Thursday, 23 May 2013

BRKC round 5. Raceland, Edinburgh, 11-12 May 2013 (part two)

(click here for part one)


I snap awake, staring at the underside of a coffee table, momentarily unsure of where I am. Then I remember. Dunbar. The Smith residence. Five minutes until my alarm goes off... something else has woken me. I lift my head - and sure enough, Maggie sits a foot away, watching me balefully. She gives me a toothy miaow, bats her head against my hand - and BRKC day is up and running.

Ryan and I neck mugs of tea and wolf bowls of, respectively, porridge and chocolate Weetabix. By 8.30am we're piled into the car with Neil and Diane, heading back along the increasingly familiar stretch of the A1 towards Raceland.

The reception area is already buzzing with a queue of drivers signing in, tea and bacon butties flying out of the kitchen. I find an oasis of calm to get changed and prepare for my two short practice sessions. I'll have twenty laps or so to apply everything I learned yesterday.

In the paddock, BRKC banners are flapping in the wind, the benches and tables cluttered with race gear, helmets in a hundred colours. Both sky and distant sea are more blue than grey today, the forecast ranging from bluebird to torrential rain. That'll be early May in Scotland, then.

Ryan suggests a track walk, and I jump at the chance. On foot, the circuit's gradient is far more noticeable - essentially you spend the first half of the lap dropping down the hill, the second half climbing back up - and it's clearer to see why the entry to the hairpin and the bogey turn 4 are so tricky. Ryan gives me some useful nuggets on the hairpin and the tight left-hander that follows - my weakest areas of the circuit - and the defensive line out of turn 5. At walking speed, the kerbs don't look any more inviting.

Graham summons us for a succinct briefing, by 9.15am we're rolling out of the pits. Within a lap I'm feeling the benefits of yesterday's lessons and a good night's sleep. These karts have quite tricky brakes, with a few millimetres of dead travel and a very sensitive engine cutout mechanism to stop you standing on both pedals and destroying the clutch. They're grabby, too. After falling foul of them repeatedly yesterday, I've found the right progression in the two main braking areas.

Ryan's tips are helping too, and the whole lap is starting to feel less like a frenzied sequence of improvisation and more like a flow of anticipated, controlled inputs. I'm still too slow through the infield left-hander though; Ryan drops me by three metres between entry and exit.

By the end of two sessions I've set a low 1.02, over six tenths of a second faster than yesterday; after the final, untimed session before racing starts I'm as ready as I'm going to be. Which isn't quite ready enough. During the long gap between morning practice and the event itself, I had a long chat with Becca and Brad about misfortune versus making one's own luck. I try to remember the positives and revive my flagging confidence.

Before the racing starts, there's a short interlude which puts everything else in perspective. Earlier in the week we received the very sad news that 2012 BRKC regular Martin Stone had passed away after battling a brain tumour for several months. Known throughout karting for his charity work, he was instantly popular in the BRKC: excellent company off track, and a strong, fair competitor on it.

Instead of the traditional minute's silence, Brad asks us for a minute's applause in front of the podium. It's very fitting and very moving; I think Martin would have appreciated it. I suspect he'd have also wanted us to get on with the racing.

The field is 48 strong - one more than Matchams last month, and superb given the location. We're used to starting grids of 8 or 10 for each heat; here it will be 16, which means far fewer heats than usual - just nine, in fact. I'm not thrilled to find myself in consecutive heats - three and four - but at least there's a decent gap afterwards to my final heat - nine.

We crowd the pitwall for the start of heat one. I don't recognise the polesitter, but don't envy his task - he has perennial frontrunners Sean Brierley and Sam Spinnael right behind him. As the Saltyre drops Sam steals second place from Sean, but there are few more opportunistic drivers in the BRKC than Sean: as Sam squeaks past the polesitter at turn 5, Sean follows him through, holds the inside line through the following sequence of left-handers, and takes the lead. Sam chases, but Sean pulls out a small gap: that, we think, is that. He'd been complaining of a lack of consistency and confidence yesterday; today, the regular Brierley service looks to be restored.

But midway through lap 4 there's a collective gasp: Sean gets wide at the treacherous exit of turn four and slams headfirst into the tyres. Sam, close behind, can't quite avoid him and smacks him broadside into the incoming traffic; unsighted, Rhys Eccles T-bones him at high speed. From the pitlane - a hundred and fifty metres away - the full impact is lessened, but over the past day every driver has had a heart-stopping moment down there; we're concerned for Rhys and Sean.

But both get going again; Sean manages to claw back some of the lost places before the flag. All three drivers are bruised but in one piece; Sean is mystified as to how it happened.
"I didn't do anything different..."

My turn. The clouds have thickened overhead, the odd spot of rain speckling my visor as we roll out to the grid. As we found yesterday, this circuit will hold a surprising level of damp without giving up any laptime. But conditions here change like the flick of a switch, from one corner to the next.

I've drawn the Heat from Hell. Virtually all of the Scottish BRKC contingent join me on the grid, along with Alex, several other quick regulars, and a couple of local experts in Raceland garb. I'm starting quite far back - 12th or so - with Ryan, Matt Hamilton and Ben Allward behind me. Just hanging on to my grid slot will be something of a victory.

Away we go; I navigate the inevitable scrum at the hairpin with reasonable success, and by lap two have lost a couple and gained a couple. I'm locked in a tight battle with Alex, Ryan and one other whose identity escapes me. Alex leads; all three behind are quicker, but his defending is as robust as ever. Ryan eventually scrapes through, but Alex hangs on for grim death and the three of us cross the line side by side. With a very short run from start/finish line to first corner, I run out of room after the flag and spin gracefully onto the grass. No harm done, and I've finished ahead of my grid slot in 10th position.

I'm last back to the pits, and step straight out of one kart into another for heat four. I'm starting in third position, my best chance for some serious points.

My start is near-perfect, the best I've made all weekend, and I slot into second behind Daniel Truman. There's pressure from behind, but I hang on as we rocket through turn 1 for the second time. At which point it all goes horribly wrong.

Rain is still spitting, the track starting to feel slick in places; wary of locking up, I'm tentative under braking for the hairpin - and another kart is half alongside, the driver clambering over the kerb, sliding, and clobbering me broadside. It's a clumsy move, and I'm deep onto the runoff as four karts sweep by, swearing.

A couple of laps later my race descends into farce. The two drivers ahead are an accident waiting to happen, side-by-side through turn one; I'm openmouthed as the driver on the left deliberately shunts his rival onto the grass - then lose sight of them both as I focus on the hairpin.

But at the exit, I meet the out-of-control kart coming the other way, am forced to lift and avoid, and lose yet more places. As I take the flag, more than a little disgruntled, I'm remembering the conversation earlier. Am I failing to make my own luck, or just downright unlucky?

I resolve not to feel sorry for myself, and stuff my face instead. A Raceland cheeseburger and a proper Scottish cup of tea do much to restore my good mood; with some time before my final heat I take stock and watch the action on track. By now the rain is whipping my face, spray hanging in the air over the start-finish straight. I watch Ryan take an assured victory in his second heat, before the heavyweights take charge.

Anwar Beroual Smith (or Arwal Beronal Smit, as the leaderboard knows him today) looks smooth, unhurried and fearsomely quick, sailing to a comfortable win in one of his heats. He's followed home by Alex Vangeen - who, for all his balls-to-the-wall commitment in the dry, has always demonstrated a delicate touch in the rain. They're both a joy to watch. David Whitehouse is also showing well and has a shot at the A-final.

There are mixed fortunes for the other regulars. Michael Weddell has been more or less untouchable on his home circuit - but Lee Hackett has kept him honest; Steven Dailly, Sam Spinnael and Ryan are all thereabouts. Dan Truman and Rhianna Purcocks have each racked up a solid haul of points, too. But Sean's day has not improved. Confidence knocked by his huge shunt, his following two heats have yielded slim pickings: he looks destined for the B-final.

And so, barring a miracle, do I. The rain has stopped as we roll out to the grid for heat 9; because of its exposed position and constant wind, the circuit dries very quickly. As we discover on a Magical Mystery Tour first lap, some parts dry quicker than others.

I keep it out of the wall and make up a couple of places from my lowly starting position. Not a disaster, but hardly spectacular; the pre-final leaderboard shows me 27th overall. With the first 19 making the A-final, I'll be 8th on the grid for the B-final.

After a short break the C final gets underway in more or less dry conditions. I stand in the pitlane, shut out the world for a moment... and jump as my hand is grabbed. It's Anwar, wishing me luck.
"Oops, sorry to interrupt your nap..."

As I thread my kart between the tyrewalls towards the circuit for the twelfth and final time, I feel suddenly weary. It's been a tough weekend's racing. Not physically - the sum total of track time over two days barely adds up to a single British 24 Hours stint - but the mental effort and peaks of adrenalin have taken their toll. I summon the tingle for one last push.

As the flag drops I'm already jinking across the track, cutting off Matthew Curtis at the entry to turn one and earning myself a hefty clout for my troubles. We're tidy - by recent standards - through the hairpin and left hander; into the white-knuckle turn 4 I'm closing on the three in front - Aaron McManus, a Raceland blue suit and a red suit I don't recognise. As they barrel into turn 5, Blue Suit is on the inside. I can follow him through, or try a Wall of Death around the outside. I choose Wall of Death...

...and go the wrong way. Blue Suit sweeps back onto the racing line, cutting me off - and suddenly Sean is clambering up the kerb to my right. I hang on, edge back in front through the apex of turn six... but my line pushes me wide and he's through. Up ahead, there's contact between Aaron and Red Suit; Aaron fishtails onto the runoff.

Matthew has squeezed past behind Sean, and I chase him, Aaron and Red Suit. Down to the hairpin for the second time, Sean is harrying Red Suit as Matthew goes for an imaginary gap, creams straight through Red Suit, and presumably ends up somewhere in Northumberland. Left with a clear track, Sean takes advantage; Aaron is caught up as well, and I manage to squeeze past the three of them. For me at least, things are looking up.

Over the next couple of laps I get the hammer down and catch the Raceland Blue Suit. After a short but entertaining battle, I pass him into turn 4. At which point things turn rather less entertaining.

Contact both accidental and deliberate has been far too big a factor this weekend for my taste. I know the powers that be are dealing with it by docking points from offending drivers and awarding them to the victims - I suspect I've been a beneficiary at least once. But it hasn't improved the behaviour on track.

Next time around, as I brake for the hairpin, Blue Suit doesn't. With his front bumper against my rear bumper, he shoves me two metres past the apex, turns in, and takes the place. I pass him again a lap later, and this time have to gather up a high speed tankslapper as he deliberately raps my right-rear corner into turn 4, trying to put me in the wall on the exit. He fails - but I'm treated to a steady stream of nudges through the fast corners at the end of the lap. And as I turn into the final corner, he sideswipes me deep onto the bricked runoff at the exit. I avoid the tyres - just - but he's through. And frankly, I've had enough.

This isn't racing as I understand it. This is far more like Dodgems.

With a couple of laps to go, Aaron passes me with a neat move into turn 6, having recovered from his early misfortune. While I'm never happy to be passed, it's refreshing not to be rammed. And in terms of points it makes no difference - everybody between 20th and 30th overall will score 10 points. It's a sensible system, borrowed from the Kart World Championships, that helps mitigate the consequences of a bad kart or other misfortune.

I'm ninth at the flag, irritated, and tell myself to keep my mouth firmly shut until I've calmed down. It's far too easy to lose your rag at a time like this.

We crowd the grassy bank which overlooks the pit straight for the start of the A final. Having won the B final from tenth on the grid - a brilliant recovery from a nightmare start - Sean starts at the back. Neil Macinnes and Steven Dailly share the front row, with Michael Weddell third and Anwar an impressive fourth; Sam Spinnael and Lee Hackett have also done brilliantly to get in amongst the Scots.

We're expecting a nailbiter, and we get it. It's the longest 15 laps any of us can remember; God knows what it's like on the circuit. After the usual first-lap mayhem, Michael and Neil trade the lead, pulling a tiny gap over Lee and Steven Dailly. Having started fifth, Ryan is struggling with a tardy kart - again - and falls prey first to Sam, then Neil Ferrier.

For lap after lap, Lee hangs on to third by the skin of his teeth - but Steven's local knowledge finally bears fruit, and he squeaks through. But he's kept honest: one slip will put Lee back on the podium. In the midfield, there's an almighty scrap between Sean - who has rocketed up from his last-place start, Rhianna, Matthew Hamilton, Scott Winter... it's impossible to take it all in.

As they start the final lap, Michael leads; we're holding our breath as they disappear out of sight into turn 7... and Michael is still in front as they brake for the penultimate corner. He's a little slow on the exit, Neil all over him into the final turn... and from our elevated vantage point, all twenty of us see the contact. Neil hits Michael's right rear corner, pushing him wide onto the runoff and squeezing his nose in front before the line.

As the engines fall silent, there's muttering of a change to the result. Brad even shows the management a video of the incident. But they rule, quite rightly, that if they watched video footage of every on-track incident, we'd still be here next summer. It looked clear-cut to me, but I'm not the race director. The result stands; Michael, to his great credit, is philosophical about it. Moaning won't change it, and his second place moves him up to seventh in the championship.

There's a big cheer for heavyweight winner Anwar, who has been mighty today, and an even bigger cheer for the popular David Whitehouse, who has taken full advantage of the mixed conditions to take third position. They're joined on the podium by local expert Gavin Love. Russell Endean's fourth place has secured him the heavyweight title: richly deserved after a brilliant season.

We scatter quickly, most of us facing a long trip home... but not before some important good wishes. After months of preparation, Brad will be racing for Peugeot in one of the world's biggest motorsport events - the Nurburgring 24 Hours - just seven days from now. And two weeks from now, Alex and Lauren will finally be tying the knot. Exciting times.

And that's about it except for the Fat Lady. As I wait for my delayed flight south, I have plenty of time to reflect. Although I wasn't impressed with some of the driving this weekend, there's much to celebrate about the BRKC's first foray north of the border. Friendly people, a great circuit, strong karts... and crucially, excellent tea. It was certainly worth the trip, and I very much hope that Raceland stays on the BRKC calendar for 2014.

But it's time to turn our attention to the finale. I know nothing about the venue other than it's highly regarded and buried in the depths of Suffolk. The ninth of June can't come soon enough.

Ellough Park, show us what you got.

Sean Brierley and Anthony and Tyler Mays for their video footage, which helped revive my flagging memory.

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