Thursday, 21 January 2016

BRKC 2016 rounds 3 and 4. Milton Keynes, 16-17 January

"At least it's not snowing", I remember thinking yesterday while scraping ice off the car.

Sunday, 8am. I sit in the breakfast room of the Milton Keynes Holiday Inn Express. Outside the windows, the world is wonderland white; I'm staring at a miniature snowman built with great care atop one of the waist height lamp posts that flank the path outside. Cereal and tea churn uneasily in my guts.

Saturday evening did not go to plan, my 3 year-old nephew having fallen ill after dinner and necessitating a swift change of accommodation for Marianne and I. She's already trying to grow a baby while healing a broken leg; a stomach bug isn't going to help.

The move meant a late start to the Saturday blog and a late night; I'm exhausted and jumpy, struggling to control a surprising level of competition nerves. On my phone, the BRKC live timing page flickers to life; across town, Annelien Boutens, David Longman, Robin Kassam and others are heading out for qualifying. Round 3, heat 6. 25 races down, 19 to go. I'll be out in the last race of round 3, in two hours' time. I gather my gear, ignore my guts and head out to scrape snow from the car.

In Thunderdome, the engines are roaring, the heaters fighting their interminable battle against the frigid air; my cup of coffee slips through my nerveless fingers and nearly falls onto the circuit. I step away from the railings, wondering how often drivers get doused by hapless spectators here. Later I learn that my British 24 Hours captain Alex Vangeen managed to halt a race last night by dropping a Coke from the viewing gantry.

Beside me, reigning champ Ruben watches the on track action - BRKC newcomer Régis Gosselin leading Jake Campbell-Mills and Mateusz Bartsch. It's my first chance to chat to him this weekend; so far things are going to plan - two wins from two starts - but he has two tough heats today and is taking nothing for granted. He's making notes of the highest finishing karts in each heat, trying to spot any which might have a tiny advantage: he will have to select a kart for the final and at this level, every nugget of knowledge could make his championship. He tells me that two years ago, the driver above him on the leaderboard hadn't done his homework, selected a slower kart, and lost out as a result.

Not for the first time, I'm struck by the attention to detail and work ethic of those at the sharp end. Ruben has huge natural talent, without doubt, but he works exceptionally hard to maintain his stratospheric level week in, week out. Nobody is going to turn up, jump in a kart and beat him. No matter how gifted you are, you'll have to put in some serious hard graft to have any hope of matching him.

Talking of which... we're on. Round 3, heat ten. Which features three race-winners (Boutens, Bayani, White), one former F2 racer (Pineiro) and the stealthily fast Slawek Piskorz. As I settle myself into kart 18, calm descends. I have Ed White ahead of me, which should guarantee me a clear lap.

My second qualifying attempt on the original layout feels, if anything, better than the first. I line up a respectable fifth this time - the four superstars ahead, Slawek behind. As we get under way I ignore the threat from behind and focus on the distinctive yellow, orange and blue livery of Ramon Pineiro. Ahead of him, Oliver Bayani is a little slow out of the Snail and has to defend hard from Ramon as we concertina into the hairpin. They're both slowed and I close up; Ramon has another go into the final corner. It doesn't come off, and I'm brushing his rear bumper all the way into the Snail, looking for a gap as we get on the brakes for the hairpin. But Ramon just about keeps the door closed, then seems to find another gear and pulls away as I start to come under pressure from Slawek.

I'm driving neatly enough but struggling for pace; Slawek is quicker, hustling me hard into the Snail and forcing me onto a defensive line. I hold him off and maintain my position as both of us complete what turn out to be slow pitstops. Mine's a touch less tardy, which gives me a moment of breathing room - but the clear track shows Slawek's true pace for the first time. He's at least a couple of tenths faster than I am, and gobbles up the gap before finally making a move stick into the Snail. We're side-by side all the way down to the hairpin, but Slawek has the line; swearing, I'm forced to concede.

A couple of laps later, what looks like a backmarker comes out of the pits beside Slawek, and tussles with him all the way through the Snail before emerging ahead. Bemused at his driving, I take advantage and repass Slawek into the hairpin. Behind us, unseen, Ruben pits to avoid our battle but second-placed Ed continues. The 'backmarker' turns out to be Daniel Nicholls, who has jumped both Slawek and I in the pits. Cue more swearing.

And more still when, a lap later, what I took to be Slawek trying to nudge his way past actually turns out to be Ed, trying to lap me and get on after Ruben. Having already missed a blue flag, I jump out of the way and lose a little momentum. Slawek, who by now has a touch of the red mist about him, forces his way past me at the Snail - a little messy, but he just about gets away with it. He pulls away as I pay more attention to the blue flags and get out of Ruben's way. For a couple of laps I'm given a masterclass in indoor karting technique; the speed that Ruben carries out of the corners is simply breathtaking.

Slawek catches up to Nicholls and hassles him all the way to the line, the two of them making hard contact within metres of the flag. Slawek comes off worse and is less than impressed. I take the flag seventh, wondering where my pace went, and annoyed at my continued tardiness in the pits. It's cost me places in all three heats so far. When I return upstairs I discover that ours was the fastest race of the championship so far: Ruben broke the lap record in qualifying - unprecedented - and then repeatedly lowered it throughout the race, Ed just a tenth or so slower.

A quarter of an hour after clambering out of the kart, I'm in the car, rushing back to the hotel to collect Marianne and all our gubbins before my final heat in an hour's time. When we return, she comes face to face - on crutches - with Formula Fast CEO Phil Stanley - also on crutches. He was walking around yesterday... turns out he tripped over a kart in the pitlane and has done something nasty to his foot. The cameras caught his mishap, which I watch much later.

As we used to say in South Africa: Eina! Hope he's back on two feet soon.

After a disjointed morning, it's time to catch up on the state of the leaderboard. With three rounds complete, only Ruben Boutens and the scalpel-like Lewis Manley (the only driver in the building that makes Ruben look a touch lairy on occasion) have won all three of their heats. But the usual suspects (Ed White, Annelien Boutens, Matt Bartsch, Stefan Verhofste) are snapping at their heels along with a host of the great, the good and the stealthy. Lee Hackett has been flawless on his BRKC return, while Brad Philpot is having a superb weekend after an up-and-down 2015 - despite losing time in the pits to Alex's coke can gaffe yesterday. Having been disappointed last year, Oliver Bayani has spent a year building up to this, and it's paying off.

With three second places, Sean Brierley has been relentlessly consistent, as have newcomers Régis Gosselin, Rico Haarbosch and Lorenzo Stolk, and old-timers Jonny Elliott, James Martin and Bjorn Vermuelen. F4 racer Michael O'Brien has also been piling up points, while slow starts have given way to top results for the likes of Daniel Healey, Kamil Gorlo, Russell Endean, Kim Enson and Sander de Baets.

Still more are there or thereabouts. Spinnael, Campbell-Mills, Snoep, Pineiro, Longman, Duma, Jones, Beroual-Smith... such a glittering array of driving talent that you practically need sunglasses to look at the leaderboard.

With the final round of heats already underway, I install Marianne on a comfy sofa in the viewing area, close to a heater, with Geoff White and Lawrence Hackett for company. Two other karting widows - Brad's girlfriend Becca and Sophie, Russell Endean's other half - have come to spectate; I wander over to catch up. I haven't seen either of them since this time last year, but it's a brief reunion: Marianne is the main attraction and rightly so.

Round 4 starts with a bang, as Ramon Pineiro misses the last-chance-to-pit board, takes a penalty, and hands a shock win to Thomas Zels, whose previous best result was a sixth place. My sometime EKL teammate Kyle Power follows him home to cap off a strong BRKC weekend. Two new winners follow - Sean Brierley and James Martin finally getting the job done after threatening all weekend.

As heat three gets underway, journalist and F1 commentator Will Buxton is jumping for joy in the reception area.
"Fifth! Get in!" He's just chased Sean, semi-finalists Ryan Smith and Ben Greenwood, and Raeed Ali home in heat two - his best result of the weekend. Will's enthusiasm and support for our championship is invaluable; he's given generously of his time this weekend, helping James Auld with the commentary while regulars Anwar and Sean are on track. That says it all about BRKC 2016: our backup commentator's day job is in F1...

Suddenly, it's my turn. As I suit up, Sean is giving me advice: "Don't watch the guy in front in qualy, it'll just distract you. Focus on your lines and braking points..." I pass Geoff White on the way downstairs and get an encouraging "Get stuck in, mate..." Which is exactly what I intend to do.

They aren't getting any easier, though. Round 4, heat four features no less than four race-winners (Hackett, Philpot, O'Brien, Enson) and at least four more drivers who have been racking up solid results since Saturday morning (Austin, Gray, Leppan, Zaluski). Chris Brookshaw has been less consistent, as have I - but I know him to be mighty quick on occasion. It wouldn't take a big slip to bring up the rear in this one.

But my lap is neat - one area where I've improved on last year - and I line up sixth, with the three superstars plus Steve Gray and Karol Zaluski ahead. I've outqualified Kim Enson, which goes some way to illustrating just how close this is.

Green light. Lee Hackett - on pole in kart 9, which seems to have developed a tiny advantage - bolts straight away, pulling a gap on Michael O'Brien. But the rest of us are nose to tail; in third place, Brad is being kept honest by Karol Zaluski and Steve Gray. By all of us, in fact.

Nine laps in, Kim Enson takes advantage of a slightly tardy exit from the Snail and edges me wide into the hairpin, meaning that I've been passed in every heat this year - a first, and not a statistic I intend to repeat. I pull myself together and stay close, hassling when I can, constantly aware that the rest of the field is right there behind me. Nobody's falling off the rear this time.

I make a better pitstop than I did on the alternate layout yesterday - 1.3 seconds quicker in fact - but it's still a second away from the best and I narrowly lose a place to Luke Austin. Kim is one of the last to pit and just holds on to his sixth place. In these final laps, the field has split in three: Lee out front on his own, second (O'Brien) to fifth (Gray) covered by less than 2 seconds, and sixth (Enson) to tenth (Brookshaw) covered by even less. We're all driving out of our skins, matched to the tenth; probably the closest race I've ever been part of here.

At the flag I'm eighth, just six tenths behind Kim Enson in sixth, and less than a second ahead of Brookshaw in tenth. The entire field is covered by 22 seconds after 35 laps, with half that covering the second to tenth placed drivers. On laptimes, the whole field is covered by 0.421 seconds; second to seventh fastest covers just 0.127. I have set a faster race lap than fourth-placed Bradley Philpot; so has tenth-placed Chris Brookshaw.

Back upstairs, I gulp my 50th cup of tea as the action roars on; James Auld goes falsetto as Anwar mistimes his pitstop and exits to take the flag in a photo finish with former Formula A world champion Colin Brown - who has struggled this weekend, but is already making ominous noises about a full-scale return to karting after seven years away. Oliver Bayani takes his second win ahead of Tyler Mays - massively improved this year, and through to the semis with three fourth places and a second to his name. Newcomer Bartosz Malutko is third, having shown consistently strong form since a steady first heat.

Anwar's penalty, like Ramon's, drops him out of the semi-finals - a shame, as both had had strong results in the opening three rounds. On the upside, it does free him up to continue his sterling work in the commentary booth, playing James Hunt to James Auld's Murray Walker.

Barely has the dust settled when Slawek Piskorz brings the house down by nabbing pole position ahead of Sam Spinnael and Sander de Baets - the top three covered by less than a tenth... we're glued to the screens, hands white-knuckled on the railings as the lights go green. Will he hold on? Or will the sheer weight of top-level competition experience behind crush him?

There's not a hint of visible tension; Slawek simply gets his head down and drives as the others squabble for position behind; seriously quick all weekend, he finally has a chance to show it, and nobody else can live with him. Like me, he's been slow in the pits, but finally nails a fast (sub-45 second) pitstop lap when he most needs it, and romps home to one of the most popular heat wins of the weekend. He's followed by Régis and Sander, with Sam fourth.

I cheer Slawek into the pits and stay put for the next heat, which contains an astonishing 7 race-winners including my British 24 Hours teammate Russell Endean. As expected, it's tight and tense, Ruben leading a battling quartet: Verhofste, Bartsch, Vermuelen and Endean. There are some great moves for position, and some dodgy ones (Matt Bartsch receives no less than 3 bad pass flags - ten points for effort). Poor David Longman scuppers his semi-final hopes by locking up on the pit entry, sliding over the first stop line, and triggering the dreaded yellow light. The penalty pitstop drops him to tenth.

Russell gets a mauling from the Europeans; forced to defend hard for 35 straight laps, he looks a touch relieved to cross the line fourth, behind Ruben, Stefan and Bjorn and ahead of Mateusz. Beside me, Brad has been hopping around throughout the race, willing Russell to take points off Bartsch and Verhofste, which will give him a better shot at the final.

The final three heats seem to rattle by in no time. Daniel Healey notches up his third win on the trot (only Ruben, Lewis and Lee have matched him). Both this and the following heat feature impressive drives from midfield runners - Sam Slater and Darren Pearce ahead of Round 3 heat winner Craig Mcallister, Adam Davis second to Lewis Manley in heat nine.

BRKC 2016's final heat is won by Ed White ahead of impressive newcomer Rico Haarbosch and yet another of my Corporate Chauffeurs teammates - Michael Weddell. Both he and longtime friend/rival Ryan Smith ("we've been joined at the hip since 2009") have driven superbly this year and I'm pleased to see them make the semifinals - for the first time in Ryan's case.

At this point, my very patient wife calls time and asks to be taken home.

As the semifinal grid lists are posted - Tyler Mays and Thom van Dijk just making the cut (the latter despite a disastrous 9th place in round 4's Death Heat), Bartosz Malutko and Slawek Piskorz just missing it (the latter despite his round 4 win), we're saying our goodbyes. I'm sorry to be leaving before the climax, but circumstances meant that Marianne has spent far more time than intended at the circuit today. She's enjoyed catching up with the karting crowd, but the cold is seeping and it's time to go.

Of course, we stay up to date throughout the journey home, Marianne feeding me lap by lap updates from the live timing. I nearly mount a roundabout in Bicester when Ed and Annelien finish, respectively, sixth and tenth in semi final 1. It's a shame to see the likes of Daniel Healey, Rico Haarbosch and Michael O'Brien just miss the cut after superb results through the heats.

As to the final itself... a staggering third title for Ruben, and what a return for Lewis Manley after his stumble last year. Stefan Verhofste is as relentlessly consistent as ever. It took just one heat for Régis Gosselin to morph from BRKC unknown (he's a former Clio Cup winner so hardly a rookie) to heavy-hitter; making the final on his first appearance is a great achievement. There were six Brits in the final - the most we've had at Formula Fast, I think - I'm especially pleased for Sean and Oliver who put some very big names in the shade to get there.

I know that Lee and especially Ed will be disappointed, which is what happens when winners don't win. They also pick themselves up and go again. And they remember, I hope, that they're among the best in the world at what they do.

Besides the podium, there are two special awards. The Kam Ho memorial trophy, in memory of the veteran karter and friend to many in the BRKC, goes to the driver who finished 28th overall - the position Kam finished in on his last BRKC appearance in 2014. This year, that driver is Michael Weddell, who is, I know, very honoured. For 2017 there is talk of awarding the Kam Ho trophy to the highest placed driver aged over 35 - something to strive for, and a fitting tribute in my opinion.

The Genevieve Reason trophy, for the BRKC's most determined driver, goes to fourth-placed Matt Bartsch and rightly so. Nobody hunts down their opponents on track quite like he does; his overtaking moves sometimes blur the line between inspired and insane - which makes him one of the most exciting drivers to watch.

Genevieve Reason was part of the Formula Fast family, working on the BRKC in 2014 and 2015, before her life was tragically cut short in a road accident last May. I remember her as an utterly charming lady whose loss will have been devastating to the FF staff and her loved ones; naming a memorial trophy after her is a lovely gesture.

And with that, we're done. BRKC 2016 consigned to history, immortalised here and in hours of video and thousands of photographs; Tim Andrew's black and white shots are some of the most evocative I've ever seen in karting. I said in the preview that this year's championship would scale new heights in every area. And it did. Venue, circuit, organisation, commentary, broadcast, competition standard, atmosphere, pizza... all stratospheric.

Brad, Ollie and Phil and all at Formula Fast: thanks for making it happen, and for the huge effort that went into making it fair and smooth-running and well-catered and warm(ish).

Everyone that came and raced and supported: thanks for making it special. Please come back next year.

Everyone that's still reading: Jeez, have you got nothing better to do?!



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