Brands Hatch Review
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A week on, whilst catching up on some Blancpain GT, and I have this sadness. Already I really, really miss being out on the track! Any track, but Brands Hatch again would be ideal... So with that context, I'll try to summarise our second weekend in the Production BMW Championship this year.
We left Friday afternoon for the shortest family racing holiday ever, with the car packed and the kids' tablets charged for the 4-5 hour journey to Kent. The trailer has some nice new light clusters, the wiring is working 100% (not just most of the time), and it was a lovely day for a drive. We've been to brands 4 times now so we're getting used to the place, even Iwona thinks it's lovely to keep going back to. We had some company too from a work colleague who brought his son, and the kids appreciated the extra football players!
We planned to chill Friday evening and go to the beach Saturday, but we had an unplanned conjunctivitis inspired trip to the hospital instead! We had to make do with a short trip to Bluewater shopping centre instead - no complaints from Iwona - and the kids who got to play in the arcade. Sunday's race timetable was qualifying first thing, race 1 midday, race 2 practically the last session of the day. We got to one of our favourite holiday destinations, set up the tent and our new hardy Lidl's gazebo to give the kids a base in the paddock. Thank you to the Lotus outfit from the brown RV for the lend of a hookup extension!
I'd stripped out some weight (down from 1180 on the scales at Donington to 1165 at Brands!). The headlights were now perspex (and the originals will make some money on ebay soon!), and I'd found some heat proofing in the engine bay to remove. Oh, the horns have gone now too! I'd pushed like hell at Donington as I really wanted to find my own and the car's limits. I'd dial it back a bit this weekend, but with more confidence, and a slightly lighter car. I'd also had a good study of my notes over the years and decided on some new front damper settings. I'd been too soft at Oulton and Silverstone, too hard at Brands last year, so hoped to find a Goldilocks zone. More on the result later. I'd also got more (but still not all) of the car painted - this is like an agile project at the moment!
This felt like a good session, and what sticks in my mind is how much grip the front end had! It was a bit un-nerving how much it could pull around, to the point I was worried the back going to step out. Afterwards, I softened the rear dampers 1 click out of paranoia, as the traction did feel a bit absent. I shouldn't have done in retrospect, it was perfect from how one of the Bartley guys had set it to help me out. It was the first session of the day and the track was very green, others found traction an issue too.
I was stunned to come back and see I was ahead of 4 drivers! Admittedly the session was cut short when Jennifer Olive-Jones has a scary moment almost rolling in the gravel at paddock. Generally the car felt very good other than the traction. I was looking forward, certainly not dreading the races. I was also pumping myself full of nuts, fruit and energy gels which worked a treat at Donington. Mainly for brain food to keep up concentration through the day.
A trademark tardy start, but my first ever with correct gear changes! I got passed at the start, and after a lap was at the back of the field. Another lap later, and the cars seemed to be pulling away. A touch crushed, I thought of Donington and being able to catch cars back up, so got my head down. According to the laptimes (and surprised commentators) I had started too slowly, but got quicker and quicker. Sub-consciously that was the plan all along, but you can loose so much time - which is hard to get back. I started to catch the pack again, and caught up with Jennifer and passed at my now favourite passing place - Druids! I went in just a touch too hot, but kept the car tight on the inside, and eased slowly ahead over the next couple of laps. The race was ended early with a car in the gravel at Clearways, but I was happy not to finish last again! P22 out of 24!
My only permanent pass of the weekend...
I'd watched my Race 1 footage, and identified the forest section as something to work on. I could see it was relatively my strongest section compared to the cars just in front of me, but knew there was still more time. The rest of the circuit is the indy section which I'm already fairly familiar with, but probably a little slower than them.
I'd discovered (I think on retrospect, for the second time) that my handbrake button was perfectly fine, it was the sleeve that had come out to make it difficult to push. I could now use the handbrake at the start, which was actually my best ever! Right gears too this time. A few cars came together at the start at the front before we got to Paddock, and had to pick our way through stationary cars and debris. Hugely unfortunate for them, and somehow promoting me to 10th! I knew it wouldn't last, but a safety car for a couple of laps delayed the inevitable. I had a lesson in safety car etiquette to - at one point the accordion effect caught me out, and nearly caught out Ian Francis behind me too. Sorry Ian, and well avoided!
At the restart, I think I was too slow getting back up to speed (again), and whilst trying to let passed some drivers I knew were a couple of seconds quicker than me, I slowed down too much, lost momentum and lost even more. Again I got my head down and pushed, working on the back section of Brands. I started taking more and more chunks of the inside kerb of Sheene, not realising it was a track limit! I think it's this which got me a warning, which I took as a compliment. The following lap I gave it a wider berth, but I can only theorise that the limits system is delayed. I came around for the next lap and to be greeted by a 5 second time penalty!
I could see a silver car behind getting closer and closer towards the end of the race, and was gutted my 5 second penalty would cost me a place. I didn't in the end, as it was Ian Russel who was a lap down, having been caught up in the mayhem at the start. In the end, it was P15 for us, our best result! The bittersweet reality is it will be a few races before we can match that again, and only down to the unfortunate luck from the guys in front. We'll take it of course!
It's been a huge weekend of learning. Safety car procedures, tact amongst understandably pissed off drivers (sorry guys!), damper settings, track evolution,not being aggressive enough at the starts, it goes on... We thoroughly enjoyed our weekend (despite the eldest waking up with his eye glued shut with goop!). I'm also happy to get the Brands GP bogey off our backs. The last time here (our very first weekend) I managed 4 laps in qualifying before spinning and being t-boned, which put us out for 2 years...
The next step is Brands Indy - we hope! It's 50/50 at the moment due to budget and that weekend is tight because of family commitments. It's also http://www.deutschefest.co.uk which is a great family day out, so I'm trying to be optimistic. Not much money is left for the car right now, but I know it's handling reasonably well now and is slightly more competitive. That's major progress from last year.
Donington National April 2018
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What a circuit!!! I can fully understand why it's a driver favourite. Clearly since MSVR took over they've also ramped up the quality of facilities recently so I've timed my first visit well!
I'd busted a gut to make time to prep the car, and get at least most of the painting done with the help of a guy in college - on a car painting course luckily. There was more I wanted to do, but at least I knew it was race ready from the end of last year. This would also be the first time racing without Iwona and the kids, a bit weird! I set off Thursday mid day.
So I set up on the Thursday evening on a patch of swamp, formerly grass I presume. But Friday was very, very wet. I was booked for the morning's test session to learn the track. The only things I learnt were to heel and toe on down changes in the wet, that at the old hairpin half the track was unusable, and a bit of wet car control (and lack there of).
I had a particular brown trouser moment (proof above) on my first flying lap into redgate...
I really did get the most value out of Donington as someone reminded me as I'd visited most of the track! I churned up a fair bit of grass and brought a lot of grass back to the paddock... Sorry Dr. Palmer!
I was also getting a bit skilful / fortunate (depending on your viewpoint) at helmsmanship out of Mcleans...
Surviving that, (and the noise from DHL airplanes through the night from East Mids Airport next door), Saturday was a free day mostly sent in Derby in a Starbucks. Also got some more camping kit which has pleased the family unit no end. I went through some video footage - which was rotated 90 degrees, so lesson learned for Sunday. And yet again, I was not looking forward to race day. But i have a confession - it's really weird. I keep having this feeling the day or 2 before, I don't want to do it any more, I'd rather skip the weekend, even after 5 meetings! I'm not on my own apparently after speaking with others, it's possibly to do with not looking forward to the waiting around and the build up. But predictably, when you're in the car in the assembly area kitted up, ready to go, it's genuinely a fantastic feeling. You are completely ready to go.
So back at the wheel for the first time in competition since last summer, it felt good! I explored it's fair to say, a LOT of limits in the dry. I eventually clocked that Redgate was a 3rd gear corner, not 4th...times were scrappy, but I was pleased to not qualify at the back for the second consecutive race! My last lap I really went for into coppice and gained a whole second, pipping Steve Allen. By the end of the weekend I found 3 more seconds - I wish I'd had chance to practice Donny in the dry!!! One of the other drivers Danny took me through some of my footage with some tips, and one of the Bartley guys gave some help fettling the rear dampers. That seemed to help the rear a touch.
Lost a place to Steve thanks to going from 1st to 4th at the start - like always. Overtook Katrina who held back, bided her time and breezed past me on the 2nd lap down the craners, just as I thought I was on Steve's bumper. Unfortunately I was still not a natural at Redgate, went wide and lost touch with the pair. I thought at times I was reeling them back in, but at one point decided to just bring the car home. About half way through I spotted a stationary orange car which I knew was her, was chuffed to pass but it was short lived. Grazes motorsport know how to build a decent car, a lot more than I do! She caught me up and made a good move at the Goddards chicane, and that was me back in last again.
The leaders came through shortly after, and I was just happy to get to the flag. Until, 2 laps from the end I see Steve again! As they say in iRacing, "Don't mind me I'm just here for the safety-OOHHH A GAP! IT'S MINE!" After a half arsed lunge into old hairpin I passed him thanks to a good exit at Coppice (and apparently a throttle issue he was carrying - I'll still take it!). I was pretty pleased crossing the line - watching the video back I can't help but smile!
I was so determined not to change from first to fourth again, I managed it!! But somehow (for reasons still unknown) I did so as soon as the lights went out... otherwise it would have been a great start! This time after a couple of laps the pack seem to get away from me quicker, I think they all had their eye in faster than me. This was a bit disappointing as I really thought my pace had improved, but it had just not as much as the others. Nearly halfway through the race and it started to rain, and I hoped experience from Friday would help...
It may have a touch, as I started to close in on Katrina and Steve again. But whilst pushing, I just didn't brake enough / in time for the Goddards chicane and knew I'd have to acquaint the oil sump with the massive red sausage kerbs! After spreading some gravel around a bit, taking it easy-ish into Redgate with gravel covered tyres, I lost them again. Ah well! Annoyed to be last for the first time since Silverstone, but that was a thoroughly good weekend and I remember reflecting, so this is why drivers love Donny. But, I realised I was catching Steve, again! It's addictive... you think ah I'll just bring it home. Then you see the next position and it's like flicking a switch. it can't be helped!
And I'm glad I did. Out of Coppice I probably had my best exit yet, and took the most speed from all the weekend. I realised I'd be right alongside going into the chicane.... this is the first proper ballsy overtake I've made, and it was a split second decision to commit. I braked a touch later and harder than I've done before, and noticed I'd gone passed. That one pass was the highlight of the weekend for me, mechanical issues aside I'm really not bothered!
I loved, loved that weekend. Despite missing the family and the horrible rain on Friday, this was one I've felt most comfortable with the car and racing close to other cars. For Brands Hatch next month I really need to shift my own and some of the car's weight. But at least it doesn't have as long straights as Donington does as I think that's where I'm losing comparatively a chunk of time. Hoping to not be at the back again and keep on climbing!
Donington Park Preview
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Some thoughts and progress for the first round of the 2018 PBMW championship, at Donington Park in just over a weeks time(!). Firstly it's nice to get the winter out of the way, it's borderline depressing how far away the racing season seemed. It's really dragged. Secondly, (ironically), I wish I had a bit more time! There's been a job change, more increasing attention needed for our 3 young boys, a business to wrap up, and we seem to have been flat out for months without much time for anything else.
The last few weeks I've pushed hard to sort the car out. I've found one gearbox mount bolt loose and it's friend completely missing... The fire extinguisher has had to move to comply with new MSA rules (though thankfully I've kept it serviced so don't have to get a new one!). The new paint job is err, way behind schedule - I have to see what I can do on the drive with a gazebo this weekend. The car has a new home about 2 miles away, under cover in a nice unit, but the body work has suffered quite a bit being sat on the drive in the rain. At the end of the year, the shell really needs a complete strip and repair.
I've been getting some Donington practice in on iRacing using an Oculus Rift VR headset - WOW! It's utterly superb!! Going down the craner curves for the first time the chair felt like it was moving and I genuinely felt a bit queasy! I know my braking and turning points now, the depth perception and immersion that VR gives you I think is far more useful, than a flat screen where it seems more of a scripted set of actions. Mentally I think I'm ready, and it kicks off with a Friday morning test to get comfortable with the car again and a circuit I've never actually driven. Physically, I'm in pretty poor shape though! I need to work on that a lot more.
The current timetable shows 15 minutes of qualifying Sunday morning and 2 x 20 minute races. My aim will be to be ahead of a few people again and build on Brands last year.
So it won't be long until I'm here (without the family for the first time which is a bit of a shame), trying to survive and enjoy another weekend of racing. Donington is one of those must-do "ballsy" circuits, so I'm a touch apprehensive but looking forward.