Friday, 8 June 2012

BRKC round 6. Birmingham, 3 June 2012

At 22.41 on Saturday 2 June, I posted this on Facebook:
Getting ready for the British Rental Kart Championship finale in Birmingham tomorrow. Sleep won't come easy tonight...

By 2.30am, I'm beginning to wish I'd kept my prophecy to myself. I've tried everything short of a pint of hard liquor, counted a whole field full of sheep. Nothing is working. The alarm is set for 5.40am.

Somehow, by 9.30am I'm in Birmingham, existing on sugar, caffeine and three hours of semi-slumber. And a lingering spike of adrenalin from a frightening moment on a flooded M40. Brad and Becca are already present and correct in the clubhouse, the end of season trophy table trembling under the weight of silverware. The championship trophies in particular are beautiful - cone-shaped wafers of silver that wouldn't disgrace a Formula One podium.

On its travels the BRKC goes to some scenic venues. Birmingham Wheels is not one of them. Buried deep in an industrial estate bordered by wasteland and a railway line, skyscrapers lining the horizon, it's a place to darken the sunniest of days. On this rain-lashed Sunday morning it's testing my love of the race to the limit.

Over the past three rounds, fellow racers Daryl and Lee have, between them, been looking after the bulkier bits of my race gear - enabling me to fly up for Round 5 at Teesside. They've both been a huge help to me and I'm very grateful. At 10am Daryl arrives, bang on time, and I'm reunited with my helmet, seat, and - crucially - wetsuit.

The car park is filling rapidly, and engines are finally clattering into life for the first of two pre-race test sessions; I'm in the second one; having kitted up I watch for a few minutes, trying to stay dry under the canopy in front of the clubhouse. Needless to say, it looks very slippery, and as Brad observed earlier, the karts sound overgeared - some of the clutches not fully engaging until the end of the back straight. The laptimes are hovering around the 1 minute 3 second mark, around 15 seconds slower than dry pace.

Finally it's my turn - 15 minutes later than billed - and I busy myself getting comfortable in the kart. Birmingham's fleet of Sodikarts are fitted with adjustable seats and pedals. It's a double-edged sword: sitting with my knees below my chin is a welcome change. But both seat and pedal assembly move under load, making it difficult to be precise. Heeding some good advice from Brad, I push my seat as far back as it will go to put as much weight as possible over the rear wheels.

Out on track I'm quickly up to speed. The conditions are tricky but driveable, the circuit quite interesting with its twisty infield, fast chicane and wide-open hairpin - but the kart is pooping the party. It accelerates with all the vigour of a hairdryer towing a 747; the pedals feel mushy and indistinct underfoot. The steering wheel is set at an angle that would make a truck driver feel at home. Did I mention that I don't like it?

After 20 minutes I set a time in the low 63 second bracket, which looks reasonable against the competition. We crowd into the clubhouse to be issued with our driver numbers for the day. There are 45 of us in all; no less than five drivers have a shot at championship glory today.

After a short briefing, we're sent out in groups for a ten minute free practice session. This time I set a low 62 in a kart which, ominously, feels completely different to the first. Once all three groups have finished, I'm astonished to see my name in third position overall. There are lots of variables at play today, but the pace isn't bad and I'm keeping it on the black stuff.

After his brilliant win at Teesside, Sean Brierley is one of the championship contenders, and looks a little green at the prospect of starting the very first heat from pole position.
"This is going to make or break my day..."

Ten minutes later he's much relieved, having easily held off Dan Truman and Harry Wicks. As heat 2 - of 18 - gets underway, I'm shutting out the world and checking that my clear visor is properly fitted.

I'm third on the grid for heat 3, behind Nick Powell and Chris Brookshaw; as I prod the throttle on the way to the grid, I get the sense that this kart is even more reluctant than the previous two. As the lights go green I'm hard on the throttle and going nowhere, losing a place into turn one. I gain it back as someone goes wide at turn two, and - to my surprise - am still third at the end of the first lap.

But I'm struggling for pace and gradually fall prey first to Nick, who lost ground at the start and had to work his way up, and Matthew Hamilton, who started at the back. I drag the kart home fifth and discover later that I set a best time of 62.5 - better than it felt.

I'm soaked to the skin, my old wetsuit providing little protection from the driving rain and standing water; off track it's a battle to get warm. I'm next on in heat 8; in between, some of the usual suspects are making their presence felt on the leaderboard. Lee Hackett cruises to an easy win in his first heat, from fourth on the grid; Rhianna Purcocks works her way up from seventh to second. Sean follows his first heat win with an excellent second - also from seventh on the grid - in heat 5.

As we roll out for Heat 8 the rain buckets down harder than ever and I feel for Becca, who has now been standing in the waterlogged pitlane with only an umbrella for cover, for over an hour.

I wouldn't have thought it possible to be any tardier away from the line without going backwards, but this kart is, incredibly, much slower than the last one. As I trundle out of the chicane with pedal to metal I'm jumping up and down in the seat to try and coax some speed out of it, hitting the steering wheel in disgust. I'd be better off on foot.

Conditions have worsened and the track is slicker than ever; despite my frustration I keep my head while others lose theirs, stay on track and manage to cross the line fifth. It's a good drive under the circumstances but I take no pleasure from it. The overall pace had slowed by a second, but I set a best time of 65.5 - a full three and a half seconds slower than my practice time.

With a longer lull until my final heat I grab my packed lunch from the car and try to stem the shivering with copious amounts of machine tea. With feeling restored and spirits lifting I check in with heavyweight regulars Alex and Anwar. Alex is having a reasonable day and looks to be heading for another heavyweight podium, while Anwar is virtually guaranteed the heavyweight title; typically, he's making mincemeat of much lighter drivers on track and heads the heavyweight leaderboard with half the heats completed.

Alex joins me for my final heat. He lines up second on the grid. I'm third, and seem to have drawn a slightly less comatose kart than last time. As we wait for the lights I spot the kart to my left rolling forward; it looks like a jumped start to me and as the lights blink green, he comes straight across the track and shoves me onto the grass before turn 1. My best start of the day is ruined and after the litany of frustration of the past few hours I'm flooded with icy fury.

Alex and James Kimbley have found their way through in the confusion; with a better kart to work with I pick James off and focus on reeling in Alex. The driver that hit me at the start has dropped behind, but he's very quick; he's soon past both of us and pulling away. I dispatch Alex at the exit of the hairpin a couple of laps later and am showered in oily water as he has to take to the puddle on the left to avoid hitting me. Mine was an aggressive move, but I'm not in the mood to be courteous. I take the flag third - again, not bad all things considered.

But a mixture of cold, wet, frustration and sleep deprivation has finally pushed me over the edge. I find the driver that put me on the grass and give him several pieces of my mind. He tries to explain himself, but I'm not interested; I squelch inside to wring out my gloves.

Bravely, he comes and finds me a few minutes later. It's Nick Powell, whom I've met before; I hadn't recognised him with his helmet on. He explains that he hadn't meant to push me off, that he'd driven into a narrowing gap and had another kart to his left. He apologises for his mistake; I apologise for shouting at him, and we shake on it. I'm left angry at myself for losing my cool and resolve not to let it happen again.

As the heats grind to a close I want nothing more than to get the final over with, put dry clothes on and go home. There are four finals, each of 12 laps. I've scraped into the B final, last but one on the grid; as we sit waiting to go I'm shivering so hard that I can barely hold the wheel.

But discomfort is forgotten in an instant as I sense a dribble of power beneath the right pedal. My start is good, but there's nowhere to go; I bring up the rear at the end of lap 1 but am not concerned: there are 11 to go - and at last, I'm in a kart as quick as those I drove in practice. The tangle of drivers ahead looks like an accident waiting to happen; I gain a place out of the chicane and get alongside the 10th placed driver under braking for the hairpin. Simultaneously, a number of others slide wide and I take the tight line on the exit.

Once it all shakes out I'm seventh, trying in vain to stay in touch with the flying Chris Brookshaw, and bearing down on Chris Anderson. As one Chris disappears into the spray I overtake the other; with nine laps gone the leaders are exiting the hairpin as I approach it; tantalisingly close, but there are no more opportunities.

I take the flag sixth, having been twelfth at the end of the first lap, and set my fastest lap of the day on the final tour - 62.031. It's easily my best race of the day, and will put me 17th overall; my spirits lift a little. They lift further at the prospect of dry underwear; as the A final gets underway I'm hidden away in the empty signing-on hut, dry and warm for the first time in six hours.

By all accounts the final is a processional affair at the front, with an easy win for local hero (and BRKC newbie) Danny Henney ahead of Michael Weddell and Matthew Hamilton. I'm not surprised to see two of the Scots contingent on the podium - this sort of weather must be a walk in the park for them.

There's a short delay while Brad works out the final championship positions; after the flurry of race podiums, Lee Hackett is crowned champion ahead of Sean Brierley and Michael Weddell. It's a popular and well deserved victory; despite a small weight penalty Lee has more than held his own against some outstanding competition, only once finishing outside the top seven and logging two podiums including a dominant win at Hereford. Sean and Michael have also logged a win and a podium each, and shown the consistency needed to fight at the sharp end of this championship.

Anwar wins the heavyweight title ahead of the absent Lee Jones (he's on holiday in Turkey) and Alex Vangeen. Quality drivers all: having partnered Alex and Lee at the British 24 Hours I know exactly what it takes to beat them.

I say my goodbyes and escape with a mix of relief and frustration. My result was lifted from poor to mediocre by a good final, but I haven't enjoyed today. The multiple heat format partially disguised the huge disparity between some of the karts, but even the best of them were downright unpleasant to drive. The circuit staff are a genial lot and seemed better organised today than they were on our first visit in 2011. But they haven't made enough of an effort to keep it fair for everybody. Needless to say I'm not impressed.

I've been doing this a long time and know the rental karting mantra well, but a two or more second disparity over a 60 second lap is not good enough. Where the BRKC goes, I go (assuming I'm on the same continent), but it will test my loyalty to the limit if we return to Birmingham in 2013.

And so ends BRKC 2012. 2011's strong start has been well and truly eclipsed, with over 100 drivers entered and grids of 50 or more at most of the rounds. I'm sad to have missed Manchester and Matchams, but it's been a pleasure to meet and write about so many new people. We'll reunite for the O-plate at Whilton Mill in October and I look forward to that. Bradley makes it all look easy, but I'm well aware of the huge amount of work he and Becca put in behind the scenes to make the BRKC happen. The best championship I've ever competed in got better still in 2012, and long may it continue.

As our champion prepares for the Indoor World Karting Championships in Germany, and our runner-up gets his head around the idea of heading to California for the Sport Kart Grand Nationals, I'm turning my attention to the Elite Karting League. This is a new team championship run by Teesside Karting, who take their excellent fleet of prokarts to every round.

I'll be joining the Southampton Scorpions - and many other BRKC regulars - for round 3 of the EKL at Clay Pigeon in July. New circuit, new format, weight equalised... but the karts are old friends. Can't wait.

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