Thursday, 13 June 2013

BRKC round 6. Ellough Park Raceway, 9 June 2013 (part 1)

"I think," says Bradley, "that we have a clear winner for 'prettiest race director of the year'."

It's a backhanded compliment given the standard of competition (Brad has Matchams owner George Lovell as runner up), but Ellough Park's club secretary Sian De Waal makes quite a first impression. At the sign-in desk in reception, drivers are either mumbling shyly at their race boots, or cracking even more puerile jokes than usual.

I slurp a much-needed cup of tea and watch the usual suspects drift in. It's 10.30am and morning practice is drawing to a close. Out on track, familiar helmets are tearing around. The Scots are here in force: red, white and blue for Ryan Smith, blue and white for Michael Weddell, yellow, red and green for Ben Allward. They're jinking and swerving between a group of ten-year olds in cadet karts. The closing speeds are huge. If the little'uns aren't afraid, they should be.

Round 6 has got off to a slow start in chilly, blustery Suffolk, but those of us new to the Ellough Park way of doing things are getting into the swing. It's unusual for us to be testing with non-BRKC drivers on track, and the rolling arrive and drive format is a little de-constructed, too. But it works. The marshals are friendly and efficient, the karts quick and - on initial impression - fairly consistent across the fleet.

The circuit is old-school. Fast, bumpy, concrete run-off areas, variable grip, a fascinating mix of corners. It feels lived-in: a little frayed at the edges, but brimming with character. And it's no pushover. Every lap demands pinpoint precision and delicate feel. There are places where a minor slip will send you facefirst into a plastic bollard filled with bricks and cement.

In other words, it's bloody brilliant.

After 45 minutes of practice – nearly 50 laps – the idiosyncrasies of circuit and karts are beginning to mesh, to form a cohesive whole which forms the basis of fast, consistent lappery. I’m a few tenths away from the ultimate pace as usual, but the tingle is there; the four hour drive from Winchester is starting to feel worth it.

I’m not sure Marianne agrees, especially as both Becca and the new Mrs Vangeen are absent. But she knows plenty of the regulars and is amusing herself taking pictures from Ellough’s excellent vantage points. I’m delighted that she’s here.

At a little after 11am, Sian summons us for a driver's briefing in the paddock. It’s not quite the usual routine: we’re not used to being talked through the circuit corner by corner, for instance. There’s a bit of sniggering at the very notion that BRKC drivers need coaching. Grow up, boys and girls. There’s always something to learn.

We’re distracted by the late arrival of Russell Endean – to general applause – and by the sight of a small plane which barely clears the circuit floodlights on its final approach to the airfield half a mile away. The area is a skydiving dropzone: during the day we become accustomed to the sight of multiple canopies dotting the sky. Along with the skydive aircraft: a larger plane which seems destined for a fiery end in the car park every time it roars overhead. We gather from Sian that its pilot aims to beat his passengers back to terra firma every time.

Just like at Raceland last month, the grids are bigger than usual here: with 41 drivers signed in and 14 in each race, we’ll have just eight heats and three finals. And just like at Raceland, two of my heats are consecutive. I’m in two, seven and eight.

We each have five minutes of free practice, which proves useful: I find a better line through the tricky, off-camber left hander at turn 3, and test – with mixed results – a couple of overtaking points.

As the heat one drivers roll out onto the wide start-finish straight with its overhead gantry and white-painted grid markings, I’m already tuning out, focusing inward. I’m 15th in the championship and determined to hang onto my position at the very least. As a result I miss most of the first heat, but am dimly aware of carnage in the first two corners and some fist waving. I’m more concerned about the spots of rain which are starting to speckle my visor.

Ten minutes later, as I take my eighth grid slot, it’s still spitting, and it’s going to be a Magical Mystery Tour into Turn 1. I tell myself not to worry about it, and concentrate on making up places regardless. I was far too courteous last time out, and got shunted left, right and centre for my troubles.

This time, there will be no prisoners.

Green light; I’m away quickly, sidling up to Alex Vangeen's rear bumper and following him through turn 1 - both of us taking a wide line to avoid the anticipated bottleneck at the apex. There's a bit of pushing and shoving, but as we approach the end of lap one we're all more or less where we started: Lee Henderson and Rhianna up front, followed by Anwar's dad Ferhat, Ben Allward and Chris Brookshaw, and a gaggle of four: Alex, Ian Sandison, myself, and Connor Marsh.

As we turn into the right-hand hairpin before the pits, Ian is up on the kerbs, looping into a spin; Alex and I avoid him but Connor is delayed, and passed by Jonathan Carty. I'm better out of the final corner, alongside Alex on the approach to turn 1. Up ahead, the frontrunners concertina at the apex; focused on holding my line and not sliding into Alex, I’m light on the brakes and give the kart in front a hefty clout.

Luckily I hit him square on: he shoots forwards instead of sideways, but I'm slowed - Jonathan scoots past on the inside, and I sense someone else close behind. We’re three abreast into turn 2 with me in the middle. I shut the door on the kart to my right, already correcting for the inevitable rap at my right-rear corner, and hold my position through the double-apex right-hander. Alex is still on my left; I edge him out onto the wide flat kerb; he’s forced to back off or hit the wall.

But I'm baulked by traffic ahead into turn three, and Alex is still there with the inside line as we barrel into the flat-out turn four. I give him space, hang on for dear life around the outside, ride the bumpy kerb at turn five and somehow get it all slowed down for turn six without hitting anything (much).

Like I said. No prisoners. In the pitlane, Brad and Marianne are watching proceedings with raised eyebrows. “Andrew’s getting stuck in, isn’t he…?”

Around this time, Anwar breezes past me as if I'm driving a pedal kart, and summarily dispatches his Dad into the hairpin at turn seven. I follow him through and, over the next lap, catch Jonathan Carty. After a couple of attempts I pass him into the final corner with most of the kart over the inside kerb.

By lap four of eight I’ve pulled a small gap to the chasing pack, and am tracking Chris Brookshaw and Rhianna Purcocks, embroiled in spirited battle for fourth place. I’m fractionally quicker over a lap, but can’t get my nose ahead where it counts; as the laps count down I’m hoping they’ll collect each other and exit stage left. But despite some very close calls, they both keep it on the road. I finish right behind Chris in sixth place, two up from my grid position. It’s a solid start.

Anwar has won from dead last on the grid, overtaking Lee Henderson for the lead on the very last corner. But the Powers That Be have declared the move illegal, and demoted him to second place.

With at least forty minutes in hand before my double-header of heats, I catch up with my wife, ingest caffeine and sugar, and watch the action from the raised platform above turn seven. This offers a panoramic view of the whole circuit; we're joined by Ed White's dad Geoff, and Brad, who has paid a visit to the ice cream van. He's eating a weird concoction called a Witches Hat - essentially an ice lolly rammed into a Mr Whippy. I've never heard of such a thing, and apparently haven't lived.

On this championship-deciding day, so far, there are no upsets at the top of the leaderboard. Lee Hackett cruises around in his customary devastating way; Sean and Sam Spinnael are right there as well, and Anwar is defying the laws of physics. Business as usual.

Poor Michael Weddell, however, is having the Race from Hell. Somehow I manage to miss all of his incidents, but every time I turn around he's facing the wrong way or embedded in the wall. Ryan - having a solid day himself - assures me that it's not Michael's doing. He's been bundled off the road in two of his three heats.

Anwar dominates the heavyweights, but Lee Henderson is doing well at his home circuit, ahead of James Fitchew and double champion Russell Endean - who might be suffering from his shortage of practice time.

Marianne and I chat to newlyweds James and Heather about the merits of Lanzarote, from where they're recently returned. Hot and sandy is the general consensus - with a charmingly Mediterranean disregard for health and safety. Karting in flip-flops? No problem. You want a helmet? Really? Okay, but real men don't wear them...

Tick tock. With heat six already underway it's time to flush my brain of all but the essentials. I've got better at this over the last couple of years, having initially struggled to cope with the mental peaks and troughs of a sprint event.

I'm thirteenth on the grid for heat seven, with only Alex and Chris Brookshaw behind; up ahead I've got a motley crew to content with: Smith, Beroual-Smith, Whitehouse, Carty, Warren, Curtis, Eccles... I can't wait.

My start isn't quite as lightning-fast this time, but I hold my position through the first two turns and focus on the group in front: Daryl Warren, Jonathan Carty, and a driver in red whose name escapes me.

After a clean first lap, they all tangle at the exit of turn one on lap 2; I pick my way through the fallout, gain three places, and set about closing down the pack, which has opened a small gap. I'm briefly held up by Liam Brierley, but pass him into the final turn and take another place along the start/finish straight. Three laps in, I'm up to eighth place. So far, so good.

Then, unfortunately, I come up against a brick wall, known to most of us as David Whitehouse. I get alongside out of turn three, take the inside line for the flat-out left hander that follows, and expect that to be that. But I'm forced over the kerb, getting a little out of shape, and David's there to take advantage as I lock up in the bumpy, downhill braking area for turn 6. He passes me into the penultimate corner and holds me at bay for another lap. I'm faster, but can't find a way by.

Next time through I'm quicker out of the final corner, but David jinks to the right and forces me into a Wall of Death around the outside at turn one. I'm past, but again he's cleverly kept himself in contention by forcing me to compromise my line.

His next move is less clever: as we turn into the first of the double apexes, he makes hard contact with my right rear corner, pushing me wide enough that Rhys Eccles squeezes through as well. Irritated, I chase hard, but succeed only in sideswiping Rhys at the exit of turn six, earning a colourful hand gesture for my efforts.

As we're shown the last lap board, I'm trying everything I can but getting nowhere. And to make matters worse, our squabbling has allowed Jonathan Carty to close right up; he clobbers me unceremoniously out of the way at the apex of turn six, half a lap from the flag. Now it's my turn for fist waving.

Needless to say I'm not happy; as we cruise around to the pits I'm simultaneously shaking my head and telling myself to move on. I need my mind clear for my crucial final heat. In the pits, Marianne is sympathetic but philosophical: the leaderboard shows me tenth, better than I realised. But I ran as high as seventh, and that rankles like an itch you can't reach.

In moments Sian is in the pitlane with her clipboard, calling our driver numbers, and everything else falls away as I walk out to my kart. This will be the last heat of BRKC 2013.

Best make it a good one.

(click here for part two)

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