Friday, 22 August 2014

British 24 Hours. Part 1 of 3: The Buildup

"Lee Jones isn't here yet. Lee Hackett left his helmet at home and had to go back for it. Russell is stuck on the M1. And nobody knows where Jonny is..."

It's midday on Friday, 24 hours before the start of the biggest race of the year. And on the face of it, the Corporate Chauffeurs team's weekend isn't off to the greatest of starts. Half of the drivers - the entire crew of the #11 kart, in fact - are absent. Captain Alex Vangeen is looking a touch strained. Our slice of the Teesside pitwall already looks like Glastonbury on clearup day. And the weather is turning darker by the minute.

But as I focus on fitting the radio headset cabling into my race helmet, I feel calmer than I have in weeks. We're here. The others will be here soon. Lee Hollywood's giant blue awning is up and secured; on the grassy bank behind the paddock, Marianne is putting the finishing touches to the Duff tent. We have a home for the weekend; as the minutes pass, the team begins to take shape and a semblance of order appears. In my fourth appearance at this huge event, I've learned to accept that Friday morning is mayhem. All will, soon, be well.

1pm. Suited, booted and helmeted, I cast off all concerns over logistics and turn my thoughts to rediscovering this monster of a circuit. As I run through my radio checks, Lee Hollywood points out that I'll be the first member of the team to turn a wheel. I hope it's a good omen.

As usual, the standard hire kart isn't a patch on the freshly fettled Club Hire kart we'll be racing tomorrow. But I don't care. The new radios - acquired at great cost and stress by Alex when our usual supplier let us down - are great, with much better sound quality than the usual items. I can understand Marianne and - crucially - make myself understood. Alex and I run through a radio failure pitstop test and fix an agreed position to show the pit board. My seat insert and rib protector are comfortable. And despite a typically tardy kart, the Teesside tingle is present and correct. I'm grinning all the way through the flat-out chicane in front of the pits, sucking in a breath over the sledgehammer kerbs at Turn 2, shaking my head as a pair of owner drivers flash past with inches to spare into the Esses. 

Feels like home. And it's good to be back.

I pit after forty minutes and hand over to Lee Hollywood, who spends his allocated twenty minutes grumbling over the radio about the state of the kart. But the gear is working perfectly and like last year he's comfortable using my seat insert. So far we've only had one technical hitch: Michael Weddell's radio microphone refuses to work: he can hear us, but can't reply. ("Could be a blessing in disguise..." a wag is heard to say.) We work on a series of colourful hand signals to get around the problem.

By the time I return to the awning, it's transformed: Russell Endean, his girlfriend Sophie and Lee Jones (and family) have all arrived. Sophie has already thrown herself in, helping Alex's wife Lauren and my wife Marianne stow the ever-growing piles of kit bags and bring order to the chaos. I finally meet Lee Jones's very glamorous wife Donna (she DOES exist) and his son and daughter. Jonny Spencer has arrived too, with grandfather John in tow.

Meanwhile, familiar faces from other teams are beginning to appear: Ryan Smith (and father Neil), Connor Marsh and parents, Geoff and Ed White, David Hird, Ben Allward and Mike Kettlewell - who captains the Squadra Abarth team, one of our likely challengers this weekend. Brad Philpot - founder of the BRKC which unites us all and therefore the reason I'm here - is hereabouts with his girlfriend Becca. They've already made our awning their second home. Which is exactly how it should be.

Around us the paddock is teeming as 68 teams and the better part of a thousand drivers, supporters, circuit staff and hangers-on prepare for the huge challenge that awaits us all. Virtually the entire pitwall - all 200-plus metres of it - is lined with team awnings. Behind the main circuit buildings, every inch of spare tarmac is covered with motorhomes, team trucks and marquees. Karts lie in pieces or up on stands, mechanics working feverishly; in hospitality tents, kettles and pots are already bubbling. The PA system booms with edicts from Race Control. And overlaying the noise and the chatter is the chesty roar of four-stroke kart engines. Nearly a full day before the race starts, but already you can taste the anticipation.

Out on track, Alex and Lee Jones are dialling themselves in while Michael's blagged a run in a kart owned by friend Graham Nairn, who runs the Raceland circuit near Edinburgh. Like most owner teams they use a practice chassis on Friday to save the race kart; nevertheless there's some consternation when Michael puts two wheels on the grass coming out of the Esses and pirouettes into the tyres. No harm done to kart or driver though: we give him ten points for style and refuse to let him live it down.

By four o'clock, Marianne and I and the Hollywoods are done for the day; we leave the others to finish their practice runs and head back to try and convince the manager of the Beefeater beside our hotel to reserve a table for 14 on a Friday night... Marianne's eyelashes seal the deal.

At dinner, there's a huge cheer for Lee Hackett, who made it - complete with helmet - after a mammoth ten hour journey. As I tuck into a rather good burger - the food's taken a turn for the better this year - the atmosphere around the table is crackling. We've been waiting all summer for this.

As usual in recent years, sleep comes easily for me. Tomorrow is a huge day, but today has been tiring and every minute of rest will count for the next 36 hours.

And, dare I say it, we're as ready as we can be.

Saturday 16 August

Race day dawns sunny. I never thought I'd write that about a weekend at Teesside.

By 8am we're on the circuit infield where the fleets of hire karts are parked. Kart selection time is a bunfight: over a hundred drivers crowd the patch of tarmac, trying to pick the best for their team. Without the luxury of testing it's an educated guess. But after our cracked chassis debacle last year Alex, Lee Hollywood and I are careful to check the underside of each candidate. After much discussion we make a decision; the #11 crew have also picked theirs and we get to work attaching the smart Corporate Chauffeurs/Mount UK branded Nassau panels. Along with the logos and race number, each has our names printed down the centre; I've never competed in anything emblazoned with my name and am thoroughly overexcited at the prospect.

Jonny and Lee Hackett have brought natty suede-rimmed steering wheels to replace the standard items, and lap timers. With the 8.30am driver briefing rapidly approaching there's no sign of them; after a stressful five minutes I learn that there's no rush: the schedule has been pushed back an hour, just like last year. This year it's down to a paperwork mixup instead of the weather; either way it's a relief. That's three years in four that we've started at 1pm: I think the gods are trying to tell us something.

As the others get to work fitting the steering wheels with Chris Hollywood's help, I realise that my wife is AWOL. It turns out that the lap timer destined for our kart is sans battery; she's on a Magical Mystery Tour of Middlesbrough trying to find one. The lap timer isn't essential, and I hope she's not tearing her hair out over it.

At 9.30 we crowd around the main building for the drivers' briefing which is, as always, refreshingly succinct given the scale of the event: it's assumed that we know what we're doing. Along with the usual flag procedures we're asked to take particular care over the pitlane speed limit, and to show respect to other classes on track. The last point will come back to haunt me.

And suddenly it's 9.59, the PA is blaring, engines are starting, and practice is underway. In a change this year, we have an hour of free practice followed by three 20 minute qualifying sessions - one for Standard Hire, one for Club Hire and one for the owners - in place of the two hour free-for-all of previous years. It's a sensible change, but it only gives us an hour to diagnose and fix any problems with our kart.

As the most mechanically literate of our foursome, Lee Hollywood has the honour of putting the first laps under #22's wheels; Lee Jones is out first in #11. #22 is back in the pits within minutes, Lee complaining that the chassis is slightly bent - not at all unusual in a hire kart - which makes it a little more eager to turn left than right. The engines are so-so. Two different Teesside mechanics take it out to test; after a tyre pressure check and an adjustment to the idle speed on the left engine, we're essentially told to get on with it. We could insist on a kart change but there's no guarantee of an improvement: with so little time, better the Devil we know.

As Lee exits the pits again for a final run I'm suited up and ready to go; I hear him muttering over the radio.
"This is a joke..."

Half of our practice hour is already gone when Lee rolls back into the pits and hands over to me. Over the radio, Alex instructs me to do five sighter laps and hand over to Michael. As I roll out in #22 for the first time, I'm expecting a revelation compared to the slow practice kart I drove yesterday. But it doesn't come; within a lap I'm worried. The kart feels sluggish in a straight line; top speed is fine but it's labouring out of the slower corners. And the handling is very pointy: the nose darts into every apex without a hint of understeer which is good - but the rear can't keep up. I suffer from snap oversteer into the hairpin and the corkscrew, sapping momentum and contributing to the lack of speed down the long straights which follow.

It's the antithesis of the balance I'm used to in karts; there's no time to dial myself in before I have to hand the kart over. I'm now seriously worried about the kart and my ability to extract speed from it - but there's nothing to be done. The locomotive is rolling, and we can't get off now.

Lee Hollywood was originally slated to do qualifying and the race start. But since he isn't overjoyed with the kart either, we swap Michael in - he's easily the quickest of us out of the box. I'm dimly aware that #11 is struggling for pace in practice, languishing in the midfield - but currently my focus is on our half of the team.

Qualifying. I take the radio and tell Michael to keep circulating until I call him in: we want to do as few laps as possible to save the machinery for the race. The new system, with separate sessions for each class, is working well, the drivers enjoying the lack of traffic as they try to bang in a quick one.

After fifteen of the twenty minutes, Michael lies second in class with a 1.20.2. He's not going any quicker, so I call it - just as he's bumped down to third. No matter. It's a solid start, and clearly there is fundamental pace in our kart. Which can't, sadly, be said for #11. They're languishing in 16th on a 1.21 flat - a full eight tenths of a second slower than us. Their engines aren't pulling well, and already they face a fight to make the top ten in the race.

As the circuit falls quiet, I'm reunited with Marianne, who has succeeded in her battery quest; Lee Hackett is fitting his lap timer to our kart. For the first time since 7am, we have a chance to draw breath, take on fluids, bolt a granola bar or two, and wait. At 12.30, the grid begins to form in the usual way: the karts lined up side by side facing across the track. I take pictures, look over the kart again, pose for photographs. Try to savour the moment I've been working towards for six months.

The all-woman Northampton Maidens team - which includes BRKC regular Rhianna Purcocks - has caught the eye by qualifying fourth for their first British 24 Hours, right behind us. I manage a brief chat with team captain Stephanie Walters - whom I know by reputation - and one or two of the others, and come away with an impression of steely determination. Debutants they may be, but this is not a team to underestimate.

Suddenly the minutes are ticking away, the engines starting; we line the barriers in our hundreds as the drivers take their places across from their karts, ready to sprint over when the flag drops. Some look anxious, hopping from foot to foot; if Michael is nervous he shows no sign of it. Alex holds the kart in position. The rest of us hold our breath as on the circuit infield, the start marshal raises the 30 SECOND board. As the seconds count down I shut my eyes for a moment and offer up a prayer.

Please let this be our year.

Click here to read Part 2.

Click here to read Part 3.

1 comment:

  1. Really excellent blog! Loved reading about the 24hr race