Saturday, 18 January 2014

BRKC 2014, day one. 18 January 2014

(Read the preview of BRKC 2014.)
(Read the race report from Day Two of BRKC 2014.)

It’s dawn on a chilly Saturday in the depths of Milton Keynes. Most sensible people are still in bed contemplating the backs of their eyelids.

But not the racers. They, and the long-suffering souls that love them, have been up for hours.

In the huge converted warehouse which hosts the BRKC, over a hundred people fill the viewing gantry. There's almost no movement, no chatter beneath the boom of the Tannoy.

Down on the circuit, BRKC founder Bradley Philpot is orchestrating the kart draw for the opening heat. As familiar faces come forward – Sean Brierley, Alex Vangeen, Michael Weddell, Russell Endean – I’m waiting for a heckle from the silent spectators above. I’m tempted to break the silence, to shout something facetious. But I don’t. After months of anticipation, the tension ahead of BRKC 2014’s opening qualifying session is palpable.

As the karts take to the circuit, we crowd the railings, drivers and supporters alike anxious for a first sign of how this is going to play out. Will the local specialists prevail? Will the BRKC old guard get a look in? Will the international contingent show us Brits how it should be done?

By midway through heat one, a pattern is emerging. Qualifying, it’s clear, is everything here: passing cleanly is exceptionally difficult. Russell Endean, though not the quickest man on track, holds the lead having qualified on pole; behind him, Sean and Tyler Mays can’t find a way by. It’s gripping stuff, and Tyler pulls a great move on Sean late in the race, but Russell, typically calm under pressure, hangs on for a superb win.

As the morning draws on and the whole structure vibrates to the roar of four-stroke engines, overlaid with the excitable tones of James Auld, some interesting names top the leaderboard. BRKC and EKL regular (and youngest competitor) Ed White looked fearsomely quick in Friday practice, and has continued that form today. He wins his first heat easily, beating reigning Women’s World Champion Annelien Boutens and the great Bradley Philpot in the process - and setting a scorching 32.9 second lap. It will stand as the fastest lap of the day.

I’ve convinced my brother Jonathan to come out of karting exile and throw himself to the lions this weekend; we’re in heats 5 and 6. As he starts the countdown to his BRKC debut I’m watching from the gantry with fingers crossed. Short of experience and carrying a significant weight penalty, he seeks only to avoid disgracing himself.

And he acquits himself very well. Expecting to finish last, he manages a 9th place, sets solid, consistent laptimes and looks confident on track. Most importantly, he's enjoying himself, which is a huge relief. I'd never had heard the last of it otherwise...

My turn, and the usual butterflies in my stomach seem to have been replaced by a cement mixer. It's a long time since I was this nervous before a race. The impressive video rig - multiple cameras, swinging tripod on the infield, live streaming over the Web - is both adding to the sense of occasion and deepening my angst.

With good reason... by midway through my qualifying lap I sense that all is not well with my kart. It feels sluggish and unwieldy compared to the machines I practised in last night. I line up a disappointed seventh out of ten, hoping that consistency will gain me positions in the race.

Ten minutes later, as I hold off Liam Brierley by the skin of my teeth - after a breathless half a lap side-by-side - I'm realising that just maintaining my grid position going to be a mighty challenge. Liam stays glued to my rear bumper, forcing me onto a defensive line over and over again; I've rarely been so relieved to see the chequered flag. Having told the mechanics that I think the kart is a dud - and watched superstar Jake Campbell-Mills struggle to a sixth place in it - Jonathan and I retire for lunch to lick our wounds.

Life's always better after an excellent burger, and we return in a more positive frame of mind as the second round of heats gets underway. It's gripping straight away, as Brad and Ed White resume their battle from earlier on. After a tooth-and-nail fight, it's Brad that edges it this time, after a problematic pitstop for Ed. Scottish BRKC regular Ryan Smith has also been unlucky; after a solid fifth place in his first heat, he's baulked in qualifying for the second, and lines up an unrepresentative eighth. Stuck in traffic throughout, he's unable to move forward, but is surprisingly philosophical afterwards. "Let's see what happens tomorrow..."

Jonathan's second heat runs much like the first for 32 of its 34 laps - until he accidentally lets the last-placed driver through while being lapped by the leaders. It's galling, but he's driven well again and improved his laptimes from earlier on.

As my race approaches, the cement mixer starts up again. I lean on the railings for a moment, try and pull myself together. Geoff White - father of warp-fast Ed - smiles in sympathy. "This isn't really you, is it? This indoors business?"

I'm beginning to think not.

After such a mediocre start I'm hardly brimming with confidence as I roll out to qualify for heat 11, but the kart feels much better and I turn in what feels like a solid lap. As we come to a stop on the back straight, I'm amazed to see my name in second place. I've managed a 33.9 - a full four tenths of a second faster than I managed at any point in Bogey Kart 10 in my first heat.

The race is a little less stellar - I tighten up at the start, lose a place to Andy O'Neill and accidentally put Kam Ho in the wall at the exit of the corkscrew. He'd got his nose alongside; I took the normal line, turned in and suddenly found myself heading sideways towards Buckingham. Apparently there was much gasping on the viewing gantry at this point - our illustrious commentator fanning the flames, I expect. And rightly so.

But the stewards decide (correctly) that I hadn't realised Kam was there, and I escape a penalty. He manages to regain his fourth place and no harm is done; I apologise afterwards. The rest of my race passes smoothly, though I'm kept honest by Kam and Robin Kassam, a few seconds behind and matching me tenth for tenth. They're an ominous presence at the corner of my eye.

But I take the flag a happy - and extremely relieved - third; back in the pits I'm pleased to see a 33.508 lap against my name. Finally, some respectable pace.

With my day's racing over, I check the leaderboard, catch up with some of the regulars and keep half an eye on the final heat - which includes two of my British 24 Hours teammates, Alex Vangeen and Anwar Beroual Smith. A very late entry, Anwar looked all at sea in practice yesterday, but has got it all together when it matters; having finished third in his first heat, he qualifies on pole for his second - in the kart I've just vacated. But it all goes pearshaped. In the midst of an entertaining battle with Sam Spinnael, his engine fails. He's given a replacement kart which is visibly slower, and drops to fifth as Sam wins; Anwar is, predictably, less than amused.

Having finished an excellent fourth in his first heat, Alex has a nightmare end to the day, struggling for pace and tangling at the final corner. As he shakes his fist on track, his wife Lauren is watching from the infield; from thirty metres away I see her face fall thirty floors. Better luck tomorrow, I hope.

As Day One ends, it's clear that nobody is going to run away with this. The top of the leaderboard is a real mix of local specialists and BRKC regulars; for every Lewis Manley, Crispin Zuercher and Kim Enson, there's an Ed White, Russell Endean and Sean Brierley. Both the Boutens siblings and BRKC founder Brad have also had an excellent day.

Into the top twenty, there is also a mix of new and familiar names. Old hand Kam Ho is, by his own admission, surprised to be 15th; Michael Weddell and Connor Marsh are also thereabouts too.

I'm 27th. Could be better, could be a lot worse.

Sleep fast, folks. Tomorrow is going to be interesting...

(Read the preview of BRKC 2014.)
(Read the race report from Day Two of BRKC 2014.)

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