Tuesday, 16 January 2018

BRKC 2018. Milton Keynes, 19-21 January. Preview


It's the answer to life, the universe and everything, as anyone who's read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will know. But where the 2018 edition of the British Rental Kart Championship is concerned, it's quite the opposite. It's the number of names on the entry list that I don't recognise. And I've been around this series a while. Since the very beginning (March 2011) in fact.

Having said that, there will be other old-timers better informed than I am, for BRKC 2018 marks something of a comeback for me. I haven't sat in a kart since my final heat at Formula Fast in 2017. The combination of a small child and an embryonic writing career have left little time or money for racing.

On the bright side, I won't have much in the way of outdoor karting technique to unlearn, and there's a wealth of onboard and trackside video footage to help bring me up to speed. I'm fitter and lighter (by 7kg) than at this time last year. I'll not dwell on the lack of seat time. If I've learned anything from racing against the best - and be in no doubt, BRKC attracts the very best - it's that going in with the right mental attitude is the key to success.

This is BRKC's fifth year at Formula Fast in Milton Keynes. Every year, series organiser Bradley Philpot, together with FF top bods Ollie Fox and Phil Stanley, somehow manage to raise the bar; I've no doubt that 2018 will be the same.

From its slick website to the custom-built laser pitstop system, every aspect of this championship oozes quality. We now take for granted - though we shouldn't - that crucial kart parity will be maintained throughout three days of practice and racing. As other circuits demonstrate on a regular basis, that's a remarkable achievement.

There are those who fondly remember the days when BRKC was a six round, mostly outdoor championship that travelled the length of the UK - I'm one of them. But in 2018, Formula Fast has long established itself as BRKC's spiritual home. And the experience - a three day pressure-cooker of adrenaline and biting cold - is firmly etched in the minds of every previous competitor.

If 2018 is your first year, you'll have some idea by now of what to expect. The vagaries of one lap qualifying, pitstops, pizza and so on will probably be familiar. If you're new to the circuit, the volume of video footage from previous years will be more than enough to show the circuit's two layouts, overtaking opportunities, even some technique.

What no amount of video or Facebook chatter will convey is how it feels. The atmosphere is unlike anything I've experienced anywhere else; every year I'm shocked at the intensity of it. Because every race is filmed and broadcast live, there are cameras all around the circuit and in the pitlane. James Auld, voice of the BRKC, booms over the PA and ratchets up the excitement to fever pitch. The cold burrows straight through layers of clothing and skin into bone. And whether you're the reigning champion or a hopeful newbie, you'll be acutely aware that you're sharing the building - and the circuit - with the best indoor karters on the planet.

When it's time to put your helmet on, select your kart number and wait in the pitlane to be called, it'll be a struggle to shut it all out, to stop your teeth chattering from a combination of chill and adrenaline. But as I've said before, shut it out you must. The circuit is a fickle beast - deceptively simple to drive but devilishly tricky to be quick on and incredibly sensitive to minute changes in temperature. Single lap qualifying demands a particular type of mental strength, and come the races, twenty minutes will never have seemed so long. The best drivers here are hyper-tuned to tiny changes in grip, approaching every millisecond of every lap with just the right blend of focus, determination and aggression. Make one tiny mistake, and someone will make you pay for it.

I've managed to get this far without mentioning Ruben Boutens, which must be some sort of record. The reigning BRKC champion has held the title since 2014, and is arguably more formidable than ever in 2018 - having finally added the elusive World Champion's trophy to what must be a room-sized cabinet. Ruben has competed in 23 BRKC heats, semifinals and finals since 2014. He's won 18 of them, and hasn't been beaten in a race at Formula Fast since 2015.

He faces most of the usual suspects, including all but one of last year's finalists and two British returnees: former double champion Lee Hackett and three-time finalist Ed White. Beyond that, 89 of the great and the good will converge on Milton Keynes from eight countries. They include Kart World Championship finalists, national championship podium finishers, tintop and single seater aces, MSA Rotax frontrunners, Formula Fast locals who can set a 32 second lap with their eyes shut... I could go on, but I'm starting to scare myself.

There's plenty to savour between races. The BRKC is almost as much a social occasion as it is a karting championship; I look forward to catching up with friends from the UK and abroad for the first time since the last time we collectively froze our extremities off. For those new to the championship, the friendly, inclusive vibe of the Facebook group very much extends to real life. Formula Fast's raised gantry and trackside viewing spaces make for great spectacle - just don't drop your drink on the track...

Talking of savouring, the aforementioned pizzas deserve their accolades, but the catering hit new heights in 2017 with the arrival of the Bandit food truck, which takes pulled pork sandwiches (among others) to a whole new level. The Bandit makes a welcome return in 2018.

As usual, there will be multiple ways to follow the BRKC. Darren Cook and his Scruffy Bear Pictures crew will be in charge of filming and broadcasting again, and the inimitable James Auld will be joined by a steady stream of assistant commentators over the course of the weekend. Formula Fast's own live timing system will be up and running from the start of practice. Links will be posted on Facebook and BRKC's Twitter feed.

BRKC 2018 will turn a wheel for the first time at 10am on Friday 19 January, when the karts roll out for practice. Racing starts at 8am on Saturday; 36 hours after that, the champion will be crowned. Will Ruben make it five in a row? You'd be brave to bet against it - but the competition has never been tougher.

More than five months since it sold out in an incredible 24 hours, BRKC 2018 is about to get real. I'm counting the minutes, and I'm sure there are 99 others out there doing the same.

Game on, folks...

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