Friday, 7 October 2011

BRKC 0-plate. Sutton Circuit, 2 October 2011

"This," someone observes, "is going to be carnage."

It's a freakishly hot October Sunday in the sleepy depths of Leicestershire, and the gang's (nearly) all here. BRKC 2011 is revived for one last hurrah before we look to 2012, and as usual, the regulars will go head-to-head with super-competitive circuit locals.

But there are differences today: BRKC champion Chris Hackworth is a notable absentee, and our exalted leader Bradley Philpot will be mediating, rather than racing. There are a couple of welcome additions, too: Jack Stanley returns to the BRKC having missed most of the season due to other commitments, and Ben Greene, who joined our team for the British 24 Hours, has come fully into the BRKC fold. And he's brought the family along: it's great to catch up with Jo and two-year-old Eva, who sports a miniature BRKC-branded hoodie and definitely qualifies as our youngest member.

At 9.30am, it's already been a long day for me, but the rigours of a 6am start and 140 mile drive are held at bay by a hefty breakfast and 'wake-the-dead' coffee. As I sign in and join Ben for a track walk, the last wisps of tiredness are washed away by an insistent, addictive trickle of adrenalin.

For the BRKC crowd, a steep learning curve lies ahead. None of us has driven the circuit before, and the race format is new to most of us. An eight minute practice/qualifying session will be followed by two back-to-back 15 minute races. The grid for the second race will be the finishing order of the first, in reverse. The top ten points scorers from the two heats will progress to a one-lap qualifying shootout and a 15 minute final. And one last detail could change everything: we'll all be weight-equalised at 85kg. It could be my imagination, but some of the lightweights look a little hunted, and there's a new glint in the eyes of the heavies. Today, there will be no excuses.

On foot, the circuit looks a mite tricky: a six-corner, 700m tour with a mix of medium speed long radius corners and a couple of big stops. It's tight and technical, and I can see ample potential for the aforementioned carnage. The single engine Sodikarts aren't going to break any speed records but they and the circuit will reward patience and a light touch.

It's an historic day for me. When my trusty old Sparco karting suit finally let me down at Teesside after a decade of service, I decided to splash out on a replacement. My old boots are of similar vintage and have always been slightly too big, so I retired them, too. After much browsing and online deliberation I settled on a Sparco Profi - a mid-range suit similar to my old one - and a top-of-the-range pair of Sparco Formula K boots. And since I was on a roll, I called time on years of discomfort and injuries caused by ill-fitting seat inserts, and bought a customised insert from Tillett Racing Seats. This event is a perfect opportunity to test the new gear before serious demands are placed on it at Daytona, in two weeks' time.

First impressions of Sutton Circuit have been good: it looks a slickly-run, no-nonsense outfit. After a short briefing, we're underway on time. I'm carrying 7.5kg of lead weight in specially designed slots in the kart's left sidepod, to bring me up to the 85kg minimum. My new suit and boots fit snugly, and the insert slots neatly into the kart's seat; I'm instantly comfortable.

The pitlane has an unusual hairpin exit onto the start-finish straight, and the race starts are unique here: we're to be sent out of the pitlane line astern, with no overtaking before the first corner. As soon as we pass the apex, the race is on. This has been the source of much discussion - and some vitriol - on Facebook, but as soon as I get down to Turn 1 it starts to make sense. Both entry and exit are very, very tight and it's ludicrously easy to lock the brakes.

The rest of the lap is a balancing act: keeping the tyres nibbling the edge of adhesion through the long corners, staying neat and tidy into the hairpin and taking a late apex. It could be a touch of Placebo effect, but my new boots seem to give me better feel and precision on the pedals. And although this kart is a world away from the DMax two-stroke machine I tested a week ago, they share a tendency to lock up at the slightest provocation: the practice is standing me in good stead.

After twelve laps I set a best of 40.453, good enough for third in my group. Once all 45 drivers have qualified, we're split into mixed-pace groups for the two heats: I will start third on the grid in group 2. It's a solid start. The other names on the list are unfamiliar except two: Daniel Truman and James Auld, my nemesis from the Brentwood round. I blanch inwardly at the prospect of keeping James at bay for twenty laps.

The viewing terrace outside the paddock building is slightly raised, and affords an excellent view of the circuit; we crowd the railings as Group 1 streams out of the pits. Everybody behaves themselves in Turn 1 but from then on there's no quarter given; we're wincing as the field barrels three-abreast into the narrow braking zone for the hairpin. Incredibly, they're through with minimal contact; after that they begin to spread out and a trend for the day is set: the first heat is fairly processional while the second, with the slowest drivers at the front and the fastest at the back, is highly entertaining.

By midway through the second heat I'm away from the action, adjusting my kit and putting my brain in gear - when I hear my name called in reception. The race director tells me that kart 3 - my kart for the race - has been replaced after a couple of complaints. I'll now be driving kart 10. It's a stroke of luck - though as Sean Brierley points out, I'll be going out on cold tyres.

Showtime. As we wait for the off I hear a shout from behind. James gives me the thumbs up. As I reciprocate, my resolve hardens. James is a nice chap and an excellent driver. And I'm damned if I'm going to give him an inch. I focus on the two in front - a Sutton regular and BRKC debutante Scott Winter - and picture myself sweeping past them.

The marshal waves, and we're off, sweeping around the hairpin and accelerating down to turn 1. The rubber is indeed a touch cool; I slide a little wide on the exit and feel James nudge me. The rest of the lap is neat and tidy though, and the hot weather warms the tyres quickly. I focus on reeling in the second placed driver. But the circuit is devilishly difficult to pass on, and I can't find a way by. All the while I'm aware of James, close behind, ready to jump on the slightest mistake. It's a processional race, but a stern challenge: grip and momentum are at a premium and it's vital not to slide the kart at all.

I take the flag a satisfied third; back in the pits there's no time for rest. We stay in our karts as the marshals rearrange us into reverse finishing order for the second race. In moments we're off again, the field bunching into the first corner as nervy drivers jump too hard on the brakes. Now I'm chasing James, who puts a neat move on the fifth-placed driver, forcing him wide into the turn 3 sweep. Right on James' tail, I follow him through. It's going well, and I'm enjoying myself.

But a lap later, disaster strikes. I'm looking for a way past James, who defends the inside line into the hairpin. I take the normal line, hoping to get a better exit - when the kart behind me locks up and cannons straight into James' rear bumper. He's spun right around, into my path, and I'm forced onto the grass beyond the hairpin. The field streams by as I clatter back onto the track, and all the good work of the early laps is undone. I'm last but one, half a lap ahead of poor James.

Focus. It would be so easy to overcompensate now; I force myself to keep doing what I've been doing: push as hard as I dare, keep the rear of the kart in check, and concentrate on picking off the drivers in front. The laps fly by, but it's working: I'm up to third, hassling the driver in second as we flash through the double-apex final corner for the last time. Fifty metres ahead, the chequered flag is waving; my exit is better and I'm alongside as we cross the line - but it's not enough. I'm third, by half a kart-length.

Back in the pits I glug a litre of water and cool myself under the air conditioner in the changing area. The races are short but intense, and the weather is ridiculous: it's the hottest day ever recorded in the UK in October. I'm not knocking it though. As I commiserate with James and swap experiences with the others, a warm sense of satisfaction descends. I've done well - it's easily my best showing in a BRKC race - and have a chance of making the final. It's going to be tight - only the top ten of 45 go through - and will depend on the results of upcoming races.

I join Brad, Becca, Jo, little Eva and the others on the pitwall to watch the next race. We're looking forward to it, as five BRKC drivers - Anwar, Sean, Alex, Lee and Jack - will go head to head. At the front, the first race is processional as we've come to expect - a blue-suited Sutton local leads Anwar and Sean, who hold station throughout. Behind them, Alex, Lee and Jack duke it out for best of the rest. There's nothing between them, and they cross the line millimetres apart - with Lee in front.

In minutes they're underway again, in reverse order, and the three-way battle is resumed. We're alternately cheering and wincing as they attack and parry on the tight circuit; they're all driving superbly and nobody can gain an advantage. We're all so focused on the entertainment provided by my three former teammates that we nearly miss the trouble brewing behind. Anwar and the blue-suited local have clashed a couple of times as they struggle through from the back; fists are being shaken.

Alex wins by the skin of his teeth; Lee is second after pulling a stunning move on Jack in the last corner. I'm turning away, talking to one of the others, when I hear shouts from further down the pitwall. People are pointing, wide-eyed: out on the circuit, Blue-Suit has shunted Anwar onto the grass - after the chequered flag.

Back in the pitlane, Blue-Suit is raging at the marshals, the drivers, the spectators... several others get involved and the marshals narrowly avert a full-on fistfight. Anwar, to his credit, refuses to be drawn in. It blows over quickly but leaves a bad taste - the behaviour on and off track was unsporting, dangerous and utterly contrary to the spirit of the BRKC. I'm disappointed not to see the driver in question escorted off the premises.

We regroup and watch the final race, in which Ben Greene acquits himself well at his first BRKC meeting with a second and a fourth place. He's borrowed my seat insert to test, pronounces it excellent, and is considering a purchase of his own. I expect to be on Tillet's Christmas card list.

Back in reception they're tallying the scores... and I've narrowly missed the final. By my calculation I had done enough, but it turns out that instead of the top ten overall making the cut, as I had thought, it's the top two from each group. The top scoring BRKC regulars - Alex, Lee, Ben, Harry Wicks and myself - have all scored 16 points. They're using fastest laptimes to classify drivers that have tied, and mine is good enough for ninth or tenth overall.

But only Alex, Lee and Ben go through, because Harry and I finished third in our groups. It's a flawed system in my opinion, as it could promote lower scoring drivers in a weak group over high-scoring drivers in a strong group. But that's the way it is. I get changed and watch the final, and try to shake off the disappointment.

By recent standards it's a calm race; after a 1 lap qualy shootout, Alex drives brilliantly to third place, behind a pair of locals. We cheer the podium, dash out of the way to avoid the champagne waterfall, and say our farewells. The BRKC will reunite in just 14 weeks time at Daytona Manchester, for Round 1 of the 2012 championship. Sadly I can't be there, as I'll be sunning myself on a beach in South Africa - but I'll be present and correct for Round 2.

For today, for me, there's much to celebrate. Despite missing the final I've been at the top of my game and the weight equalisation has definitely favoured me. At 77kg I'm not excessively heavy, but the discrepancy to the lightweights makes for a bigger laptime penalty than I realised. For the first time in a BRKC race I've shown what I can do. In 2012 the 70kg minimum will even up the field, and I look forward to that.

It's a long slog back down to Southampton, into the setting sun, and I've plenty of time to turn my thoughts to the next challenge. Two years on from our 2009 win in the 24 Hours, here's hoping for a triumphant return to Daytona...

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