Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A weekend in dire straits: British 24 Hours. Teesside, 13-14 August 2016

After a promising buildup, the 2016 British 24 Hours descended swiftly into farce. Not just for the Corporate Chauffeurs team, but as a whole.

I'm not going to go into my usual minute detail because I don't think anyone wants to read it and frankly, I don't want to write it. So we'll stick to the highlights - or lowlights, as one team put it.

The Corporate Chauffeurs team - and in particular captain Alex Vangeen, team manager Luke Jones, Bradley Philpot and George Lovell - spent four months, hundreds of man hours and a not inconsiderable amount of money preparing for the biggest race weekend of the year. No stone was left unturned in the quest to be the best prepared, best drilled, best equipped hire team in the paddock.

Meanwhile, there were encouraging signs from the Teesside management, with two positive rule changes for 2016: kart selection by random draw, and a fixed-length mid-race maintenance stop for every team. They agreed to let us attach lights to our kart and posed no objection to our large awning. They were a pleasure to deal with, as they have been every year since our debut in 2011.

The good news continued through both setup days: kit, drivers and helpers all present and correct, Friday practice completed without a hitch, the usual radio glitches ironed out. Even the weather seemed to be on our side for once: we've never been warmer or drier at Teesside.

But by 9.05am on race day we were beginning to wonder why we'd bothered.

George Lovell, out first in practice in the kart allocated to #11, declared it virtually undriveable. Since he runs his own kart circuit, we tend to trust his judgement. Race instructor and double British 24 Hours winner Bradley Philpot was faring little better in #22, with major handling and engine issues evident within half a lap.

By the time our karts returned to the garage, less than 10 minutes after practice started, they joined a lengthening queue of ailing machines. At one point, a third of the hire kart field was in for remedial work ranging from incorrect tyre pressures to total engine failure.

Despite several return visits to the pits and a kart change for #11, the Corporate Chauffeurs teams qualified 18th and 22nd - both over a second away from the pole position laptime with world-class drivers at the wheels. Up and down the hire kart field were similar stories of zero kart parity and woeful reliability.

Last minute changes to tyre pressures and engine valve clearances - which the drivers had to persuade reluctant mechanics to undertake - enabled both crews to unlock some pace at last, and in the early hours of the race we rose swiftly through the field, running as high as 3rd and 4th at one point. That, we realised later, was as much down to others' misfortune as our searing speed.

But in the second hour, #22 slowed with an ailing left engine and pitted. The cause: an oil-filled carburettor. In hindsight - and with hard-won mechanical insight - we should have insisted on a new engine. But the mechanics, knowing full well that our left engine would almost certainly seize before the end of the race, nevertheless changed only the carburettor. Remarkably, the engine would last into the 20th hour before finally succumbing - costing us a needless 10 minutes on top of the 11 minutes we lost with the original repair.

After their kart change during practice, the #11 crew fared better, although niggling fuel feed problems, brake discs covered in chain lubrication oil (by the mechanics) and a shattered sprocket at half distance dropped them out of podium contention.

The troubles suffered by both Corporate Chauffeurs crews paled next those of the Leicester Lightning team, whose race 'lowlights' are immortalised on Youtube. Imagine our surprise when, in the closing hours, they appeared in 8th place in class, having been credited the laps lost to unreliability. To my knowledge they were the only team thus gifted and I'd love to hear the rationale for that. Had the Corporate Chauffeurs crews been similarly compensated (14 and 21 laps), we would have finished 1-2 comfortably. I'm sure there are other teams who could stake similar claims for the victory.

I'm not in possession of all the facts, and there may have been contributing circumstances beyond the organisers' control. I can only report on our experience, and that simply wasn't good enough. We spent the thick end of £3,000 in race fees plus the same again in travel, accommodation, kit hire, food and drink, clothing and branding, to field our two crews. Like many hire teams, we have sponsors involved, whose return on investment depends on us fighting for the win, not sitting in pieces in the garage. At a bare minimum, it costs a hire team £2,000 and a huge amount of energy to support the British 24 Hours. As far as we could tell, the hire fleet's race preparation amounted to a hosing-down and a new set of tyres.

Sorry, but that's unacceptable.

Nobody expects guarantees of 100% reliability. It's a 24 hour race, after all. But it's not unreasonable to expect the karts to have been fitted with fresh consumables, to have been tested and equalised to within say half a second over an 80 second lap. In other words, in return for their money and attendance, every team deserves to start the race on as even a footing as possible.

As it was, not even the tyre pressures had been checked, with wild variances across the fleet and across individual tyres on karts.

Despite our woes, every member of our 14-strong team put their hearts and souls into making the best of a bad situation. We kept our heads high even when Luke Jones fell seriously ill overnight and had to be admitted to hospital. In the end we finished 5th and 11th in class - testament to relentless pace especially from newcomer George Lovell and Teesside old hands Philpot and Weddell, and superb work in the pits.

But it's hard not to feel that all that talent, effort, money and time was wasted. Hard also not to feel that despite positive early signs, the hire teams were treated very poorly by Teesside in 2016. I gather that for 2017 the Club Hire class will replaced by a more expensive 'Rookie Extreme' class with new karts closer to the owner karts in specification. That sounds promising, but the quality and extent of kart preparation and parity will have to be leagues ahead of what we experienced this year. And the cost will put it out of the reach of many current Club Hire teams.

It's a shame to lose Club Hire. Done properly, it could be highly competitive and excellent value. As things stand, Corporate's Chauffeurs' plans for 2017 are fluid. But without some real commitment to the hire class from the organisers, and published details of how 2016's failings will be rectified for 2017, I very much doubt that we'll be returning.

1 comment:

  1. What you going to do now that the EKL and EPEC are retired?