Tuesday, 20 January 2015

BRKC 2015, day two. Milton Keynes, 18 January

The alarm is set for 8am. I wake with a jolt at 7.59 and stare at my watch as the numerals tick past the hour. My final heat isn't until 2pm; I could lie here, savouring the sensations of warm and clean, until midday. But it's no good. I have to know what's going on at the circuit.

As I get ready I open the live timing stream in time to catch the end of the first heat of day two - Round 3, heat 5. And am instantly distracted by the sight of Lee Jones' name in second place. At last, I think, a decent result for poor Lee... but it's an illusion. He's the last driver to pit; his name sinks down the list to 7th.

No snow in the circuit car park this morning, and only a scattering of cars: most people are sensibly staying somewhere warm and following the action online. The temperature outside is just above freezing; inside the race hall it's barely any higher. I stow my gear and watch the action from the main spectator area above the pitlane. The combination of relentless noise and the snaking chain of karts is vaguely hypnotic; it takes me a minute or two to dial in.

Ed White is streaking away from a field that includes Russell Endean, Anwar Beroual Smith, Remi Drzazga and the distinctive pink helmet of Piers Prior. Two names that I've yet to put faces to - David Longman and Ben Churchill - are also showing serious pace and mixing it with the heavy hitters. Anthony Mays watches in dismay as son Tyler struggles around near the back having made a mistake in qualifying. His weekend is, needless to say, not going to plan.

With hands freezing and stomach grumbling I head down to the hospitality tent, where half of the Formula Fast reception/catering team are doing a roaring trade in coffee and bacon butties. Russell appears, having just finished third behind Ed and Remi. He tempers my appetite slightly by using a napkin to mop brown sauce off his bacon. Apparently only barbecue sauce - newly acquired at his request among others - will do.

Joined by Daniel Truman's father Ray, we stand by the open shutter and watch the final heat of round 3. Ruben leads it comfortably ahead of the very impressive Gary Jones, with the real action in a three kart train behind him - time after time, Brad, Connor Marsh and Annelien sweep past us into the hairpin, Brad having to make his kart very wide indeed.

Annelien seems content to sit at the rear of the train, and we wonder why - until the last corner on the last lap, when she puts a very aggressive move on Connor and beats him to the chequered flag. We can't see much from our angle, but there's some discussion with Race Control about it afterwards. It's deemed legal, but Connor is less than impressed.

Aside from Covkart stalwart Gary, this heat also contains another familiar name which occupies a strong position on the leaderboard. Slawek Piskorsz has notched up some stellar results and - like Gary - looks destined for the semi-finals. His wife Joanna has put in some serious hard time in the race hall this weekend. I'm sure I've seen her at every possible vantage point, camera clicking, immortalising BRKC 2015 in pictures.

With round 3 complete, there's a break in proceedings while the circuit is reconfigured; I head upstairs to catch up with some of the others. As soon as I see Ryan Smith I can tell that his third heat brought him back to earth with a bump after a stunning effort yesterday. But this weekend, a sixth place is nothing to be ashamed of. Lee Jones props up the counter, looking resigned; we swap stories of woe and hope for better things in our final heat, which we share with Ruben, Daniel Truman - having a solid weekend on his return to the BRKC - and Liam Brierley.

I'm just thinking that I haven't yet seen much of the elder Brierley this weekend when he appears, looking chirpy as usual. With a third and two fourth places in his pocket, Sean hovers around the fringes of the top thirty with the likes of Jonny Elliott, Dan Healey and my British 24 Hours team captain Alex Vangeen - also having a fine BRKC 2015.

I've been meaning to doorstep our celebrity guest - motorsport journalist and commentator Will Buxton - all weekend, especially since he posted some very kind words about the day one blog; I find him in front of the leaderboard screens and introduce myself. He's having a whale of a time, improving with every heat, and regales me with a story that plays like every race fan's dream: in 2014 he was invited to go wheel to wheel, in single seaters, with most of the current crop of Euro F3 drivers. I gather from the fact that he lapped within two seconds of the frontrunners that he must be pretty handy in a car.

One of the European contingent introduces himself as Sander de Baets, who finished some way up the road from me in my first heat yesterday and has shown continued good form since. He provides a fascinating insight into karting in northern Europe. Belgium, for instance, has no fewer than 28 indoor circuits - nearly all of them bigger than Formula Fast - but very few outdoor circuits. I'm also surprised to hear that despite their world-class standard, the likes of Mathias Grooten, the Boutens siblings, Sander himself and the others receive virtually no sponsorship.

Which brings us on to the perpetual issue facing race drivers everywhere: that money speaks louder than talent. Sander tells me that well-funded Belgian tintop and single seater drivers regularly turn up at karting events and fail to get within a second of the pace; McLaren protegé Stoffel Vandoorne is also a former indoor karter and occasionally returns to his roots. Sander allows that he's "pretty good" and has kept his credibility within the karting fraternity. After this conversation (and a brief chat along the same lines with Sam Spinnael yesterday) I'm curious. Perhaps an ego-bashing trip across the channel might be in order...

By now the circuit layout has been changed for the final round of heats, and the engines are roaring again. Mathias Grooten becomes the first driver to win all four of his heats, despite stern opposition from Michael O'Brien and Mateusz Bartsch. Controversy rears its head in the following heat: polesitter Kim Enson has a reasonably serene run to the flag, but a little too much barging behind him sees Russell Endean bundled down to mid-pack and clearly not happy. Anwar is shown a bad pass flag for an incident that I miss - but appears to ignore that and a black flag and subsequently loses his second place. He has two laps added and drops to tenth, elevating the others. Michael Weddell is delighted with his third place after qualifying down in sixth.

Alex Vangeen has arrived with wife Lauren, making her first appearance this weekend. Mid-conversation in the main reception area, I'm delighted to spot the distinctive red coat of my wife, whom I wasn't expecting to see today. With Brad's other half Rebecca also on hand, it's a reunion of karting widows. I love having them here; along with the committed band of parents and supporters, they help elevate the BRKC from mere karting championship to major sporting event. It just wouldn't be the same without them.

Suddenly, for me, the clock is ticking again. With an hour and a half until my final race of the weekend - even if I win it, I won't have enough points for a semi-final - it's time for lunch. I take Marianne down to the hospitality awning and wolf a cheese and onion roll; she chooses something a little less pungent. We're pleasantly surprised to run into double BRKC champion - and British 24 Hours teammate - Lee Hackett. Unable to race this weekend because of work commitments on Saturday, he's travelled up from London to watch. Earlier, Sander de Baets asked me which BRKC regulars not racing this weekend would be a threat. I chose Lee and James Fitchew - also here all weekend in support.

Heading into the changing area, I meet BRKC newbie Nick Robinson - whom I first encountered in the reception area of our Premier Inn on Friday night. He's buzzing, having just capped off his weekend with a fine fifth place in his final heat. As I suit up, Sander is on course for his first win of the weekend ahead of Sam Spinnael and Helmut Schmacker (formerly known as Pete Leppan).

There's a half-hour break while the karts are fuelled; for the first time all day, the butterflies are fluttering in my stomach. I have nothing to lose and am determined to go out and enjoy myself. But I don't want to cock it up either.

As I walk out to my kart, the nerves fall away as usual. Seat in, hunker down, shrug off the cold and tiredness... the marshal signals the front driver, and we're rolling. I have Ruben in front of me, so there's little chance of tripping over him on my qualifying lap. I keep it neat and tidy and know immediately that it's far better than my first attempt on this layout... so am doubly dismayed to see my name down in eighth.

No point in fretting, I'll have to make the best of it... as we're waved away by the start marshal I'm fixed on the blue suit of Liam Brierley. After a tidy first lap, Dan Truman is bundled down from second to sixth in the snail; Liam gets caught in the fallout and I squeeze through as we stream out onto the shortened back straight. Ruben is streaking away in the lead, with Lee second. BRKC debutant Nathan Bull - whose Mum I chatted to earlier on - is third, the best position he's been in all weekend. But's he's a little slower than the karts behind, and we swiftly concertina into a snake: Nathan, Will Buxton, Kristian Jennings, Dan Truman and I. As first Dan, then Nathan and Will pit, I stay on Kristian's tail.

It's the second time this weekend that I've chased the orange-suited driver - whom I never did put a face to - and I focus on finding a way by without compromising my laptimes. It's important to jump ahead of Nathan, so I daren't pit yet. Kristian is quick, I'm feeling a little more confident on this layout, and for lap after lap we play high speed chess. It's a lot of fun, but must end sometime; with three minutes to go I peel into the pits for the last time in BRKC 2015. It's a good stop, but it's not quite enough: I exit half alongside Will in sixth place.

Dan has jumped ahead of Lee, who seems to have lost time and suddenly has all of us for company. Will pulls off a great move on Kristian in the dying moments of the race. It's a frenetic end, but Lee holds on to his third place to finish his BRKC campaign on a high. I cross the line sixth, just a second behind him with Will and Kristian between us.

That concludes a very up-and-down weekend for me. I've generally been solid in the races but mediocre - with one exception - in qualifying. I take heart from the fact that I've gained three places in the races, lost none... and my second place behind Mathias was very good. In the final reckoning I'm classed 44th out of 90 - almost as midfield as you can get.

The final three heats rattle by with drivers anxiously watching the timing screens, the cutoff point for the semi-finals seeming to change by the lap. They're won by Greg Laporte (his third), Remi Drzazga (his second) and Ed White (his fourth).

After a short wait, the news begins to trickle through the gridlocked reception area, faces brightening or darkening like LEDs on a lightboard. Connor, Michael Weddell, Slawek, Gary, Crispin and James Martin are in. Alex, Ryan, Jack Bolton, Sean and Anwar are out. Jonny Elliott, 30th with 30 points, is the final qualifier.

Having won the last heat, Ed White is straight into the first semi... and wins it to complete an unprecedented full house of five wins from five pole positions. I've run out of superlatives to describe the scale of his achievement against competition of this calibre. After a fairly straightforward run through the heats he's pushed hard by the amazingly consistent Brian Kroon - comfortably the highest placed driver (and only finalist) not to have won a race.

The second semi-final features a monster drive from the younger Boutens. She combines a canny pitstop strategy with searing pace to win from fourth on the grid - beating both her brother and the previously undefeated Mathias Grooten in the process. But a couple of fourth places in the heats have cost her; she misses the final by a point and ends her campaign in 11th place overall. BRKC founder Brad causes one of the shocks of the weekend after stopping with his left front tyre marginally outside one of the regulation pit boxes. It's a tiny mistake, but it earns him a penalty which consigns him to last in the race - and puts him out of the final.

I'm in the small viewing room beside the VIP area with Ryan, his dad Neil, Jake, a couple of others... and Ed. Jake's practically hopping from foot to foot, waiting to find out if he has made the final, while Ed is fretting over which kart to pick. Unusually for him, he looks nervous. I don't blame him.

In semi-final three we're entertained by a race-long battle between Michael Weddell and Jonny Elliott for what eventually becomes eighth place - narrowly resolved in favour of Michael. Stefan Verhofste wins it ahead of the excellent Connor Marsh and Ian Andersen, but this time it's Lewis Manley who causes the upset. Trying to emulate a couple of brilliant moves by Remi Drzazga (and a slightly questionable one by Mateusz Bartsch) at the hairpin, he spins away his fifth place and his championship. It's a sad end to a superb weekend; he coped far better with the layout change than many expected, and dropped only one point in the heats. In the final standings, Lewis is an unlucky 13th.

And then... everything comes to a grinding halt.

Partway through the third semi-final, we noticed the timing screens freeze; the clock, however, continued to count down, and we assumed it was nothing more than a glitch. But with the semis over and the minutes ticking by (and the frown on Ollie Fox's face deepening) it's clear that the problem is serious. IT expert James Fitchew is drafted in and diagnoses a major hardware failure.

It's after 7pm now, and the fatigue of a third day in this pressure-cooker environment is beginning to bite. As is the cold, which seems to be seeping through the walls of the reception area. People begin to drift away as the finalists wait for their shot at glory.

Becca keeps our spirits up by offering around chocolates - a belated Christmas present - and James completes my weekend by sharing some of the famous Formula Fast pizza with me. Michael Weddell ends up being carried around/beaten up as usual. When offered sight of a picture of Alex dressed in a bunny onesie, I stupidly accept. I wish I could unsee that... but the minutes pass.

I drink hot chocolate, help Lee Jones prop up the counter, swap Daytona 24 Hours stories with longtime BRKCer Alexandru Damian. I finally meet David Longman, whose name I kept seeing in close company with the frontrunners... as is so often the case, it turns out we've encountered each other on track before. He's one of Jonny Elliott's teammates in the ESR team that pushed us so hard in the early stages at Teesside last year.

The sound of a lone kart on track draws us back to the windows. It's Brad - wearing Jake Campbell-Mills' helmet - testing the backup timing system. The frozen chunks of meat that were once my feet report that some sort of relief would be nice... but they're ignored. The final is on.

The last ten qualify one at a time, in the same kart - 21, which started to show a performance advantage late in the day and will not be used in the race. Brian Kroon, Remigiusz Drzazga, Michael O'Brien, Jake Campbell-Mills, Mateusz Bartsch, Stefan Verhofste, Gregory Laporte, Ruben Boutens, Mathias Grooten and Ed White.

It's mighty close, as you'd expect. With no timing screen, James Auld is our only conduit to the results. As Ed - the last to qualify - takes the flag, there's a pregnant pause before the PA system booms and a cheer goes up from the (slightly partisan) crowd. Ed has done it again! His sixth pole from six attempts, shading Ruben by six hundredths of a second.

There's another short wait while the finalists choose their karts - Ed, as top points scorer, gets first dibs - before the engines clatter into life and they roll out of the pits for the final time. I stand on the viewing gantry with James Fitchew; as the karts stop on the back straight I voice what we're both thinking. Behind Ed sit four of the best drivers in the world - Boutens, Grooten, Bartsch and Laporte.

Rolling start, green light, and away they go. Ed pulls a couple of metres' gap straight away but that's as good as it gets. In the first couple of laps the top three are joined by invisible rope, dropping the others as Greg Laporte barges past Bartsch in the Snail; Stefan Verhofste squeezes through as well.

On lap three, our worst fears are realised: Ruben closes up, shadows Ed down the back straight, and dives down the inside into the hairpin - the exact move he used to take the lead from his sister last year. There's a bit of pushing on the exit - Ed having to defend hard from Mathias - but Ruben is firmly in the lead. And, just like last year, he seems to find another gear as Ed is forced into defensive mode.

But just as we're beginning to think Ed might have buckled under the pressure, he digs deep and begins to close down the gap to Ruben. Within two laps all three are nose to tail again, before Ed takes the first of his two pitstops. It looks good as far as we can tell; both of the others pit in response on consecutive laps. Mathias loses perhaps half a second to Ed; Ruben makes a very rare mistake and is held for a moment by the first pit marshal. He exits the pits side-by-side with Ed and holds onto the lead by the skin of his teeth.

But again, Ruben puts the hammer down and, tenth by tenth, begins to pull away as Ed is forced to deal with an increasing threat from Mathias. Matters come to a head when he gets his kart halfway alongside Ed into the hairpin; the thwack of plastic on plastic reverberates around the race hall, along with a collective gasp from the onlookers as Ed slides wide, hand raised in protest... opinions differ but I reckon it's a bad pass and James Fitchew agrees.

Sure enough, the red flag comes out and Mathias lets Ed through. Their battle has allowed Ruben some breathing room; a few laps later, Mathias pits for the second time - presumably in an attempt to find some clear air and jump ahead of Ed. But it backfires; he exits into a gaggle of traffic and loses a place to Greg Laporte.

With no timing, the picture becomes muddied for a few laps, with drivers having pitted once, twice or not at all. But once Ed and Ruben have made their final pitstops, we realise that Stefan Verhofste has snuck in under the radar. Having qualified sixth, he made both his pitstops early on, got himself in clear air, and reeled off a stunning series of fast laps while Ed, Mathias and the others were battling. Into the final minutes, Ruben leads from Stefan, with Ed third ahead of Mathias and Gregory Laporte - no more than a second between any of them.

Suddenly, the chequered flag is raised, James Auld's voice goes up an octave, and Ruben Boutens takes it ahead of Stefan Verhofste, Ed White, Mathias Grooten, Gregory Laporte, Michael O'Brien, Matheusz Bartsch, Brian Kroon, Remigiusz Drzazga and Jake Campbell-Mills. We cheer as loudly as we can, trying to make up for our depleted numbers as Ruben does his victory lap with the chequered flag.

Ed is, naturally, bitterly disappointed to have come so close and not won. But he should be proud of himself and along with several others I do my best to tell him so. He was always going to be up against it in the final. As the top scoring driver through the heats and semis - and therefore the biggest threat - it was likely that some of the others would work together. His performance this weekend is one of the finest I've seen in 17 years of karting, and he's only going to get stronger.

Ruben has been formidable all weekend, and just like last year, seems to have found something extra when it really counted. He's a thoroughly deserving double BRKC champion. As for Stefan - he turned his championship around after a poor third heat to win his semi and followed that with one of the canniest drives of the weekend. Stellar effort.

Mathias Grooten wins the trophy for fastest lap of the weekend. Although I'm a little partisan - Ed is my hero, naturally - I'm pleased. For Mathias, and for me. Because, fleetingly, I ran him pretty close. If I could just manage it more often, I may yet lift myself from the midfield doldrums. Hope springs eternal, etc.

Gary Jones wins the Kam Ho trophy for finishing 28th overall. It's a memorial for Kam, former BRKC racer and pillar of the karting community, who passed away suddenly during a karting event in May 2014. Kam finished 28th in BRKC 2014; this is our way of remembering him. I'm sure I'm not the only one who wishes he was still here with us.

If we had a fat lady, she would now be singing. And not before time. It's 9pm on Sunday night; some of us have been here for most of the last 60 hours. I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say it's been a hell of a ride.

To the guys and girls of Formula Fast: I need a bigger word than 'thanks'. The effort that went into BRKC 2015 - both in the buildup and over the weekend itself - is hugely appreciated by each and every one of us. Every aspect, from kart parity to marshalling to catering to facilities, was simply superb. And it DID run like a Swiss train station - until the random hardware failure at the worst possible time. The fact that Ollie, Phil and team are using this as an opportunity to upgrade the timing facilities is typical of the FF attitude. BRKC will return in 2016, and I'm already counting the days.

I very much hope that all our visitors from across the water will make the trip again. It was a pleasure to have you all - I'm sorry I didn't get around to properly meeting everyone - and the standard on track was simply breathtaking.

James Auld = legend. The voice of the BRKC dealt with a huge workload without flagging (with sterling assistance from Lee Hackett among others) and added a priceless sense of occasion. I hope he gets his voice back soon. If not, a career as Batman awaits.

For 2016, organiser Brad promises even bigger and better. The mind boggles. From me - and all BRKCers old and new - thanks for a brilliant BRKC 2015.

Thanks for reading.

Click here to read the BRKC 2015 preview.
Click here to read the report from day one of BRKC 2015.

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