Thursday, 4 October 2012

British 24 Hours, Teesside. Part 2

(Click here for part 1)

Couscous never tasted so good.

It's coming up to 7pm. I'm kicking back in a camping chair under the Corporate Chauffeurs awning, tucking into a steaming bowl of chicken jalfrezi spiked with fresh vegetables and chutney. The tinned food and camping stove we brought with us is a huge success, and the girls have added to the larder following a sortie to Asda.

The size and position of our team base has turned it into a something of a watering-hole: BRKC regulars and friends in other teams drop by frequently, and we've practically adopted BRKC founder Brad Philpot. Drafted into an owner team this weekend, he looks a little forlorn without his other half Becca, and accepts a bowl of hot rice and vegetables from Lauren after a little persuasion. Everyone's keen to know how their counterparts are getting on, and stories of triumph and disaster ebb and flow. It's the community spirit that helps make this such a special event: competition on track is fierce, but we're all in it together.

Out on track, the race roars on as the sky begins to darken, sepia light from the towering floodlights seeping across the infield. Stuart is running very well and has lowered our fastest laptime to a 1.22.6. That's still a second or so away from the leaders - which include two other BRKC teams - but we're up to 18th in class and reeling in the teams ahead. Alex is on the pitwall - I think he finds it harder than the rest of us to tear himself away - and gives Stuart regular updates as his second stint wears on. Because he can only be with us until midnight, he's doing three stints in 12 hours, with just a couple of hours' break in between each. It's a mammoth undertaking; he's shown no signs of strain so far, but his final stint is still to come.

Stuart pits at 8pm - one third distance - after an excellent second stint. With darkness and a crowded pitlane to contend with, this pitstop is less serene than the previous one. But the team pulls it together and Lee is on his way in good time. Stuart reports that the kart is running quite well. He looks tired, though, and is suffering some pain in his hands. Alex and Lauren take a well-earned break and head to their car, where the delights of an airbed await them. As Stuart grabs some rest in a chair under the awning, I don the headphones and divide my time between the pitwall and the timing screen in the cafe.

Over the next 90 minutes our race comes apart at the seams.

At 8.30, Lee's on the radio complaining of a serious vibration. The laptimes are reasonable, so he hangs on for a while - but is finally forced to pit. We're down at the garage waiting for him; as the mechanics go to work he fills us in.
"I can't focus on the straights... it feels like you're losing control of your body. I thought I was either going to puke or shit myself..."

The mechanics tighten the mountings on the engine they replaced earlier, and send him out. But the vibration remains, and within a few laps he's back in. This time the rear tyres are replaced; as the mechanics rotate the wheels, one looks ominously out of kilter. Bent axle, we think. Andrew Bayliss, whose Club Hire kart is also in the pits with a problem, agrees, though he reckons it shouldn't actually slow the kart down too much.

Lee heads out again and reports that it's better, though by no means cured. But over the next twenty laps, the vibration steadily worsens. The pace is good, though; with thirty more minutes to run until our next scheduled pitstop, Lee elects to stay out on track. He's about as tough as they come. I'd have been hiding under a sleeping bag in the tent by now.

While I've been fixated on the screens and the radio, Alex has returned, and has been beavering away in the background. The result is like Christmas come early: he's managed to sweet-talk race director Bob into granting us a replacement kart! After a very demoralising stint which has seen us drop right to the back of the field again, our battered spirits are lifted.

Alex helps Stuart get ready as light rain begins to spatter the roof of the awning; we dash back down to the garage where kart 24 mk2 awaits us. Lee comes in and vacates the beleaguered 24 mk1 - with palpable relief - and there's a brief delay while the timing transponder is swapped to the new kart. Then Stuart's away as the rain begins to fall harder. We trudge back up the hill, praying that the new kart is quick and holds together. Surely we're due just a smidge of good luck?

I leave the pitwall to put my head down for an hour or so. As I record a quick video diary outside our tent - where Marianne is napping - the circuit suddenly falls quiet. After hours of aural assault from 67 twin-engined karts, the silence is deafening. And ominous - in my experience, the British 24 Hours is only red-flagged for a serious accident. Bob's voice rings out over the tannoy, sounding angrier than I've ever heard him. Apparently several drivers failed to slow down for yellow warning flags, and a marshal has been hit on track.

On a high-speed circuit like Teesside, this is worrying indeed; I run back to the pitwall. All the drivers are out of their karts and assembled on the infield. Lee reports that Stuart is fine and wasn't involved, while Alex is hurriedly suiting up: Bob has ordered that all teams must change drivers before the race is restarted. This is a disaster for the team and Stuart in particular, whose stint had barely begun when the race was red-flagged.

After several minutes of heated discussion under the floodlights, the order is rescinded and the race is restarted with the original drivers. It's the right decision - it would have been wrong to punish the entire field for the actions of one driver. The marshal is not seriously injured and we breathe a collective sigh of relief. But the mood in the paddock is sombre. This race demands the best from all of us. Lose respect and it will bite.

Deep in thought, I return to the tent. Marianne is just getting ready to return to the pitwall; I fill her in on recent events, slide under my sleeping bag and shut my eyes for an hour. I'm too wired to sleep, but it's good to give my body a rest and clear my mind. Marianne returns at 11.30 with good news: Stuart is flying in the wet conditions, overtaking owner drivers left and right, and outpacing the entire hire kart field. And the kettle's on.

Spirits lifted, I hurry back to the Corporate Chauffeurs team base. The rain has eased, but it's a chilly, blustery night - the chatter and roar of the karts waxing and waning as the wind gusts. Stuart flashes through the chicane in front of us, as committed as ever; it's a relief to see him apparently comfortable, though he must be running on empty by now.

Just before midnight, Marianne is filming as Alex's blue-suited figure leads us around to the pitlane. Stuart comes in bang on cue and again, Lee and I execute a slick pitstop. As Alex accelerates away, we're already congratulating Stuart on a superb stint - and a Herculean effort. It takes him a moment or two to regain the power of speech, but he looks to have stood up amazingly well to the rigours of over 250 laps - six hours at the wheel in a twelve hour period. As he says his goodbyes and leaves with our heartfelt thanks, I feel a pang of apprehension. From now on, we're a man down. The clock strikes midnight: half distance.

Sunday 26 August

I climb the grassy bank behind our awning and film a video diary, looking out over the floodlit track. Fifty metres away, trains of karts are flashing through the Esses, nose to tail at sixty miles an hour on the damp track, and I shiver with a mix of cold, thrill and apprehension. In less than ninety minutes' time, it'll be my turn on the graveyard shift.

By 1.45am I'm suited, booted, gloved, helmeted, velcroed and (blister)plastered. I'm as ready as I'll ever be for 120 racing miles in the dead of night. I stand in the pitlane - seat insert tucked under my arm - and listen to the radio chatter as Lee masterminds the impending pitstop. There's traffic at the fuel bay, and he's forced to leave Alex out for a couple of laps longer than planned. I'm dimly aware of some concern over fuel, but shut my mind to all but the job at hand.

Alex peels into the pits just as another kart leaves the fuel bay - perfect. He delivers us the refuelled kart in good time, and again the team runs like clockwork . As I jump in, Lee and Marianne are already lubricating the chains behind me. My seat insert briefly refuses to align properly, and I'm still getting comfortable when I get the 'go' command, but no time is lost. I thread my way between karts and pedestrians while working the seat into place, and boot it as I pass the last of the red-and-white bollards which mark the end of the pitlane.

It's eight hours since I was last on track, in a different kart. But this one feels so much punchier and more biddable that I'm quickly up to speed. It's been three hours since the rain stopped, but there are still damp patches about. One in particular grabs my attention, washing the front tyres wide in the middle of the flat-out banked right hander at the top of the circuit.

There's always something otherworldly about this stint. No matter how well you've prepared, part of your brain is bemused at not being tucked up in bed. But dare I say it, in my fourth 24 hour race, it feels a little less bizarre than on previous occasions. It's not routine - I'll quit the day it becomes that - but it's more comfortable. And more enjoyable.

As I settle into my rhythm, Marianne is on the radio every couple of laps. And the news is good: in the first hour I make up a couple of places on track, and set a new fastest lap. The owner karts seem to be overtaking a little more tardily than earlier on, and I'm steadily passing standard hire karts along with the odd raggedly driven club hire kart. The seat insert still pinches my left hip, but otherwise I'm comfortable, the blisters I acquired earlier on not bothering me at all.

By the time I pit just after 4am, I've made up four places - more due to being on track at the right time than any particular genius on my part - and lowered our fastest lap to a 1.22.2 despite the lingering damp patches. Again I'm anxious not to mess up the pitstop, and again my fears are unfounded. Alex and Marianne time it perfectly, and I lose no time pushing the kart from fuel bay to pit exit. As Lee accelerates away, I'm nodding in quiet satisfaction. It's been a solid stint, with good pace and no mistakes, and the team as a whole is nigh-on flawless. If only the equipment hadn't let us down...

But there's no point in dwelling on it. There's still work to do: I'm due back on track in less than four hours, and as the adrenalin drains away the fatigue begins to bite. As soon as I've downed a pint of water, Marianne sends me to the tent with a granola bar and strict orders to eat it before I put my head down.

The alarm drills through a whirl of half-formed dreams at 6.45am. In many ways this is the toughest moment of the entire weekend: as I slowly surface, the murmur of complaint from my body grows to a clamour. Every part of me aches, my throat is dry, my stomach churns. I stare at the shifting shapes of leaves above, projected onto the tent by morning sunlight, and try to reconcile my mind to the concept of being on track in 45 minutes' time.

Then Marianne pulls back the porch awning and makes my day.

Because of the problems early on, and the timing of the kart change, we'd been running behind schedule since before half distance. I'd been hoping we could make up the shortfall through stoppages or wet weather, but neither had materialised; in the small hours, Alex and Marianne had made the call and brought Lee in for a splash-and-dash pitstop. After a marathon two-and-a-half hour stint, he'd handed over to Alex at 6.30am. With five and a bit hours and three stints to run, we're back on schedule. All of which means that I'm not due on track until 8.15am - giving me a precious extra 45 minutes of rest.

By 7.30 I'm back on the pitwall and feeling a little less like death warmed up. Half a gallon of coffee and a bucket of porridge later, I can almost contemplate getting back in the kart. On track, Alex's distinctive blue suit tears past every 82 seconds like clockwork. Lauren wears the headphones and watches over her man, while Marianne helps me get ready. I'm overcome with admiration for them. Aside from a snatched hour in the tent before half-distance, Marianne has been on the pitwall since the beginning of practice; Lauren can't have had more than a couple of hours of sleep - and is now reasonably sure she's got shingles.

I jump out of my skin as a pile of clothes on the camping chair beside me shifts. I'd assumed that Lee was asleep in his car - but he's here, ready for action if needed, grabbing some well earned rest. He'll take to the track once again to bring us home in a few hours' time. As I contemplate the sheer class of our team, the colossal effort made by each and every member, the pain and fatigue fall away. Suddenly I can't wait to get out there again and drive the wheels off.

By 8.15 I'm ready. It's a beautiful, sunny morning and I've got the tingle. That hair-raising trickle of adrenalin that only racing provides. Alex is in and refuelled without a moment's delay, holding off the fatigue for a few more seconds as he pushes the kart towards us. Lee receives it, already starting the engines as I leap in - and we make a rare pitlane error. I hear what sounds like the 'go' command and gun the throttle - only to slam on the brakes a second later as a chorus of 'STOP!' rings out behind me. Lee does a Superman over the rear of the kart and lands practically in my lap; he's instantly pushing himself upright. A few more squirts of oil onto the chains as the team roll me forward to coat both chains and sprockets in lubricant... and I get the nod. For real this time.

It was a minor blunder that cost us five seconds... but Lee took quite a tumble. I hope he hasn't damaged himself. As I rocket towards the Esses on my out lap, I key the radio button and ask the question. The reply is a little garbled but I get the impression that all is well.

The third stint is all about survival, about shrugging off all that's gone before and giving it everything you have. After more than twenty hours the pace is as relentless as ever, the leaders lapping well inside the 1.21 bracket. In his last stint, Alex took a few hundredths off the 1.22.2 that I set in the small hours; with my weight advantage I should be able to better that.

As in 2011, I get the impression that the more highly-tuned owner and Club Hire karts are suffering more than our standard hire kart in these closing stages: I find myself embroiled in wheel-to-wheel combat with karts that should be able to pull away easily. Or maybe we standard hire drivers are made of sterner stuff.

The kart still feels strong, though it's looser than last time I drove it; I'm reminded that it's done 11 hours on the same set of tyres. Because we had a replacement kart, we were excused from the mandatory maintenance stop that the other teams made between midnight and 2am. The time saved helped get us back in the race, but it means our tyres are three hours older than everyone else's. I get a little ragged into the hairpin after the Esses, and am forced to dial it back a notch. Track conditions are good, but I just don't have the rubber.

Nevertheless, the pace is reasonable. I'm in the low 1.22s from the start of my stint, and can't resist a cheesy Vettel-style shout over the radio when Marianne tells me I've broken into the 1.21s, about an hour in. That's what I'm talking about... my best is a 1.21.771 which will stand as the team's fastest lap of the race. I'm the lightest, so that's as it should be - but I'm pleased. I worked hard to make sure I was fitter and quicker this year, and it's good to see my efforts rewarded.

Fit or not, by the time Marianne gives me the thirty minute time check, I'm hanging on by my fingernails. Adrenalin and willpower keep me on track, but my left hip is stabbing me through every right hander. Nearly six hours at the wheel have taken a huge physical and mental toll, and the calories are running out.

In the final minutes, I'm confused by a flurry of radio activity that I can't decipher, and worry that I'm missing the call to pit. But there's no sign from the pitwall; finally I realise that I'm hearing chatter between Lee in the pitlane and Marianne under our awning, discussing the timing of the pitstop.

Much as I love my sport, and driving this circuit, I'm relieved when, midway through the banking, Lee's voice rings through my headset, clear as a bell.
"Box, Andrew. Repeat, box now."
"Box now, copy."
For the last time, I thread the kart through the right hander and the slow left that follows, accelerate away and peel into the pit entry. The fuel bay is clear; I leap out, wait as the fuel marshal does his job, and pour all of my energy into the final push. Fifty metres later I'm still on my feet as Alex takes over. Our final scheduled pitstop is as slick as ever; I watch Lee disappear down the pitlane, and slowly remove my helmet as Alex claps me on the back.

For me, that's job done.

Back in the paddock, there's an end-of-party feel in the air. With 90 minutes to run until the chequered flag, teams are beginning to dismantle their awnings. Alex has marshalled a small army to help take down Lewis' giant awning - which has served us and many others so well - and in minutes it's stowed away. I eat and drink whatever I can find, and slowly wind my brain back down to the pace of ordinary life.

Out on track, Lee is lapping as consistently as ever. There's little to play for at this stage, but he keeps the pressure on in case one of the teams ahead has a late problem. We're running 13th in class, exactly where we started, having been 21st, last and five laps down on the 20th placed kart after ten hours. Between hours 11 and 23 we made up six laps on the leaders - sound evidence that had the luck gone our way, we'd have been in the hunt for the win.

Just before 12pm, three hundred drivers, supporters and staff take to the pitwall to cheer Lee and the others across the line. There can only be one winner in each class, but the huge support for each and every team makes for a wonderful sense of occasion. We haven't achieved what we came to do. But we've made it home and done ourselves proud.

One of the BRKC teams has made the podium in our class, and are rightly thrilled. David Hird, Mike Kettlewell and Paul Lycett will be the first to admit that they're not frontrunners in our individual driver's championship. But consistency, hard work, local knowledge and a little bit of luck have brought them a richly deserved third place. After a series of ups and downs, Brad's Baron Racing team have finished third in the owner Pro class. Clearly our porridge made the difference.

We cheer the podiums and say our goodbyes with a touch of sadness. By our standards the end result is poor, but it's been an epic weekend. This is a truly great racing team, which has performed at the top of its game, and I'm very proud to be part of it. Alex, Lee, Stuart, Lauren and Marianne: legends all, and I salute you.

For now, the glittering prize still hovers tantalisingly out of reach. I look forward to staking our claim for it again. Third time lucky...?

(Click here for part 1)

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