Monday, 31 October 2011

Daytona 24 Hours. 15-16 October 2011

Part Two
(scroll down for part one)

12.50am, Sunday. Under the team gazebo, Ben is a bundle of energy as always: stowing gear, ingesting calories, talking ten to the dozen. I'm contemplating dragging myself away from the action to get some sleep, and Jack hunches in a chair looking like death warmed up - barely ten minutes before he's due on track. I tease him about this on camera, knowing full well that he'll snap into action when the time comes.

I've not written much about our esteemed captain so far, partly because the timing of our stints means I tend to be resting when he's driving, and vice versa. But he's been quietly getting on with the job of leading this team and extracting every last ounce of performance from the kart on track. His all-white overalls and helmet closely resemble the Stig's, and the comparison is apt. I know few faster, none more consistent.

In the clubhouse, the upstairs lounge is strewn with bodies - on coveted couches, on the floor, slumped over tables. It looks like the aftermath of a free cocktail party. I've been tasked with waking up Jon and sending him down to the pitlane, and strike gold: he's asleep on a couch. I shake him awake, send him on his way, and take his place.


4.30am. An insistent beeping jars me awake from a dream-laden half-sleep. I've had two-and-a-half hours. It's not enough, but it will do. My body reports only minor damage from the 160 or so laps I've driven thus far. It's complaining louder about the time of day - early mornings and I get along like oil and water - but is soon silenced by the pull of the race.

Outside, the temperature is nudging freezing, the noise relentless: the hoarse roar of the prokarts underpinning the falsetto buzz of the DMaxes. Shivering, I sip coffee and stare at the timing screen. A full minute passes before I dare to believe the evidence of my own eyes.

We're fourth. And remarkably, one of the prokart teams is still in front of us, which means that if the race finished right now, we'd be on the podium. Ben is on track and lapping very quickly; Jon, who has just finished, reports that our third maintenance stop coincided with the end of his stint. Which means that we've saved a pitstop, around three minutes. It all seems to be falling into place, but I try not to think about it and focus on readying myself for my stint in just over an hour's time. We have a secret weapon, too: Ben is miked up, as usual, and his friend Paul Lycett is keeping him informed over the radio in between stints for his prokart team.

Jon leaves to get some more rest – he’ll take the wheel for a fourth time to bring the kart home in six hours’ time – and I’m alone on the pitwall. We try never to leave a driver on track unattended, but without the help of non-driving teammates – as we had at Teesside – it’s unavoidable. I risk leaving the pitwall twice. Once to hang my kit up in the changing rooms in an attempt to defrost it, and once to get changed. Ben continues to lap consistently fast; I know he must be suffering with his injured ribs, but there’s no sign of it.

At 6am, I wave our white pitboard and send up a silent prayer. The timing of pitstops is something of a lottery: with one fuel bay for 23 karts, queueing and losing time is a real risk. Because of the circuit layout, drivers have to complete another lap once called – in the space of seventy seconds, an empty pitlane can easily become a full one.

This time, my roll of the dice has been a little unlucky – another kart pits thirty seconds before Ben, and we’re delayed by a minute or so as we have to queue. It’s the luck of the draw; by the time I’ve given Ben an encouraging (and non-agonising, I hope) clap on the shoulder, jumped in and accelerated out of the pits, I’ve got plenty else to think about.

In the six hours since I last took the wheel, the grip has deteriorated further – a slippery combination of near-freezing tarmac and tyres closing on their nine hundredth lap. They take a full three laps to warm, and the other karts are notably more conservative than they were earlier on – even the foolhardy have realised that venturing offline for a do-or-die lunge is highly likely to end badly.

Still, there’s always one. I find myself behind a Dmax kart so erratically driven that I’m wary of being run off the road when I try to pass. He’s two seconds a lap slower, clearly not on the same part of the leaderboard, but instead of letting me by and getting on with his race, he’s intent on keeping me behind – compromising both of us. After two laps I’m impatient, pressing hard for a gap as he gets ever more obstructive. Finally, as he sticks obstinately to the inside down the hill, I take a deep breath and overtake him around the outside in the fast kink before turn 8. I’m off the racing line at sixty miles an hour with no room for error and lots of solid things to hit if it all goes wrong. The kart skitters but holds, Numbskull manages not to do anything foolish and I’m through, braking for turn eight and wondering, fleetingly, if I’m getting too old for this shit.

A minute later I’m reminded that at 37 I’m a spring chicken, when I catch – with difficulty – and pass Kam Ho, captain of the RDI Pro 1 team. It was Kam and his team who chased us all the way to the flag in 2009; this year, they’re utterly dominating the prokart class. He’s got two decades and change on me, yet is putting half the Dmax field to shame out here at six-thirty on a Sunday morning. I lift a hand in salute and hope I’ll be that committed – and quick - at sixty.

Numbskull aside, I'm enjoying myself; although I sense the overall pace is slower, I’m working my way through the traffic more easily than in my first stint. There’s not a moment’s respite, though, and now more than ever vigilance is key. As the first grey wash of dawn lightens the eastern sky the track, incredibly, worsens further; I lock up and overshoot turn 4 while passing a prokart, a manoeuvre I’ve completed a dozen times today. Morning dew is settling on the track, making the tarmac offline more treacherous than ever.

Nevertheless, it’s going well. Right up until the point when it’s not. Fifty laps in, I exit turn 8 with the throttle floored as usual, but the kart runs into an invisible brick wall at half speed. Throttle or engine, I can’t tell – but the whole field is streaming by. With heart plummeting I do another lap, jumping on and off the throttle, hoping it will fix itself. But it’s no use. I peel into the pits, vacate the kart and try to ignore the timing screen as the mechanics go to work.

Chris is there, and I’m glad to see him – for most of my stint our gazebo has been ominously empty and I’d been worrying that he’d overslept. He should really have been on watch since the beginning of my stint, but it’s his first 24 hour race and we perhaps haven’t been clear enough about the procedure. He thinks I’m in for a scheduled maintenance stop and his face falls when I fill him in.

It takes seventeen minutes for the crew to fix the kart – so long that I briefly consider abandoning the rest of my stint and sending Chris out. But he looks wan with exhaustion and is suffering with pain in his hands and forearms. His stint needs to be shortened, not lengthened.

With the kart’s health restored, I return to the track as the sun begins to rise. The combination of dew and stone-cold tyres makes for an eventful out-lap; I’ve never encountered such little grip on an allegedly dry track. My final fifteen or so tours pass without incident; Chris calls me in and my driving duties come to an end. As always, there will be plenty to analyse and learn from the experience, but for now there’s little to do but support the others as they try to limit the damage.

As Chris leaves the pits we’re in twelfth place. The podium dream is all but gone; with four hours to go, nothing short of a miracle – and extreme bad luck for several other teams – will do. Jack arrives a little late to relieve me, having had trouble with his car’s central locking. I silence his apologies with the bad news; he is, predictably, gutted.

By now my every fibre is crying out for sustenance; I leave the race behind, buy an enormous Full English from the ever-friendly staff in the clubhouse and dully watch the last ten laps of the Korean Grand Prix. Yet another Vettel win fails to lift my spirits, but the food is excellent and the calories do the job.

I'm back on the pitwall for the start of Jack's stint. There's a delay at the fuel bay - queueing or a technical issue, I'm not sure which - but Jack is finally on his way in the morning sunshine. The temperature is rising fast, the dew drying, and the laptimes begin to drop.

Ben, Jo and Eva are back, and I'm glad of their support; we're eleventh and the best we can hope for is a top ten finish now. Jack is giving it everything he has and our spirits lift as we watch him reeling in the tenth-placed team. It's not much to aim for, but it's all we've got. In his Stig outfit he's very distinctive; after filming a rather downbeat video diary I wander around to the outside of turn 9 and watch him holding the kart on the ragged edge through the fast left-hander.

At 10.30am, Jack hands the kart over to Jon after a fine, and totally incident-free, stint. It's our fastest pitstop of the race, and as Jon heads onto the track we're ninth.

But, just as Marianne, Jonathan and Beth arrive to cheer us to the end, the race is red flagged; disbelievingly, we watch Jon's white-helmeted figure trudging back to the pits as the kart is brought in on the back of the recovery vehicle. Jon is furious; when he calms down we learn that it's the throttle again. This time it stuck open at the top of the hill into turn 7 and sent him into the tyres; subsequently the kart refused to start.

It's twelve minutes before he's underway again and we've slipped out of the top ten. But barely five laps later, disaster turns to farce when he grinds to a halt again - this time on the run up to the final turn - and is stationary for six minutes. We'd seen him clout the kerb exiting the hairpin; allegedly this stalled the kart and he'd flooded the engine in his haste to get it restarted. I say allegedly, because it's all a bit of a blur now, and increasingly irrelevant. Our race has, officially, gone down the toilet.

Amazingly, the last 35 laps pass without further incident; undaunted by the setbacks, Jon strings together some very fast laps and drags us back to tenth by the flag. We cheer him across the line, swap our commiserations, clap the winners onto the podium and disperse to lick our wounds.

It wasn't the result we wanted or deserved, and as the fatigue eased I know I'm not alone in feeling deeply frustrated that we weren't able to show our class. But there are always positives, and being part of such a talented, determined, hardworking team was definitely one of them. We all did absolutely everything we could, and I think we can take pride in knowing that our best is pretty damn good.

The support, too, went a long way towards easing the pain. Marianne, Jonathan, Beth, Ben, Jo, Eva, Alex and Lauren all took turns to cheer us on, and we really appreciated it.

Fate is fickle and 2011 wasn't our year at Daytona. But we've notched it up to experience. Bring on 2012.

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