Saturday, 19 October 2013

BRKC 0 plate. Whilton Mill, 11 October 2013

"Is it raining?" Club100 managing director John Vigor pauses, mid-flow. I glance towards the clubhouse windows - now streaming - and turn back in time to see a pained expression cross his face.

"Right. We'll come to that in a minute..."

Another day, another windswept, rain-lashed kart circuit. Whilton Mill, near Northampton, is the venue for BRKC 2013's final bow. From what I've seen so far, it looks like we'll be going out with a bang. Several bangs, in fact.

Club100 is often lauded as the UK's highest form of rental karting, its fleet of 115cc, two-stroke, direct drive karts considered by many to be the best in the business. They're certainly the fastest.

We're racing them today courtesy of Club100 frontrunner and long-time friend of the BRKC Chris Powell, who has kindly - or could that be mischievously - organised for a mix of two-stroke virgins and old hands to meet on track. The word 'carnage' is being bandied about.

My two-stroke karting experience is mainly limited to a single Daytona 24 Hours in a DMax kart (predictably scoffed at by the Club100 cognoscenti) but I did, once, try a Club100 kart many years ago. My memory is of a screaming, intimidating beast with switch-like power, minimal grip and zero feel through steering, pedals or chassis. Both I and the Club100 fleet have moved on in 13 years, but the butterflies are fluttering as I try to assimilate a welter of information in the briefing.

The rain swirls under my open visor as I walk out to the grid for my 15 minute practice session, the clouds pressing lower than ever, and it's with a mix of nerves and heavy heart that I clip my lead ballast, transponder and number plate to my kart.

Early this morning, the motorsport world was rocked by tragic news: Maria de Villota, who suffered horrific injuries in a freak testing accident at the wheel of a Marussia F1 car in July 2012, has been found dead in Seville. Despite the loss of her right eye, she'd fought on, committed to her motorsport work and a return to racing. Her bravery, dignity and love of life were an inspiration to millions, including me, and I'm desperately saddened by her loss.

(As I write, the death of Porsche Supercup frontrunner and Nurburgring 24 Hours winner Sean Edwards has turned an already grim week into one of the darkest I can remember.)

But the race beckons. As the pusher kart takes up its position behind me, a wave of adrenalin sweeps everything else away. As it always does.

A jerk, a chunter, a rattling buzz, and I'm underway, the engine smoothing out as it begins to scale its huge revband. I tiptoe through the saturated first corner, straighten out, aim the nose at the distant right-hander at the top of the hill, and squeeze the throttle as if my own testicles resided beneath.

The revs erupt from insect buzz to diablo scream, the rear tyres instantly spinning, skipping the tail out thirty degrees; the breath jams in my throat as I whip the wheel three-quarters of a turn to the left and narrowly avoid firing myself off the circuit.


By treating the brake pedal with similar restraint, I manage to negotiate the sharp right-hander, and the rest of my out lap, without further incident. I'm recalibrating all the time, beginning to anticipate the wheelspin as the engine reaches its powerband; by the end of my second lap, I wonder if I'm being too cautious on the brakes.


Into the sequence before the pits, I'm two metres later on the left pedal; everything goes quiet as the rear wheels lock, stalling the engine. I'm a passenger, the slick tyres floating on the film of water which covers the tarmac, the kart pirouetting into the grass. There's no shame - this is what practice is for, and I'm far from the first to go off - but dragging the kart back onto the tarmac, pointing it the right way, and waiting for a push, is time-consuming.

Once on the move again, I reel off eight more laps without any more excursions, gradually gaining in confidence, and take the flag with a firm plan for the two points-scoring heats to come. Assuming it stays this wet, my best approach is to trundle around, take no risks, and let everyone else visit the scenery.

In the warmth of the clubhouse, newbies and old hands alike are wide-eyed, overalls streaked with telltale green-brown flecks of cut grass and mud. At least, I hope it's mud. The clamour almost drowns out the shriek of two-stroke engines as drivers swap stories of folly. There's a common theme: it's a mite slippy.

With 48 drivers and 24 on track at any time, there will only be four heats. I'm starting 16th on the grid for heat one; with the second practice session half gone, it's nearly time to gear up and face the music. The sight of at least two karts mired in the grass or buried in a tyrewall at any given time doesn't fill me with confidence.

Getting a field of direct-drive karts underway and lined up for a rolling race start is not the work of a moment. The three pusher kart drivers are swift and efficient, but a combination of torrid conditions and drivers unused to the format makes for heavy work and many rolling laps behind the pace kart before everyone is lined up in the correct position.

Finally, we're away; slow to realise, I lose five metres to the kart in front - which probably gains me ground, since at least half the field sails wide into turn one. I hug the inside, manage to avoid any contact as we concertina into the uphill braking zone for turn two, and end the first lap unscathed.

The race whirls by in a flurry of opposite lock, held breath and tapdancing on the pedals; I finish it tenth, six up on my grid slot. My 'trundle around' strategy seems to be working: at least three of my places were gained from others' overexuberance. It's not fast, but it is effective.

I'm next on in heat three, which gives me enough time to gulp down a granola bar and half a bottle of water. The rain has died off a little but it's still cold and miserable; laptimes are static, for now, at a whopping 25 seconds slower than dry pace.

Twenty minutes later, having watched (and pointed and laughed) as another hapless group slithered their way around, the joke's on me. Tenth on the grid: this is my chance to make an impression.

It goes down the toilet almost immediately. Halfway around my second rolling lap, while trying to force my way through the pack to my starting position, the driver in front gets sideways at all of 10mph. I've nowhere to go; beside me, Tyler Mays (I think) stalls as well.

As the rest of the field disappears into the distance, the pusher karts get to work. My engine fires, I hold the right pedal around half throttle, as instructed... but after stuttering for thirty metres, the bloody thing stalls again. By the time I get moving, the field is two thirds of a lap ahead; I push as hard as I dare to catch up but am directed around the full lap (instead of the shortcut used for the rolling laps) and only manage to catch the rear of the field before the start lights blink green.

I'm at least eight places behind my designated slot, cursing... on lap two, having made up several places, another mid-pack spinner takes me out and drops me to the back again. I finish the race 16th - not bad considering the setbacks, but I'm beginning to wonder why I bothered.

Back in the paddock, the tantalising smell of grilling meat wafts from the burger van. As the final heat gets underway I buy a cheeseburger and a cup of tea from the nice ladies behind the counter. Both turn out to be rather good; my mood lifts a notch.

It's lifted again when the grids for the final are posted. I've made the A final by the skin of my teeth: 22nd and last qualifier. The top four finishers in the B final will start behind me. All but the unluckiest of the Club100 regulars have made the A final, along with a fair few familiar names: Vangeen, Bayliss, Weddell, Fitchew, Nitch-Smith...

The rain has finally stopped, the clouds lifting, and we watch the laptimes tumble in an entertaining B-final. It's won by Rhianna Purcocks, closely shadowed by David Whitehouse; as I feared, I'll have the two of them hunting me down in the A final.

With the circuit drying, it's far easier for everyone to drop into their grid position, and we're underway without a hitch. The laptimes are a full fifteen seconds faster than they were an hour ago, and I'm having to relearn the circuit on the fly.

The kart isn't helping. All day I've found the seating position uncomfortable but manageable, but in this particular kart I'm so close to the pedals that I can't rotate my ankles far enough back to modulate them properly. I discover later that they're adjustable; my ankles, sadly, are not.

I muddle through somehow, slow but steady, until the penultimate lap, when a clumsy stab of throttle from my burning right ankle flicks me into a spin just short of the pit entry. I drag the kart around as the field flashes by, and take the flag in what I presume is last position.

I fail to take account of the fact that plenty of people have been off - including Alex and Andrew Bayliss, who seem to have taken each other out at least twice. I've finished 20th overall out of 48. Mediocre by recent BRKC standards, but not too disastrous.

I'm late for a practice session at Formula Fast in Milton Keynes - the venue for BRKC 2014 - so am forced to miss the podium ceremonies. It's no surprise to see the experts - George Lovell, Chris Powell, Anwar Beroual-Smith, Lee Hackett - at the sharp end.

But the standout performance has to be Michael Weddell's: sixth overall and novice winner on his first day in a two-stroke kart. Worth the long trip from Edinburgh, I hope.

For me, a mixed day. It's always a pleasure to catch up with the BRKC regulars, but the weather and tragedy elsewhere in motorsport has - for me at least - cast a pall. Club100 is friendly and expertly run, and I've no doubts over the parity of the karts. But I haven't taken much pleasure from driving them.

If someone would start an equivalent championship using their own fleet of top-quality prokarts, I'd sign on the dotted line...

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