Tuesday, 5 July 2011

BRKC round 6. Daytona Milton Keynes, 3 July 2011

As I tap the brakes and turn in, I feel the right front tyre shudder, fighting to keep its hold on the tarmac. But I'm already straightening up, lightening its load, bracing for the first half of the fast chicane. Over the kerb, brushing the barriers on the left, flat on the throttle as I line up for the second kerb. Kissing it with the right wheels, letting the kart run out to the rumble strips on the left. Sweeping back over to the right for the hairpin.

I brake a little early, turn in as the circuit goes off camber and tries to drag me away from the apex; all the while, making tiny corrections to stop the front wheels sliding. Power on, straighten up, peer ahead to spot the braking point for turn five...

Under the visor, I'm grinning. We've been to some fun circuits this year, but Daytona is still the Daddy. It's good to be back.

It's Sunday, the sun is shining, and the most familiar strip of tarmac in my world seems little changed from when I last visited. With a year off in 2010, it's been the longest exile since I started karting - 651 days, to be exact.

After a 25 minute test session, I'm not back to the inch-perfect precision I reached at the 24 Hours in 2009. But it's not bad. I set a high 1.11 at a time when the 60kg lightweights are doing mid 1.10s. Around here, the weight difference is worth a second.

Today's format is unusual for the BRKC: as at Birmingham, we'll do a short qualifying session and a 30 minute race. With no less than 55 drivers entered, we're split into 2 groups. The top 15 from each group will go into a 10 minute shootout final.

With the test sessions complete, there's a real end-of-term feeling as we congregate in Daytona's upstairs lounge area, between the bar and the briefing room. The BRKC trophy table groans with silverware, both for the race and overall champions.

I've come to look forward to seeing familiar faces almost as much as the racing: Bradley, Alex, Sean, Chris and the other BRKC regulars, and the tireless support team. Bradley's mother, grandparents and girlfriend Becca have given generously of their time since the birth of the BRKC. They've helped make it the best championship I have ever competed in.

As the briefing video starts and Martin Brundle's familiar face fills the screen, the adrenalin begins to flow. I can't win the championship. But I know this place. Inside out, back to front, in every weather condition imaginable. With just a touch of Lady Luck, I can do well here today.

An hour later, it's clear that Lady Luck's taken the day off. I sit in the kart on Daytona's back straight feeling like the most unpopular kid in school, as driver after driver is called forward to form up the grid. The ten minute qualifying session went reasonably smoothly; I managed a couple of clear laps and know that there's little more to come from either me or the kart. It doesn't feel awful, but something is obviously amiss.

I line up 18th. Having expected to trouble the top six, I now face a fight to make the top 15 and progress to the final. It's a battle to shake off the sinking feeling and focus.

Not for the first time this season, I make a great start. As other drivers get tangled up with each other I seek out the gaps and find myself tenth after the first lap. Brilliant! Maybe I had a poor qualifying session, after all.

But within three laps, the sinking feeling is back - I'm easy meat for the chasing pack on the long straight. In isolation, the kart doesn't feel too bad, but its acceleration out of slow corners and top speed is way down. I drive the wheels off, but am overtaken easily by drivers 15kg heavier than me.

Ten laps in, frustration starts to seep through the cracks: pushing too hard, I make a small mistake into the turn four hairpin and run wide. Mistakes are unacceptable on this track; I force myself to dial it back. The kart won't go any faster. The only way I'm going to progress is by staying consistent and taking advantage of others' misfortune.

I'm fifteenth at the flag, though I don't realise it at the time; out of the kart, nursing a blistered hand, I'm on the point of heading to the changing rooms when the PA system blares my name. I've scraped into the final, 30th and last.

At the start of the ten minute shootout, I follow one of my best starts of the year with my worst. It's all my fault: I'm expecting to come to a stop in formation before being sent off for a rolling start, as we did for the main race. But it doesn't happen. I'm slow to realise that as I'm slowing down on the back straight, everyone else is accelerating away. I'm ten metres back as we cross the line, cursing.

By half way around the lap I've caught the tail of the field - but in the middle of turn 6, I feel the blister on my right palm tear. Even through the adrenalin, pain shoots up to my elbow.

This kart is far better, and I'm rocketing up the order. But I'm running out of laps, and my right hand will barely grip the wheel. I take the flag 22nd, having made up eight places in as many laps and driven the last three one-handed. It's hard not to be frustrated by the way the day has gone, but I've done the best I could.

Later, when I have a chance to study my results in detail, I discover that my race kart was two seconds per lap slower than my practice kart. There will always be variables in rental karting, but that isn't good enough for a national championship. Daytona remains a wonderful circuit marred by frustratingly patchy quality. When comparatively tiny operations like Hereford and Matchams can achieve good parity across their fleets, it's a disappointing showing from Britain's karting giant.

For now, though, BRKC 2011 is over. We cheer inaugural champion Chris Hackworth to the rafters, say our goodbyes and go our separate ways. We'll reunite for the 0-plate - a one-off, weight-equalised race at Sutton in Leicestershire - in October, and BRKC 2012 is barely six months away. Next year will see a new minimum weight limit to even up the lightweight class, and new circuits mixing it with the favourites. I'll be aiming for a much stronger showing than in 2011 and can't wait.

But it's time to turn my attention to the big ones: the British 24 Hours at Teesside is just seven weeks away, with the Daytona 24 Hours following seven weeks after that.

Training starts now...

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