Monday, 31 August 2015

British 24 Hours 2015. Part 2 of 2. Sunday.

(Click here to read the race preview)
(Click here to read part 1 of the race report)


My body reports that it's upright, fully clothed and outdoors. My body clock questions why this should be so. My brain tries to ignore the complaints and focus on my immediate need: caffeine.

But it'll have to wait. Both #11 and #22 are in the maintenance stop window, and it's about to get very busy. Between 12 and 3am, every hire kart must be brought into the maintenance garage for a check, lubrication and a change of front tyres. The original rules had teams being called in at random, potentially causing havoc with race strategies - to everyone's relief that's been changed back to the original system. We're allowed to schedule the stop to coincide with a driver change, minimising the time lost.

Alex is in #22 around 50 laps into his stint, Brad in #11 with 35 laps on the board. It's time for Michael to get changed; I take the headphones and Arnaud fills me in on the latest. Because of the red flag earlier (no injuries, thankfully) we're running a little ahead of schedule and have time in hand: if an opportunity presents itself, we can call the maintenance stops early without running into problems with fuel later on.

The skies over Teesside are virtually clear, one or two stars visible beyond the floodlights. Beneath them the race roars on, the noise and pace relentless, the leaders past 600 laps and counting. The air is still, the temperature hovering in the low double figures, our tiredness making it feel colder than it is. There's a quietness to the paddock now. Fewer people, less chatter, absolute focus on the job at hand. The graveyard shift - between midnight and dawn - is what makes 24 hour racing unique. Even after all these years it still feels otherworldly; I hope the magic never fades.

We troop around to the pitlane en masse; Michael, Ryan, Arnaud and I. Marianne has reappeared and takes charge of the awning. Fully suited up with his radio on, Michael continues on down to the maintenance garage, where he'll report on its status: as far as we know the mechanics can only service one kart at a time. If we time it wrong, we could lose three laps.

On lap 547 - 56 laps into Alex's stint - there's an incident on track and the full-course yellow is thrown to slow down the field. This is a prime opportunity: if we can get our stop done while everyone else is circulating at half speed, we'll gain an advantage. It's too soon for #11, but I warn Alex to be ready and watch the fuel bay.

On the first slow lap, two karts peel into the pits, one heading on down the hill to the garage: we wait. These are race-defining moments; standing beside Arnaud, I have to remind myself to breathe. As Alex comes around again, the flags are still waving and I tell him to box as long as nobody peels off into the pits in front of him. Michael reports that there's still a kart in the maintenance garage, but I gamble that it will be gone by the time Alex gets there.

Alex comes in to a clear fuel bay. Ryan waits at the gate to give him a push down the hill - we've elected not to start the engines - and I run across to help. In seconds he's fuelled up, back in the kart and coasting at running speed down the hill. I sprint after him and we arrive almost simultaneously - to a clear garage. Three mechanics descend as Alex vacates the kart, lifting it up onto a stand and going to work. We wait, Michael holding his seat ready to jump in, Ryan and I primed to start the engines.

It takes less than four minutes to check and oil the kart, and swap the 550 lap-old front tyres for a set of shiny new rubber. The engines are started for us, the kart rolled out; Michael is in and away up the hill. Alex looks exhausted but pleased: we've all coped with a tricky situation very well and kept ourselves in the hunt for a podium.

By now Brad is 50 laps into his stint in #11, and Arnaud asks me to stay on and help him with #11's stop. As I wait by the fuel bay, Michael is practically singing in my ears.
"This kart feels sooo good..."
He's making the most of the new tyres: during his 73 lap stint, an incredible 62 laps will be in the 1 minute 19 bracket. I run back to the awning and hand the headphones over to Marianne so that I can focus on #11.

Arnaud asks me to keep track of Brad while he focuses on the fuel bay and reports from Ryan - out next - at the maintenance garage. It quickly becomes obvious that this is going to be trickier: we managed to beat the rush with #22, but #11 will have to stop in the thick of it.

The floodlights are relatively far apart here, creating areas of shadow punctuated by sepia-tinted washes of brightness that turn everything monochrome. From where I stand I can see about two-thirds of the circuit, but its furthest point - the banking - is a quarter of a mile away. Picking Brad out from 62 other drivers is a real challenge, but I do my best and just about manage to keep tabs on him.

But the laps are ticking away. Time after time Arnaud is forced to abort Brad's pitstop to avoid queuing at either the fuel bay or the garage; our nerves are at snapping point as one hour forty minutes comes and goes. We're into uncharted territory now.

For the fifteenth or twentieth time I track Brad through the final corner and keep Arnaud up to date on his position; the fuel bay is clear, Arnaud gives the 'box' command and Brad is finally in. Once he's out of the kart and it's safely in the garage, he reports that the engines were cutting out through the final corners and wouldn't have lasted another lap. Bullet dodged.

Brad's second stint will stand as Corporate Chauffeurs' longest of 2015: a whopping 77 laps and 1 hour 43 minutes including a three lap full course yellow.

After what feels like a slightly longer maintenance period than #22's (38 seconds longer to be exact), #11 is returned to us, Ryan hops in, we start the engines and away he goes. It's been a stressful hour, but both crews have hung on to their positions: the class lead for #11, fourth for #22.

By now Michael is halfway through his third stint, and it's time for me to clear my head. I'd hoped for a little more time but a quiet ten minutes, a cup of tea and a banana will have to do. Lee is back after a couple of hours' rest, and before long we're back in the pitlane with Marianne, preparing to call Michael in. I have a dim memory of others being there as well... Russell, Jonny, or Charlie - or possibly all three - but am absolutely focused now. It's 2.15am, and I've never been more awake in my life.

The team calls it flawlessly and our changeover runs like clockwork; we're into a confident rhythm now, our world stripped of all but the essentials. For us, there is only the race.

For me, the race is steadily improving. The kart feels strong, engines sucking hard at the chilly air, tyres still relatively fresh, driver hovering on the cusp of mediocre and competent. I'm not fast, but I am more consistent and far better in the traffic. Within a couple of laps I encounter Ryan Smith as he leaves the pits. That's three times in three stints; this time I manage to pass him before he gets up to speed.

Jonny Elliott is hereabouts as well, passing me as I'm edged wide by an owner kart out of the corkscrew; he looks to be locked in a tight battle with one of the Club Hire frontrunners. I get in the draft and, for several laps, have a front row seat as they duck and dive around one another. They slow each other down enough for me to slipstream him through the banking (I think - my memory is fuzzy here) and pass him into the penultimate corner. I suspect he wasn't expecting to see me again.

We swap positions at least once more - both of us having to avoid a high speed spinner at one point - before he pits. It's been a fun, hard-fought fifteen laps or so, and I'm sorry to see it end.

Marianne has been doing a great job on the radio as usual, keeping me up to date on laptimes and anything else relevant - and as two owner karts break down within moments of each other and the full course yellow is waved, outdoes herself again. I'm coming out of the Corkscrew when her dulcet tones blare "GO, GO, GO!" through my headset and I save a precious couple of seconds clearing two slower karts before the Esses.

My body seems to have resigned itself to the punishment and I'm feeling little of the fatigue that ailed me earlier; suddenly the watch on the steering wheel reads 3.45am and Marianne is giving me a ten minute warning.

After 71 laps I peel off into an empty pitlane and, with Alex's help, hand over to Lee with no dramas. The others are quick to congratulate me; it was a solid enough stint, my best so far, and we're still fourth in class. I enjoyed it, and am satisfied that I'm improving.

As Lee gets to work chasing down our rivals for the last spot on the podium, I try and rest. After three stints and just over four and a half hours at the wheel, the draining adrenalin reveals a heavy toll on my already weakened body. After a break in the cafe watching the laptimes - and a long overdue Facebook update - I take myself off to the tent as the first signs of dawn begin to streak the eastern sky.

I emerge just after 6am feeling like Indiana Jones after a bad day at work. Slumped in a foldout chair beneath the awning, I try and identify a part of me that doesn't hurt. The rising sun has yet to warm the air; despite several layers I'm shivering so hard that tea is slopping over my hands.

On track, all is well. Jonny leads the Club Hire class in #11; great work from Lee on track and everyone in the pits has lifted #22 back into third position. Alex is complaining over the radio about the rising sun and the track being slippery. I tell Lee that morning dew can sometimes have this effect. Alex mishears the radio message as "there might be a slight Jew on track" and later admits to having nearly put #22 in the gravel at turn 2 because he was laughing so hard.

If there is dew, its effect is being overcome by the combination of cold air, rubbered-in tarmac and daylight: the pace is phenomenal, many teams setting their fastest laps after more than 18 hours of racing. Alex is rising to the occasion, getting within three tenths of Michael's fastest lap on two occasions despite a 14kg weight disadvantage. Weight adjusted, his 1.19.027 probably stands as our fastest of the race.

The rest of the drivers are suffering. Michael is due out next but is ghost-pale and complaining of nausea. Marianne suggests swapping stints with Lee or I, but we're not in much better shape; we settle the question in the old-fashioned way: rock paper scissors. Michael is scissors to our rocks: we'll stick to the schedule.

Throughout the night, Charlie and Marie have been helping Marianne keep us fed, hydrated and upright; now, they step it up a notch just when we need them most. Fried egg butties are produced for everyone that needs them, along with the biggest, strongest mug of coffee I've ever seen (thank you Charlie). Initially my stomach rebels against the food, but after a couple of bites I realise I'm ravenous; sitting beside me, Michael echoes my thoughts: "Isn't this the best thing ever?"

While he gets changed, I wolf down a second butty - bacon this time - and the thought of a fourth stint on track starts to seem conceivable, if not exactly alluring.

By 7am we're back in the pitlane. Michael is healthier than he was an hour ago, but still frets about vomiting in the kart; I'll be ready in case he needs to pit earlier than planned. On track, the full-course yellow is out again; if it lasts long enough we could take advantage and bring Alex in. It doesn't, quite, but after three slow laps and one more under green flags the fuel bay is clear; Alex pits after a superb 65 laps, still third, and we send Michael out with a silent prayer that he'll be all right. Contrary to appearances, we're not actually trying to send anyone home in a body bag.

As I get into my overalls for the final time I feel ready for one, though. The caffeine is wearing thin, exhaustion seeping through, my stomach struggling to process the calories. My body feels like a patchwork of dark blooms of ache and white searing pain; holding my head upright is a major effort.

With his work on track done, Alex takes charge on the pitwall; excellent planning from Arnaud and Marianne, and some great reactive pitwork from everyone, has saved both crews a pitstop; all being well, Lee will bring #22 home, and Brad will do the honours for #11.

On track, Michael must be running on pure adrenalin: his pace and consistency are staggering, as they have been throughout. On lap 847 he sets what will stand as our fastest tour, a 1.18.759. We're still clinging to the final spot on the podium, but the CD31 team are shadowing us, half a lap or so behind, matching Michael for pace more often than not.

In #11, Ryan still leads, but they too are being pushed hard by the Northampton Maidens, the gap hovering around the 30 second mark. It's nailbiting stuff, but I simply don't have the energy to think about it.

At 8.30am, it's time to don my helmet and shut out the world for the final time. In the pitlane, as the adrenalin finally starts to kick in I have to take deep breaths to avoid throwing up.

All things considered, what follows is probably the best stint of my life. And the worst.

At 8.50, Alex calls Michael in; the record will show that our pitstop is the fastest of #22's race - due in part to a stunning in-lap. With fresh air blowing through the vents in my helmet, I instantly feel less awful and start to dredge up the energy I need from somewhere.

In its 22nd hour, the kart feels far sloppier than it did during the night, the front tyres washing wide into the hairpin and forcing me to back off more than I would like. But I'm acutely aware of the threat from behind - CD31 are 30 seconds back and closing - and digging deep. And my pace, somehow, is better than at any point in the race. First Marianne, then Lee update me on the gap every few laps or so; as the tenths evaporate I do the maths. Strong pace notwithstanding I'm going to be caught, and the fact fills me with a rage such as I've never felt in a race.

I take more risks in traffic, find another couple of tenths. Finally, after more than five hours at the wheel, I'm somewhere close to the level that my teammates have been all race. But it only delays the inevitable; after setting my fastest lap of the race and three consecutive laps within a tenth of it, I'm passed for third place on lap 968. Lee's on the radio throughout, egging me on, keeping me informed, not letting my head drop once I've lost the place. It's a huge help.

After three laps in CD31's draft I'm shoved rudely wide at the Bustop by an owner driver, costing me two seconds and nearly putting me across the grass. The driving standard of some of these teams has been shocking this year; I'm sick and tired of the lack of respect and courtesy, and snarl over the radio at Lee and the world in general.

At 10.20 I'm given the 'box' command for #22's last pitstop of 2015. It goes without a hitch, Alex helping me push the kart around to the changeover area. I watch as Lee drives safely away, then use the last of my energy to kick a heavy plastic bollard back two feet - scaring Chris Hollywood in the process (apologies). I've dug deeper than I can ever recall, done my best. But my best wasn't good enough, and I'm devastated.

The others are quick to lift me, as always. It was a good stint in a kart far past its best, and I'm happy with it. But although I've improved every time I've been on track, I simply lost too much time earlier on. I have been better than last year, but last year we were lucky. This year I feel responsible for the loss of our podium.

Lee has rejoined less than two seconds behind CD31. But despite his usual titanic effort, the machinery simply isn't up to it. We watch the leaderboard as the gap grows, hearts sinking with every half-second.

Russell still leads in the final laps of his final stint in #11, but there's drama as the leaderboard suddenly shows them fourth. The kart is fine, but the transponder has failed; a new one is strapped to Brad before their final changeover, the lost laps credited, and no harm is done.

Brad, however, faces similar problems to Lee: #11 is ailing after nearly 1,000 laps at the ragged edge. The Northampton Maidens are in better shape, and are catching him. Fast. With half an hour to go the gap is less than 20 seconds and they're taking half a second a lap. Brad never wavers, using all of his skills and experience to drag every last tenth out of the kart without putting a wheel wrong. Even through my fog of dejected exhaustion I'm feeling the strain. After everything we've all been through, Corporate Chauffeurs can't stumble now.

Normally we'd be derigging by now, but it's out of the question. We line the Armco, eyes fixed on the circuit or the timing screens on our phones. Alex is still on the radio to Lee; #22's laptimes are relentlessly consistent. Arnaud - who as far as I know hasn't slept a wink - is keeping Brad informed, brows furrowed.

As the clock ticks past ten minutes, then five, Brad still leads, the gap still dwindling. My chest threatens to burst as midday ticks by on my watch... then the final lap board is shown, the Maidens less than five seconds behind. After 1048 laps - 2,200 kilometres - it's come down to a straight sprint.

I pick up Brad's distinctive red and white helmet into the hairpin, follow it through the banking, the right-hander, the final left... and we're up on the barriers, a sea of blue shirts trying to cheer loud enough to drown out the engines as #11 takes the flag 2.879 seconds ahead of the Northampton Maidens.

Half a lap later, Lee powers through in fourth, responding to our cheers with a shrug and a dejected wave. Like Alex, Michael and I, he has driven out of his skin; while I'm bitterly disappointed to have missed the podium, the #22 crew has much to be proud of after falling as low as 12th in the early hours of the race.

We crowd around the podium for the presentations and clap Ryan, Russell, Jonny and Brad onto the top step. There are big cheers, too, for the Maidens who turned it into the closest 24 hour finish I've ever seen - and for CD31, the stealthy team that proved too quick for #22 in the final hours. In the Standard Hire class, we're pleased to see Stuart McKay and his crew take an excellent win against some very fast competition. The enthusiastic John Lewis partnership team join them on the podium - another great effort.

It's bittersweet for the other Corporate Chauffeurs drivers of course, but I'm delighted for #11 - Brad especially put huge effort into lifting us all to another level this year, and richly deserves his win. He also receives the 'Driver of the Day' trophy for his superlative final stint.

Their race was far from straightforward, what with the wheel detachment and transponder failure and a dozen other challenges, no doubt. But their pace was scintillating. And fantastic work on the pitwall and in the pitlane by Arnaud, Marianne, Charlie, Marie, Chris and all of the drivers on both crews played a huge part in their win. Alex, Michael, Lee and I would dearly love to have been up there with them, but a little piece of #11's glory belongs to all of us.

And that's it. The British 24 Hours 2015 is history. For me, again, it's been a privilege to be part of the best hire kart team in the paddock. As the story shows, it's been a difficult weekend for me - the result in part of a tough couple of years off track, with very little racing. On Sunday night, after the dust had begun to settle, I briefly considered calling it a day.

Then I came to my senses. More karting is what's needed, not less. I'll never be brilliant, but I can do better than this. There's talk of Corporate Chauffeurs joining either EPEC or the EKL next year, and I'll be temporarily defecting to the Newmarket Hornets for the EKL and EPEC rounds at Clay Pigeon in just a few days' time.

But that's for another blog. For now, all that remains is to thank everyone that made Teesside 2015 so special, and who makes the effort to read this blog.

And yes - we ARE already talking about 2016...