Friday, 15 March 2013

BRKC round 3. Herefordshire Raceway, 9-10 March 2013 (part 2)

(click here for part one)

I've won a race or two before, but I've never had a reception like this.

In the paddock, people are shaking my hand, clapping me on the back, kissing my cheek (I think that was my wife, but you never know with this lot) - before James guides me out of the melee and points the microphone at me. This time I'm even less coherent, but I don't really care. Moments like this don't come around too often.

A little later, Marianne hands me a bacon buttie as more cheers erupt from the pitlane. BRKC regular Jordan Donegan has followed my first ever heat win with his own - arguably more impressively, since he managed it from third on the grid. Great stuff. It seems to be turning into a day for the underdogs.

The championship leaders - Hackett, Boutens, Brierley, Endean, Spinnael - are there or thereabouts as you'd expect. But there are one or two surprising names near the sharp end of the leaderboard. James Fitchew is having a superb day, as is the often unlucky Daniel Truman. Ed White looks to be delivering on his early promise. And from the outset I've noticed Oli Nitch-Smith setting impressive laptimes; he, too, looks destined for the B final. Liam Brierley has been on a vertical learning curve since his baptism of fire in the BRKC a year ago, and is improving in leaps and bounds - though we all wince as he unceremoniously bundles Alex out of the way on track. I'm sure Alex deserved it.

Sadly, it's not a great day for the girls. Rhianna has had an up-and-down time - including a scary crash which sent her under the tyres at the exit of the middle hairpin - and is out of the A-final. Annelien has been very fast ever since she first took to the track on Saturday afternoon, but hasn't managed to convert that speed into points. I haven't had a chance to follow her progress on track, but know from experience that it doesn't take a lot of bad luck to send you tumbling down the order.

With buttie devoured and tea downed, it's time to clear my brain for heat 17. I'm sixth on the grid for my final heat, and though a second win is a tall order, I'm still riding the high of my earlier triumph. As we roll out of the pits I spot the familiar red, white and Saltire of Ryan Smith's helmet; Josh Overhill is there too.

I'm on the right hand side of the grid, on the racing line - which can be a slight disadvantage at the start as drivers to your left hang you out to dry in the tunnel - but I'm away cleanly, and slot into position as we brake for the hairpin. The driver behind is very quick on the exit, and gets alongside as we shoot over the bridge - but I have the line for the corkscrew, and regain my place. For a lap, the order stays static; up ahead, Ryan is harrying someone - Josh, I think - and I close down the gap.

The next sequence of events is a little hazy. I think that Ryan overtakes into turn 1, decides that he's gained an unfair advantage, and moves to give Josh his place back. Either way, I approach the first hairpin to find them side-by-side, with Ryan waving Josh through. Surfing what is now a wave of over-confidence, I put two wheels on the grass and barge past the pair of them - realising half way through the move that I'm going to run out of space at the apex.

Sure enough, there's a scrape on my left bargeboard, but less than I feared - and as we exit the second hairpin all three of us are still facing in the right direction. But it was a marginal move, particularly on Ryan; if I'm at risk of a penalty I have a couple of corners to give him the place back. I decide that it's legal and stay put; as Ryan and I cross the finish line, nose to tail, the warning board is out - but no penalty. Chris Powell seems to be pointing at Ryan which surprises me.

Ryan certainly isn't happy - I can tell that much from the gentle and not-so-gentle rubbing of my rear bumper - and I don't blame him. He's quicker - I'm hanging on by my fingernails just to keep him behind - but to his great credit, he doesn't try anything silly. Like putting two wheels on the grass, for instance... I keep my nose in front and cross the line fourth.

Back in the paddock, I find Ryan and apologise. At this point I've no idea that I've inadvertently trampled on his race weekend twice: I only discover that much later. Our first coming together was pure racing incident, but the second... there's a fine line between fair and unsporting, and with hindsight I feel I've crossed it. I should probably have given him back his place, but there's nothing I can do about it now except learn from the experience and move on.

With the heats complete, the circuit falls silent as Chris and his team work out the grids for the six finals. My name lies 14th on the leaderboard with 23 points from my three heats; that should put me fourth on the grid for the B final. We crowd around the clubhouse wall as Chris pins up the lists. Sure enough, I'm fourth - and clock the name in fifth with sinking heart. Michael Weddell. Again. That's the second time this year that I've had the blue-clad Scot hunting me down in the final. There are a smattering of local experts - James Kimbley ahead of me in third, Oli Nitch-Smith behind Michael in sixth - plus a couple of unknown quantities. Even before Rhianna wins the C final and progresses to the back of the B final, I know I face a huge battle to hang on to my fourth place.

The first four finals - F to C - fly by, providing their usual entertainment. After his torrid run through the heats, Alex finally turns his day around with a dominant win in the D final - setting a scintillating 33.507 second lap in the process. I watch and cheer and try to ignore the chill in the pit of my stomach.

But as we roll out of the pits for the final time, I'm ready. I've occasionally battled to keep my focus over an entire day of sprint racing, but there's no such problem today. The tingle is there. I know what to do.

The start is even more crucial than usual: Michael has weight, youth and talent on his side. If he gets his nose in front, nothing less than a miracle will stop him disappearing into the distance.

The light blinks green and we're away; I sweep across to the left, shutting the door into the tunnel, and get a smooth run through the hairpin and corkscrew. Michael is a couple of metres back as we lift for turn 1; ahead of me, James is a little sideways at the exit and I sense an opportunity. He takes the defensive line up the straight towards the hairpin; I go left with half a notion of repeating my Wall of Death move from earlier on - but James jinks back towards the racing line as he brakes. I dart into the gap, Michael right on my bumper, and squeeze James wide at the apex. It's probably the best pass I've made all day.

Unfortunately, Michael has found his way past James as well, and still hounds me as we start lap 2. Just ahead, polesitter Sam Joseph and Russell Endean are battling tooth and nail for the lead, but I'm too busy dealing with the threat from behind to pay much attention - until I encounter Sam beached on the kerb at the first hairpin. Endean leads, and I'm second.

The laps are inching by in split-second beats; Russell is slowly pulling away, but I'm driving the sprint final of my life. One tiny slip will throw it away, but all that practice is bearing fruit: always quick in the hairpins, I've finally dialled out my vulnerability through turn 1 and the corkscrew. Michael ducks, dives, nudges, occasionally gets his front bumper alongside my rear wheels - but he can't find a way past.

The chequered flag waves for Russell, two seconds ahead; as Michael and I cross the line nose to tail, I'm punching the air for the second time today, and simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief. For the first time ever, I will stand on a BRKC podium.

Back in the pits there are more congratulations, another kiss - I could get used to this - before we line the pitwall for the main event. Having won the B final, Russell progresses onto the back of the grid for the A final. He joins no less than three other heavyweights - James Fitchew, Anwar Beroual-Smith and the impressive Ed White. It's a new record: the first time four heavyweights have made the A final. Russell is on a roll and has a real shot at the heavyweight win; beside me his girlfriend Sophie is practically hopping from foot to foot. "My heart's going about a million beats a minute..."

Lee Hackett is in his customary pole position, with Connor Marsh - who has looked blisteringly quick all weekend - behind him. We're getting used to seeing Sean Brierley near the sharp end; he starts third. Dan Truman is in his second consecutive A final, the Belgians Boutens and Spinnael are there, as expected... and aside from the heavyweights, there's a surprising name on the grid: Chris Brookshaw. Chris was a consistent points scorer in 2012, but his 2013 season got off to a slow start. His results are improving exponentially though. 65th at round 1, 36th at round 2, A final at round 3...

We're expecting Lee to drive off into the sunset, but as they get underway it's clear that he has a fight on his hands: Connor and Sean are pushing him hard, and for the first five laps they're inseparable, slowly pulling away from the chasing pack. Russell gets off to a great start and is fighting his way through the field; Sophie can barely contain herself. The middle pack is locked in battle, at one point barrelling three abreast into the middle hairpin; but the driving is exceptional and everyone keeps it out of the wall.

Inexorably, in his usual unhurried style, Lee begins to pull out a gap as Connor comes under increasing pressure from Sean. Finally, two laps from home, Sean makes a neat move into the first hairpin. And there they stay - Lee takes the flag ahead of Sean, Connor, Sam Spinnael, Ruben Boutens and Chris Brookshaw. We reserve a huge cheer for Russell, who has produced one of the drives of the day to fight his way up to 7th overall - and winning heavyweight!

I always stay for the podiums, but it's especially sweet to be part of the celebrations... I'm proud to accept my medal and take my place beside Russell and Michael. It's easily my best ever day in the BRKC, and I'm touched that people seem so pleased for me. Marianne takes the credit for bringing me luck; the flipside, of course, is that she's now essential at every BRKC round...

On this day of firsts, Connor Marsh adds another: his maiden podium. After a blip at round 2, Sean has re-established himself as a championship contender... but Lee just keeps on racking them up. There are some hugely talented drivers in this series, but to maintain this level of consistency despite the vagaries of circuits and rental kart fleets takes something very special. To quote Lawrence Hackett: "If I had a spare twenty million quid I could get him to F1..."

The champagne erupts, we scuttle away to avoid the fallout, and scatter our separate ways into the freezing night. Another great race weekend consigned to history; as ever, we owe its success to Brad and Becca, to Chris and his team, to James' commentary. It's immortalised in thousands of photographs, hours of video, a half-dozen driver blogs.

But we're already looking forward to the next challenge. Bumps, twists, the odd exposed tree root. More bumps... did I mention that it's bumpy?

To Matchams, then. I'm counting the hours...

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