(click here for part two)
"I smell upcoming A-Finals Andrew Duff?"
Sean Brierley, Facebook, 11 March 2013
We idle at the entrance to Matchams Leisure Park, waiting for the yellow barrier to raise. "To keep the travellers out," said the hard-faced woman in the reception booth. I don't think she needs the barrier.
Once in my head, Sean's comment refuses to leave. Posted the day after my strong showing at Hereford last time out, it's a nice thought. But I'm not optimistic. Matchams isn't a happy hunting ground for me. Two years ago I left soaked and disgruntled after a lacklustre performance.
Still, with the sun shining and a long day of racing stretching before us, anything is possible - and this is already an unusual BRKC weekend. With the circuit just 35 miles from home I've been able to sleep in my own bed for a change, and we've played host to part of the Scottish contingent: Ryan Smith, and his parents Neil and Diane. They arrived by train on Saturday, and we whiled away a pleasant afternoon and evening in Winchester together. After a wretched weekend in Hereford, Ryan is quietly determined to bounce back, and is a serious contender for the sharp end today.
BRKC founder Brad will be absent today - for the first time ever - because he's away testing in Germany in preparation for his upcoming debut as a Peugeot factory driver. Or so we're told. I spy a metallic red Peugeot 208GTi in the car park... not too many of these about yet. And it's identical to Brad's new company car.
Sure enough, he's here, having driven through the night. We shouldn't be surprised, really - his single-minded commitment has brought the BRKC to where it is now. It's great to see him.
The field has shrunk a little since last month, but 47 drivers have made the trip down to the South Coast. It's a strong turnout, and most of the usual suspects are here. Anwar Beroual-Smith and Tristan Windebank are circuit locals and likely to be strong today, as are championship leaders Lee Hackett and Sean Brierley. Besides Ryan, Michael Weddell and Ben Allward (and respective families) have made the marathon journey from Scotland. And the internationals are back in force too: Boutens siblings Ruben and Annelien, Ted Monfils, and Sam Spinnael. Top competitors, all.
"I don't feel up for it today," muses Alex Vangeen, prompting me to check the sky for flying pigs. Winter or summer, day or night, sunny Matchams or rain-lashed Teesside - very few live and breathe racing like Alex. But he's under the weather and feeling the strain of wedding preparations, I suspect. I've been there.
The clock's ticking; I greet circuit owner George Lovell, sign in and hurriedly get changed for the first of my two practice sessions. With a total of 35 minutes on track before I turn a wheel in anger, I should have 70 or so laps under my belt by the time the heats get underway.
I'm going to need them. This circuit might be only 420 metres long, but it's the bumpiest piece of racing tarmac I've ever encountered. It's devilishly difficult to turn consistent laptimes, and a momentary lapse or unlucky bounce can easily leave you buried in a tyre wall.
The karts we're using for practice are the dregs of the fleet - the best are being saved for the race - and I'll be happy not to encounter my second practice kart again. It's slow in a straight line, reluctant to turn right, and beats me to a black-and-blue pulp. Still, after two sessions I'm beginning to find the groove: learning to use the brakes very sparingly, and adopting the tricky technique of making small, precise steering movements without being deflected by the bumps.
The race karts are rolled out for our final five minutes of free practice, and are something of a revelation: gruntier, pointier, much better over the bumps. Ten more laps, and I'm ready for the real thing. There's a quieter, desultory feel about today, and it takes me a while to work out why. We're missing the excellent James Auld and his stirring commentary.
Still, the laptimes on the leaderboard are separated by hundredths: it's going to be mighty close. On the quiet, the tension is building. In my chest, the butterflies begin to flutter.
As the heats get underway, I'm at the pitwall, watching the lights to make sure I'm looking the right way when it's my turn. The early races confirm what I suspected from the early laps of practice: passing around here is a bit like eating a jam donut using your toes. Tortuous, frustrating and potentially messy.
There are fifteen heats today - three for each driver, as usual - and with a 28-second lap and no slow roll around to the grid, we're flying through them. I'm in heats four, six and ten; as I walk out to the grid and clip my numberplate - 14 - onto the front cowl of my kart, everything else falls away. This, after all, is why we all got up this morning.
I'm eighth on the grid of ten, sandwiched between the speedy Alexandru Damian and local specialist Anwar Beroual-Smith. Further ahead is the familiar blue suit of KWC superstar Ruben Boutens; directly in front of me in sixth is Hereford A-finalist Ed White.
Red light. Interminable wait... green. I'm away well, swiftly closing up to heavyweight Ed's rear bumper as Alexandru shoots up the inside. The tyrewall on the exit of turn 2 lies in wait for the foolhardy, but everyone's through cleanly and we concertina for the first of the two hairpins. Alexandru's a little wide into the tighter, bumpier second hairpin; Ed spots a gap and I follow him through. It's a neat move, and I'm pleasantly surprised.
Ed's a little slower out of the final corner and takes the defensive inside line as I draw alongside, forcing me to the outside through the flat-out turn 1. I nearly drop the kart over the sharp ridge between tarmac and concrete, and jink back into line for turn 2. I'm too greedy into the right-hand hairpin at turn 3 and slide wide, cursing as Alexandru hangs me out to dry at turn 4 - doing to me what I did to him a lap earlier. We make light contact, for which he later apologises - appreciated, but unnecessary. It was a clean move.
Back to square one.
For a couple of laps I have a front row seat for the battle between Ed and Alexandru. Alexandru is quicker in a straight line, forcing Ed to the inside along the pit straight - but Ed is defending neatly. I'm ready to pick up the pieces - and when Alexandru takes to the outside into turn 4, I catch them both napping and nip past on the inside. It's a sweet moment, but sadly short lived, as Ed aims for a narrowing gap into the final corner and shoves me right to the edge of the concrete runoff on the exit, inches from the gravel trap. Not one of his finer moments, in my opinion; my mood is further darkened when Alexandru shoots past both of us into turn 1.
Matters go from bad to worse a couple of laps later. Having started near the front, blue-suited Tyler Mays has gone backwards, and now lies seventh ahead of me. He's a little wide into turn 3; hoping to pass him on the exit, I go in too hot, rap his right-rear corner and push him into a half-spin. We grind to a halt with his kart broadside across my front bumper. I raise a hand in apology, drive around him and take the flag with a mix of irritation and relief. Much promised, little delivered.
During the briefing, we were told that incidents would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with points being docked if the race directors saw fit. Back in the pits, I'm a little surprised to have hung on to my seventh place. Clearly mine has been deemed a racing incident. I feel bad for Tyler, and mean to find him and apologise - but am due back on track within minutes, and forget. So: apologies, Tyler. No hard feelings I hope.
I watch from the pitlane as Ryan battles his way from ninth on the grid to fifth at the flag in his first heat - a solid start - then get my head together for my second attempt. Heat six, grid sixth, much room for improvement. Clearly the computer's having a lazy day: no less than five of the drivers from my first heat have been allocated to this one.
As the lights go green, my day suddenly begins to improve in leaps and bounds. I make one of the best starts of my life; everyone else is moving in treacle as I jink right, then left, two places up before turn 2. I make two more between turn three and the start/finish line... and overtake Chris Brookshaw for the lead as we head into turn one for the second time.
Once in a blue moon, if you persevere, racing is like this. Savour these moments. They won't come around often.
I'm sailing away in the lead, driving nicely, beginning to imagine that I might just hang on... when Fate and Anwar Beroual-Smith intervene. Lap six, and he's tracking my every move, inches from my rear bumper. I defend, but am helpless to prevent him powering past on the start-finish straight. I'm faster than I've been all day, but he's incredibly quick, drawing away at two or three tenths per lap despite my best efforts and the fact that he's 15kg heavier.
I take the flag a satisfied second, knowing I've driven to the best of my ability. Back in the pitlane, Anwar shakes my hand. "Kart was a rocket," he explains. "I was just driving past people out of the corners... it takes away some of the pleasure of winning, to be honest..."
George Lovell and his team have been struggling, a little, to cater to the BRKC's insatiable need for kart parity. But they're doing their best, swapping karts with spares from the fleet in a bid to keep consistent performance up and down the grid. Anwar's rocketship is swiftly replaced.
Ten minutes later, another kart joins it in the pitlane. In the BRKC in 2013, there's no surer thing than Lee Hackett on pole position. Which is why we're gobsmacked when, in his first heat, he's swamped by the field, eventually struggling home fifth. He's clearly drawn a dog; George orders it replaced. It's terrible luck for Lee but to his credit, he shrugs it off and refuses to complain. His father Lawrence is less philosophical, however...
Sun shining, Brad turning up unannounced, Lee on the back foot... I feel a Murray Walker coming on. Anything can happen, and usually does... my final heat is still to come.
And I'll be starting it from pole position.
(click here for part two)