Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Not the BRKC: Formula Fast members' night, 27 March 2018

"Oh dear," I think. "We're going to crash."

Time is frozen in a spot familiar to many who read this blog: around two-thirds of the way down Formula Fast's bumpy back straight. On a normal lap you'd be thinking about braking for the hairpin or defending your position as if your life depended on it. And you'd be sitting in a standard single-seater kart.

Not tonight.

Tonight I'm in Formula Fast's two-seater kart for the first time. Beside me is Aslam, veteran of one previous session at this circuit. Five metres in front of us is a pair of tyre barriers, laid across the track in a staggered formation to create a tight chicane. Aslam is in charge of steering this dual-control kart, and I have the pedals. I've just braked very late, giving my rookie teammate the very big ask of threading a wide, unfamiliar machine through a narrow gap at speed. The tyres loom, I fight the urge to stab the left pedal again... Aslam flicks us neatly left, then right - and we're through without a touch. I'd breathe a sigh of relief but there's no time: the hairpin is upon us.

This, then, is Member's Night - one of several a month at Formula Fast. At £25 plus a one-off lifetime membership fee of £20, it's excellent value. The formats vary according to the number and standard of drivers, and the mood of FF top bods Phil Stanley and Ollie Fox. Phil's on duty tonight and has devised this skills test - two laps of two different layouts in the two-seater - to set the grid for the one hour endurance to follow. There are time penalties for hitting the barriers.

Aslam and I have a clean run aside from a brush with the barrier just past the finish line, but qualify down in fifth: he's on a steep learning curve and, like all rookies, is working the steering too hard and spending too much time going sideways. But no matter: the two-seater is a hoot. It's surprisingly grunty considering its size, and driving as a pair is easier than you might think.

For the race, we're back in familiar territory: in single-seaters on the standard layout, although we're lined up on the back straight for a standing start - another first for me here. I'm usually better at these than the rolling starts, but as soon as the lights blink out I sense a problem: the kart is very reluctant to move. I spend ten frustrating minutes being passed left, right and centre, pit and hand over to Aslam. The leaderboard shows me over a second a lap slower than local hero Lewis Manley. Lewis is lightning quick of course, and I'm a bit steady - but that's more than steady. I ask Phil if we can swap.

He's happy to oblige: at the next driver change, I jump in a cold kart which instantly feels more lively. Despite a long brake pedal and an unusually (for this fleet) tail-happy balance, I'm lapping a full 1.8 seconds faster by the end of my stint. Aslam starts the race nearly three seconds a lap slower than me, and closes that to 1.7 by the end - solid progress.

Having fallen to the back in the first half of the race, we claw back a place by the end. During my second and final stints I string some modestly quick and consistent laps together. Aside from being a blast, it's all vital experience. I've already spent more time in a kart this year than in the whole of 2017.

My next visit to FF will probably be a Sunday unlimited session. Before then, I'll acquire some extra lead in order to bring me up to BRKC-regulation 90kg. I've used Formula Fast ballast in the past, but keeping the weight as close to the centre of the kart as possible (ie in the seat) will improve the balance slightly. Success here is all about marginal gains.

Talking of marginal gains, the driver is slightly improved, I think, since January. If nothing else, I don't need to rewire my brain when I get in the kart. There's a lot of work still to do before I qualify as 'competent'.

But the process on and off track is a lot of fun. I can't wait to go again.

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