Thursday, 1 September 2011

British 24 Hours. Teesside, 26-28 August 2011 - part one

(Click here for part two)

Friday 26 August

Seated on the bench beside me is a two-year old called Eva. She's beaming up at me and waving. Despite myself, I beam and wave back. My enthusiasm for other people's children is generally held well in check, but this little girl is adorable.

I had many predictions for how the biggest race weekend of my life might begin, but this wasn't one of them.

Team BRKC Corporate Chauffeurs has assembled at the Beefeater beside our hotel in Middlesbrough for a pre-race dinner. Four of us will be driving: myself, Alex Vangeen (our captain), Lee Jones and Benjamin Greene. All of us are British Rental Kart Championship regulars except Ben, who has kindly stepped in at short notice.

Joining us are my wife Marianne, Ben's girlfriend Jo, and the aforementioned Eva. The latter two are an unexpected and welcome addition; as we're to discover, all three will play an important part in the trial to come.

For as we enjoy a fine meal, get to know each other and take turns entertaining Eva, none of us are under any illusions about the scale of the task that faces us. The British 24 Hours will feature 76 teams from all over the world, in three different classes. Ben and I have yet to drive the circuit, but Alex and Lee have practiced today; we've all seen enough to know that the competition, the track and the weather will make huge demands of us in the next day and a half.

We part at 10pm and attempt to get an early night. But despite an excellent Premier Inn bed, sleep comes fitfully for me. I rarely sleep properly the night before a big race; across Teesside I imagine 400 other drivers having the same problem...

Saturday 27 August

Race day dawns clear but quickly clouds over. By the time we reach the circuit at 8am, rain is already threatening. With five hours until the start, mayhem reigns: the car parks are full, and the tarmac areas behind the pits and paddock buildings are crammed with motorhomes and awnings. Karts are everywhere - on stands, in pieces, swarmed over by mechanics as drivers munch bacon butties and discuss strategy. These are the owner teams which make up half of the entry. They take up most of the space, and I feel a touch out of my depth as we trudge between them.

But we soon find Alex and the others and set up our base under the trackside gazebo which we erected yesterday. Marianne goes off to check that our tent is still in place; the four drivers assemble around our kart, which stands amongst 35 others outside the maintenance garages. We've been allocated number 89; I can't think of any significance in the number, but hope it proves lucky.

Ben and Lee are old hands at this; Lee busies himself attaching team stickers (which he had produced himself) to the kart's bargeboards, while Ben shows us the nifty radio systems which he's wired into each of our helmets.

Mindful of the fact that my skinny backside requires a seat insert to stop the kart from beating me to a pulp, I wander off to find one. And dodge the first bullet of the weekend: at barely 8:30am on race day, they've already run out. The stores manager remembers that there's a reject one with a split knocking about, and offers to show me. I'm awash with relief: the split is small, and the insert will do.

The race briefing is at 8.30am. It's friendly and perfunctory: the organisers assume that we wouldn't be here if we didn't know what we were doing. We're asked to keep it clean, to respect the other classes on track. Our hire class is the slowest, around five seconds per lap slower than the owner karts: we'll need to be vigilant on track.

After the requisite bacon buttie breakfast, Marianne and I film the first of the weekend's video diaries. Having tested the circuit's wifi and found it wanting, I've already decided not to attempt uploading videos on the fly, as I had planned. Perhaps it's just as well: we'll have enough to think about.

For now, it's time to think about learning the track. At 10am, seventy-six twin-engined karts roar into life, and Alex takes no. 89 out to turn the first wheels in anger for team BRKC. It's a big moment - we've all made quite a journey to be here, on several levels - but there's little time to think about it. I focus on preparing for my turn, acclimatising to the radio gear fitted to my helmet. I'll have half an hour to learn the longest, fastest kart circuit in the world - and it's wet.

Alex comes in and vacates the kart and as usual, the butterflies disappear as I make myself comfortable. Even before I've left the pitlane I can tell that the kart is a peach - it pulls strongly, steers accurately, responds precisely to my throttle and brake inputs. Even on slick tyres on a wet surface, it generates remarkable grip and traction. That's partly due to the circuit - rain is hardly uncommon in this part of the world, and the tarmac has been laid accordingly. Watching practice yesterday, I was astonished at the cornering speeds.

The rain has stopped, but the circuit is still wet; I do around twenty laps and set a best of 1 minute 29 seconds - around eight seconds away from a normal dry time. The circuit is nothing short of magnificent - eye-poppingly fast, with huge sweeping corners, a tricky uphill left-hander and a white-knuckle ride through the Esses: a tarmac snake between treacherous razor-toothed kerbs. Scream if you want to go faster...

By the time Lee and Ben have practiced, the circuit is bone dry. We pit to have the kart refueled, and Alex takes it out again for the last few minutes to try the dry conditions and set a qualifying time. We qualify 13th in class and 52nd overall - fairly mediocre, but qualifying isn't especially important in a race like this. At midday the circuit falls silent for the last time until lunchtime on Sunday; we film another video diary as the karts form up on the grid, discuss strategy and try in vain to relax.

Alex has elected to start the race; I will take the second stint, followed by Lee and Ben. We plan to rotate in that order until the end, running two hour stints - the limit of the kart's fuel range. It's simple - in theory - and minimises the time spent in the pits.

At five to one the engines are started and Alex takes his place with the other drivers on the far side of the track, opposite the karts which are lined up side by side. It's an old-school Le Mans start - when the Union Jack is waved, the drivers will run across, jump in the karts and go. Each team is allowed one person to push the kart away; Lee asks if I want to do it. But I suspect that his added muscle and racing nous is tailor made for times like these, and rejoin the others behind the barrier.

As the one minute sign is shown, our nerves are at snapping point, everyone watching the start marshal who stands behind the grid, flag furled. In the blink of an eye it raises, drops, and five hundred voices drown out the engines as we cheer our men across to the karts. Lee blips the throttles, the kart already moving before Alex swings neatly into the seat. It's a sublime start, everyone else moving in slow motion as kart 89 is off and away. Once the mayhem of the start dies down, we lie 42nd, having made up ten places. Brilliant!

An hour later we stand openmouthed and dry throated by the barrier. On the circuit, the red flags are out; a kart is upended over the barriers on the infield, both engines aflame with the driver trapped underneath. The marshals are there in seconds and two drivers stop to help. The flames are doused, the driver extricated as the ambulance arrives on the scene. It's a frightening sight, as for many minutes the two paramedics work on the driver, out of sight on the grass beyond the barrier. But eventually he's up, waving shakily as he's escorted into the ambulance, and we cheer in relief. As the race is restarted, the mood lightens, but we're reminded that this is no cakewalk. There are real dangers out there on the track, and there are still 22 and a half hours to go.

At five to three I put my helmet on, and the talking stops. All of the baggage that comes with endurance racing - the travelling, the fretting, the logistics - all of it falls away to leave the core. This, ultimately, is why we do it: we're addicted to making a racing machine go as fast as it can. A simple pleasure, but a fiendishly complex craft.

The outside world begins to recede as I wait patiently in the pitlane, movement a blur around me. Ben checks my radio cables again. Alex is on his way in; with seconds to go the butterflies are long gone. The pitstop is crucial, but as the driver, my role is the simplest: jump in and go. Alex enters the empty fuel bay, leaps out, waits as the marshal fills the tank, then pushes the kart around to the pitlane exit where we wait. This is the rule here: the driver must push the kart alone.

I throw my seat insert onto the seat and leap in; Ben velcros my push-to-talk button to the steering wheel. Behind me, Lee and Alex are spraying lubrication oil onto both drive chains. A brief delay as the left engine refuses to fire, then it roars into life and I'm away, accelerating hard down the pitlane, onto the circuit.

It's completely dry now, conditions I've not yet experienced, and I'm expecting to take a lap or two to come up to speed. But before those two laps are out, several problems begin to rear their ugly heads. I've elected to wear earplugs, which instantly proves a costly mistake. In the pitlane, standing still, I could clearly hear the radio through them; on track, through the roar of the engines, I can't hear a thing. Worse, the earplugs aren't up to the task: the seal breaks with every vibration, setting up a deafening oscillation that muddies my focus and gives me a headache.

Within a lap I'm beginning to feel extra breeze around my armpits; looking down, I'm aghast to find that my suit has unzipped itself almost to my navel and is flapping madly in the wind. There's a risk I could be black-flagged for safety reasons and I battle to zip it up with my gloved hands. It's an old suit and some of the velcro has perished; the combination of wind and the weight of the radio cable is pulling the zip down. Eventually I unfasten the radio cable from the wheel and tuck it inside. But the zip refuses to stay put, and I'm forced to yank it up twice per lap.

At the bottom of the hill after the pits is a fast right hander which requires balls of titanium. Turn in as fast as you dare, hang on and pray. At the exit there is no kerb or conventional runoff, just an expanse of mudflat: go off at speed here and the consequences could be disastrous.

From the outset it's my nemesis: there's a bump beyond the kerb which bounces all four wheels off the ground. My backside lifts an inch out of the seat, my feet leave the pedals - and as I reconnect, there's a crunching in my left side, accompanied by enough pain to shoot stars across my field of view. My rib protector is set at its usual position - but I realise it's too low for this circuit. No way I could have known in advance, and no means of doing anything about it.

A familiar red and white helmet flashes past as if I'm standing still, the driver lifting his hand in recognition. Bradley Philpot, BRKC founder. I know I must be slow, but his speed adds depression to my list of woes. It's many laps before I remember that he's in a different class of faster karts. Nevertheless, the World and his wife seem to be whistling past me; it feels as if I'm going backwards.

As the stint from hell grinds on through a haze of pain and growing exhaustion, I'm dimly aware of the sun breaking through and bathing the circuit in afternoon sunshine. As the laps reel off it seems to sink lower, and I begin to fret about the pitstop. We have a pit board as a backup signal if the radios fail. I've seen no sign of it, and worry that I'm looking in the wrong place. At speed, with a fast chicane to negotiate in front of the pits, it's difficult to pick out our gazebo amongs the row of greens, whites and blues. Not looking where I'm going, I miss my turn in point for the fast chicane and gather up a heart-in-mouth moment, swearing.

All I want is for it to end...

(Click here for part two)

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