Monday, 9 May 2011

BRKC Round 3. Cambridge Kartsport, Sunday 8th May 2011

Deep in the Cambridgeshire flatlands, this month's venue is a sprawling former WWII depot with two circuits - one indoor and one outdoor - and bags of slightly eerie atmosphere. Grass growing between concrete slabs, decrepit red brick buildings, etc. We’re on the outdoor circuit - a fast, abrasive 700m loop with just five corners.

It’s a tad decrepit, but the catering appears better than average for a kart circuit: the burger van parked beside the track is doing a roaring trade. When I amble over for a cup of tea, I discover why. Tea and burgers are indeed palatable, but it’s the blonde lass serving them that’s causing a stir…

At its third meeting, this embryonic championship is growing up fast. The organisers are charming and efficient, the regular drivers beginning to forge acquaintanceships. And its ability to attract top-line talent continues to amaze me.

This month we're joined by none other than Formula Renault 3.5 driver Chris van der Drift – perhaps most famous (unfairly) for one of 2010's worst single seater accidents, in Superleague at Brands Hatch. Multiple fractures and a badly lacerated hand put him out for most of the season; nine months on he still limps. But he's back racing, and he's brought his close friend Brendon Hartley - former Red Bull F1 tester - along for a play.

You could imagine drivers like this not taking a kart race too seriously, and there's plenty of banter off-track. But when the helmets go on, it turns deadly serious: they, like everyone else, take no prisoners out on the circuit.

And they've got their work cut out. If nothing else, in fifteen years I've learned to spot a gifted karter when I see one, and BRKC organiser Bradley Philpot is one of the best I've ever seen. He's got serious competition from a number of stunningly fast youngsters, as well as more experienced drivers with a lorryload of trophies between them. It's easy to feel intimidated in such exalted company, but I know my stuff and have brought home a trophy or two of my own.

With eight heats each, plus a final, for forty drivers, it's a marathon of a day. For me, it is (again) a bit of a mixed bag. Last month at Hereford I left frustrated with myself for a number of errors. This month I'm better, but the luck isn't with me.

The karts are better than two months ago at Birmingham, but nowhere near as consistent as they were at Hereford. And the circuit is particularly weight-sensitive, as the heavies quickly discover. Cue a lot of barging - too much, in my opinion - and some heavy shunts.

Two corners into my very first heat I find myself buried in the tyre wall, victim of a three-way pile-up in front. Later in the day I'm shunted off the track twice in the same heat and finish it last, thoroughly disgruntled.

But in between are some good times. I scythe through from sixth on the grid to second at the flag in one heat, and make up ground in three others. But the losses hurt me, and I just miss the cut for the B final. This puts me on pole for the C final and gives me a shot at glory: if I win, I move up and compete in the B final.

But luck deserts me again: the kart is horrible, the worst I've had all day, and I'm powerless against the chasing pack. Later, I note that my laptimes in the final are a full second slower than my best, earlier in the day.

Final result: 26th, out of 40. Exhausted and depressed, I watch the A final and feel slightly better at the sight of Brendon Hartley struggling with the same kart that hobbled me.

With time and sleep comes perspective. The result is well below my potential, but a lot of it was out of my hands. My wheel-to-wheel combat skills are improving, and this event has taught me some stern lessons about anticipating danger and staying out of trouble.

I'm continually surprised at how different sprint racing is to endurance racing. Every kart feels different, and I'd have said I was reasonably good at finding the limit of a kart quickly: three laps, tops. In sprints you've got three corners (if you're lucky), and unlike endurance you will drive a different kart every time you go out on the circuit.

It's taxing, mentally and physically, and often frustrating. But the moments of magic make it utterly addictive. Three races down, three to go.

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