Monday, 2 September 2013

British 24 Hours, Teesside, 23-25 August 2013 (part 3)

The Race: the final 12 hours

(Click here for part 1: the buildup)
(Click here for part 2: the first 12 hours) 

Sunday 25 August

"Have you been sleeping?" Brad asks. I nod. "That's a bit gay. We've been working here..."

It's midnight. The circuit has been silent for nearly three hours. The rain has died away to drizzle; when I return to the awning, there's evidence of standing water, with gear and food piled on every inch of the table and chairs. But the puddles are draining. The track looks driveable as far as I can tell.

But there's still no driving, because part of the timing loop - metal strips buried under the tarmac just short of the fast chicane - has failed, meaning that some karts aren't registering as they pass. It's a showstopper. No timing, no race.

Frantic efforts have been going on behind the scenes to restore it, and a makeshift solution has been implemented: the marshals are installing plastic barriers on the circuit before the chicane, narrowing the entry and forcing karts two metres to the left - over the working section of the timing loop.

Finally, engines begin to fire; we're told that the field will do five slow laps under yellow flag conditions to test the solution; if all is well, then the race will be green flagged and we'll be underway again. Alex is in the kart; they were just about to pit Lee when the race was red flagged.

As the field gets moving, Lauren brings me up to speed: there's another problem. The kart is on vapour. It had run two full hours before the red flag; now, while the timing system is being tested, we're not allowed to pit for fuel. We'll just have to hope for the best.

Armed with a radio, I head around to the pits with Ferhat. We've decided to bring Alex in as soon as we can. The minutes trickle by; after a couple of tweaks, the timing system is declared fit for use and the engines roar as green flags wave around the circuit. I'm flooded with relief as Alex peels into the pits to feed our starved kart. The fuel bay is clear, and as we won't be changing drivers, this should be a quick stop.

He's turned around quickly and soon appears through the gate. I run forward to meet the kart, find the pullcord on the left engine in the dark; it snaps instantly into life.

At this point, three experienced (though admittedly tired) karters simultaneously forget the first rule of all things electrical.

If it doesn't work, first check that it's switched on.

The right engine refuses to start; after three or four attempts, Ferhat steps in and stops Alex.
"You're flooding it..."

He keeps trying it while I run back into the fuel bay for help. It takes me ten seconds to convince one of the staff to accompany me; by the time we return to the pit road, Alex is accelerating away. I thank the fueller and turn to Anwar, who has appeared out of nowhere and looks thunderous.

"The ignition was turned off..."

Oops. It cost us perhaps a minute - not a disaster in the greater scheme of things - but that was a silly blunder for a crew that prides itself on its pitstops. I will kick myself daily for a long time, and I'm certain that neither Alex nor I will ever make that particular mistake again.

Red-faced, we return to the awning. The smartphone Race Monitor app - which has worked only intertmittently this weekend - shows us 11th in class, exactly where we were before the red flag. Rather than lose time, we've wasted a chance to gain it. Damage done. Move on.

On the camping stove, blue and yellow flames gutter beneath the kettle, whipped by a stiff breeze. As Alex's stint wears on I cup my hands around steaming mugs and eat whatever comes to hand. But there's no chance to relax; thirty minutes in, Lauren reports that Alex can't hear her. She hears him intermittently, but he's pointed at his head a couple of times as he's passed us. Either he's lost his marbles or his radio has failed.

Thankfully, he and Lauren have brought along the fluorescent blue lollipop that they originally made for the 2012 race. If we stand somewhere prominent enough, Alex will - we hope - recognise it. Because he'll have to do a full lap before pitting, we'll have to take our chances with the fuel bay. Here, an awful lot can change in 80 seconds.

With over an hour to go before he's due in, I wander upstairs to the cafe, post a Twitter update and watch the timing screens. Alex has been complaining all weekend that he isn't quite on it, that he should be quicker. I know the feeling, but the laptimes don't lie. His pace is very good, and his consistency is even better.

James Auld leans against the window nearby, looking a little pale, staring blearily out at the circuit. I ask him how he's doing.
Tired smile. "Personally, or teamwise?"
He shrugs. "Absolutely destroyed, mate. Kart's had loads of issues, too..."

I note from the screen that Squadra Abarth BRKC - Kettlewell and the Scots - are back near the sharp end after a messy first few hours. Mike was knocked into a spin on the opening lap; Ryan has admitted to losing it at the bottom of the hill and beaching the kart in the gravel twice; Allward and Weddell have each had the odd moment too. But their pace is very strong; if they can hold it together they have a shot at the class win.

Chris and Lee have finally retired to their van for some rest; Chris has been a solid, reassuring presence ever since Friday morning. I gather that he's robustly defended our realm on more than one occasion, too. The muddy conditions have turned our awning - erected over the tarmac path which runs along the barriers - into something of a thoroughfare. We've been as accommodating as we can - moving chairs and gear out of the way - but there's been some unnecessary rudeness from the odd passerby. Marianne tells me that Chris has reduced at least one ill-mannered driver to a quivering lump of jelly. I'd like to have seen that...

The timing of Alex's radio problem gives us an added headache: it's time for our maintenance stop. Every kart must have one of these - a five-minute checkover in the garage - between 2 and 4.30am. We think Alex knows this, but we can't be sure. We'll have to tell him on the fly.

Just before 2.40am, Anwar is suited up and waiting at the maintenance garage as Marianne waves the giant blue lollipop from the most visible position we can find - behind the barriers at turn 1. Alex spots it first time; relieved, I run back around the catchment fences to wait for him in the pitlane. We're in luck: the fuel bay is clear, and the marshals have opened the gate to the paddock. Lauren is there, and manages to signal Alex while the kart is being refuelled. He drives straight down the hill without passing through the pitlane, and a precious thirty seconds is saved.

Our kart is the only one in the garage - finally, some luck - and the mechanics turn it around quickly: within three minutes, Anwar is on his way. The whole team has done exceptionally well to get through this tricky phase, and I hope we've gained some ground on the rest of the field.

Alex looks tired; Lauren hands me the headphones and the pair of them head off for a well-earned couple of hours' rest. I head back to the timing screens and keep Anwar updated. Experienced as he is, this is his first 24 hour race, and I think he's struggled a little with the particular demands it makes - the peaks and troughs, needing to be fed and rested at odd hours of the day. But he's scintillating on track, as ever, lapping at frontrunning pace on the still-drying track.

The weather remains undecided - misty and occasionally drizzly - but there's no sign of impending downpour. Fourteen hours in, I'm simultaneously struck by graveyard shift fatigue - the three-way battle between adrenalin, caffeine and body clock - and by the realisation that I'm out next. My second stint has been delayed three hours by the stoppage; I'll be on track in the pre-dawn hours, arguably the most difficult time for drivers.

I train very hard for this race, and the next hour or so reminds me why, as I drag my flagging body and spirits up towards something approaching race-readiness. Sugar saves the day, as does the discovery that the changing rooms are open. If you have to put on damp overalls, having a nice warm room to do it in makes all the difference. I've been wearing a 2.25kg weight strapped around my left ankle for each session, to be sure that I'm over the 210kg minimum for kart and driver. It stretches my overalls to tearing point and transforms my gait into half John Wayne, half Ministry of Silly Walks.

Lee has returned, looking chipper (by 4am standards); in between stints on the headphones, Marianne and Ferhat have been sharing a miniature bottle of red wine which mysteriously found its way into her rucksack. As Anwar drags us into the top ten in class for the first time since hour 3, the good cheer flows; suddenly I'm sky high and raring to go.

4.40am. The mist hangs lower than ever. Anwar, Lee and I execute our slickest changeover of the race - I even manage to slot my seat insert in without delay - and I'm rocketing down the pitlane in no time. Anwar was lapping in the low 1.23 bracket at the end of his stint, which is three seconds away from dry pace, so I'm expecting a greasy surface.

And how. There's a dry line, but it's barely a kart's width in places. Venture outside it - to pass someone, for instance - and you're instantly scrabbling for grip. The Esses are poorly lit, as usual; with the kerbs in shadow it's difficult to place the kart accurately. With only one line through, this should be among the dryest sections of the circuit, but it doesn't feel that way. From the outset, the kart is particularly snappy over the bumps at each apex, and I'm forced to gather up a heart-in-mouth tankslapper in the braking zone for the hairpin. Any lingering cobwebs are long gone: this is seriously challenging.

And not just for me: halfway through the stint, an errant owner-driver knocks me into a spin at the entry to the final corner. And, reluctantly, I must admit to an unforced error. While passing a fellow Club Hire at the top of the corkscrew, I take a tight line on entry, which pushes me wide at the exit. Suddenly the loaded left tyres are off the dry line and I'm understeering straight towards the wall. I catch it - just - and lose a couple of seconds fishtailing along the concrete run-off before rejoining the tarmac. It will stand as my only (driving) mistake of the weekend - but since I haven't driven in full wet conditions, that's still one too many.

As the first grey smudges of dawn start to creep in beyond the floodlights, Marianne's on the radio to tell me I'm lapping in the 1.20s. There's been no drizzle for a while, but that's still a pleasant surprise - with dawn comes dew, and individual corners seem to be changing from lap to lap.

By the time I get the 'box' command it's almost fully light, and I'm sad to end a tricky but rewarding stint. We've moved up a place to ninth in class; as Lee powers away after another clean pitstop, I'm nodding in quiet satisfaction. It wasn't perfect - it never is - and my driving has 'safe pair of hands' written all over it. But I've given my absolute best, and my best is just about good enough.

From under our awning comes the most enticing smell in the world ever. Lauren is frying bacon for breakfast and turns out to have a rare talent for creating the perfect bacon bap - doubly impressive since she never touches pork. For a strung-out, exhausted, half-starved driver, it's manna from heaven.

I wind down slowly as the race passes three-quarters distance; in full daylight now, with the sun beginning to burn through the mist, the circuit is finally drying properly. Lee is lapping in the 1.19s, consistently among the fastest in class. Barring a miracle, we're more or less resigned to finishing around the fringes of the top ten now; although we've been slowly reeling in the frontrunners since our disaster in hour 3, the Club Hire teams are too closely matched and the gap too big.

But anything's possible, and though a top ten finish is scant consolation for a team that should be challenging for the win, it's better than nothing. So we keep pushing. At 8.30am, we bring Lee in - capping off a stellar weekend's work from him - and send Alex out. I briefly feared that the mid-race stoppage might have wiped out my third stint, but as time wears on it becomes clear that I'll have a shortened run of an hour or so to the flag.

With too little rest and not much to fight for, Anwar looks reluctant to take his usual position in the driver order following Alex; I consider swapping our stints. But he's soon kitted up and ready to go and our penultimate pitstop - in hour 21 - goes like clockwork despite the permanent loss of radio comms with Alex.

On track, Anwar's instantly flying; depending on the pitstop schedules of other teams, we have half a chance of eighth place. Anwar doesn't know it - and we elect not to tell him for fear of distraction - but his entertaining dice with another quick Club Hire driver is for position, with both karts on the same lap.

As we start the twenty-third hour, I'm expecting a repeat of my earlier struggle to raise my energy levels, but it never materialises. I've no idea how I'm still standing - caffeine will only get you so far - but as my final stint approaches I'm fresh as a daisy. Maybe sheer frustration - knowing that once again our talent and commitment won't get the reward it deserves - is spurring me on.

In a way, the shambles that is our final pitstop comes at exactly the right time, for in the end it loses us nothing and teaches us a great deal. It's routine enough to begin with: Anwar is in on cue, refuels, pushes the kart around, I jump in while he and Alex start the engines... but when I get the GO command, the kart feels reluctant to move. I hesitate, but there's a shout from behind which I take to be along the lines of 'what are you waiting for?'; the rush to rejoin the race takes over, and I accelerate away.

The slope of the pit exit masks the problem to some point, but by the time I'm on level ground, it's obvious that only one engine is pushing the kart. Either the other has stalled or wasn't started; swearing, I drive as quickly as I can to the safest spot I can find - out of the way against the barriers before the Esses - and jump out to investigate.

Both engines are running, which points to a bigger problem. The nearest marshal runs over.
"One of your clutches is knackered, get yourself back to the pits."

I jump back in and gesticulate at him to move the plastic barriers and allow me through; pulling out into 70mph traffic on one engine is a recipe for a plane crash. He's slow to acquiesce, but finally gets it; wondering how a clutch could have failed so suddenly, I manage to get back to the pitlane without collecting anyone.

In the garage, the others crowd around; it takes five seconds for a mechanic to spot the real problem.
"One of your throttle cables is off!"

He clips the springloaded cable back into its slot, and in seconds I'm gunning it back up the hill towards the pits with pedestrians diving out of the way, absolutely furious. It turns out that whoever started the engine accidentally popped the cable out while blipping the throttle. I had no idea such a thing was even possible, and curse my technical ignorance while mentally flagellating myself for not stopping as soon as I felt a problem.

Back on track, I tell myself to clear the red mist and focus on the job. Crashing will not help our cause. The sun blazes down from clear skies, track conditions are the best they've been all weekend, and I channel all of my frustration into speed, into turning in with the loaded tyres nibbling on the ragged edge, on finessing the brake pedal just so, on picking the perfect line through the fast chicane.

With grip off-line, it's much easier to pass slower traffic than earlier in the race, and I'm scything through with good rhythm and judgement. The feedback from the pitwall is confusing though: all of my senses tell me I'm going faster than ever, but the laptimes are middling. The kart feels fine, but I wonder if it's ailing slightly; maybe the straight-line speed is down a little?

Mid-stint, I'm passed by Michael Weddell in the number 48 Squadra Abarth kart. He's been mighty quick all weekend, but has a definite advantage on the straights. It's not dramatic, but it's contributing to the half-second laptime deficit. I put everything I have into keeping him in sight, and the gap waxes and wanes as we carve through traffic, but he slowly pulls away. It matters little: he's eight or nine laps ahead.

BRKC regular Ed White is hereabouts too, going very quickly in his usual unruffled style; we have an entertaining but ultimately pointless dice for several laps. He's on his way to fourth in class; I'm mired in tenth, with no hope of promotion unless another team has a catastrophe.

As 1pm approaches I become increasingly hypersensitive to the pulse of the kart, taking extra care with kerbs, trying to minimise the stress. Marianne tells me my laptimes are solid - low 1.20s, with the leaders in the high 1.19s - and metronomically consistent.

And suddenly, we're being shown the last lap board, suddenly I'm holding my breath through turn 2 for the final time, threading the needle at 70mph through the Esses, dodging backmarkers through the final sequence of corners, accelerating towards the chequered flag.

It's over. On the slow down lap I wave at the marshals, clap when I can, trying to show my appreciation for the essential job they do. There's much mutual congratulation between competitors too; we've all brought it home. And for the first time since I first raced here in 2011, we've come through a difficult, dangerous 24 hours with no injuries. Good result or not, that's something to celebrate.

As we file into the pitlane, the rest of the Corporate Chauffeurs BRKC crew - Alex, Anwar, Lee, Marianne, Lauren, Chris and Ferhat - cheer us from the pitwall. I'm overcome with admiration for them all. For spirit, commitment and sheer hard work they - we - are peerless. That a team with such talent, dedication and breadth of experience will not stand on the podium is a travesty.

There are sorry tales for a couple of other teams we know, too. Stuart McKay's BHP Project team has had an awful time in the Standard Hire class - struck by multiple reliability problems and a suspected case of food poisoning for poor Stuart.

We've been rooting for Squadra Abarth to win in our absence. On the road, that's exactly what they've done. But a questionable penalty applied hours after they allegedly gained an unfair advantage - through no fault of their own - has dropped them to third. Still a great result given that three of the four drivers were making their British 24 Hour debut, and they're philosophical about it. Michael Weddell is chuffed with his trophy for fastest lap in Club Hire, and rightly so.

In the owner class, Baron Racing has finished third for the second year in a row. Not the win they were hoping for, but I know that Brad will have driven that kart faster than strictly should be possible.

Both the solo drivers and the Kartforce team have made the finish, and the biggest cheers are reserved for them. Beside their achievements, ours pale into insignificance.

I was hoping to avoid another blog about our fightback, but that's how it crumbled. Though we weren't flawless - mistakes were made, and we will address them - it was reliability that scuppered us. Again.

But regardless of the result it was a very special event to be part of, as it always is. Our support, both within the team and remotely, was fantastic and heartily appreciated. On a personal note, it was a surprise and a delight to have complete strangers compliment me about my scribblings.

For Teesside 2013, that's about it. We're already looking to 2014, with exciting plans in motion. More than ever I'm privileged to be part of this great team, and I'll work harder than ever to be worthy of my spot.

There'll be no giving up. Endurance racing gets in your blood. The British 24 Hours is the glittering prize.

And we can taste the bubbly. 

(Click here for part 1: the buildup) 
(Click here for part 2: the first 12 hours)

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