Monday, 6 June 2011

BRKC Round 4. Matchams, Bournemouth, Sunday 5 June 2011

As I turn off the leafy lane into the entrance of Matchams Leisure Park, the clouds hang low overhead. Like Cambridgeshire last month, there's something spooky about this place. At one time it was clearly a vibrant destination, but these days it's a sprawling ghost town of abandoned buildings and roads that lead nowhere. It did briefly rise to notoriety in late 2008, when it hosted the ill-fated Lapland New Forest scam.

But spooky or not, as I thread my way up the access road towards the kart circuit at the far side of the park, I've got a good feeling about today. For I'm armed with a weapon I've not had before this season: knowledge. Matchams is reasonably close to my home in Southampton; yesterday, a karting friend and I entered a team endurance race. Against two stag groups and a smattering of casual karters we won easily; more importantly, I have an inkling of what lies in store.

The grid is thinner this month, the location less convenient than of late; the BRKC regulars are bolstered by some local talent. As I'm beginning to realise, local knowledge counts for a lot here.

At 420 metres according to the website, this is the shortest circuit we will visit this year. It feels a little longer, perhaps because it winds between trees. Or it could be that every lap takes such a toll that you feel it must be longer.

It's bumpy. Not rough or nobbly, but proper bounce-an-inch-off-your-seat-count-your-fillings bumpy. There are sections where just hanging on to the steering wheel is a challenge, let alone turning it. The second corner is a fast, tightening right-hander with a tyre wall to the left and what feels like a row of sleeping policemen underwheel; hit the bumps wrong and the kart simply launches you into the tyre wall.

Circuit owner George Lovell is proud of the quality of his karts, and rightly so: they're consistent and handle nicely, though their short wheelbase makes it difficult for me to cram my lanky frame in. I feel like an elephant in a shopping trolley.

Still, I'm quick in the test sessions and in the free practice before the heats. My first race is heat two, and I've drawn pole position. I'm sitting on the grid, raring to go with that slightly weak-boweled feeling that only adrenalin brings... when the rain starts to fall.

It's heavy enough that the circuit is soaked in seconds; I get away in the lead, but by the time we get down to turn two I can already feel the slick tyres slithering on the rutted surface. Tentative on the brakes, I get mugged by a local and lose a place straight away.

By lap three it's turned into the heat from hell. I've raced in the wet many times. I've won races in the wet. But I've never encountered a wet surface like this. Parts of it are rough enough that the tyres dig in, giving you precious nuggets of grip; but most of it is heavily rippled tarmac, worn smooth and coated in rubber. With a layer of water on top, the kart floats across it at pathetically slow speed, ignoring all attempts at direction by its hapless driver.

Over three heats and a final I try several techniques. None of them work aside from the locals' line through one hairpin: drive right around the outside of the corner with your right wheels in the dirt at the edge of the track. With hindsight, the correct method seems to be to pretend you're cruising round on an in lap. Any attempt to push the kart results in disaster.

Everybody is struggling to some extent, but I've found it harder than most. After perhaps the least enjoyable karting event of my life, I'm 19th out of 29 and have, incredibly, scored two points. But it's a poor showing: I've allowed my frustration to seep into my driving, making matters worse. I slink home, thoroughly disgruntled and wondering why I keep putting myself through this. Perhaps I need to face an uncomfortable truth: maybe I'm just not good enough to compete at this level.

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