Thursday, 29 August 2013

British 24 Hours, Teesside, 23-25 August 2013 (part 1)

The buildup 

(Click here for part 2: the first 12 hours
(Click here for part 3: the final 12 hours)

Friday 23 August

"Vangeen... Andrew is faster than you. Do you understand?"

From the pitwall, a familiar voice rings tinnily in my head. I can't quite place it, but assume it's one of my teammates. Alex Vangeen's reply from a few metres behind me on track is slightly garbled and extremely colourful; as I exit the right hander onto the back straight, throttle pedal pinned to the stops, I'm chuckling inside my helmet.

I discover later that the mysterious voice was that of 2012 teammate Stuart McKay, who had commandeered our radio.

It's lunchtime on day one of the biggest race weekend on the calendar, and life is almost as rosy as can be. The sun is shining, the engines are roaring and I'm five laps into my reunion with this monster of a circuit.

Wind back four hours, to the calm before the storm.

With over a day to go until the race start, the Teesside paddock is coming to life. Team motorhomes and vans jostle for position on the hard standing areas behind the main buildings; along the start/finish straight, awnings are beginning to appear.

Ours is already in situ; we were among the first to set up this morning. The usual suspects - Marianne and Alex's wife Lauren - have already made it our home for the weekend, with a table, chairs, and furtively repositioned picnic bench. We're joined by Lee Hollywood's father Chris, a man of few words and infinite racing experience.

With testing not due to start until 10am, we take the opportunity to walk the circuit. It's a chance to show Marianne the mindblowing back section, which is hidden from the pitwall; I also want to take a closer look at some of the kerbs, which we'll later be approaching at over 60mph.

Lee comes along for the walk, which takes us down the hill past the pits - not nearly as steep on foot as it seems in a kart, oddly - through the white-knuckle right-hander, along the short back straight, and through the tricky 'corkscrew' left-right which takes you back uphill. Parts of me are already aching at the thought of the trial to come: the hundreds of passes over the rutted kerbs, the neck-straining full-throttle exit onto the long infield straight.

I said in the preview that Teesside attracts BRKC regulars like moths to a flame, and by late morning they're flooding in: Connor Marsh, Matt Curtis and Jordan Donegan have set up their awning beside ours; they'll be competing in the Standard Hire class. Our former teammate Stuart McKay is captaining his own team this year, also in Standard Hire. His team are our other neighbours.

Returning to the paddock, we pay a visit to Team Squadra Abarth BRKC, looking chipper under their awning fifty metres down the straight from ours. Podium finishers in Standard Hire last year, like us they've moved up to Club Hire for 2013, and feature a fascinating driver lineup. Old hand Mike Kettlewell leads the Scottish BRKC contingent: Michael Weddell, Ryan Smith and Ben Allward. They're assisted by David Hird, another Teesside regular. The Scots absorb the usual jibes about racing in kilts with typical good humour. It's great to have them here, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they get on in their first 24 hour race.

When we return to our awning, BRKC founder Bradley Philpot is already there making a nuisance of himself; once again, he will race for top owner team Baron Racing, and has a real shot at the outright win this weekend. James Auld is here too, racing for Team Lambo in the owner class. He has, by all accounts, had a long week already and is slightly less than his usual chipper self.

As the clock counts down towards my 1pm test session I spend ten minutes fitting the radio gear to my helmet, and a fruitless forty trying to change visors. My Arai motorcycle lid is a quality piece of kit, but the visor system is a fiddly nightmare: clear visor it is, then.

1.05pm. I'm on track, five minutes into my allotted forty, and only the kart I've drawn for testing clouds my sunny mood. It has all the grunt of a vacuum cleaner and feels as if its right and left halves are in different time zones. I consider pitting to change it, but there's no guarantee of improvement: the test day karts are the dregs of the fleet, with the freshly fettled race karts saved for tomorrow.

It doesn't really matter. I'm out here to check the radio gear and get comfortable, not tear up the tarmac. And by the time I pit after 25 or so laps, all is well: judging from the constant chatter between my teammates, the radios work perfectly. My seat insert, rib protector and padding are comfortable, and my new gloves fit me like, er, gloves.

I hand the kart over to Lee Hollywood along with my gloves: in the rush to fit his radio gear, he's forgotten his. A minor lapse today, but a disaster in the heat of a mid-race pitstop; it's a reminder that we'll need to be on top of our collective game for every second of the next 48 hours.

There's no official timing on Friday, but I'm keen to see what Lee can do in the kart I've just vacated: he's new to the team and comes with a stellar reputation. But I'm disappointed: he's back in the pits after a lap to change karts. He's used to racing his own, carefully prepared karts, and his standards are clearly higher than mine.

Back under the awning, the kettle is on. I munch crisps, man the stopwatches and watch the action on track. As Anwar rockets past on an early sighting lap and Marianne dons the headphones for a spell on the radio, I reflect that despite the new faces we're already a team. And a quietly confident one at that.

We wrap for the day at 3pm with all the boxes ticked and the sky beginning to darken: there are reports of an amber weather warning for Friday night and Saturday morning. As we congregate for dinner and watch rain lash the restaurant windows, I'm emptying my mind of all but the essentials. There's no point in worrying about things I can't control. As ever, the combination of circuit, world-class competition and fickle North Yorkshire weather is going to pelt us with challenges over the next two days.

But we've worked hard for this. After months of preparation, it's almost time to turn a wheel in anger.

Saturday 24 August

Race day. After a rushed breakfast, we wave a wistful goodbye to clean sheets, soundproofing and toilet paper, and arrive at the circuit just after 8am.

The Met Office weren't kidding. There's a lake at the first apex of the fast chicane. Turning a wheel, in anger or otherwise, is going to have to wait. As we empty a bathload of water from the awning - still standing, amazingly - circuit owner Bob Pope booms over the PA system. Practice and the race start will be pushed back an hour, to 1pm; a sweeper will be along shortly to clear the circuit of standing water.

I'm not disappointed at the delay; being ready for practice at 9am is always a rush. Now there's more time to check over our race kart, to fit our steering wheel and lap timer - both borrowed from Brad. Number 49 sits in the pitlane, resplendent with its blue 'bigfoot' steering column cover and a small yellow sticker with 'Racing with Jamie' printed thereon. Every kart wears one, in honour of a seriously ill young Teesside employee. It's just one of several good causes this weekend, and a sobering reminder. Carpe diem.

Lee, Chris and Anwar have already fitted the suede-lined wheel - a far nicer thing to hold than the plastic standard item - and are attaching the digital display. As Alex and I look on, Alex notices a neighbouring hire kart having its air filters changed - by its drivers. This is a blatant rules breach, and the team in question is swiftly apprised of the error of their ways. It leaves a sour taste, though I'm cheered by the thought that if you're boneheaded enough to cheat in plain view of all your competitors, your chances of coming through a 24 hour race unscathed are minimal.

At 9.30am the PA system summons us to the circuit infield, where Bob and the other stewards run through the usual Teesside briefing. Obey the flags, stay off the high kerbs, respect other drivers. At this blue riband event, it's assumed that we know what we're doing; how refreshing to be treated as a racing driver, not a feeble-minded muppet on a corporate jolly (take a bow, Daytona Milton Keynes).

There's a huge cheer for the fundraisers: two drivers will be attempting the entire 24 hours solo and have raised tens of thousands for charity. And we applaud the Kartforce team, an owner-driver crew of wounded veterans. For us, this race is the sternest test there is; I have neither words nor imagination to grasp how tough it will be for them.

And suddenly, as if a switch has been flicked, time speeds up. The giant yellow sweeper lorry (and its terrifying giant of a driver) leaves the circuit, kart engines begin to fire up, the PA system blares unintelligibly... it's intimidating for the newbies, but in our third year I've learned to shut it all out and focus on my first run. It'll be the fastest kart I've ever driven here, in typically damp, drizzly conditions, and I'll need my wits about me.

We've decided that Lee and Anwar, as the more mechanically literate half of the team, will take the first runs. As Lee rolls out of the pits in number 49 to start our race weekend in earnest, I'm offering up my usual prayer for speed and reliability.

Forty minutes later, I await my turn in the pitlane, listening in to the radio traffic, overheating in my wet weather race suit as the sun breaks through overhead. Aside from the throttles engaging out of sync and glazed brake pads - both swiftly remedied - the kart is running well. Both Lee and Anwar have pronounced it 'okay' which is usually the highest praise you'll get from a driver.

Anwar peels into the pits, stops on the weighbridge - which we must all remember to do every time - and drives around the U-bend and through the gate to the pit exit road. As he jumps out I'm already fumbling my seat insert into place - it catches on the steering wheel, and I take note - and attaching my radio push-to-talk button to a steering wheel spoke. With a thumbs-up from the others, I'm gone, accelerating hard as soon as I clear the throng of pedestrians and stopped karts.

The circuit is still damp in places, but drying fast, the standing water a distant memory. I'm expecting to take time to come up to speed, but it takes me all of two corners to realise that this is the sweetest kart I've ever driven. It's a revelation: powerful, grippy, feelsome, predictable, poised... I'm pushing hard on my first flying lap and loving every second.

The laptimes are plummeting, and I'm more or less keeping up. By the time I pit (reluctantly) after my allotted fifteen minutes and hand the kart over to Alex, we're hovering around the top five in class. I'm happy with that: Lee will doubtless go faster, but I'm dialled in and comfortable. I elect not to waste mileage by going out again.

By the time Alex has completed his run, the circuit is virtually dry; Lee heads out again to bang in a qualifying time, and rises to the occasion: his blistering 1.19.4 is only narrowly pipped for pole. It's a far cry from our woes at this time last year, and Alex and I are delighted. We decide to change our driver order to take full advantage of our grid position: Lee will start, followed by Alex, Anwar and I. It means that I won't be on track again until early evening, but it's the right way to go.

I get changed under the awning as Alex brings the refuelled kart around to the grid. As usual, the start will be old-school Le Mans, with the karts lined up on the left side of the track, drivers opposite; when the flag is dropped, the drivers will dash across to their karts, jump in and go.

We're all caught out by our grid position; used to being somewhere near the back, we're actually almost directly in front of our awning, in the top twenty overall. As the karts form up and teams throng the grid, Marianne snaps away with the camera. Anwar and I lift the front of the kart as Lee unbolts the sensor and cabling for the lap timer, which refuses to work. With that complete, there's little to do but wait.

The air itself seems to be humming as excitement ratchets up towards critical mass. On the infield, the start marshal holds up a board, black print on white.


(Click here for part 2: the first 12 hours
(Click here for part 3: the final 12 hours)

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