Tuesday, 15 May 2012

BRKC round 5. Teesside, 12-13 May 2012 (Part one)

"Flybe regret to announce a delay to the departure of flight 176 to Southampton..."

It's 8pm on Sunday evening at England's highest airport. The wind is moaning through the roof girders, flapping exposed wires in the half-finished terminal extension. Beyond the windows, a Ryanair 737 bucks and yaws as its pilots try and wrestle it onto the runway in a thirty mile-an-hour crosswind.

There are perhaps fifty passengers left in the terminal, and we're feeling more abandoned by the second. Around us, shutters are being pulled across restaurant fronts, lights powering down, staff evaporating. There's nothing left to eat except Pringles. The departure board says our plane will be here in an hour and a half. But we're not optimistic. Idly, I calculate how long it would take to walk the 250 or so miles home.

Four days, I reckon. Might be quicker than waiting...

Wind back 31 hours, and I'm feeling pretty smug about my decision to fly north for BRKC round 5. Middlesbrough is a seven-hour drive from Southampton on a good day; instead, I've spent a relaxed hour in a departure lounge overlooking the airfield at Southampton, followed by fifty minutes on a plane and an hour and a quarter's drive. Even factoring in a rental car mixup, it's taken me four hours, door-to-door - and I've arrived at my Premier Inn in time for qualifying at the Spanish Grand Prix. Result.

There's nothing like the tingle of arriving at a race track, and nowhere gets the nerves jangling more than Teesside. It's the longest, fastest kart circuit on the planet; although we'll be using a shorter configuration this weekend, its high-speed sweepers thrill like nowhere else.

The place is buzzing, literally - the air filled with the tinny scream of two-stroke engines. As I head for the pitlane, they're drowned out by a V8 thrum. An Audi R8 rumbles into the car park and glides into a spot beside a Lamborghini Gallardo. I search for familiar faces and wonder vaguely at the supercar count.

In the pitlane, Lee Jones is just getting into a fearsome-looking kart with steering-wheel paddles and front brakes, while Sean Brierley - also suited up - looks on. BRKC founder Bradley and his (long-suffering) other half Becca fill me in: they're taking turns to test BRKC driver Martin Stone's 125cc gearbox kart. On track, karts are turning into the fast right hander - the first corner on the shorter circuit - at huge speed; in my fascination I completely miss the main attraction behind me.

A slicked-back photographer squats in front of a scarlet Ferrari over which a tall brunette is draped. I try not to stare - the poor girl looks embarrassed enough as it is - but I get the impression that there's a pretty lass somewhere beneath the makeup, fake eyelashes and unflattering painted-on pantsuit.

Becca hits it on the head, as usual. "There's a proud father out there somewhere..."

Lee has kindly stored some of my bulky gear in between races; I retrieve it as the circuit falls silent. In the briefing room, 28 drivers assemble for our Iron Man practice event: a 20 minute practice session followed by a 40 minute race. Circuit owner Bob Pope runs through a typically succinct Teesside briefing, and time suddenly speeds up: drivers are already out in the pitlane for practice, and I'm not ready. My plethora of padding takes time to fit, and I've frittered away priceless minutes gabbing.

"Are you racing?" Bob asks with a grin, as I realise that I've put my right elbow pad on my left knee. Everyone else is sitting in the karts, ready to go; I dial back the panic and tell him not to wait. It's a long session, and I can afford to miss a lap or two.

Two minutes later I'm in my kart, without my rib protector, and still with mismatched pads. And thirty seconds after that, my mind is emptied of all but the essentials: hang on tight and go very fast. It's nine months since we came tantalisingly close to a debut podium in the British 24 Hours, and it feels wonderful to be back. Even without its breathtaking back section this circuit is a wild ride.

In twenty or so laps I get back in the groove; the kart feels punchy enough and I'm overtaken only once: by Bradley Philpot, who sails by with his customary wave. As we line up and wait our turn to be called forward to the grid, I'm moderately confident. But the sinking feeling sets in quickly: I'm 19th, out of 28. There are some talented lightweights about, but I expected better.

Still, it's a long race. As the Union Jack flag drops I'm away well, the field remarkably clean through the fast chicane. Instead of carrying on past the pits we turn right, into a long, fast 180 degree sweeper which leads straight into the Esses with their notorious razor toothed kerbs.

Up ahead, Sean Brierley is locked in battle with one of the Scottish contingent (I think); a little ambitious into the hairpin, he has the door shut in his face and spins into my path. I jink right to avoid him and wonder if a repeat of Hereford is on the cards: crash on Saturday, podium on Sunday...

Either I've suddenly found some pace or the drivers who qualified ahead have lost theirs; after four laps I've made up several places and find myself in clear air, three seconds behind the familiar blue suit of Andrew Bayliss. Andrew's an occasional BRKC entrant - in the heavyweight class - and tends to be at the sharp end when he turns up. Over the next thirty laps I push hard, make no mistakes, but can do no more than maintain the gap. He's embroiled in a tight battle with a white suit - whose name escapes me - and I wait in vain for them to trip each other up.

I've learned not to look behind if I can avoid it, so I'm a little surprised to be nudged under braking for the infield hairpin. Over the next lap the nudging increases in violence, and peaks with a hard rap into the right-hander before the back straight. It's enough to push me wide; when I turn to glare (through my tinted visor) at the culprit, I'm shocked to see Rhianna Purcocks inching her way past. She waves a hand in apology and makes a remarkably expressive gesture which I take to mean that she was being nudged herself.

Sure enough, she's followed through by a dark-suited tailgater, and I realise that for many laps I've been at the head of a long train of karts. I tuck back in and give chase, but run out of time; I'm 14th at the flag, a little disappointed to lose places so late, but happy enough with my efforts.

We disperse to various hotels and reunite for dinner at a nearby restaurant. At eight o'clock on a Saturday night it is, predictably, heaving; there's no obvious space for a table of 20. Over the next hour, as grumbling stomachs begin to drown out the chatter, organiser David Hird starts to look a little hunted. He and Becca and I look daggers at the occupied table which we think is ours, and debate turfing them out. But half of them are children, and Hell hath no fury like a six-year old parted from a chocolate brownie sundae.

Finally we're seated, and I find myself next to Andrew Bayliss. It's my first real opportunity to talk to him, and I discover that a) karting is only the tip of his motorsport iceberg, and b) he's rather good at impressions. I'm under strict orders not to name names, but one particular Rory Bremner has me choking on my lasagne. Across from us is newcomer Adithyan Ellan, who looks to be enjoying himself, although he's a little wide-eyed at the level of competition on track. I don't blame him.

It's nearly 11pm when the lights dim and 'Happy birthday' rings out over the loudspeakers, and the staff present Becca with an ice cream sundae complete with candle. As the applause dies down, she pipes up.
"If you think this is going to make up for you going karting on my birthday..."

It's time for bed. I accept a kind offer of a lift home from Lee - and shortly afterwards, we remember that there are two Premier Inns called Stockton on Tees. Ah, well. Everyone ends up in the right beds eventually. It's an early start tomorrow but as ever, sleep comes fitfully. Playtime is over...

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