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(Click here to read part 2 of the race report)
"All hands on deck! My car battery's flat!"
Race day. 6.46am. A flurry of messages vibrates my phone across the Premier Inn dressing table; I blink sleep from my eyes and catch it as it falls, savouring these last moments of clean clothes and sanitation.
Outside, we congregate beside Alex Vangeen's dead Ford Mondeo, consider how we might fit its multiple cubic metres of gear into our motley collection of functioning cars. The air is chilly and still, the dawn sky beginning to lighten from silver to stonewashed blue. I learn that the AA will be here imminently. There's nothing to be done for now, so I head inside for breakfast.
We've had far worse starts to British 24 Hour weekends. It's not even raining.
By 7.45 Alex's car has been defibrillated and the Corporate Chauffeurs team is all present and correct. The Teesside circuit paddock hums with the sounds of a thousand people readying themselves for a very, very long day. It's turning into a beautiful morning, the sun swiftly drying the mud and puddles, breeze flapping the two dozen awnings which line the pits straight.
Our awning - erected in pouring rain yesterday - is filling with race gear, food and cooking apparatus, but there's order in the apparent chaos. We've spent months going over every moment of the race day schedule - and two hours yesterday making sure that everyone in the team knew exactly what was expected of them - and the effect is remarkable. Contrary to previous race day mornings, it's as if time has slowed down. The twelve of us - eight drivers and four supporters, with one more to come - might be united in person for the first time, but such has been the attention to detail that we're already a tight-knit team.
At 7.59am we congregate outside the Club Hire garage with a hundred other drivers, waiting for the go-ahead to pick our karts. As the hour tolls, Teesside circuit owner Bob Pope springs a surprise by announcing that kart allocation will be random. But Bradley Philpot, Alex and Lee Hollywood are allocated the two karts they happen to be standing beside - the karts they had already earmarked for Corporate Chauffeurs 11 and 22. As they and Lee's father Chris get to work fitting our steering wheels - specially modified by Brad with extra grip tape, built-in digital watches and CHECK FUEL notices - I leave them to it.
Back at base, my wife Marianne and Jonny Spencer's girlfriend Charlie (new to the team this year, and already indispensable) are already making it home; the camping stove is up and running, food is stockpiled, race helmets beginning to appear on our new dedicated helmet shelves (another Philpot innovation). Soon, I know, Marianne will leave the circuit for the first of two trips to the local supermarket.
By 8.40 the karts have been fitted with Corporate Chauffeurs Nassau panels, Mycron 4 lap timers, upgraded steering wheels and several metres of reflective tape, and Bob's voice booms from the Tannoy. It's time for the driver's briefing - only ten minutes behind schedule. For the first time in three years, there's half a chance of starting the race on time at midday.
As we assemble below the podium which we all so covet, the tingle is finally there. It's taken its time to appear this year - partly because Friday practice was washed out, but mainly because I'm not at my best. A mild virus has made me shivery, achey and overtired for several days now. I'm feeling better today after a decent night's sleep, but suspect that this weekend will take all of my stock of Man-Up.
I quickly forget my ailments though. The typically brief briefing concludes, the pitlane opens, and after six months of hard work by a multitude of people, Corporate Chauffeurs turns a wheel in anger for the first time in 2015. Brad does the honours for the #11 kart, Lee Hollywood is out in #22, and I ready myself for my short practice run. As I go through a radio check, Lee reports back:
"It's okay... not great, but not bad..."
Which, from Lee, is a ringing endorsement for a rental kart.
Russell Endean joins me in the pitlane in what will become a familiar routine: we're both second in the driver roster for our respective crews and will be on track at roughly the same time during the race. Russell is one of those drivers who speaks quietly but carries a very big stick: he'll be a great benchmark for me if our karts have reasonable parity.
Lee drives #22 into the changeover area and jumps out; we simulate a race changeover in what will be our only opportunity to practise it before the real thing. I drop my seat insert in, follow it, find the pedals and go, making myself comfortable on the move so as not to waste a second.
After a year away - and very little outdoor seat time in the interim - I have six laps to find my mojo. It's wonderful to be back on this hallowed tarmac, although I quickly discover that not everything is as I remember it. There have been murmurings that the resurfacing work at turn 2 has made the notorious bumps even worse. And how. Catch them awkwardly and the kart will be airborne at 50mph just when you need to turn in. I try several different lines and never feel I've got it right.
From the kart - also new since last year - there are no nasty surprises. It feels a little ponderous as expected - it's 20kg heavier - but the balance is fine and it pulls reasonably strongly. I pit after my allocation of laps, satisfied and slightly relieved. The radio works. My seat insert fits. I can still remember which pedal does what.
Both karts seem to be competitive, and with 30 minutes of qualifying following the practice session without a break, we send out Ryan in #11 and Michael in #22 for a shot at pole position. The circuit is now completely dry; after seven laps each, Ryan lies second and Michael fourth, a couple of tenths back. It's good enough: we call them in to save the machinery, and refuel.
Lee reckons there's room for improvement on #22 and asks the mechanics to check the engine oil and throttles. He's right as usual: the engines are overfilled with oil which will affect top speed. Once the excess has been drained, Michael and I watch the throttles as Lee blips the accelerator pedal; we strain to hear or see any difference in the timing (both engines must rev in sync for peak performance) but Lee is adamant and after checking for himself, the head mechanic - with a raised eyebrow - agrees. A tiny adjustment is made, and we park the kart.
With over an hour until the start we catch our breath, inhale caffeine and carbs, take pictures, and catch up with events outside our own cocoon. We're very lucky this year to have gained the services of Arnaud Tinet - race driver, commentator and strategy genius. Since he joined us earlier in the summer, he's had a big impact, helping to lift an already strong team to another level. He'll be overseeing the strategy for both teams and looking after #11's radio during the race; I take a little time to make sure I'm up to speed with team operations. I'm a little concerned about weight: I didn't have a chance to visit the weighbridge during practice. Lee and I take turns to stand on it; I elect to remove the lead from my seat as I'll be over 80kg without it.
There are familiar faces everywhere and at last I have a chance to find out how everyone else is getting on. The Squadra Abarth team that finished third last year - Mike Kettlewell, Ben Allward, Connor Marsh and Ryan Smith, with David Hird on the pitwall - are aiming to go at least one better. Like us, they have great team continuity and a wealth of experience. But they're not off to the greatest start with kart problems in practice. Connor and Ryan's long-suffering parents are here as usual; I haven't seen them since the BRKC in January and it's good to catch up.
I'm surprised to run into former Corporate Chauffeurs teammate Stuart McKay on the grid, having thought he was giving Teesside a miss this year. But he and his newly formed S&M Racing (wink wink) team are a late entry in the Standard Hire class. He's suffering with toothache but the drugs, it seems, are working for now; I promise to give his team a push if I see them on track.
Last year's Club Hire winners, Teesside Tigers, are near the sharp end again, as are the Northampton Maidens who came so close to a debut podium last year. BRKC and Club100 regular Jonny Elliott is back too, with the ESR team that pushed us hard in the early hours last year before succumbing to driver injuries. There are a half-dozen other regular EKL teams knocking about, all with superior knowledge of the Club Hire karts (used for EKL); we're playing catch up, and will have to be smart as well as fast to beat them.
Tick tock. By 11.45 all the karts are lined up, in grid order, along the left side of the pits straight facing across the track. It's a classic British 24 Hours spectacle, mirroring the legendary starts at Le Mans: the drivers will stand opposite their karts, watching the start marshal. When his flag drops, they'll run across to their karts, jump in, and go.
#11 is practically in front of our awning, #22 three spots to its right with a Club Hire and a very fast Standard Hire kart in between. At 11.55 the PA system instructs us to clear the grid, leaving only the 63 starting drivers and an assistant to hold each kart. Michael starts for #22, like last year, with Alex helping him. Ryan will start for #11 in his first British 24 Hours, which wouldn't have been my choice: he's lightning quick at the wheel but weighed down by a lot of lead which could slow his sprint across the track. But the #11 crew know what they're doing and it's not my place to quibble.
As the start marshal gives the sign for one minute, there's a sense of a thousand people holding their breath, of our world narrowing to a needle point. Beneath the grumble of 126 kart engines, the place is deathly silent, every eye focused on the Union Jack flag which raises high, holds...
"COME ON MICHAEL!!" I do my bit to drown out the engines while simultaneously filming and shooting stills as they dash across the track, Alex blipping #22's throttles, Michael dropping into the seat without rocking the kart backwards, accelerating away in the thick of the hire kart field, disappearing over the brow of the hill.
For a few seconds everything goes quiet - then the front of the owner kart field erupts out from behind the hill, line astern into the Esses at 75mph for the first time; I search for our machines and find them more or less where they started. No dramas; as they head into the banking, I release a pent-up breath, bring up the timing feed on my phone and watch like a hawk.
For #22, things start to go wrong almost immediately. Our qualifying pace seems to have evaporated, Michael reporting over the radio that the kart feels horrible; he's defending hard but losing ground. Alex calms him down; we briefly consider bringing him in to have the kart checked, but decide to hold off for now. I struggle through a chicken, cheese and pickle roll made for me by Marianne. It's delicious, but my appetite seems to have deserted me this weekend.
By the end of hour 1, Michael is down to 10th place, while Ryan is locked in a tight battle in third. As Russell and I - out next - get changed, I'm trying to shut the world out. I'm nervous, and admit as much to Russell. I struggled badly for pace in my first stint last year and the memory has haunted me ever since. This year I've trained just as hard but raced even less; I'm anxious not to let the team down.
Suddenly I'm in the pitlane, Marianne on the radio watching the fuel bay, Arnaud there as well to call #11's stop. Ryan is in first, Russell in and away with no delays as far as I can see - but I'm inwardly focused now. This is it. This is what the months of training and planning and dreaming boil down to.
The fuel bay is busy, the team cutting it fine with Michael's fuel... but they call it perfectly and he heads into a clear bay. I get the signal from Lee, standing on the corner... and the kart appears, Michael pushing, Lee starting the engines on the fly. Michael's seat is still in place and I lose a second yanking it out... then my seat is in, I follow, and I'm away without the kart having come to a halt.
The circuit is bone dry under a partly cloudy sky, I focus on getting up to speed with no delays... and am thwarted almost immediately. An owner kart overtakes me on the run down at turn two on my first flying lap; I sense others behind me, but nobody follows him through. Slightly off-line, I hit the bump awkwardly, correct a snap of oversteer - and there's a heavy impact from the rear. The loaded left tyres let go, and I hurtle straight into the gravel as two battling owner karts barrel past.
I can't quite believe it. I've been on track less than two minutes. Five years, thousands of laps, and I've never been off here. The marshal runs over as I leap out of the beached kart, and we push it back to the tarmac; I boot it and leave a trail of gravel as I accelerate away, checking as best I can for damage or stone stuck in awkward places, reporting over the radio that I've been punted off.
After that, matters improve. I settle down, the kart runs smoothly, and aside from a shard of gravel stuck where the sun don't shine, I'm reasonably comfortable as the laps start to reel off. My terrible luck with lap timers continues, though - ours has been switched off, presumably by Michael, but when I power it up, laps and times are not forthcoming. It's possible that my visit to the scenery has ripped the sensor off.
Over the following hour I spend time in close company with a couple of familiar bodies: one of the Northampton Maidens passes me and pulls away at faintly demoralising speed, and I have an entertaining dice with friend and longtime BRKC rival Ryan Smith. He wins this encounter, but there are more to come...
While the kart's powertrain feels strong, the handling leaves much to be desired. It's as if the rear tyres have too much grip; they hop across the tarmac rather than sliding, making for an uncomfortable, bouncy, understeery balance that's particularly tricky in turn 2. After a conversation with Lee on the pitwall, Alex asks me to try and lean forward out of the slow corners to try and shift some weight away from the rear axle. I do my best and the laptimes do improve slightly, but I'm still a fair bit slower than Michael was.
It's better than my opening stint last year though. And despite the off, reasonable consistency, good pitwork and - presumably - problems for others has lifted me from a low of 12th in class to 8th by the time I get the 15 minute warning from Alex. They've decided to have the kart checked, so I will drive down to the garage instead of through the pitlane.
By this time, fatigue has reared its ugly head. I can barely hold my head up through the banking. The kart is more physical to drive than last year's, but I managed 2 hour 15 minute stints then without any problems. I am not well, and try not to think about the three stints that will follow this one.
As the 'box' command rings in my ears I peel into the pitlane, stop on the weighbridge - where I register a shocking 237kg - and pull into an empty fuel bay. The others wait at the gate which leads down the hill; I ask the fuellers to start the kart, but heads are shaken: a new rule this year means I must clear a red line five metres away before the engines can be started. I'm cleared to push the kart, and manage to start the right engine on the fly before jumping in; Alex starts the left and I scoot down the hill to the garage as quickly as I can. Lee - in next - signals me to swing around before stopping.
I exit, dragging my seat insert, and a mechanic descends on the rear of the kart, pumping up the rear tyres; this will slightly reduce their grip and hopefully eliminate the hopping. It's done in seconds, and Lee disappears up the hill.
I hobble back to the awning with every joint aching, and take a full 20 minutes to get out of my overalls. Normally starving at the end of a stint, I struggle to get my churning guts under control. A jam donut and a cup of tea - two of my favourite things in the world - make life worth living again. Still, I elect not to dwell on the fact that I'm due back in the kart in four hours.
In the early part of hour 4, Jonny leads the Club Hire class in #11; Lee is sixth in #22 despite the long pitstop. Considering our start, that's not bad at all. I take a quick look at the laptimes from my stint. Not great - Lee is going faster now - but not terrible. I've already done more mileage today than in the rest of 2015 combined, and should be better next time around.
Arnaud sits me down for a quick debrief, recording my end-of-stint fuel level and weight on a spreadsheet in order to predict future stint lengths. Marianne and Alex have been sharing radio duties for #22; I take over as Alex prepares for his stint and Marianne turns her attention back to catering.
Just before the start of the race, we were joined by Marie Mcgeachie, Michael's girlfriend and the final cog in the Corporate Chauffeurs machine. Like Marianne and Charlie she's spent more than her share of time at kart circuits, and is already mucking in despite being a day behind the others. As hour 5 comes to a close, all three make a second sortie to the supermarket to collect dinner for the team.
By this time we're focusing on Lee's pitstop. It's harder to find space at the fuel bay this year, because the Club Hire karts are having to run shorter stints; still concerned at this stage about fuel range, I call Lee in at 90 minutes exactly. Ryan is helping with this one, helping Lee push the kart from the red line onwards; they appear around the corner into the changeover area at running pace, Ryan starting the right engine as Alex jumps in and Michael yanks the left pullcord. But it won't start; after ten attempts Alex rolls to a stop. Lee and I run to the stricken kart, circuit owner Bob suddenly there as well, seconds ticking away... Lee realises that the choke - a lever next to the pullcord - has been knocked on in our haste. The engine is flooded. Moments later it finally starts and Alex is away, but we've lost a precious 40 seconds. I suggest to the others that we calm it down a little next time.
Lee ran as high as 5th at the end of his stint, but our botched pitstop has put us back to 8th, which is annoying. Still, spirits are high as Alex starts to get into his stride on track; we're optimistic of clawing our way back into contention.
Alex's pace is very good, especially taking his 10kg weight penalty into account, and he nicks back a couple of the places we lost earlier on - but an hour in, there's more drama as we realise he can't hear us over the radio. Now our preparation comes into its own: because of the digital watch strapped to the steering wheel he should know exactly how long he's been out there, and when he needs to start looking for signals from us. We've practised a two stage process with our double-sided pit board. Orange means 'be ready to pit', green means 'pit now'.
I man the board, velcroing the plastic number 2s (no sniggering at the back) to it as Michael, Lee, Arnaud and a couple of others head around to the pits. We're in radio contact; Alex spots the bright orange board straightaway and gives me a thumbs up; it's a few more minutes before I get the signal and hold the green board out as far as I can. Alex is in.
A minute later I spot Michael tearing into the Esses in #22; on his return to the pits, Alex reports that the stop was clean. His radio failure looks to be nothing more serious than a loose connector, although we are having problems this year with faulty adaptors - two of the eight already out of action.
Into the second quarter of the race, suddenly it's time for me to start thinking about my next stint in 90 minutes' time.
First thing's first, though: it's dinner time. The girls have returned with a delicious array of curry sauces, vegetables, rice and rotisserie chickens, and I'm presented with a delicious bowl of chicken tikka masala. This, truly, is the life. Despite a seesawing appetite and pre-stint butterflies I wolf it down and for the first time in hours, feel ready to get back in the kart.
With the benefit of Arnaud's analysis we're able to safely push the stint lengths a little now; if we aim for 1 hour 36 minutes each time, we'll hopefully be able to save a pitstop by the end. The fuel bay is a continuing worry though, in our efforts to avoid queuing we leave Michael out for a very long 1 hour 40 minutes; standing in the pitlane waiting to go, even I'm worrying about fuel when I should have nothing in my head except going as fast as I can.
And not ending up in the bloody gravel...
After a typically brilliant stint during which he clawed us back up to 4th in class, Michael is finally called in on his 75th lap. We're smoother switching the seat inserts over this time, and I'm away.
As I exit the pitlane, the first kart I encounter contains the familiar red, white and blue colours of Ryan Smith. Again. Either he's slowed since our first encounter, or I've sped up (a bit of both, I later discover) because after another hard-but-fair scrap, I pass him and pull away. Later on, I go wheel-to-wheel on several occasions with a vaguely familiar racesuit and helmet which I can't place - and which turns out to be Ryan's teammate Ben Allward.
Just past 8pm - one third distance - the sun is setting over the huge circuit, making for a squinty-eyed wild ride through the Bustop chicane in front of the pits and the Corkscrew. Even in the kart I can feel the temperature beginning to drop as night falls. Not for the first time, the sheer enormity of this race strikes home. We've already driven this kart more than 450 miles, and - all being well - will cover 500 more before sunrise.
The higher tyre pressures seem to have helped the balance and I'm better dialled in, as usual: more consistent and better in the traffic. After a flurry of updates and encouragement over the radio in my early laps, Marianne goes quiet; I request an update just as a full-course yellow flag comes out. One of the owner karts has broken down, and we trundle around at half speed while the recovery vehicle is dispatched. At least, some of us do; we were issued a stern warning of penalties for failing to maintain the gap to the kart in front during yellow flag periods. By my estimation, at least a third of the field should be black flagged; long trains of karts form as drivers flaunt the rules and gain an unfair advantage. As far as I can tell, no penalties seem to be issued; I'm grumbling behind my visor as the green flags are waved.
I'm expecting a 'go' command from Marianne but my headset is silent and I'm a little tardy in booting it. No way she'd be that sloppy: my radio has failed. With no idea if the pitwall can hear me or not, I inform them and make the 'radio dead' signal as I approach the pit entry.
An hour and twenty minutes in, I'm watching the pitwall anxiously on every pass. It's completely dark now, the row of awnings indistinguishable under the floodlights at sixty miles an hour; I fret about spotting the pitboard. 9.30pm has come and gone - 90 minutes on track - when I spot something new in the mass of shadows and light behind the Armco. With a wash of relief, I realise that it's the orange board, a torch waving over the big black 22 numerals. Not for the first time, I send up a silent prayer of thanks for the operational brilliance of the Corporate Chauffeurs team.
Once I know where to look, the rest is a doddle; two laps later the green board shows. I peel in, flash past it, slow, stop on the weighbridge - still 237kg, 7kg over the minimum - push the fuelled kart around to the changeover area with somebody's help. Alex, I think. Lee's at the ready; as I lunge for my seat insert, I take a step too far. The kart's right rear wheel rolls over my right foot; holding my seat, I go down like a sack of potatoes on the tarmac, my elbow connecting with a crack.
There's a flurry of activity, and Lee powers away. I sit up, foot and elbow vying for attention, and assess the damage as I hobble back to the awning. After a few minutes the pain in my foot subsides, but my elbow feels... well, like it's been hit on the funnybone with a slab of tarmac. I'll live.
The news from the team is mixed. #11 has lost the lead - and six minutes in the pits - after Russell had the right front wheel detach in spectacular style. They're now third in class with Jonny about to take over from Russell. We're still fourth, and from a glance at my times I seem to have found better speed and consistency during my second stint. After necking half a pint of hot chocolate I scribble 'tent' next to my name on the status board - another simple yet effective solution to one of last year's problems - and head for our little haven beyond the owner-driver paddock.
As I'm getting undressed, the circuit goes quiet. Red flag, which probably means an accident; this often seems to happen when I leave, and I'm starting to get superstitious about it. Marianne joins me a few minutes later and fills me in. It could have been nasty - a rolled kart - but the driver is uninjured. I take some Ibuprofen for my aches, set the alarm for half past midnight; as we settle down, the engines begin to restart on track.
I snap awake. Which means - though my body tells me otherwise - that I've been to sleep. My brain responds with "Yes?" but what emerges from my mouth is probably more like "Ungruh?"
"We need you back at base to help with pitstops soon." Sounds like Ryan, I think, though Marianne thought it was Michael.
"How soon?" Make every second of rest count...
"Like... five minutes?"
"Okay, I'll be there."
I sit up, ignore the complaints from all four corners of my body, remind myself that I love endurance racing. I check my watch.
12.09am. Barely past half distance.
(Part Two will follow soon)