(Click here for part two)
Saturday 12 January 2013
Craig Martin is my new best friend.
It's 11pm on a freezing night in Docklands. I'm nursing the beginnings of a cold, ache from head to foot, and bed is a mile and a half away. Craig and his friend John are staying at the same hotel - the Woolwich Travelodge - and have graciously made space in their car for me. Result.
Wind back three hours, and I'm wondering - not for the first time - why the hell I'm not at home with my wife and a glass of wine. The walk from Charlton Station to the circuit is less than a mile according to Google. The first half is along a reassuringly bright, busy dual carriageway. But the second half takes you deep into an unlit, deserted industrial estate. Wind is moaning through chainlink fences, flapping loose bits of corrugated iron. I feel like a character in a schlocky horror movie.
But the Bogeyman's taken the night off; I find the circuit's narrow access road, right on the bank of the Thames, and am soon pushing open the imposing double doors. At which point I forget all about the Bogeyman, the cold, and the fact that I need to pee. The Raceway's main reception area is cavernous and marbled, and wouldn't disgrace a luxury hotel. A lifesize model of a Ferrari F1 car hangs on the wall behind the reception desk; legendary race helmets line the walls at regular intervals, each in its own individually lit display case. We're not in Birmingham any more, folks...
I follow the signs and encounter a staff member (whom I later discover is race director Luke) who directs me along what seems like half a mile of corridor. I pass a bar, multiple changing rooms, a restaurant... I'm beginning to wonder if they've left any space for the circuit when I push open a door to be assaulted by the throaty roar of a dozen karts.
Thirteen hours before the official start of round 1, the Raceway's spacious paddock is already dotted with familiar faces. I wave to BRKC organiser Bradley and regulars Sean Brierley and Lee Hackett, and watch from the pitwall as a corporate jolly finishes on track. First impression are good: the circuit looks big by indoor standards, and the karts blast over the finish line at pleasing speed. The surface is asphalt (not the nasty, slick concrete which spoils many indoor circuits) and there's even a bit of gradient built in. Good stuff.
As I suit up for the first of my two test sessions, the long schlep to the depths of East London suddenly feels worthwhile: the tingle is back. I have forty minutes to learn my first proper indoor circuit.
It's a baptism of fire. This place fits some tricky corners into its 700 or so metres. There's impressive variety, too - from a not-quite-flat banked left-hander to a deceptively difficult right-hand hairpin and two left-handers which tighten on entry - forcing you to brake while turning. I quickly learn that the rear of the kart must be kept in check to avoid losing chunks of time; while its natural tendency is to understeer, it quickly flicks into oversteer when the brakes are applied. With no kerbs to kiss and only walls to hit, it's probably as near to a street circuit as karting gets. I've always thought myself reasonably precise and smooth. But I'm not precise or smooth enough for this.
After 27 laps I'm aware of considerable mental and physical effort, as the chequered sign over the startline strobes to signify the end of the session. The paddock has filled up rapidly in the last half hour - along with series regulars Rhianna Purcocks and Daryl Warren I spot multiple karting champion - and F2 race winner - Ramon Pineiro, distinctive in his yellow overalls. He'll surely be a contender for the outright win tomorrow.
I'm 12th out of 16 in our session, over a second off the pace. Reigning BRKC champion Lee Hackett is quickest, unsurprisingly. I watch the second group from as many vantage points as I can: the pit and paddock bisects the circuit, affording good views of many of the corners. I make some mental notes to add to the pointers I picked up in the opening session, and approach my second run with renewed optimism.
The second kart is pointier than the first, with much heavier steering. I'm not at my physical best, but I'm surprised at how drained I am after a mere 20 minutes. Still, it's better: I'm heartened by having pegged Kart World Championship frontrunner Ruben Boutens for several laps. I'm learning some of the counter-intuitive techniques needed to be quick here: leaning away from the corner to put weight over the loaded wheels, hugging the barriers instead of taking a normal line.
I've only found a couple of tenths, but am 9th quickest out of 19. The circuit seems to have slowed: I'm now half a second shy of Lee. It's solid progress, but I can already see that getting anywhere near the points tomorrow is going to be stiff challenge. While getting changed I chat to BRKC - and karting - newbie Fred Harvey-Love. He's jumped in at the deep end and looks wide-eyed at the speed on display tonight - but is looking forward to his first proper race tomorrow.
I hitch my ride to the hotel with Craig and Jon, find my room, and settle down in the lap of luxury. Sleep comes fitfully: when I close my eyes I see nothing but tyre walls. I can't wait to get going for real.
Sunday 13 January
Battleship grey dawn light isn't doing much to improve Docklands' aesthetic appeal, although the Thames Barrier does look suitably menacing. It's the first and last daylight I see all day.
The Raceway is buzzing, karts already on track well before 8am. My two companions - both BRKC newbies - elect to do another practice session. I don't blame them.
This championship has seen some impressive talent in the last couple of years, but never anything like this. Joining the regular frontrunners will be the aforementioned Pineiro and five of the best indoor karters in the world - including the current world champion, Robin Borremans. No less than 80 of us will compete over 24 heats and 8 finals. It's the biggest, most competitive event the BRKC has ever staged; today I reckon that making the top half will be an achievement.
The BRKC table is set up in the paddock and groans under the weight of silverware, bubbly, programmes and merchandise, as usual. Having spent Saturday night out on the town chaperoning the Belgian contingent, Brad's positively saintly other half Becca is in attendance. She's joined by Alex Vangeen's equally haloed fiancé Lauren. It's lovely to see them; half of me wishes I'd persuaded Marianne to come along.
Brad could be forgiven for showing a touch of strain at a time like this, but there's no sign of it. He informs me that he's saved me a job by writing the round 1 blog. Something like:
"BRKC Round 1 at The Raceway was simply the best kart race I have ever attended. All of the drivers were entirely happy and everything was perfect. The end."
As the test sessions come to an end and briefing time approaches, I catch up with the old guard - Alex, both Lees (Jones and Hackett), Anwar, two very dedicated fathers (Rhianna's dad Graham and Lee Hackett's dad Lawrence), Daryl, and others. James Auld drops by to say hello before assuming his position as commentator for the day. Clad in a shiny scarlet Daytona 24 Hours jacket, and armed with a wireless microphone, he's every inch the showman.
Soon his voice is booming over the Tannoy, summoning everybody to the pit area for the briefing, which lives up to its billing: it's brief. With a packed schedule and the added complication of qualifying for each heat, time is very tight.
We have five minutes of free practice, split into four groups of 20. I'm in the first group, and spend my seven or so laps working on dealing with the understeer that dominates the handling of most of the karts. With no laptimes I can't really tell if I'm making progress, but it's starting to feel more natural. Once out of the kart I relax: my first race is heat 11. I have at least two hours to wait.
Fortified by coffee and an excellent bacon sandwich from the nice ladies in the café, I join the others on the pitwall as the first heat begins. I'm running a stopwatch to keep tabs, and the initial news is bad. Heat 1 takes 18 minutes to complete. At this rate we'll still be here on Monday.
Heat 2 takes longer still. Brad has been back and forth across to Race Control a couple of times; we gather that the computer isn't functioning as predicted. After a couple of tweaks on and off track, heat 3 takes 12 minutes. With two sets of karts running alternately, there's no delay between heats, and the marshals are quick to form up the grids after each qualifying run. We're soon rattling through them at whipcrack speed.
Rhianna Purcocks - at 15, the BRKC's second youngest driver - is in an early heat, and her father Graham shows me a nifty bit of technology which enables him to watch a live video feed from her GoPro camera on his phone. The quality is patchy, but I get the sense I've seen the future. Rhianna is always exciting to watch. She's talented but tends to intersperse nuggets of genius with moments of madness: we cheer as she pulls off a stunningly opportunistic move into the fast left-hander at the back of the circuit, then groan as she runs wide into the tight left before the pits, losing a couple of places.
Always fascinated by contrasting driving styles, I spend time observing some of the frontrunners. All of the Belgian KWC experts adopt a similar approach: upright in the seat, pronounced lean on the outside wheels, a model of precision. F2 refugee Pineiro is a little more flamboyant, turning into the hairpin with a single sweep of the wheel and holding it steady, with no correction, all the way to the exit. Multiple champions Anwar Beroual-Smith and Jonny Elliott are a masterclass in fluidity, not a hint of raggedness, keeping both ends of the kart in perfect harmony.
And by heat 8 it's clear that Lee Hackett is operating at a different level to everyone else. He drives as if in permanent slow motion replay - effortless, all the time in the world, the steering wheel hardly moving. The spectacle has all the drama of a trip to the shops, but his speed is devastating. With all of his heats done he's scored a perfect 30 points: three dominant wins from three pole positions. After the race he's typically humble when interviewed by commentator James - who is doing a magnificent job of keeping the excitement sky-high through the marathon run of heats.
I take a short break from the biting cold and aural assault of the circuit, and kick back on one of the comfy sofas outside Reception. My eyes are barely shut when a familiar voice shouts:
"Oi, Lazy! Why aren't you writing?"
It's Sean Brierley and Daryl Warren. I mumble a riposte - scathingly witty, I'm sure - shut my eyes again, and try to get warm. I wish I felt better.
Fifteen minutes later, the adrenalin is doing its thing; I wait in my kart as the Tannoy booms and heat 10 roars around me. There are no nerves to speak of. I know what to do.
I'm 7th in the line of karts, of 10; along with everyone else I need to make space in front of me before the start of my qualifying lap, while getting a sense of what I have to work with. This kart's steering is quite heavy, which indicates a grippy front end: good news. As I boot it out of the final corner and head for the startline, the kart in front is almost down to turn 1: plenty of space, unless he bins it. He doesn't.
I drive a clean, if slightly conservative lap; as I roll to a stop on the back section, I'm expecting to be somewhere in the middle of the grid... and am slow to spot the marshal pointing at me.
"SIX!" he bellows, for the third or fourth time. I trickle forward into third position, pleased. In seconds we're waved forward, the pole sitter keeping us at walking pace through the tight left-right before the pitlane entry. I'm glued to the back of the kart in front, but still lose a couple of metres as he bolts.
I gain it back into the banking of turn 1, and we're nose to tail as we concertina into the tricky tightening left of turn 2. I feel the fourth-placed kart nudge me at the apex, then we're powering down the hill to the hairpin. This is intense stuff, and just like the preceding heats, the quality of driving is sky-high. We don't have a lot of space and there's no margin for error - yet there's virtually no bumping. Over eight laps I slowly lose ground to the pair in front, pull out a small gap to the kart behind, and finish a satisfied third. It's a better start than I had hoped for.
I'm next on in heat 14, so barely have time to draw breath before I'm sitting in the pitlane waiting to go again. Brad comes over to tell me that there are six heavyweights in this race, so nothing less than pole will do. He neglects to mention that my rivals include superstars Robin Borremans, Mathias Grooten and Sam Spinnael. Still, I'm at the front of the queue, so there's no need to make space.
Three minutes later I'm bemused to be lining up fifth. I drove what felt like a better lap than my first attempt, but this kart is looser at the front, less predictable in the fast corners. No matter - I make a good start, and am quickly past fourth-placed Oli Nitch-Smith. I expect to pull away, but can't: he comes right back at me and makes a neat move a couple of laps later - into turn 2, I think. I push him hard, and get my nose in front with a clumsy move in the tight left-right. But it's questionable, and I let him past. We finish inches apart. Although I've been generally happy with the karts, I think this one did dictate the result to some extent.
I glance at my watch: just after 1pm. We're not yet halfway - 14 races down, 18 to go...
(Click here for part two)