Friday, 22 August 2014

British 24 Hours. Part 2 of 3: The first 12 hours

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 3.

Saturday 16 August

The flag drops.

We drown out the engines as, seemingly in slow motion, the drivers dash for the karts... Michael slightly ahead of the pack, Alex holding the kart steady as he drops neatly into the seat... away, we're cheering as Lee Hackett accelerates past us in #11, the midfield pack tightly bunched... I'm already jogging back towards the awning as the back of the field disappears over the brow of the hill towards Turn 2.

Briefly, it all goes quiet - then the first of the owner karts erupts out from behind the hill in the centre of the circuit. They're line astern into the Esses at 75mph for the first of a thousand plus passes, the Club Hire field following a little way back. I search for Michael and find him fourth, dicing hard with Jonny Elliott in the ESR team kart.

Over the next 90 minutes, as the owner field pulls away at six to eight seconds a lap, the battle for Club Hire supremacy rages between Michael in #22, Jonny in the ESR, the #37 Northampton Maidens kart and the leading #16 Teesside Tigers machine - the latter beginning to stamp its authority and pull away. Michael is stunningly quick but occasionally a little ragged: a minor mishap with a Standard Hire backmarker sees him drop to 7th after being launched over one of the brutal Esses kerbs. I get on the radio and - as diplomatically as I can - ask him to take it easy. He's driving brilliantly - better than I would be - but there's a hell of a long way to go.

In #11, Lee Hackett is doing a sterling job in his first ever two hour stint and has lifted them from their grid slot of 16th to the fringes of the top ten. As I start to shut out the world and get ready for my stint, Jonny Spencer - who will take over #11 from Lee - is doing the same. Like last year, I'm forced to wear an ankle weight to clear the minimum weight limit - despite a month of cramming in the carbs - but Alex has made my life infinitely easier by bringing a much slimmer set of weights which comfortably fit under my overalls. No more hopping around on one foot with the seams of my overalls tearing.

We've elected to shorten the first stint slightly in the hope of bringing Michael into an empty pitlane; suddenly it's 2.45pm and I'm poised, seat insert in one hand, radio button in the other. Michael is in with no delay... as he pushes the kart over the line into the driver change area we descend upon it - Alex and Lee Hollywood starting the engines as I drop my seat insert into place and follow it. I'm still velcroing my PTT button to the steering wheel when I get the 'GO!' command and leave it slightly loose as I boot it.

Out on track I'm busy straight away, in amongst a train of owner karts, other Club Hires mixed in. In the rush since this morning I've not had much time to dwell on my worries about the kart, but they return with a vengeance almost immediately. I'm struggling to adapt to the oversteery balance, losing time in the crucial low-speed corners and being passed left, right and centre.

The owner karts have had a specification change this year, more powerful engines making the closing speeds even higher. Yet many of them seem oddly tentative when passing. Time after time they get halfway alongside me into the corners and hover there, neither backing off nor completing the move, compromising my line and slowing me down. Others are wildly optimistic, taking unnecessary risks in the high-speed corners; after being clouted hard on the entry to the fast chicane for the second lap in succession, I get on the radio and vent my frustration at the last person who deserves it - Marianne. Once I've turned the air blue, there's a short pause before she tentatively asks if there's anything she can do.

It's not a happy first hour.

But gradually, my laptimes start to improve as I anticipate the behaviour of the owner drivers - which I'm still not impressed by - and get a handle on the balance of the kart. I'm still a second or more away from Michael's pace in the opening stint, but the overall pace seems to have slowed: I'm losing time to the leaders but maintaining the gap to the karts around me. Having been overtaken by Ben Allward in the Squadra Abarth kart - which lost positions early on - I keep him in sight, using him to slipstream along the straights whenever I can.

And then, 90 minutes into my stint, petty worries about laptimes are put firmly in perspective when the race is red flagged; I'd been surprised by a marshal running across the track as I approached the pit entry, leaving a pretty narrow margin; as we trickle through the Esses at jogging pace, there's a kart embedded in the tyrewall before the hairpin. The driver is still in his seat, surrounded by marshals and a paramedic, motionless, his head being held upright. My throat is dry. It's an owner kart, which has gone off at a flat-out, 75mph section of the circuit.

The field is brought to a halt on the straight before the pit entry as the circuit ambulance arrives on the scene; we're instructed to switch off and get out. This is going to take a while. I realise that the injured driver is a member of one of the Kartforce crews of wounded veterans.

The circuit medics have called an external ambulance to take him to hospital; once it arrives, they take their time stabilising him. It's a full forty minutes - enough time for me to return to the awning and take on some fluids - before we're told to return to the karts. After another delay while the field is reassembled in order - during which I manage a brief chat with Ed White and Connor Marsh - we're underway again. Though I would never wish misfortune on anybody, the stoppage has helped us, wiping out some of the time I lost early on. Having started my stint in fourth place, I briefly fell to fifth before regaining the place. As is so often the case, my stint isn't as bad as it felt on track; we're still in the hunt for a podium.

Spirits lifted, I reel off another twenty laps or so without incident before Marianne gives me the 'BOX' command. Into the pitlane, slowing to walking pace, stop on the weighbridge - which reads 212.6kg, so the ankle weight did the job - leap out at the fuel bay, wait while the kart is refuelled, thank the ever-cheerful refuelling crew, push the kart 40 metres or so along the pitlane through the left turn into the driver change area. The others descend; I briefly forget that my seat insert needs to stay put; remember as Lee pushes it back into place and jumps in. Engines started, he rockets away. Solid pitstop.

Under the team awning, the girls have been busy: what looks like a truckload of fresh food has joined the stash of snacks and water. The air is redolent with the smell of roast chicken. Including the stoppage my stint has effectively lasted nearly three hours: as the adrenalin trickles away I realise that I'm starving. When Marianne offers me chicken curry for dinner, I nearly get down on one knee and propose on the spot - before remembering that we did that already.

It's 6pm. Five hours in, the sun is turning the scattered clouds gold, the temperature already beginning to drop. With a bowl of curry and cous-cous and a little time to reflect, I try to get my frustration under control. I was undeniably slow at the beginning - Marianne reveals that Alex was fretting, pressuring her to tell me to push, which would have been counterproductive - but I've managed not to lose us any places. Funds have severely limited my racing in 2014 - just three outdoor races since the British 24 Hours last year - and the rustiness has taken its toll. It could have been worse. I didn't actually do anything stupid.

And now, I've shaken off the cobwebs. Later than I'd have liked, but the pace is there and I'll be up to scratch in my two remaining stints.

On track, Lee Hollywood is pushing hard, lapping faster than all but the leading Teesside Tigers team; a cheer goes up as he retakes third place half an hour into his stint. #11 is still struggling for raw pace but Russell is dragging everything out of it and still running 11th. Spirits are high in Corporate Chauffeurs world as calories are ingested and we begin to hunker down for the long night ahead.

At 7.40pm we bring Lee Hollywood in and send Alex on his way. Again the pitstop is silky smooth, helped by the fact that we don't have to lubricate our own chains this year - the fuel bay crew is doing it for us. I head back to the awning and use the Race Monitor app on Marianne's phone to watch Alex's laptimes. The reason he was so anxious about my early pace was that he's usually a little slower than me due to weight; like me, he knows we have a real shot at this, and he doesn't want it to slip away. His laptimes start off steady but he finds his rhythm quicker than I did, and they improve. We're still P3. All is well.

Until just after 9pm, when I spot Alex on his way into the pits, prematurely, thumping his fist in fury on the wheel.

No, no, no... I'm already sprinting across the gravel between the buildings, along the alley between pit and paddock, down the hill to the Club Hire garage. Alex is there before I am, which tells me he's driven through the pits without refuelling; I mentally kick myself for not getting Lauren to remind him over the radio.

Alex is out of the kart, absolutely distraught as the mechanic examines the flat left-front tyre: he's made a rare mistake, going a little deep into the hairpin and dropping the left front wheel over the inside of the kerb. It's pulled the tyre off the rim but hasn't punctured it; the mechanics are already reinflating it. I tell him to take a deep breath and get past it; within a minute he's back in and ready to go. I take four attempts to start the left engine - this seems to happen every year, and in a flash of clarity I wonder if it's something to do with being left handed - but Alex is soon away as we jog up the hill to assess the damage to our race.

The plan is for Alex to pit straight away and hand over to Michael, but his radio cables are tangled; I tell Lauren to leave Alex out for a lap or two. This is getting messy. Mercifully, Alex comes in to an empty fuel bay; I hear him groan in effort as he pushes the kart into the driver change area and I tell him to start the left engine. I start the right engine this time, with no issues, and Michael is on his way.

We head into the briefing room where the main timing screen is located. The story is grim: we've lost at least four laps, and have dropped to tenth place. Back under the awning, Alex is practically in tears.
"I'm so sorry, guys..."

We try and reassure him, but all the drivers know exactly how he feels. No amount of consoling will help. It was a tiny mistake, so easily made, and he was dreadfully unlucky to lose the tyre - I saw several others get away with it - but there's no getting around the fact that it might have cost us our coveted podium. This is what makes endurance racing so merciless.

I excuse myself for half an hour, retire to our tent, and try to lift my spirits in private. I stare up at the shifting, dappling shapes of leaves on the canvas and wonder if I still have the motivation for this. To pick myself up, to help the team pick itself up. To fight our way back into contention. Again. For the fourth consecutive year.

After a ten minute power nap, and having given myself a stern talking-to, I return to the awning. I'm out next, in just over an hour's time, and I'll need to focus everything I have into dragging us up the field. Alex and Lauren have taken a break; Marianne mans the radio for #22 while Jonny keeps Lee Hackett informed in #11. I go up into the cafe to plug in the phone, post a Facebook update and warm up a little. Brad and Becca are there with Brad's grandfather; we swap stories of woe. The Baron team had a major engine failure in the early hours which dropped them right to the back of the field. Their pace is good, but they have a long fight ahead of them. It's good to see some friendly faces. This race is such a rollercoaster - physical, mental and emotional - that its tough sometimes to focus on the job in hand.

Spirits restored, I neck half a pint of coffee and get changed for my stint. It's coming up to 11pm - ten hours into the race - and I'll be taking over from Michael in half an hour's time. On track, the news is good. Michael's usual blistering pace and pitstops for others have lifted us to seventh in class, just a lap down on the second placed team - the Northampton Maidens, who are having a stormer of a debut. For Corporate Chauffeurs #22, all is not lost; I can't wait to get back out there.

We're a tad short of bodies, though. Aside from Marianne, only Chris Hollywood, Jonny and I are present - and Jonny and I are both out next. After some discussion, Marianne takes over, gets Lee Jones's phone number from Alex and summons him to the awning. It's times like these that I'm most in awe of my wife, whose project management skills seem adaptable to almost any situation.

But a lesson is learned: Chris pipes up in his quietly spoken way to remind us that he's here and is perfectly capable of helping out with a pitstop. I learn later that Russell, Sophie and Lee Hackett were all on call if needed. For future reference: we must use all the resources at our disposal, know where everybody is at all times, and improve communications. With so many more people on the team this year, we got a little sloppy.

It's graveyard shift time. Coming up to 11.30pm, body clock locked in a fight with caffeine and adrenalin: this, for me, is the most magical time of the race. After a couple of false starts - during which I tell her off for changing her mind and potentially confusing the driver - Marianne calls the stop. Michael is in bang on cue - again, to an empty fuel bay. He delivers the kart, Chris starts the engines and I'm away; I get straight on the radio and try to make amends for snapping at my wife, by complimenting her and Chris on a perfect pitstop.

I discover later that we were luckier than we realised: Michael had lost comms completely towards the end, and pitted two laps after he spotted Marianne in the pitlane in her bright green raincoat - an educated guess, and a good one. He had been making the hand signal for a radio failure, but we were having trouble spotting him in the dark. We change procedure, adding in regular radio checks towards the end of each stint if the driver has been out of contact for a while.

I'm out under the floodlights, on a dry track beneath cloudy skies. The wind is blustery, tugging at the vents on my overalls as I crest the hill beside the pits and slingshot down towards Turn 2. The kart's balance has changed in the hours since I last drove it, the wear on the front tyres swinging the balance back towards neutral; I'm flying in the low temperatures, taking just the right amount of kerb through the white-knuckle right hander at Turn 2,  carrying good speed through the tricky right-left-right of the corkscrew and dispatching Standard Hire karts with ease into the Esses.

Throughout the race, driving standards in both hire classes have been exemplary, with good awareness from the Standard Hire drivers and tough but clean racing from the other Club Hires. Too many of the owner drivers, however, are downright shoddy - bullying slower karts out of the way and taking some crazy risks into the fast corners. I do my best not to get tangled up with them, use their slipstreams wherever I can.

I'm into a great rhythm, loving every second, Marianne on the radio telling me my pace is very strong - when the kart is suddenly reluctant to turn in to Turn 2. I understeer wide of the kerb, pick up the line on the exit, wondering if someone's dropped oil on the track... and the tarmac is suddenly awash. No warning speckle of rain on my visor; twenty metres short of the flat-out right-hander at the beginning of the corkscrew, I brake - but it's far too late. I passenger straight into the tyre wall at 40mph.

The broadside impact shoots me out of the seat and rattles my head like a pinball; luckily the barrier is close to the circuit here; as two other karts bounce off the tyre wall to my right, I slither across the strip of wet grass to the tarmac and scramble up the corkscrew. I encounter a traffic jam of owner karts struggling to gain traction up the short, steep hill; it would be comical if I wasn't mildly shocked.

On the back straight, I get on the radio to inform Marianne about the crash, check kart and driver for damage as best I can. Both engines are still running, nothing feels bent. My neck is numb down the right side, but otherwise I seem to have escaped injury in the biggest shunt I've had in years.

After the initial cloudburst the rain is steady. I'm not a particular wet weather specialist but I can hold my own; over the following laps I adapt reasonably quickly, passing other Club Hire karts and some of the owners. We spend a couple of laps under a full course yellow while another crash is cleared; on a circuit this big it can be difficult to keep a marshal in sight and know exactly when the race is back on. Again, Marianne proves her worth by bellowing 'GO, GO, GO!' in my ear as the green flag is waved. I hear later that Lee Jones, beside her on #11's radio, was doing exactly the same thing. On the approach to the corkscrew, I get the jump on the two karts in front of me and a precious few seconds are gained.

I sense that the pace is good; Marianne confirms it by telling me I've moved us up two places to fifth and am running a couple of seconds quicker than much of the Club Hire class. In which case Jonny Spencer in the Corporate Chauffeurs #11 kart must be right at the sharp end - he passes me and edges away at half a second a lap. I try and follow him through the gaps he creates - then Marianne spoils my fun by calling me into the pits. Crash notwithstanding it's been a good stint and I'm sad to see it end. The rain continues; I get on the radio to say that Lee Hollywood - out next - is going to love this. He is a wet weather specialist. And then some.

We're in the maintenance stop window - all hire karts must take a trip to the garage between midnight and 2am - so I visit the weighbridge (215kg including half a stone of water) and loosen the fuel cap on the way to the fuel bay. I've elected to attach my radio button to my lap belt rather than the steering wheel, which saves time at both ends of the stint and costs nothing on track. I ask the fuellers to start the engines and drive #22 straight through the gate instead of through the pitlane - more seconds saved. Lee Jones is in my ear telling me to aim for the flashing red light at the bottom of the hill - and I spot him immediately in the murk, standing outside the Club Hire garage holding an LED keyring. A tiny detail which is typical Lee. God knows what we'd do without him.

I drive in, switch off, jump out and the mechanics get to work. Lee Hollywood is suited up and ready; I tell him as much as I can about the conditions and where grip is to be found, before the mechanics finish their work and restart the kart. In moments, Lee is in and on his way.

I take off my helmet and breathe, let the adrenalin start to seep away, nod in satisfaction. For now, it's going well. I glance at my watch.

1.25am. We're barely past half distance.

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 3.

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