Thursday, 6 September 2012

British 24 Hours, Teesside. Part 1

(Click here for part 2)

Friday 24 August

It begins...

A 65mph breeze tugs at the shoulder vents of my race suit, flaps an exposed length of radio cable against my neck. At the back of my mind, the tiny voice of self-preservation is reminding me to breathe. Ahead, the circuit slopes slightly downhill and snakes into the Esses, where I must pick the straightest line between jutting razor-toothed kerbs. Any more than a kiss of tyre on concrete will launch the kart - and me - skywards. Right, left, right; tiny movements on the steering wheel, resisting the growing urge to lift off the throttle... watch for the final kerb, which juts out further than the others. Jinking right, the kart skittering but holding... straighten up for the left-hand hairpin. No more than a dab of brake to shed 20mph or so, then sweep left, aiming for a point just beyond the apex, letting the rear wheels slide just a little as the speed bleeds away. Then back on the power for the right hander that immediately follows, trying not to slide or lift as we kiss the kerb and rocket out onto the back straight.

The familiar voice of Alex Vangeen, team captain, crackles in my headset.
"How's it looking out there?"
The breeze is back, flapping at my sleeves as I turn into the banked right hander at the bottom of the circuit. The grin threatens to split my brand-new helmet as I press the Push To Talk button on the steering wheel.
"Damn, it's good to be back..."

It's 2pm on Friday, 22 hours before the start of the biggest race on the calendar, and there's nowhere I'd rather be. After a rather fraught build-up - which included a last-minute driver substitution - the Corporate Chauffeurs BRKC team is all present and correct. Lewis Tindall, who sadly had to drop out due to injury, is here in spirit: we've used his enormous 6 by 3 metre awning to make the Teesside paddock our home.

The other drivers - Alex Vangeen, Lee Jones and supersub Stuart McKay - are preparing for their practice runs in an hour's time, and the all-important support crew - my wife Marianne and Alex's fiancé Lauren - are busying themselves setting up the camping gas stove, food, table and chairs... and learning how to use the radio gear. Almost a full day before we turn a wheel in anger, and we're already operating as a unit. Individually and collectively, we've prepared for this weekend down to the last detail, and it shows.

I peel into the pits after 40 laps, reasonably satisfied. The weather has stayed dry - not ideal, with rain forecast for the rest of the weekend - but I'm confident on track, with good rhythm through the flowing sequences of high-speed corners. There's work to do before I'm fully comfortable in the kart, though: after the beating I took last year I've added an extra layer of foam to my rib protector. Together with my seat insert it makes for a very tight fit, which is pinching me in right handers. As Alex and Lee take to the track, Marianne gets out the scissors and helps me cut away some of the foam over my left hip.

Alex has hired specialised radio gear for the weekend, which is a huge improvement over the makeshift kit we used last year. The pitwall has a proper noise-cancelling headset, and although everyone has to speak clearly and loudly, we can all hear each other after a little practice. As we're to discover, the radios will play a huge part in the outcome of our weekend. Lewis has also lent us his pitboard, but after a couple of attempts we abandon it: our awning sits right in front of the fast chicane, and the drivers are too busy hanging on for dear life to look at it.

By 4pm we've wrapped for the day, and it's been an excellent start; spirits are high as we congregate in the Beefeater beside our Premier Inn for dinner. We're joined by perennial British 24 Hour racer - and sometime BRKC driver - Andrew Bayliss, who will be competing for one of the Club Hire teams this weekend. He is, as ever, excellent company; although the food has gone downhill since we ate here last year, a pleasant evening is had by all. We're a little concerned about Lauren, though. She's all smiles as usual, but is suffering from a suspected case of shingles and is in some discomfort. I hope she's better tomorrow.

We part at 9pm with plans to meet at the circuit before 8am. The race starts at midday, an hour earlier than last year, and the morning will be more rushed than usual. I expect sleep to come fitfully, but am tired after a long day, and last's year's pre-race butterflies simply aren't there. I'm hugely excited about tomorrow, but I'm not nervous.

We're ready. What will be, will be.

Saturday 25 August

Raceday dawns cloudy and damp, as expected. By 8am we're all at the circuit; tea and porridge oats are brewing on the stove. Our kart, number 24, sits with the others on the infield; I take my seat insert across to double-check that it fits. It does. The kart looks neat and tidy with its yellow flashes in the sidepods, brand-new tyres on all four corners. Both engines start easily, and I familiarise myself with the throttle levers and the holes for chain lubrication: I'll need to find them in a hurry in the dark during pitstops later on.

We assemble for the briefing at 8.30am as rain begins to fall; race director Bob Pope and his team run through the usual details plus a couple of rule clarifications - and at last, the butterflies start to flutter. Finally, after months of preparation, it's about to get real.

At 9am, the engines begin to clatter into life. We've elected to do minimal running in practice to save the kart as much as possible. Each of us plans to do a few laps to find our feet in the wet, and leave it at that. Lee starts us off - with his huge experience he's best placed to check that everything is working - after fifteen minutes or so, he pits and I take over. In ten laps I'm reminded of the considerable grip this circuit generates in the wet. Having rediscovered the wet line and found the groove I pit and hand over to Stuart. He proceeds to set our fastest lap of the session - a low 1.39 - but the sinking feeling has set in.

We're around three seconds shy of the lead pace: our kart clearly has a problem. It's masked by the wet weather, but we're short of straight line speed. Lee pits on three separate occasions during his second run - once to cure a sticking brake, twice to have the throttle cables adjusted. With both engines firing in sync, and the brakes working properly, the kart is better - but the changes don't give us the injection of speed we need.

By the end of qualifying we're 13th in class - exactly where we qualified last year - out of 21. The weather has worsened during the second half of the session, and Stuart's lap stands as our best. The kart still feels slow, but the mechanics can't find any more problems. We'll have to start the race as we are and hope for the best. Despite the issues we're optimistic as the start approaches. It's the longest race of all, and there's everything to play for. We show Marianne and Lauren the ins and outs of throttles and chain lubrication, and I film a video diary as the karts form up for the Le Mans style start. Just like last year, the drivers will run across the circuit to their waiting karts. And just like last year, Alex will do the honours assisted by Lee.

At five to twelve we clear the circuit and wait anxiously behind the barrier, fingers crossed. Five hundred pairs of eyes are trained on the start marshal, who stands with Union Jack furled on the circuit infield. He counts down the minutes with raised fingers. Midday comes and goes by my watch, the final minute stretching interminably... then the flag is up, held for five long seconds, and dropped. We cheer Alex across the track, Lee blips the throttles as he slides into the seat... and all 67 karts are away. It's not the lightning start we managed last year, but it's clean. The circuit goes silent for a moment, as the field disappears down the hill. When it reappears, streaming into the Esses for the first of a thousand or more passes, Alex is unscathed. We breathe.

But he's on the radio within minutes, complaining of a serious lack of straight line speed. The circuit is drying, the laptimes dropping... and we're a full four seconds away from the leading pace. There's no point in pitting - we'll lose more time off track than on it - so it's a case of damage limitation. As a driver, there are few more frustrating experiences than driving your heart out while being passed left and right. We do what we can to keep Alex focused and motivated, counting the minutes until our first scheduled pitstop.

At 1.45 pm we're waiting at the garage, having forewarned the mechanics that kart 24 is coming in. Alex refuels and drives the kart straight down the hill; the mechanics lift it onto a stand and go to work. It takes three minutes for the head mechanic to diagnose a sticking valve on the left engine, and a further twelve to change it. Stuart is suited up and ready to go; we send him on his way and trudge back up the hill to assess the damage.

The timing system has been upgraded this year, with a nifty iPhone app to supplement the timing screens. Lauren has been monitoring it since the beginning, and it tells a dire story. We're dead last, 16 laps behind the leaders in our class. But with two fully functional engines, Stuart is lapping much closer to the leading pace. He's still a second or so slower, but is catching the teams in front of us hand over fist; our spirits are lifted.

As Alex rehydrates and posts a despondent Facebook update about our plight, I get changed into my overalls, wolf a handful of nuts and prepare for my stint at 4pm. As the lightest member of the team, my stints are the longest; the first is planned to be around two hours and ten minutes. As always, I face a challenge to balance my hydration; a last minute toilet stop makes me late to the pitlane.

But the others are ready, and I've plenty of time as Stuart coasts into the fuel bay - then notice that in the rush, I've forgotten my elbow pads. They're not essential, but are nice to have; Marianne runs back to the awning, and returns with seconds to spare. She helps me slide them on as Stuart appears, having started the engines himself. Lee and Alex run forward with cans of chain lube at the ready... and I'm struck cold.

I've left my my seat insert behind.

It's a hundred metres away under the awning, no time to fetch it... but as I jump into the kart and velcro my radio button onto the steering wheel, the shock is passing. Our race kart's seat isn't the armchair-sized item we encounter on some rental karts - in fact, with my seat insert, rib protector and extra foam in place it was an uncomfortably tight fit in practice. I'll slide around a little, but the Ribtec and foam will protect me from the worst. It's not a disaster.

The pitstop is clean and in moments I'm blasting out into the fray, straight into a melee of karts in three separate classes. I take a couple of laps to find the sweet spot of a kart I've never driven in the dry - and on my second flying lap, make my only mistake of the weekend. Chasing one of the faster Club Hire karts through the banked corner at the bottom of the circuit, I'm caught out when he brakes at least five metres too early for the tightening right hander; jinking left to avoid ramming him, I drop the kart into a half-spin. It's annoying but trivial: it costs five seconds.

Throughout the weekend, the rest of the team have alternated between voicing their concern that I avoid a repeat of last year's injuries, and taking the mick out of my bright green foam padding. I know they'll be worried that I'm in trouble without my seat insert; as soon as I find a little space, I get on the radio to reassure them. All is well.

Sadly the same can't be said of the kart. I'm driving quite well, adapting quickly to the Teesside race rhythm - the particular technique needed to maintain your pace while being passed by faster karts - but I'm still short of straight line speed. It's not as bad as Alex's tribulations earlier on, but I'm being overtaken on the straights by other standard hire karts. On the radio, Marianne tells me that my laptimes are consistently in the mid 1.23 bracket, with the leaders in the 1.22s. It makes the job harder, but I've been preparing for this all summer; I'm giving it everything I have and loving every second.

There are no boring laps at Teesside. Every single tour asks serious questions of driver and machinery, and stringing together a good one is the biggest thrill in karting. Through the fast chicane in front of the pits, you must ride the kerbs at 55mph, right foot pinned to the throttle stops, picking the line of least resistance and trusting that the loaded right tyres will hang on.

The hill beyond the pits is a favoured overtaking point for the owner drivers; with faster karts battling all around you, jostling for position at 70mph on the approach to turn 3, it can be a scary place. Turn 3 itself has haunted my dreams for eleven months. It's the most difficult corner on the circuit - a blisteringly fast, bumpy ninety degree right-hander with minimal runoff and ample opportunity for visiting the scenery. Pick the right line and you'll rocket through with a light bump and a shimmy through the steering wheel; slide six inches wide on the entry and the breath will be knocked out of you as the kart bounces towards the edge of the track and the wasteland beyond at 50mph.

If you do manage to negotiate turn 3 unscathed, there's barely time to breathe before the next sequence: a near-flat right hander followed immediately by a corkscrew left which turns steeply uphill. Here, it's crucial to maintain momentum: good speed up the hill and through the blind right-hander at its crest will transform the half-kilometre straight that leads into the Esses. The kart feels particularly tardy up the hill; I learn to get back on the throttle more smoothly, taking a tighter line over the kerbs and keeping the rear wheels in check, but am still losing ground.

With the stint three-quarters gone, I'm in good shape physically aside from a couple of developing blisters, and continue to nibble away at the laptimes. I set a best of 1.23.067 as Marianne gives me a five-minute time check; niggling anxiety about the impending pitstop jumps to the forefront of my mind. I lost a lot of time in pitstops last year - to mistakes and exhaustion - and am keen to avoid a repeat.

At two hours five minutes I hear the 'box' command over the radio; we've arranged that Marianne will wave a furled umbrella from the pitwall as a backup signal. As I round the final left hander and accelerate towards the start/finish line, the red umbrella is waving; I peel into the pitlane, ripping the velcroed radio button off the steering wheel, and stop as directed by the fuel marshal. I hop out, flooded with relief as my legs respond, and wait impatiently.

I've already decided to push the kart rather than starting it; as the marshal gives me the thumbs up I lean in. It moves easily, and once around the hairpin beyond the fuel bay I quickly get up to jogging pace. The rest of the team wait at the start of the pit exit; they're not allowed to help me until I reach them. I make the left turn, and Lee and Alex descend with cans of chain lube as Stuart jumps in. In ten seconds the engines are fired up and Stuart is threading his way between other karts towards the exit at the bottom of the hill. It's a smooth stop - near flawless, in fact - and I give the others a thumbs up as I remove my helmet.

It's five past six in the evening. Eighteen hours to go.

(Click here for part 2)

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