Thursday, 17 January 2013

BRKC round 1. The Raceway, London, 12-13 January 2013 (part 2)

(Click here for part one)

Lunchtime on Sunday. Watery sunlight is filtering through the Raceway's skylights. It lifts the gloom but can do nothing for the temperature. If I stand still for more than a minute I get an ice cream headache in my feet.

With an hour or so until my final heat, I grab a hot dog and chat to a couple of new faces - Sam Guntrip, who is having an excellent run towards a B-final place, and friend, whose name escapes me. Both seem to be enjoying their first experience of the BRKC.

Not so a couple of the old-timers.
"Terrible!" says Lee Jones, with a rueful grin, when I ask how it's going. "I just can't get the qualifying right..."
It's a similar story for our British 24 Hours captain Alex Vangeen. He's had to wait a long time to get going, and finished somewhere behind me in heat 14. Not the most auspicious of starts.

He's next on in heat 18, and quickly gathers a chorus of approval from commentator James and everyone on the pitwall. Alex always drives as if karting's about to be made illegal; I can almost see the corners cowering in fear as he bears down on them. We groan in unison as he aims for a narrowing gap between Oli and the wall, then lift the roof as he makes a series of brilliant overtaking moves to gain back the lost places.

Also a late starter - and making an instant impression - is Sean Brierley. With two down and one to go he has a win and a second place to his name, and has an excellent chance of making the coveted A-final. He looks a little busier at the wheel than Lee or the Belgians, but it all stays pointing in the right direction, and he's maintaining good momentum out of the corners - so important, and so difficult.

He and I share heat 21, where I make my only critical error of the day. On the out lap, the kart feels very lively at the rear; wary of unsticking it, I'm much too cautious into turn two and lose several tenths. I line up a frustrated sixth and spend the race within a few metres of fourth place, but unable to get past the squabbling (and occasionally lairy) drivers in front. Sean, meanwhile, has won and lies second on the leaderboard with three heats to go. I'm 30th out of 80, and expect to drop a few before the end.

With the last heat finished, the noise level drops from deafening roar to echoey chatter; James announces a short break while the final leaderboard is calculated. A few minutes later we're crowding around the central pillar in the paddock as Brad pins up the lists. I'm 35th overall, which will put me fifth on the grid in the D-final. About what I expected; the mistake on my last qualy lap probably cost me a C-final slot. Right now, there are fifty similar stories of woe floating about the Raceway.

The A-final grid makes interesting reading. Lee Hackett is on pole, as expected - nobody else managed to win all three heats - and Sean has retained his second place. Superstars Boutens, Grooten, Pineiro and Elliott are there, as expected, but there are some real surprises. BRKC regular Alexandru Damian has, on the quiet, had a superb day, as has heavyweight Russell Endean. It's been a day to forget for most of the Scots, but Stephen Dailly has bucked the trend. And my saviour/chauffeur Craig is clearly rather handy: he's made the A-final on his BRKC debut, against world-class competition.

As the finals get underway I take a seat with Lee Jones and Anwar in the restaurant, whose soundproofed windows overlook the fast banking at turn 1 as well as the turn 3 hairpin. The H and G-finals fly by with some great entertainment, but it's the battle at the front of the F-final that has us biting our nails. BRKC regular Daryl Warren is on pole, chased hard by Matthew Hamilton - who is normally to be found much nearer the sharp end.

Always committed, Daryl is prone to errors: the smart money says that Matthew will have him before long. But time after time they flash through the banking in front of us, disappear for a few seconds, then reappear in the braking zone for the hairpin - nose to tail with Daryl in front.
"I can't watch," says Lee, around lap 6; Anwar and I crane our necks to try and keep the battling pair in sight through the danger area at turn 2. Matthew's trying every (clean) trick in the book to intimidate Daryl out of the way.

But Daryl shows no sign of the huge pressure he's under, keeping it neat, tidy and in front. We're holding our collective breath as the chequered sign begins to strobe, and the cheer almost drowns the engines as Daryl takes it. There's no sign of Matthew, though - his rotten luck with machinery has continued with a broken throttle cable in the last metres of the race. It's a great drive by both, and is greeted with noisy appreciation by everyone in the paddock as well as James on the Tannoy.

But now it's time to don my helmet for the last time today. There are one or two familiar names in the D-final, but most are an unknown quantity. My biggest concern is former winner Michael Weddell, who's had an uncharacteristically bad day and starts right behind me. As we walk out into the pitlane I realise that I've been allocated the same kart I had in my second heat; my heart drops. It's the weakest of the five I've driven this weekend. As we roll around the out-lap I'm reminding myself of its pros and cons. Engine and brakes are fine, but the front is very skittish. It's not terrible; I'll do my best to adapt.

The start is messy, the marshals slow to give polesitter Connor Marsh the green flag, but we keep it together and by turn 2 I'm all over the bumper of the driver in front, who looks tentative. I can already feel the pressure from behind: there's a disgruntled Scot breathing down my neck. All nine stone of him.

On the second lap, trying to hold the kart flat on a defensive line through the fast left-hander, the front abruptly lets go and I clout the outside wall. I'm expecting Weddell to come through, but he doesn't. Maybe I've scared him as well as myself.

For a couple more laps, the status quo remains, until the driver in front of me has a tardy exit from turn 2 and baulks me slightly. I start to jink right, but Weddell is already alongside and passes cleanly into the hairpin. I mentally kick myself - my overtaking has been poor here - and set about making amends.

Weddell's up to fourth within a lap, and I pull a decent move through the fast section to regain my fifth place. But disaster strikes a lap later: midway through the endless left-hander with tortured right tyres screaming, I feel a big thump at the rear and am instantly a passenger. The kart snaps backwards into the wall, someone else pirouetting behind me as the field rushes by.

I get going again and find myself chasing Lee Jones. I'm quicker, but he defends neatly and cleanly; we finish nose to tail, 9th and 10th. We're both disappointed but philosophical: it's not as if we were fighting for the win. Later, Adam Sharp owns up and apologises for causing the accident, which is much appreciated.

With my day over, the adrenalin drains and my body starts to complain. Lack of sleep and fatigue are compounded by a worsening headache, sore throat and the prospect of a slow trip home to Winchester by train and bus. I take a break to get changed and miss the C- and B-finals. But it's a sign of the quality of this field that some big names - Borremans, Laporte, Spinnael, former winner Danny Henney - found themselves in the C-final.

I return to the paddock to find that KWC organiser Gregory Laporte has made up for his mixed results in the heats by winning the C-final and fighting his way up to 4th in the B-final. Great stuff.

But now it's time for the big race, and we line the pitwall to watch. I think Lee is going to be as imperious as he's been all weekend; the big question mark lies over the inexperienced head of Sean Brierley: he has two of the best karters in the world hunting down his second place. Will he be able to take the pressure?

As the green flag drops Lee makes another perfect start and heads Sean by three metres as they cross the startline. There's a flurry of activity behind as Ramon Pineiro overtakes Jonny Elliott for fourth place and begins to hound Ruben Boutens. Further back, BRKC regulars Endean, Damian and Dailly are locked in battle with former world champion Grooten; it's hard to know where to look.

Boutens is keeping Sean honest but no more than that; Pineiro is all over him, and squeezes by into the tight left-right. I miss the move, but Boutens has a hand up in protest, and the marshals are locked in discussion. Three laps later Pineiro is shown a blue flag, ordering him to give the place back - which he does immediately by running wide into turn 1. But he's clearly not happy: there's a bit of Latin headshaking going on.

All of which has given Sean some breathing space. As the laps count down he begins to reel Lee in, tenth by tenth. But Lee is serene, and takes the flag a couple of seconds ahead to seal an utterly dominant weekend. Sean is a brilliant second ahead of Boutens, Pineiro, Elliott and indoor specialist Russell Endean, who takes his second heavyweight win.

We cheer the podiums, dash clear of the champagne showers and begin to scatter into the freezing night. I get the sense that we share a similar thought: the BRKC just keeps getting better. It's in a myriad details, from the swanky new race programmes to the influx of national and international talent: this series has jumped to a new level.

Many thought that the international drivers would dominate, but they had to fight every inch of the way. Better still, they've been unanimous in their praise and support for the series, and those without conflicts will be back for round 2. It would be great to count them amongst the ever-growing band of regulars.

Again, Brad has done a magnificent job behind the scenes to make round 1 the huge success it was, and I've no doubt that Rebecca has regularly gone well beyond the call of duty to back him up. The recruitment of sometime competitor James Auld as commentator was inspired, and he'll be back for rounds 2 and 3.

The Raceway is a very impressive venue and seems to have found favour with most of the drivers. I thought they did a superb job to run such a huge event with minimal delay. They seem to 'get' the BRKC - which can't be said of all circuits - and the staff were friendly and efficient without fail. I hear we're likely to return in 2014, and look forward to that.

For myself, I knew that with competition of this standard, making the top half of the leaderboard would be a decent effort. I managed that - just - and enjoyed myself enormously on and off track. It's very heartening to hear that people like my ramblings, and I enjoy writing them. But I'm in the BRKC first and foremost to race, and my consistently average results nag like a splinter. During round 1 I discovered a few chinks in my armour, which I'll be working on before my next race.

Sadly I can't be at Buckmore, despite my best efforts to rearrange a group skiing trip, but I'll be present and correct for round 3 at one of my favourite venues: Herefordshire Raceway.

So I'm relying on you, BRKC massive. Lee Hackett is a lovely guy and a brilliant driver. But if he wins again, he might start giving everyone the (index) finger and saying things like 'Now THAT'S what I'm talking about..."

We can't have that, can we?

(Click here for part one)

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