Saturday, 17 January 2015

BRKC 2015, day one. Milton Keynes, 17 January


Snow is falling from a leaden dawn sky, settling on the bodywork of the hundreds of cars parked outside a huge warehouse in the depths of Bletchley. A touch of winter wonderland on a grimy industrial estate.

But nobody’s there to see it. Inside the warehouse, upwards of two hundred people stand shivering in silence. We're short of sleep and freezing cold, but there's nowhere we'd rather be. These are the final moments before the start of BRKC 2015. 

After months of anticipation, the rules and format are imprinted on our minds; circuit boss Ollie Fox’s driver briefing is mercifully short. As the engines roar into life and James Auld's commentary shakes the walls, we crowd every inch of viewing space, attention constantly torn between the drama on track and the timing screens. 

There’s controversy straight away, as surprise heat 1 polesitter Daniel Healey makes a strategic error under pressure by pitting from the lead – and then loses six seconds when the marshal is very tardy releasing him. He falls to third as the quietly excellent Russell Endean chases Polish ace Mateusz Bartsch through. It’s a great shame for Daniel, who continues to set stunning laptimes, closes up on the leaders, but can’t find a way past. Mateusz wins his first BRKC race from Russell and Daniel, with Connor Marsh a fine fourth.

In search of somewhere warm, I make my way around to the awning which backs on to the rear of the race hall, and find a haven. I join Geoff White – father of frontrunning BRKC regular Ed – and a scattering of others. We warm ourselves by the gas heaters, slurp coffee, and talk about everything from braking points to derelict stately homes.

With the shutters opened, we have a great view of the drivers in the early heats arriving at the hairpin. As usual, the frontrunners are a study in precision and consistency, turning in late and sweeping into the apex with barely a squeal of rubber. I try and memorise their every move.

At 11am, my wife Marianne arrives to watch my first race. It’s great to have her here, and she seems to bring me luck. As I suit up, I try to dampen both nerves and expectations. After six races, it’s clear that the expanded international contingent is a serious force to reckon with. I’ll have 2014 podium finisher and local expert Lewis Manley for company, along with my fearsomely quick British 24 Hours teammate Michael Weddell. And those are just the names I know.

As the visors come down and we roll out for qualifying I’m trying to remember everything I learned in a good day of practice yesterday… but I overdrive in the slippery conditions, and line up a disgruntled seventh. But I was moderately quick yesterday; there will, I hope, be chances in the 35 or so laps to come.

Almost straight away, I’m presented with one on a plate; orange-clad Kristian Jennings tangles with one of the others; as they lose momentum I squeeze through at the exit of the Snail, and gain two places. Fifth. Life is looking up.

Three laps later, I fall asleep at the wheel and leave the door wide open for Kristian, who sweeps through into the Snail apex. I chase hard but slowly lose ground, despite a good pitstop, and finish sixth. Typically middling, but not a disaster.

With five hours in hand before my second heat, I retire to a nearby pub with Marianne and some local friends. Much rejuvenated by Aberdeen Angus, I return in time to watch the early heats on the altered layout. Which looks, if anything, even more technical than the original.

After watching Anwar Beroual-Smith win his second heat of the day, kept honest by Slawek Piskorsz, I’m actually jumping up and down on the viewing gantry as Scottish BRKC regular Ryan Smith puts in one of the drives of his life against former World Champion Mathias Grooten. Earlier on, Mathias showed his class by qualifying third and winning his first heat despite not having seen the circuit before today.

Ryan beats Mathias to pole and does an incredible job to keep him behind for lap after lap. Finally, Mathias does find a way by, but has to fight every inch of the way. He takes the flag by the skin of his teeth; Ryan is denied a fairytale end, but is rightly delighted with his second place.

My turn. Outside the race hall, the sun is setting, a very cold day sinking into a wintry evening; I find myself jogging around in the pitlane in an effort to keep warm. I've drawn the first kart in line for heat 6 in round 2, which means I’ll have nobody in front of me in qualifying. Good news. But there’s a delay while the karts are refuelled; you can almost feel the feeble warmth seeping out of the tyres.

As we roll out for our one and only sighter lap on the new layout, my brain seems to be lagging a corner behind… and disaster strikes in the first twenty metres of my flying lap. I slide wide on the entry to the first hairpin and clout the wall hard; half a second haemorrhages away instantly, and I line up ninth, trying to keep my spirits up.

Green light. I get pushy straight away and mug Lee Henderson into the second hairpin. It’s not pretty, and we make light contact, but I’m through, wondering if I’ll get away with it.

I don’t. A couple of laps later I’m shown the Bad Pass flag – by which time I’m ten kart lengths up the road. I drop back, let Lee past. This is going from bad to worse. What follows is about the most frustrating 25 laps I can remember in a kart. I get quicker and quicker as the circuit comes to me – but Lee defends solidly and I can’t find a way by. Mired in ninth all the way to the flag, I stomp upstairs, nick a space on the couch and sulk at my laptop for an hour.

Amazingly, someone else is having a worse day than I am. BRKC oldtimer Lee Jones is about as rock-solid as they come. But he’s had a nightmare day, languishing in 8th in his first heat and seemingly caught out by the layout of the second. Having qualified 9th, he makes a cardinal error by pitting at the end of the first lap of the race – which nets him a penalty. He finds some pace but trails home last in a heat which also sees local expert and 2014 finalist Crispin Zuercher finish a shock 8th. Sam Spinnael’s 4th place from 8th on the grid must count as one of the saves of the day.

With round two complete, there's a short break while the circuit is reconfigured to its original layout. Half of the drivers and supporters have finished for the day; many have left. After the mayhem this morning, it's nice to have a little peace and quiet as I prepare to do battle for the final time. In order to fit 40 races into two days, the first four heats of round 3 have had to be moved from Sunday morning to Saturday evening. Not ideal for a driver, but I'm in heat 1 - which would otherwise have meant rolling out of the pits at 8am on a Sunday morning. I don't even like rolling out of bed at that hour...

My final heat contains some quick people - Jack Bolton and Chris Brookshaw have both had top-3 finishes today - and it contains Mathias Grooten. Who has two wins from two starts. What the hell, I think as I walk out to my kart. Short of actual bodily harm, my day can hardly get any worse.

Three minutes later I line up in second place, having driven the neatest indoor qualifying lap of my life and given away just two tenths of a second to Mathias. Brad's spectating from the infield. 
"Take him on the first lap!" He shouts. Under the visor, I'm trying not to get too excited. I'm going to have my hands full defending my second place while Mathias drives off into the distance.

But he doesn't. After a false start and a second rolling lap we're away; I'm under pressure from Jack Bolton, but I focus everything on keeping one of the best kart racers in the world honest. The conditions are helping - even colder and even more slippery, which denies Mathias the grip he needs to unleash those staggering sub 33.8 second laps. Over the years I have often been more competitive when grip is low; while Mathias pulls out the odd couple of tenths, I hang on by my fingernails.

My pitstop is a little mistimed, bringing me out side-by-side with Alexandru Damian; I lose a couple of seconds clearing him. But it doesn't matter; I'm still second, well clear of the rest, and take the flag four seconds behind Mathias with a mix of delight and mild disbelief. My worst ever BRKC result followed immediately by one of my very best. Such is motorsport.

With a marathon day one in the bag the BRKC leaderboard makes fascinating reading. After round 2, no less than five drivers have perfect scores. If we were to run the final now, reigning champion Ruben Boutens would only just scrape in (10th). Several of last year's finalists would not make the cut.

Several new faces - Mateusz Bartsch, Stefan Verhofste, Michael O'Brien and Remigiusz Drzazga, among others - are emerging as serious heavy hitters. Despite having set the fastest lap of the weekend so far and made no mistakes, Club 100 superstar Jonny Elliott sits 31st on the leaderboard after two of the most daunting heat draws in the championship. That, above all, shows how tough BRKC 2015 is.

And we're only halfway. As I write, day two kicks off in less than eight hours. 

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