Sunday, 19 February 2012

BRKC Round 2. PF International, 12 February 2012

“That,” says Becca, “was worth the trip all on its own. They should give points for style.”

Twenty feet away, BRKC regular Mike Kettlewell is embedded in a snowdrift, having completed an elegant 270 degree spin in front of the pitlane. He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last. The final corner, it seems, is a mite tricky. That’s a mite tricky by today’s standards, which on any other day would be ‘nigh on undriveable’. It’s entertaining to watch, but I’m holding the laughter in check. I’m on in ten minutes, and the joke may well be on me.

The BRKC has started a month late for me, but so far it looks like business as usual. The 2011 regulars are virtually all present and correct, and the support team – organiser Bradley Philpot and his tireless mother Debbie, girlfriend Becca and grandparents – are bright and cheery as always. I haven’t seen them since the O-plate last October, and it’s great to catch up. Following the success of the inaugural championship last year our numbers have swelled, and today’s event is a sell-out. Fifty-nine drivers and one no-show.

PF International makes an imposing first impression, with its huge car park, full-size pit garages and two-storey reception area. Race director Adrian and his crew have welcomed us warmly and seem to know their stuff, and I can tell from the nifty speed trap readout on the start-finish gantry that the prokarts are quick. Even in these conditions drivers are cutting the beam at 50mph.

On my way north this morning I spotted my first snow just outside Winchester; here, in rural Lincolnshire, it’s several inches deep. We’re coming off a spell of bitterly cold weather; two nights ago at Holbeach, thirty miles away to the east, the temperature bottomed out at minus fifteen.

Today it's forecast to hit a balmy three degrees, but as we're waved out of the covered pitlane - dummy grid, as it's called here - I'm not feeling it. The cold bites through my gloves in seconds and the scene is particularly wintry. Under a leaden sky, the snow lies right up to every kerb. Over its 1200 metres the circuit ranges from bone dry to flooded to scattered with snow, dragged across the track in places where drivers have visited the scenery.

The layout is pancake-flat but features an interesting mix of corners including a tricky fast chicane on the infield and a long, deceptively fast left-hander, which leads into the aforementioned last corner. This is an apparently straightforward 90 degree right hander, but the previous corner throws you off line. And today, it's dry on the entry and wet on the exit. When (not if) you run wide, there's a nice big snowdrift to slow you down...

In twenty minutes of practice I manage - just - to keep it out of the scenery. I do visit the sawtoothed kerbs several times, and learn to avoid them at all costs. It's hugely challenging, but fun: the twin-engined kart feels punchy and goes more or less where I point it.

The races are in three parts: a single lap qualifying run leading immediately into an eight lap pre-final, the results of which determine which of the four finals we'll compete in. As usual in the BRKC, the winner of each final progresses to the next final up.

We're split into four groups of fifteen for the prefinals; I'm in group four, which gives me plenty of time to take in just how difficult the conditions are under the added pressure of competition. Snow is beginning to melt onto the track, making every corner of every lap a new adventure. People are spinning on their qualifying out-laps. These, remember, are some of the best karters in the country.

Some of last year's regulars are doing sterling work, though. I'm pleased to see my British 24 Hours team captain Alex Vangeen on pole for his heat, and Sean Brierley puts in a storming run to fourth or fifth after being shunted off early in his. 2011 champion Chris Hackworth sails through to win his heat from seventh on the grid, and Lee Jones - another 24 Hours teammate - looks as rock-solid as ever. Lewis Tindall is a new face in the BRKC and has also joined our team for Teesside. He looks mighty quick and is among the frontrunners in the heavyweight class, which bodes well for the big race later on in the year.

There are other standout performances, but with so many new drivers this year I've not yet put names to faces and helmets. In the grandstands behind me, commentator Colin Theobald is booming out over the PA system, lending the whole event a great sense of occasion. This is the real deal, and it's fantastic to be part of it.

My turn. As I find my kart and settle in, the butterflies disappear and calm descends. While watching the others I noticed several drivers tripping over each other in qualifying: we're all sent out together and with just one lap to get it right, it's important to have clear space in front of you. I hang back as much as possible on the out-lap, and start my quick lap with perhaps fifty metres of space to the next driver. As I flash under the gantry, the speed trap reads 50mph. Good.

But I've misjudged. By midway through the lap I've caught the driver in front, who nearly loses it in the fast chicane, forcing me to brake. I lose two seconds, and line up a disgruntled 11th on the grid, out of 15.

Still. It's a long lap, and today of all days, people are bound to fall off. I make a good start, as usual, and am two up on my grid position by the second hairpin, where snowmelt has created a huge puddle and only one, tippy-toe line. We're three abreast on the exit, somehow funnelling into a train for the fast chicane; the front driver goes in too fast and sails straight on, half-disappearing in a spray of snow. It's a common sight today.

By the end of eight laps I've survived several lairy moments, pulled a couple of neat moves and benefited from several others' misfortune. I cross the line sixth, which should put me in the second-string B final. It's not a bad recovery, and I'm satisfied as we congregate in the cafe and warm ourselves with tea and surprisingly palatable cheeseburgers.

Fuelled up and with sensation restored to our fingertips, we troop back to the grandstand to watch the first of the finals - just as the rain begins to fall. There are groans all round, but I've a sneaking suspicion that although the laptimes will be slower, rain might actually even out the grip around the circuit and make it easier.

On the evidence of the first two finals, I'm wrong. People are going off left, right and centre, just as they have been all day. But as I accelerate out of the pits and push as hard as I can on the outlap, trying to get a sense of the circuit and the kart, I'm quietly confident. That's partly down to experience, of course, but although it's very slippery, it's consistently slippery: I can predict what the kart's going to do at each corner, instead of just reacting when I get there.

I'm 14th on the grid. Alex is on pole after his storming run in his heat, and Sean is somewhere in front of me as well. I'm fast away from the lights, and make up a place into the first hairpin. But at the second, I'm clouted hard from behind, into the deep puddle, and drop to the back again. There's plenty of time, though: I force myself to stay calm, keep it on the road, and start picking them off. The kart feels good in the wet, tyres and tarmac generating just enough friction to give me the feel I need. And it's far less of a Magical Mystery Tour than it was earlier.

From a low of 16th I'm up to around 8th place when to my astonishment I spot Alex's new red-and-blue helmet up ahead. Clearly he's had an eventful race; I'm focusing on reeling him in when my own race turns eventful for all the wrong reasons. The kart lurches as if the brakes have been slammed on, and suddenly I'm stuttering along at 10mph with the field streaming by. One of the engines has stalled.

Back in the pits, a mechanic pronounces the kart dead: the HT lead on the right engine is waterlogged. My engine failure is the first of several, the wet conditions clearly getting to the electrics. All my efforts have been in vain, and I'm suddenly very aware of being wet, cold, tired and 200 miles from home.

As usual, life looks better with dry socks on, and a cup of hot chocolate in my hand. Despite minimal track time over the winter I've driven quite well against the toughest of competition in the toughest of conditions. There was nothing more I could have done. I stay for the presentation, which features a mix of familiar faces and new. A fresh feature this year is the press conference, which is filmed for the BRKC's Youtube channel. I can confidently say that all three podium finishers - Aaron McManus, Lee Hackett and Anwar Beroual-Smith - acquitted themselves better at their first attempt than a certain Finnish driver has in over a decade of Formula One.

Suddenly it's 4.30pm and time to say our goodbyes; we will, as usual, be in constant contact via the BRKC Facebook page until we next meet. As I start the long drive south, the result pales into irrelevance. It's been a fun day, well worth the effort. And when you spend as much time with imaginary people as I do, the value of getting away for a while and turning on another part of your brain is incalculable.

Sadly I won't be at Matchams, in Dorset, for round 3 - but I'll be missing it for a very good reason. After a year of slumber it's nearly time to revive The Mountain Odyssey: we head out to Whistler on 8 March.

But I'll be present and correct for round 4 at Hereford - affectionately known as 'the circuit you'd build in your back garden'. Can't wait.

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