(click here for part two)
"My husband," says Marianne, "is so going to whip your arse."
I shut my eyes and briefly contemplate the wisdom of bringing my shy and retiring wife along to a BRKC event. The recipient of her comment - the unwhippably quick Russell Endean - gives me a 'do you know this woman?' look.
Nope, never set eyes on her before...
Marianne is no stranger to kart races, having put in some serious hard time at Teesside during the British 24 Hours over the past couple of years. But this is her first BRKC race and I love having her here, misguided confidence and all. I grin at Russell and we laugh it off. But, of course, I'm going to have a serious go at whipping his arse.
Wind back 24 hours. Saturday afternoon at Herefordshire Raceway is blustery and leaden, the circuit damp in places. But the weather can't dampen the mood. A cross-section of BRKC regulars and international visitors have gathered to kick off our race weekend a day early. It's such a pleasure to be back at this compact, tricky circuit with its postcard setting and wood-framed clubhouse, and I can't wait to get going in our 90 minute team endurance race.
I'm teamed up with the excellent Michael Weddell - a former A-final winner in the BRKC - and I'm counting on him to make me look good. We're up against some serious competition: circuit owner Chris Powell and one of his marshals; BRKC founder (and newly signed Peugeot race driver) Bradley Philpot with reigning BRKC champion, local lap record holder, and marshal Lee Hackett; the nearly-as-daunting combo of Kart World Championship superstars Ruben Boutens and Sam Spinnael. There's also Ted Monfils with Ruben's younger sister Annelien, BRKC returnee Andrew Bayliss with Ryan Smith, and a smattering of others including the Brierley brothers Sean and Liam, and local heroine Rhianna Purcocks with Tyler Mays.
I get off to an inauspicious start in practice; not known for binning it, I fit a visit to the scenery and a quick spin into seven minutes. Always tight and twisty, the circuit is also cold and greasy; our kart feels punchy enough but I'm struggling with the light steering and pronounced understeer. Luckily, Michael keeps it on the island and qualifies us a respectable 6th out of 10.
And there we stay. The rules dictate that we must make five pitstops, meaning six stints of 15 minutes each. We play it simple - Michael starts and we alternate every quarter of an hour. Our raw pace isn't overly fast but we're consistent, error-free and lightning-quick in the pits. A puncture at two-thirds distance necessitates a change of kart, but the powers that be take pity and credit us the lost lap.
I've never seen a circuit that fits so much character and complexity into such a short tour; after over 80 laps at the wheel I'm still not stringing it all together consistently. My best time - a low 35 - is four tenths slower than Michael's, and a huge 1.4 seconds slower than Lee Hackett's. I was reasonably quick here last year - in grippier conditions - and there'll be work to do tomorrow in practice before I can rediscover my form.
But as we say our goodbyes and retire to our hotel (the excellent Portway Inn on the Brecon Road), I'm content. The rust from two months out of a kart is gone; I have data to go on, and Marianne to give me feedback. I've had a good feeling about round 3 for a while, and can't wait to turn a wheel in anger.
Sunday dawns as Saturday waned: dull, overcast, just about dry - but even colder. The temperature is hovering around freezing, with snow in the air. We arrive at 9.30am, warmed by a fine breakfast, to find some of the regulars already in situ. As are the two resident Jack Russells, who greet every new arrival with a chorus of barks.
I'm on track in the first practice session to try and iron out the kinks; today we're using a fresh fleet of karts, and I'm happier straight away. The understeer is still there, but I'm learning to trust that the kart will turn in, using the brakes to ease the nose into the hairpins. Marianne is my spotter: watching carefully from the clubhouse balcony, she's noting differences in driver technique, giving me pointers to try in my second session. I'm still struggling with the notorious corkscrew right-hander off the bridge.
By the end of my allotted half-hour - two sessions - I've found a whopping 1.5 seconds since last night. The benchmark time is faster - a 33.2. But at 33.8, I'm much closer to the pace. While I've been focusing on track, the clubhouse has become a hive of activity: the best part of a hundred drivers and spectators throng its two floors. BRKC banners have appeared; bacon butties and steaming paper cups are flying out of the kitchen. Marianne and I defrost ourselves with cups of tea and compare final notes. After 140 laps since yesterday afternoon I'm still not quite as fast as I'd like, but I've found the rhythm. I'll be able to adapt quickly to the differences between individual karts.
Dare I say it, I'm starting to feel quietly confident.
Marianne knows long-suffering other halves Rebecca and Lauren from Teesside, so it's no surprise to find them gravitated together. No doubt they're swapping horror stories about their respected beloveds. They're joined by Russell Endean's girlfriend Sophie, whom I've not met before. Like Marianne, she's a rare visitor to BRKC events. I leave them to it and catch up with the usual suspects.
Brad is flitting about looking particularly chipper - having won a shootout to race for Peugeot in the upcoming Nurburgring 24 Hours, he's sporting a natty Peugeot Sport jacket ("he hasn't taken it off in a week," says Becca). James Auld, who did sterling work commentating at rounds 1 and 2, is back for a third stint at the microphone. Clad in his shiny red Daytona jacket, he's already booming over the tannoy and accosting hapless drivers for interviews.
Ther ever-committed (or should that be 'certifiable') Scots are back in force: Weddell, Smith, Dailly, Allward... although after a run of bad luck, Matthew Hamilton is absent which is a shame. Ryan Smith and I compare the merits of various helmet designs; I particularly like his red, white and blue, and Anwar Beroual-Smith's pale green. Apparently many of the drivers have used the same helmet painter, who charges around £250 depending on the design. I've never been too bothered about changing the colour of my plain black Arai, but that's cheaper than I expected. Interesting...
At midday, Chris Powell takes over the microphone for the driver's briefing, and at five past, the engines are fired up for free practice. There's a welcome lack of faff at Hereford, but we drivers need to be on our toes. Blink, and you miss a heat.
We're sent out in groups of ten, in driver number order. I'm driver number 4, so am in the first session. I run through my allotted five laps, add a little more information to the ever-growing bank, and pit with a mix of satisfaction and apprehension. My first heat is an hour away, and snowflakes are flurrying. If the track turns wet, all bets are off.
Commentator James grabs me for an interview, which is gratifying and disconcerting at the same time. I'm nowhere near as articulate in person as I am in writing, but manage to stumble through a few sentences about this blog and my ambitions for the day - realistically, to score some points. To do that, I must finish in the top 30 of 57.
As the first heat clatters out of the pits, we're two deep on the upper level. It's the best vantage point, but I'm not there just for kicks. I note that the lights are very quick to blink green, and watch how the others are handling the start and first sweep into the tunnel left-hander. There's always something to learn.
The regular devoted parents - Graham Purcocks, Lawrence Hackett, Anthony Mays, a number of others - are present and correct. I chat to Geoff White, father of Ed, whom I've not met before. Apparently Geoff spent time talking to Marianne during the endurance race yesterday, so God only knows what he's heard about me... At 14, Ed is the BRKC's youngest driver, and in these early heats, is already making an impression. He looks confident and very smooth on track - not something you could say of all the younger drivers.
Down below on the pitwall, Alex Vangeen is complaining about being hopelessly rusty ("I've had a rubbish month.") while Andrew Bayliss - spectating today, having raced in the endurance yesterday - is joining in with other people's interviews and generally making a nuisance of himself. They're both fine entertainment, as always.
But the best is yet to come. It's difficult to overtake on this circuit at the best of times, and with competition this fierce and grip levels on the low side, we're seeing more contact than usual. In his first race, Alex turns up the heat too far and triggers a pileup at the corkscrew, for which he receives a penalty; a couple of laps later he's the meat in a three-kart sandwich into the tight middle hairpin. We can hardly bear to watch: two karts rotate in perfect harmony, and Alex shoots between them. Chris Powell is not happy, and shows him the warning board; commentator James is loving it, and instantly dubs him 'Crash Vangeen'.
As the chequered flag falls, we're bracing ourselves in the pitlane: Alex is a walking definition of 'heart on sleeve'. We can almost see the thundercloud following the blue-helmeted figure into the pits. As he exits the kart and barges into the paddock, James bravely approaches in search of an interview. Lauren scuttles out of the firing zone. Bayliss is blisteringly unsympathetic.
I don't have a chance to talk to him, because it's time to turn my attention inward. My first two heats are in quick succession - 9 and 11. I'm starting seventh in the first, with a heavyweight ahead: I'm hopeful of gaining a place straightaway. The Hereford layout, with the starting grid halfway around the circuit, means I have half a lap to get a sense of the kart and circuit. Not much, but I use it as best I can.
My start is near-perfect, and I'm already past the seventh-placed driver as we stream into the tunnel and concertina into the hairpin at the exit. Contact behind pushes me a little wide, but I gather it up and hound the red-clad driver in front - Josh Overhill - all the way through the corkscrew, down the pit straight and into the fast 180 degree right hander of turn 1. As we rocket up the short back straight towards the first hairpin, the front-runners are tightly bunched, tripping over one another; Josh moves to the right, taking the defensive line. I go left, get alongside, and overtake in a Wall of Death move around the outside. It's a good pass, and I'm chuffed.
These races are only eight laps - less than five minutes - long, but such is the intensity that they seem to last an eternity. In fifth place, I'm less than two seconds behind leader Paul Lycett, but after three laps of ducking and diving, I can't get any nearer. The driver ahead is slower, but defending well; the front three are too busy clouting each other to pull away.
Mid-race, I'm distracted by their antics at the middle hairpin and the kart snaps into oversteer. I lose momentum and am instantly under pressure from behind; aware of a presence at my right rear corner, I move to shut the door, feel light contact, then nothing. I discover later that poor Ryan Smith thumped the tyres; the impact stalled an engine, consigning him to the back.
Briefly slowed, I quickly catch the leading pack again, but with a lap to go it all goes pear-shaped - again, at that bogey middle hairpin. A crash up front leaves me nowhere to go; I come virtually to a stop, and the driver behind scoots past on the run down to the tunnel. I take the flag sixth - a little frustrated, but still ahead of my starting slot.
There's no time to dwell on might have been. Eight minutes later, I'm back in a kart for my second heat of the day. This time, I'm starting from pole position, and the butterflies are fluttering. I don't have a great record of defending pole position starts in the BRKC; in fact, in five attempts I've only ever managed it once, in the D final here at Hereford, two years ago. Worse, three rows back on the grid is a familiar blue suit and white helmet - Lee Hackett. There are plenty of drivers between us, but not for long.
Green light. I'm away cleanly, butterflies banished; through tunnel, hairpin and corkscrew with no contact from behind. I focus on braking points and apexes, try and ignore everything else; it's lap two, on the approach to the first hairpin, before I steal a glance behind.
There's nobody there.
Bemused, I negotiate the middle hairpins and finally catch sight of the rest of the field - braking for the first hairpin as I exit the second. It's a huge gap in a race like this; there must have been some sort of pileup on the opening lap. I suppress a thrill of excitement and focus. The job is far from done.
Next time through, I'm halfway up the back straight as the second-placed driver approaches turn 1, and my heart sinks. Blue suit, white helmet. I tell myself to watch the track, not Lee, but he bobs around at the fringes of my field of view, taunting.
Around this time I become aware of spirited support from the pitwall. Alex is leaning right over the track in front of the race director's hut, urging me on; at the corner of my eye I can see Marianne, Andrew Bayliss, a dozen others... it's wonderful to be cheered on, but please Lord, don't let me fuck this up...
I've lost count of the number of laps - feels like fifty - but a couple of passes later I'm beginning to believe. Lee is closing, but not quickly enough; it's all I can do not to shout in exultation as Chris shows me the one lap board. Easy now, it's too easy to throw it all away at a time like this.
But I come off the corkscrew a clear two seconds ahead and punch the air in delight as I take the chequered flag. It's only a heat win, and I was lucky, but I know I've driven well. And I've scored eleven precious points, which should be enough to book me a place in the B final at least.
And if I can hold it together in my third heat...who knows?
(click here for part two)