are heading for the semi-finals barring any disasters in their final heat. The Mayses troop in to say hello, looking dejected: Tyler slipped from second on the grid to fourth in heat 6. It's his best result of the weekend, but his semi-final dream is over for this year.

After a slow start on Saturday, Sean Brierley bangs in his first win of the weekend in heat 9, ahead of a strong field including Marcel Hollink, Mariusz Nowicki, Joris Sturm, Slawek Piskorz, Johnny Elliott (disappointed, no doubt) and last-minute stand-in Jessica Alexander, who had never seen the circuit before her first heat on Saturday morning. And I'm impressed to see Dante Dhillon - who had a front row seat to my wheel detachment in round 1 - win a chaotic heat 10 ahead of Logan Sougné and Marc Meulemeester. George Lovell is visibly frustrated in sixth, having challenged for the win before being spun around in the new section and losing more places with an ill-fated move into the last corner.

I'm in transit during the start of round 4, so completely miss the biggest shock of the weekend, as Ross O'meara takes pole ahead of a glittering field, resists incredible pressure in a five-way fight for the lead, and brings the house down when he wins ahead of Lukáš Englický, Patryk Nieroda, Dean Hale and Johnny Elliott. The other drivers are quick to congratulate him on the in lap, which is lovely to see.

Five minutes later, the formbook isn't just torn up - it's burned to a crisp as Arron Pullan and Gary Llewellyn take the top two spots in qualifying, ahead of none other than Bradley Philpot, Wojtek Grzyb and Guillermo van Pamelen. Local specialist - and Kam Ho Masters Trophy contender - Gary slips past Pullan in the early laps and, rather like O'Meara, resists a mountain of pressure from world class drivers to take the flag ahead of Grzyb and van Pamelen. A stunning result for one of the oldest drivers in the field.

There's still some grumbling about the karts, but the facts are that the Formula Fast mechanics are still working overtime to keep them equalised, and the entire fleet is still covered by no more than a quarter of a second. It's a demonstration, if ever we needed one, of the incredible driving standards on display, of the tiny margins between world class drivers and the merely very good.

Heat 3 is all about Dan Healey. The Bristol-based Club100 regular has been fast all weekend, but has been lumbered with some of the toughest heat draws of all. He takes pole position and sweeps to a comfortable win as the Chris Daines/Mariusz Nowicki squabble behind him explodes into tit-for-tat banzai moves at the final corner.

There's barely time to draw breath before Brandon Williams takes the crown for tightest pole position margin of the weekend - 0.010 seconds - from Ruben Boutens. Brandon takes a defensive line in the early laps, keeping the pace relatively slow as a five kart train builds behind him - Boutens, Polish Junior champion Matys, Gonzalez and Ben Churchill. And as first Gonzalez and then Matys pit, the world champion suddenly looks vulnerable. How often can we say that?

Ruben is forced to pit to cover the others, Brandon following suit - and the status quo is maintained for precisely one lap until new leader Ben Churchill pits. He exits alongside Ruben and slots into second as Ruben is bundled down to fourth, forced to defend hard from fifth-placed Gonzalez into the Snail. Ahead, Matys has found the inside line down the back straight and takes Churchill at the hairpin. Ruben follows him through; they're three wide through the loop in front of the crane camera, Churchill and Gonzalez sandwiching Ruben... and poor Ben Churchill shunts hard into the inside barrier. The collective gasp from the viewing gantry echoes off the walls, the air briefly rife with talk of a penalty for Ruben - but it's not forthcoming and rightly so in my opinion.

All of this has given Brandon a little breathing space as temporary leaders Gavin Williams and Sebastian Raikkonen pit. Ruben is now third, behind Matys, but not for long - he pulls another of those impossible moves into the hairpin, seemingly putting his kart into a six inch gap... and is chasing down Brandon. But the Covkart champion holds on as the clock ticks interminably down and Ruben is again forced to defend from a determined Matys, with Gonzalez right behind. There's a huge cheer as Brandon takes the flag after one of the best races of the weekend, and much praise for Ben Churchill - fifth place a meagre reward for a great drive.

Heat 5 is a little quieter, with a couple of non-starters meaning just eight drivers roll out for qualifying. Michal Grzyb takes the pole ahead of Phillippe Denooz and hangs on to take his first win of the weekend, Denooz also bagging his best ever BRKC result with second. Slawek Piskorz undercuts his way past Robin Kassam to take his second podium and complete another fine weekend for the long time BRKC regular. In the final reckoning, Denooz and Piskorz will join no less than five other drivers tied on 27 points.

After a weekend of highs and lows, Richard Jute finally gets the job done in heat six, dominating from pole; George Lovell makes up for his disappointment in round 3 by winning a five way battle for second from Jamie Henderson (his first podium of a very consistent weekend), Ryan Smith, Marc Meulemeester and Ramon Pineiro. It's Ryan's first non-podium of the weekend, but he's comfortably through to the semi-finals with 33 points.

There's been a catering disaster today: the Bandit has broken down and my much-anticipated brisket sandwich is not to be. I, along with many others, am devastated. My second pizza of the weekend goes some way towards alleviating my sorrows. Lawrence Hackett raises his eyebrows at the sight of it. "All I've seen you do today is eat..." He's not wrong.

The 37th race of the weekend is won fairly comfortably by Sam Spinnael from pole; Ed White makes a risky move stick on Michael Weddell at the final corner on lap 3. And there they stay until the flag, all three comfortably into the semi-finals. Gary Jones is fourth, his solid results in rounds 3 and 4 lifting him into the top 50.

Matt Bartsch takes pole for heat 8 ahead of Bradley Sheppard and Yoan Medart, the SCK local again doing very well to get in amongst the heavy hitters - and I'm pleased to see my Media Moguls teammate Tim Andrew up in fourth. Sadly, he's bundled down to ninth during a disastrous second lap which begins to go wrong as soon as Adrian Ziejewski gets his nose ahead into the Snail.

At Bartsch sails away in the lead, Bradley is given a little breathing space by the battle behind - Yoan Medart defending hard from the excellent Ziejewski. Yoan pits in the hope of some clear air - and his engine stalls in the pits! He restarts it himself, showing incredible presence of mind, and loses just three seconds. But it's more than enough for Ziejewski, who undercuts his way past Sheppard. Matt Bartsch takes the flag to complete a topsy-turvy weekend which has seen him finish at both ends of the field. Ziejewski is second and into the semis with a complete set of podium finishes, while Bradley will agonisingly miss out: he's the only driver of the four tied on 29 points without a second or first place finish. Yoan Medart's fourth place is his worst result of the weekend, but also one of its biggest saves - his final hopes are kept alive.

This year, my final heat is also the final heat. I'm pacing up and down the pitlane as Connor Marsh - comfortably in the lead of heat 9 ahead of Lee Hackett and Lewis Manley - has his engine cut out briefly at the first pitstop light. It restarts of its own accord, but costs him two seconds and, ultimately a place; Lee Hackett takes a lucky win while Connor is left frustrated after doing everything right - and having set one of the fastest laps of the weekend so far. Lewis is third ahead of Owen Burton - another driver who, on the quiet, has turned in some superb drives this weekend. Logan Sougné is an uncharacteristic fifth ahead of Sam Slater, who has driven out of his skin this weekend but simply hasn't had Lady Luck on his side.

My turn. The nerves are, finally, at bay. As we roll out to qualify I feel confident for the first time this weekend. Too confident, perhaps - I set a strong first sector but get too greedy into the final corner, losing a tenth and at least one place. I line up seventh again, my usual half-second down on the polesitter - Sean Brierley. I have Steve Gray behind me, and although I get another strong start, glued to Jim Lovell's bumper throughout the first corners, Gray is all over me and not for the first time, I lose time defending my position in the early laps. And also not for the first time, the driver behind pits in an attempt to jump me. But it goes wrong for Steve as he jumps the second light in the pits.

I get my head down and make a vain attempt to stay with Jim, who is streaking away at a couple of tenths per lap as an interesting situation develops behind me. Rob Duma has pitted early from third on the grid, and now leads a train of early pitters: Opnithi Puyato, Steve Gray (still to serve a penalty) and Kyle Power (who started last having taken a spare kart for qualifying). I sense that my real race is with this lot: if I can pull more than a pitstop clear, I'll jump them. On the other hand, it wouldn't take a big slip to finish ninth.

Lap after lap, the bright red-and yellow helmets of Duma and Puyato flash past at the corner of my eye, heading into the Snail as I'm exiting it; to begin with, the gap stays steady, then slowly, slowly, it begins to increase. There's chaos behind as Kyle and Steve get tangled at the exit of the hairpin and bring out the yellows. Jim Lovell exits the pits just ahead of me; the fastest man on track, he's pulled a full pitstop's worth. Focused on him, I'm late realising that Puyato and Duma have swapped places. Puyato is streaking away; I pit, but it's too late - my best pitstop of the weekend ensures that I safely jump Duma and the others, but Opnithi Puyato is a couple of seconds up the road.

Sean takes a comfortable win ahead of a titanic scrap: Matej Vrana holds off a charging Jim Lovell, who loses third place to Christophe Verhoeven (by 0.018 seconds) after tangling with Vrana at the final corner. Puyato is fifth ahead of me, with Duma a couple of seconds back. I've driven hard and reasonably well aside from a small mistake in qualifying, and am happy enough with sixth place.

For me, that's a wrap. With 20 points, I'm 57th on the leaderboard. Not quite what I was hoping for, but I've improved on last year's horror show by six points and 21 places. I change out of my overalls, treat myself to a cup of tea and a KitKat, revert from competitor to interested spectator. And it's about to get very, very interesting.

Photo by Tim Andrew

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

BRKC 2019. Milton Keynes, 19-20 January. Part 1

It's 7.45am. Across Milton Keynes, the streetlights are blinking out, a chilly winter dawn slowly extricating the city from the grip of night. Something makes me look up, beyond the hanging floodlights, to the grimy skylights set into the roof of the warehouse. They'll be my only source of daylight today.

The viewing gantry is a hive of quiet intensity. We crowd the railings, watch the screens, clutch steaming cups to still the quiver in our fingers. Unseen below us, the rumble of idling kart engines can be heard. Months of anticipation and preparation, a colossal effort by the hosts and organisers, thousands of laps of practice - all of it has come down to this. It's almost impossible to believe that BRKC 2019 is finally happening, as Sam Spinnael leads the field out of the pitlane for the first time.

Two minutes later, everything that came before is forgotten, as we're sucked into the drama of heat 1. Former finalist Sam Spinnael has qualified way down in seventh. Series organiser Brad Philpot has taken a comfortable pole position ahead of local regular Richard Jute and long-time BRKCer Ryan Smith - one of the enthusiastic Scottish contingent. Ryan's father Neil is a bundle of nerves beside me as the lights go green.

Twenty minutes later, we collectively release our breath for what feels like the first time, after one of the most dramatic heat races I can remember. Richard Jute, comfortably leading at the race's midpoint, inexplicably leaves the door wide open after exiting the pits; Brad needs no encouragement to sneak through and pull away as a four way battle for second place develops behind him - Jute, Smith, Spinnael and newcomer Adrian Ziejewski. After too many position changes to count - the roar from the crowd frequently drowning out the karts - it's resolved in the final metres in favour of Ryan. He's followed home by a delighted Ziejewski, taking advantage of a last-corner tangle between Sam and Richard. Sam is penalised, dropping him back to the seventh place he started in; Richard is, doubtless, left kicking himself after the win that got away.

That was race 1. Of 44. 

The following two heats are fractionally less dramatic - though I'm impressed to see South Coast Karting local (and BRKC 0-plate winner) Bradley Sheppard take pole in his first ever BRKC heat ahead of SCK owner George Lovell - also a Formula Fast newcomer. Both have managed to outqualify BRKC and KWC superstar Yoan Medart. Yoan finds his way to the front, as expected, but is pushed all the way to the flag by George, with Bradley a few seconds back in third. Seriously impressive stuff from a pair of outdoor specialists against one of the most formidable indoor karters in the world.

The action slowly blurs into the background as I turn my attention inward and try to bring my nerves under control. 
"I feel a bit sick," says Lee Hackett, due on track with me in heat 4. I manage a sympathetic nod while swallowing bile. My heart is thumping hard enough to vibrate my teeth.

Down in the pitlane, I focus on the ritual of checking my weight, drawing my kart number from the ballbag (snigger), jumping up and down to stay warm. Dimly, I notice Matt Bartsch missing the 'last chance to pit' signal and throwing away a comfortable win in heat 3. Local star Lewis Manley takes it ahead of Dan Healey and my former British 24 Hours teammate Michael Weddell - strong results all round.

I settle myself into kart 12, suddenly calmer than I've been at any point since my alarm went off at 6.30am. I have the stealthily quick Kyle Power and no-introduction-required Ruben Boutens ahead of me in qualifying: no need to hold back on my out lap. But I'm a little too cautious and line up seventh. It's not a disaster, and I'm hopeful of moving forward.

As Ruben leads us through the final corner I'm glued to the bumper of former semi-finalist Dante Dhillon, determined to eliminate the tardy starts of previous years... and it works: I hang on well through the first lap, repelling a strong lunge from Carl Stephens into the hairpin. I'm sizing up Dante, looking for chinks in his armour, when to my surprise, he pits. Obviously he feels he's being held up. I've pulled a small gap on Carl, who also pits on the following lap. Suddenly I have clear track; Kyle Power is four seconds ahead and lapping a tenth or two quicker. I give chase, trying to match him, and watch the timing screens as best I can.

A pitstop should take no more than 11 seconds, and it's crucial to pick the right moment: exiting the pits into a gaggle of backmarkers can ruin a race. I spot what looks like a decent gap in the traffic and pit on lap 19. It's always a nervy few moments - so easy to jump on the throttle and trigger the dreaded yellow light - but I'm through cleanly. And, to my surprise, I exit the pits ahead of Dante Dhillon. Now, I have a fight on my hands to hang on to my sixth place.

Elsewhere on track, Ruben is sailing away in the lead while Stephen King (BRKC 0-plate podium finisher) is resisting serious pressure from Lee Hackett, having qualified a superb second. But it all goes horribly wrong when he jumps the second light in the pitstop, takes a penalty stop, but fails to halt at the first set of lights. He's dropped to last place; Dante and I are now fighting for fifth, although we don't know it.

And what a fight it is. I have been fractionally quicker when we were on different parts of the circuit, but am now slowed by having to defend; several times, Dante gets his nose alongside. I'm getting very friendly indeed with the inside barriers all around the circuit - there's a lot of hugging going on.

And then it all crashes to a halt.

As I exit the final corner I feel a huge impact from behind, followed by a violent jolting as if I've run over a line of sleeping policemen. The kart snaps sideways into the wall and slides to a stop as Dante flashes past. As first I think he must have hit me, but he was a couple of metres behind... then I spot the wheel rolling towards me.

That, as I say to FF top bod Ollie Fox, is a first.

The race is stopped, and it takes five minutes to clear away my three-wheeled kart and remove the sheared wheel pins from the circuit. I draw a kart from the spares pool - number 17 - and am restored to my position. Dante has stopped at the entry to the Snail section and I take up position a metre in front of him. In a cold kart, I face a very long five laps or so of trying to hang on. With Carl Stephens just behind Dante, it won't take much of a slip to lose two positions.

After what feels like an age, there's a shout from Race Control and the lights blink green in what is effectively a standing start. I do some more hugging of barriers, sawing at the wheel on the flat-out exit of the Snail as the stone-cold tyres skitter across the concrete. But I keep my cool as the kart begins to warm, and take the flag a very happy sixth - which, I find out shortly afterwards, is actually fifth. For me, that's a pretty solid start.

Ruben has sealed a comfortable win ahead of Lee and Calum Conway, another of the Scottish contingent. Kyle Power is fourth as he so often seems to be.

Up on the viewing gantry I'm briefly famous and seek out Dan Healey - driver of kart 12 in the heat before mine - to blame him for wrecking my kart. He takes it well. With my first heat in the bag it feels like the world has been lifted from my shoulders; I neck cups of coffee, inhale calories and enjoy the remaining heats of round 1 while perusing my race data.

This year, there are even more ways to follow the action courtesy of Alpha Timing. The live video feed is as slick as ever, and now includes a race leaderboard complete with laps completed, gaps between drivers, a pitstop notification and neat graphics to identify each driver. New screens on the viewing gantry show a live championship leaderboard and pitstop timing. And - best of all - the lap has been split into two sectors. We can view individual sector times for every lap, comparing our 'ultimate laptime' - our best two sector times added together - to our actual fastest lap. It's an abundance of data, endlessly fascinating as well as hugely useful and superbly reported.

There's another surprise kart failure in heat 5 for Paul Ozanne, who also endures a standing start in a cold kart, and also manages to hang on to his position (6th). Dean Hale - 2018 TKM Festival winner - shows that he might also be handy indoors by winning from pole ahead of the very handy Remik Drzaga and 2018 finalist Johnny Elliott. Former motorcycle racer Jim Lovell - brother of George and third member of the SCK team - comes in a strong fourth, less than two seconds behind the winner.

I never did quite get over the shock of hearing that founder BRKCer Alex Vangeen wouldn't be racing this year. But he's turned up, of course, with family in tow. Lauren has put in some serious hard time at kart circuits over the years, most notably during the British 24 Hours at Teesside; it's lovely to see her and the girls, and to meet baby Isla for the first time. I'm not used to being away from my little girl and the sight of these two tugs at the heartstrings.

The next three heats have an Eastern European feel to them as KWC aces Patryk Nieroda, Lukáš Englický and Wojtek Grzyb take the spoils - Wojtek's older brother Michal (fourth in KWC 2018) chasing Nieroda all the way to the flag in heat 6.

I'm down at the last corner with Michael Weddell for the end of heat 7, watching Tyler Mays recover to fifth from a slightly unlucky eighth place in an incredibly tight qualifying run (just 3 tenths of a second covering the top eight). Winner Englický has junior superstars Opnithi Puyato and Guillermo van Pamelen to contend with, while Grzyb - also a junior at world level - scrapes in just a tenth of a second clear of Logan Sougné in heat 8. I'm delighted to see my friend and BRKC oldtimer Connor Marsh take the most dominant win of the weekend so far in heat 9, before Ed White closes out round 1 with a typically unflustered win of his own.

At this point, it's time for me to take a couple of hours off to regroup for my second heat at 5.30pm. Before leaving the circuit I stop at the Bandit food truck - manned not by my brother Jonathan this weekend, but by his business partner Ed Young - for a quick chat and a superb Southern Fried Chicken sandwich with extra hot sauce. 

From the comfort and warmth of my hotel room, I keep tabs as former F2 driver (and BRKC oldtimer) Ramon Pineiro wins the first heat of round 2 from pole, setting a trend that will continue all afternoon - not until heat 9 will the polesitter fail to win. Opnithi Puyato does the double in heat 2, followed home by two-time finalist Chris Daines. Sam Slater makes up for a disappointing first heat (by his standards) with a strong third place.

Lewis Manley takes heat 3 by a crushing 25 seconds. He's helped by Dan Chambers, who qualifies a superb second on the revised layout and proceeds to (legitimately but unwisely, for his sake) hold up a visibly agitated Johnny Elliott for nearly 30 laps. It's my first opportunity to properly appreciate James Auld's commentary. He's as knowledgeable, articulate and passionate as ever, ably assisted by roving pundit Spanners and a number of guests.

I'm back in the building in time to see Christophe Verhoeven (5th in KWC 2018) take a comfortable win in heat 4 (having taken pole by more than half a second) but there's controversy behind as 2008 world champion (and all-round nice guy) Gregory Laporte is given a penalty for a bad pass. I'm surprised to see regular BRKC finalist Ed White down in fifth (promoted to fourth); he shrugs on his return to the viewing gantry. "Nothing more I could do..."

There have been some mutterings about the karts ever since the failures in round 1. The mechanics are working tirelessly to keep them equalised, as always, but it seems that the machinery is giving them a hard time today.

Logan Sougné turns heat 5 into a masterclass in precision, but there's disaster behind for Brad Philpot, who loses second place to Marcel Hollink when his engine cuts out during his pitstop. Bad turns to worse when he makes a rare mistake into the tightest section of the new layout - aiming his kart into a narrowing gap and clattering to a stop between Marcel and the barrier. He finishes a disgruntled fourth, behind Matej Vrana who nabs his second podium of the day.

Tick tock. My world starts to close in as heat 7 approaches. I watch from the top of the stairs overlooking the twisty new section of circuit, trying to learn what I can. During my customary pre-race dash to the loo I encounter Bradley Sheppard, who finished fourth (from seventh on the grid) in heat 3.
"Take a wide line into the first hairpin," he advises. "I gained half a second once I figured that out..."

For the second time, Matt Bartsch is leading the heat before mine; there are no mistakes this time, and he takes the flag inches clear of Patrick Nieroda and Phillippe Denooz, with Joris Sturm (teammate to the Meulemeester brothers) and Richard Jute making up the top five. Later, I hear a relieved Richard being interviewed. "I usually struggle on the alternate layout..."

As do I. As I make myself comfortable in kart 19, I try to shut out the noise in my head. I close my eyes, visualise the lap to come, take slow breaths. And as we roll out of the pits, a kind of serenity does, finally, descend. I remember Bradley's advice as I pick my way through the new section, the second part of which is about the tightest piece of track I've ever encountered.

My flying lap feels neat and tidy, the new section suiting my style more than I anticipated - and I'm pleased to see my name fourth on the list. Sam Spinnael has take pole by a comfortable margin ahead of Yoan Medart and Marc Meulemeester. As we line up for the start, I realise that I have Andy Meulemeester behind me. "Sandwich!" he shouts with a grin.

After a short delay while the bodywork on Marc's kart is checked, we're away. Again, I'm right on the bumper of the kart in front as we exit the final corner, and complete the first two laps without incident. Behind me, Pete Leppan lunges neatly past Andy at the hairpin on lap two; Andy pits, and suddenly I have clear track behind me. Sam and Yoan are pulling away steadily; I focus on keeping Marc - a second up the road - honest.

And, for the next twenty laps, the status quo is unchanged. I slowly lose ground to Marc while keeping Pete a second and a half behind, until he pits on lap 19. The leaders are locked in battle ten seconds ahead of me, with the faster of the two - Yoan - stuck behind Sam. He pits on the following lap, exiting behind me; I discover later that Michael Weddell is at the last corner, signalling me to pit, having spotted the unfolding situation behind me. But we've not arranged anything, and I'm not looking in the right direction.

Sam has no choice but to pit from the lead to cover Yoan, and exits alongside me. I'm more than a little surprised to see him, and realise that Yoan must be close behind. At this point, the ghost of BRKC 2018, where I inadvertently held up the leaders in two of my heats, intrudes. This is a little different - I'm racing for position, not being lapped - but in reality I'm a pitstop behind and have no desire to screw anybody's race.

I let Sam through into the first hairpin and move aside for Yoan into the tight left hander. It's as quick and clean as I can manage, and the leaders aren't affected. But I am, unfortunately; it doesn't feel like it, but I lose nearly two seconds, which becomes two places when I pit at the end of the lap. Pitting just a lap earlier would have taken me out of the lead battle and kept me ahead of Pete and early pitter Dean Hale. Dean has been very fast, and keeping him at bay would have been very difficult, but I'd have had half a chance of hanging on to my fourth place.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. As it is, I'm down to sixth, which becomes seventh when Andy Meulemeester makes a nice move stick into the hairpin. I'm dejected and confused at the flag, wondering where my race went... but resolve to learn and move on. This very long day isn't over yet; there's another heat to come.

Having just come off track, I'm largely oblivious to heat 8, which contains a lot of familiar names - Ruben, Sean Brierley, Dan Healey, Connor, Tyler Mays, the legendary Arnaud Tinet... but it looks like a fairly routine win for Ruben ahead of Sean, Dan and Connor. Sean's day is looking up after a disappointing fourth place in his first heat, Dan and Connor are moderately satisfied... but Tyler and especially Arnaud are disappointed, having both finished fifth in their first heats.

One of Formula Fast's superb Hawaiian pizzas makes everything better and I submerge myself in carbohydrate heaven while watching the screens in reception. Reigning Covkart champion Brandon Williams had a quiet start, finishing fifth on his BRKC debut, but raises a lot of eyebrows with a superb win ahead of Wojtek Grzyb. They're followed home by Slawek Piskorz - he of the impressive photography and spectacular goatee - who is delighted after a disappointing seventh place in his first heat. Michael Weddell is fourth, George Lovell following him home after a fine recovery from eighth on the grid.

In the final heat of round 2, Lee Hackett fights his way through to the lead from third on the grid and holds on to take the flag less than a quarter of a second ahead of junior superstar Guillermo van Pamelen. Ryan Smith is third, from second on the grid, and notches up his second podium from two starts. I'm pleased to see Daniel Truman post his second fourth place finish of the day, having declared himself short on practice and confidence on Friday.

It's 7.30pm. Outside, the temperature is dropping. You can see your breath on the viewing gantry. As the circuit falls silent, the reception area begins to empty of drivers and supporters who are finished for the day. Suddenly, there's a quieter, desultory feel about the place that reminds me strongly of the graveyard shift at 24 hour races. As we hunker down and wait for the start of round 3, ten o'clock yesterday morning - the start of practice - feels like another lifetime.

But we're not even halfway yet. Watch this space.

Photo by Tim Andrew

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

BRKC 2019. Milton Keynes, 18-20 January. Preview

"I'm not afraid," said the rookie.

"You will be," said the veteran. "You will be."

January. Christmas is a fading memory. Spring is too far off to fathom. The most wonderful time of the year has given way to the most depressing time of the year.

But not in this corner of Milton Keynes. Here, in a chilly warehouse, the air itself is humming. It is 202 days since the 2019 edition of the British Rental Kart Championship sold out in a scarcely believable three hours. And it's finally, almost, here, riding a tsunami of anticipation the like of which we've never seen.

For most, the format is familiar. Three days of practice and competition. 100 drivers enter, one champion leaves. There are four heat races for every driver, semi-finals for the top 30 drivers after the heats, a grand final for the top ten. The prizes are spectacular: huge trophies and free entry to the Kart World Championship for the top three, plus £1000 cash for the champion. The team championship introduced in 2018 returns, as does the Kam Ho trophy for the highest placed driver over 40.

The numbers are huge. Through 27 practice sessions and 44 races, we'll turn over 23,000 laps in 36 hours of track action between Friday morning and Sunday evening. For drivers, staff, spectators and online viewers, BRKC is a marathon run at a sprint.

But it's more than big statistics and glittering prizes. It is, always, a feast for the senses: the tingle through the steering as your tyres fight for grip on the slick surface; the taste of a piping hot pizza or Bandit special on a freezing day; the spike of adrenaline as you descend the stairs to the pitlane; the hoarse, echoing roar of the karts overlaid with the stirring tones of the commentator; the nailbiting nerves as your loved one takes pole position. 

The euphoria and boundless relief of a race win.

The 2019 entry list makes fascinating reading. Or terrifying, depending on your point of view. Eight of last year's finalists will be returning along with many of the regulars that have supported this championship since its early days. They'll be joined by a host of new names and faces. A total of 100 drivers - plus friends, loved ones and hangers-on - will converge on Milton Keynes from eight countries.

They include four of the top six drivers from last year's Kart World Championship and two dozen more indoor superstars from across Europe. There are tintop and single-seater race winners, British University Kart Championship frontrunners, former Super One race winners and the reigning TKM Festival champion. There are drivers who live karting, work at kart circuits, own their own kart circuit. There's even a former motorcycle racer. And, of course, there are the Formula Fast regulars. Drivers who pound this deceptively simple circuit week in, week out - every lap a dress rehearsal for the BRKC.

The standard here has always been dizzying. In 2019, again, it hits new heights.

Formula Fast, host of the BRKC since 2014, fits the championship like a glove. Its staff are old friends, its facilities excellent, its catering second to none. The circuit squeezes a lot of character into a relatively small space, and will change during the weekend - rounds two and three of the heats will run on an alternate layout. The karts, as usual, will be equalised to within a fraction of a percent across the whole fleet. I say it every year, and it's true every year: nobody works harder to make the competition fair. Phil Stanley and his team have been burning the midnight oil for weeks in preparation, as have organiser Bradley Philpot and several others behind the scenes.

Drivers have already taken to the track in the first of two unofficial practice days - new this year and extremely popular. Every lap counts, and if we're to have a new champion, preparation is everything. Ruben Boutens, reigning double world champion, reigning Belgian champion, and reigning five-time BRKC champion, stands undisputed as the finest indoor kart racer in the world. There are drivers who can match him for raw speed, but as yet, nobody has managed to compete with his work ethic on and off track, that incredible mental strength which enables him to find another gear under extreme pressure. He is beatable, but it will take the performance of a lifetime to do it.

Could it happen? I can't wait to find out.

BRKC 2019 will first turn a wheel in anger at 10am on Friday 18 January. Racing will start at 8am on Saturday. Live timing will be available throughout, with regular updates posted on Facebook and Twitter. The championship will be streamed live on BRKC's YouTube channel, filmed by Darren Cook and his excellent Scruffy Bear Pictures crew. And of course, it wouldn't be the BRKC without the dulcet tones of James Auld, our commentator. 

In 100 households across Europe, the packing has begun; some will already have started their journeys. And the nerves, I suspect, are beginning to jangle. 

Here we go then...

Photo by Tim Andrew

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, I'm remembering the hairdryer breeze on the circuit's back straight with a touch of nostalgia.

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.