Friday, 30 August 2013

British 24 Hours, Teesside, 23-25 August 2013 (part 2)

The Race: the first 12 hours

(Click here for part 1: the buildup
(Click here for part 3: the final 12 hours)

Saturday 24 August

1 MINUTE. The marshal lowers his board.

There's no chatter now. Just the clatter of 73 idling karts. We're all behind the barrier except Lee and Alex, who will help Lee on his way.

30 SECONDS. I daren't blink. The Union Jack flag is raised... five lifetimes pass... and it drops. Lee is sprinting across the track, slightly ahead of the rest I think... smoothly into the kart, Alex pushing him... and he's up and away, in amongst the owner karts, disappearing over the crest at turn 1 as the rest of the field streams past. The world goes eerily silent for a few seconds before the leaders appear from behind the hill, streaking down through the Esses and into the hairpin for the first time. There's a bit of jostling, but they're all cleanly through and onto the back straight.

We breathe, take stock. Pulses drop a little. With five laps gone, Lee and the polesitter are dicing hard for the lead, which swaps frequently. Exciting stuff, and encouraging too, but the race is long. We've learned to take it one lap at a time.

Marianne force-feeds me a cheese sandwich as Alex keeps Lee informed on the radios. As hour 1 comes to a close Lee runs a close second; I post a Twitter update and control the mounting butterflies. We're closing in on our first race pitstop, and an awful lot can go wrong.

In a change to the rules, only one person can assist during pitstops, in an attempt to avoid crowding in the pitlane. I wait behind the catchment fences, with a view of the circuit, fuel bay and pit entry; it's essential that we don't put Lee in a queue of traffic for fuel. Wearing the headphones, Anwar also watches the fuel bay.

After a couple of false starts, we bring Lee in just before 2.40pm; I run around to help Alex and arrive with seconds to spare. Lee pushes the kart under the gate and we go to work: I spray lubricant onto the chains as Alex starts the engines and jumps in. It's a clean stop, and I breathe a sigh of relief as he rockets away.

Lee's done a great job to keep us in touch with the lead, and I tell him so as we walk back to the awning. The pitstop has dropped us to fourth, but Alex is reeling in the third placed driver and passes him just as the clock ticks past 3pm. Two hours down, 22 to go. We relax a little, watch the track and screens. The adrenalin seeps away.

Then, at 3.40pm, it spikes again. "Problem! Problem!" Lauren, wearing the headphones, spins away from the pitwall as we converge. She holds up a hand to halt our questions and listens, shakes her head.
"I can't tell what he's saying... but he's coming in."


We run down to the Club Hire garage; Alex is already out of the kart and talking to the mechanics. It's a loss of power; they quickly diagnose a blocked carburettor and get to work stripping it down and blowing pressurised air through it. I feel the laps slipping between our fingers and shake my head in disgust. Why do these things happen to us?

Alex refuelled on his way down to the garage; in an attempt to minimise the time loss, we cut his stint short and send Anwar out as soon as the kart is ready. But within minutes he's on the radio, complaining of a lack of corner exit speed. The laptimes hold steady to begin with, but Anwar can feel the kart worsening with every lap; finally he's forced to pit again. The problem is so bad that he can't make the left turn to head down the hill to the garage; the mechanics have to lift him around.

Again, we're back in the garage with the kart up on stands. Lee is in there with them, checking the stub axles on the front wheels... initially they think one of these is broken, but soon spot a much more serious problem.

The chassis is cracked.

"That's our race over, guys." Lee looks gutted; I don't blame him, but I don't believe him either. We've been here before, and we've invested far too much blood, sweat, tears and money to give up now.

The solution is a no-brainer: we need a new kart. Luckily there are spares sitting outside the garage; Lee and the mechanics waste no time in swapping our steering wheel, transponder and front panel across; once Lee has double-checked that the throttles are in sync, Anwar is back in and accelerating up the hill towards the pitlane.

The mechanics are mumbling about accident damage, but even they don't sound convinced. For the second year running, we've been issued with a faulty kart. Impressed, we are not.

The timing screens tell an all too familiar story. We're last in class, a couple of laps behind the next stragglers, and 13 laps behind the leaders. About the only good news is that we're barely three hours in. But we face an almighty battle to get anywhere near the sharp end.

The weather has been toying with us, intermittently moistening the track and making conditions particularly difficult to judge. But Anwar is flying in the new kart, and within the hour we've caught the back of the field. As 5pm passes and I post the hour 4 update, I'm already focusing inward. It's been such a draining day already, and I've yet to turn a lap in the race.

By 5.40 I'm suited, booted, padded, radioed, caloried, hydrated and practically hopping from foot to foot. Our woes are forgotten; I'm here to make this racing machine sing, and it's a huge relief to cast everything else away and drive.

Anwar is in the pits bang on cue; Alex gets busy behind the kart as I leap in. Again, my seat insert snags on the steering wheel, but no time is lost. At least I've remembered it this year... I'm still velcroing the radio button to the steering wheel spoke as I get the GO! command and thread my way between the throng before booting it.

I'm straight out into a gaggle of owner karts, as is so often the case, but the circuit instantly feels grippier than I feared. Just an occasional sprinkling of drizzle on my visor - which I force myself to ignore - and sections of damp tarmac through the flat-out banked right hander at the bottom of the circuit. Which are impossible to ignore.

I'm correcting all the way through as the kart's tail constantly steps out of line at over 60mph... the slow left hander which ends the lap is wet on the entry too; it takes me a couple of laps to find the sweet spot through there.

But the kart is a joy - just as poised and biddable as the original - and I'm blasting past Standard Hire karts and slower Club Hires with confidence. Three laps in, Lee crackles in my headset.
"How's the kart?"
"AWESOME!" I shout.

After a pause, Lee's back.
"Did you say awesome, or awful??"

I discover later that there was some consternation on the pitwall at this point - partly alleviated by Marianne, who assured Lee that I wouldn't normally use the word 'awful'. I don't attempt to clarify for fear of causing more confusion; Lee asks me for a hand signal, and I raise my arm high with thumb up. Confusion averted.

My day is made when, five or so laps later, my headset crackles again.
"Good news Andrew. You're currently fastest in class. Keep it up."

Fantastic! My confidence soars even higher. But years of experience sound a warning. Don't get cocky and bin it...

I spot a couple of familiar helmets on track, passing Matt Curtis in his Standard Hire kart with a wave at the exit of the corkscrew, and jumping out of my skin as Brad blasts by with inches to spare into the Esses. That, Mr Philpot, was a little close... no harm is done, and he apologises later.

Marianne has taken over on the radio, and informs me that my laptimes are down in the 1.22s - still a couple of seconds away from dry pace - and that I'm still consistently second fastest in class. The first hour of my stint has passed in a blink and as the light begins to fade from grey to black, track conditions subtly worsen. I'm in an entertaining dice with a fellow Club Hire kart when we find ourselves embroiled in a chain of slow owner-driver karts.

They're slower in the corners but faster on the straights, which makes them tricky to deal with, especially in the greasy conditions. We're all working hard as we slip into single file for the Esses, bearing down on a lone Standard Hire kart at the thick end of 70mph.

The Standard Hire driver stamps on his brakes, and time slows into split-second beats.

The Esses are taken flat out in the dry, and near-flat in the wet. There is only one line through, with vicious saw-toothed kerbs on either side. You do not brake there. Not ever.

The rear of the owner kart in front of me snaps right as he slams on the brakes, instantly a passenger as his kart ramps off the kerb to the left; I brake as lightly as I dare, trying not to lock up, but still catch the Club Hire driver behind me unawares. For a millisecond I'm staring into his eyes, wide behind his visor, as he spins past me, his kart smashing backwards over the kerb, heading for the tyre wall. Then the owner driver is spinning across my path having bounced off the tyre wall to my left; I just avoid the now-crawling Standard Hire kart and lightly rap the owner kart as I pass, braking for the hairpin.

Then I'm through, out of danger, exiting the right hander onto the back straight. I key the radio.
"Holy fuck."

There's a short pause before Marianne replies, sounding breathless.
"Well done!"

For not killing myself or - I hope - anyone else, I presume. I'm concerned for the Club Hire driver that went into the wall, but by the time I next pass the spot, the yellow warning flags have been withdrawn and the circuit is clear. Marianne tells me later that the stricken Club Hire kart was pushed through a gap in the tyre wall and driven into the pits. I'm more than a little relieved; in an accident like that it wouldn't have taken much bad luck to put two drivers in hospital.

It seems like seconds later that Marianne is on the radio again, asking me to check the fuel level. As far as I can tell there's about five centimetres sloshing around in the tank; it takes a couple of laps of shouting into the microphone and some emphatic hand signalling to get the message across.

Soon afterwards, she's back to give me a fifteen minute warning and an apology for leaving me out for so long. I've absolutely no idea how long I've been out here, but note that it's nearly dark; they must be trying to stretch my stint as long as possible. Just like old times... soiled underwear moment aside I'm perfectly fine and in no hurry for the stint to end.

But end it must; I get the 'box' command as I exit the final turn and am already detaching my radio cable as I slow for the pitlane. I remember to turn sharp left and stop on the weighbridge before moving forward, stopping the engines and leaping out in the fuel bay. The fuel crew are cheerful and efficient as usual; in seconds I'm pushing the filled kart around the U-bend and along to the pit exit. As always, the driver must do this unassisted.

Lee and Alex descend as I pass through the gate; I'm expecting to start the right engine, as we planned, but Alex does it for me. Lee's using my seat insert so I leave it in place; the engines are fired up and he's gone without delay. Great stop.

I reckon I've driven a reasonable stint, and it's good to have Anwar and Alex confirm it. We've made up a couple of places and are lapping much faster than our immediate competition. The frustration of our reliability problems has faded to grim determination. Come what may, we'll make the best of what we have.

Back in the paddock, the atmosphere is buzzing. I swap stories of awe and bravado with Marianne as other drivers - Ryan, Michael, Ben, Brad, Jonny Elliott - come and go. Ryan's parents Neil and Diane are about too, though I've barely had time to catch up with them. Like last year, the girls have made a couple of sorties to nearby Asda and seem to be feeding half the field. Our complement has swelled, too - Anwar's dad Ferhat has come to support us. I've yet to meet a more passionate, heart-on-sleeve karting parent: his enthusiasm is just what we need.

"Hang on... we've suddenly dropped to 20 laps behind the leaders!" Alex is frowning, staring down at his phone. Having triple-checked the timing screens, he stomps off to Race Control with a face like thunder, and returns with the news that we've been given a 10 lap penalty for being underweight. My insides turn to ice - as the most recent driver on the weighbridge, I must be the culprit - but I've been carrying extra weight which pushes me well over 80kg. With the kart, that should be 212kg at least - comfortably over the 210kg minimum. There must be a mistake.

Five minutes later we're sighing with relief. The staff member on weighbridge duty mistakenly had the minimum as 220kg. We've been credited our lost laps and restored to our rightful position.

As the race roars on under the floodlights, I switch off a little, tuck into a bowl of chicken curry and cous cous, and let the noise and chatter flow over me. It's eight-thirty in the evening; as we approach one third distance, the intermittent drizzle turns to rain, the rising wind whipping it into waves under the sepia lights.

The wetter it gets, the faster Lee goes. By nine o'clock, the majority of the field is lapping in the 1.40 bracket - but Lee is constantly in the 1.38s, between two and four seconds a lap faster than virtually everyone else on track. In fifteen years of karting I've never seen anything like it.

Reluctantly, I drag myself away to the tent for some rest. I'm next on around 2am, and need to be back on top of my game by then. As I lie down, it's as if a giant tap has been turned on outside; I'm fully expecting the tent to come apart above my head, but mercifully it holds together. I worry that the awning might be flooding, wonder if I should go and help - but decide that I'm better off staying put. The others are perfectly capable of dealing with it.

Moments later, the PA system blares. I don't get the full message, but gather that the race is going to be red-flagged. I assume it's because the weather is too bad for safety, but hear something about the timing system. Maybe water has got into the electrics somewhere.

As the circuit falls silent, Marianne joins me in the tent. She has no more information; with the sense that I'm not missing much - for a change - I drift off.

But the clock ticks on. Nine hours down, fifteen to go.

(Click here for part 1: the buildup)
(Click here for part 3: the final 12 hours)

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