Caterham Academy - Snetterton Race 22 August 2004

Executive summary: I crashed on the practice day. It looked for a while like I might not race at all, but we patched the car up. I qualified in a disappointing tenth place, but finished the race in fifth - leaving me seventh overall in the championship.


Snetterton circuit - image courtesy of BMRC
Click on image for a 1.2MB video of my practice crash

Preamble

So, after all that faffing about with sprints and hillclimbs, this is what we were all waiting for - our first proper circuit race.

Test Day

We had a choice of practice days for Snetterton - some people opted for the GoldTrack track day on Thursday, but a number of others of us chose to do the official test day on Friday. Official test days mean that laptiming is allowed, and perhaps more importantly, much more aggressive overtaking is allowed - no rules about only overtaking on the left on the straights only. I figured this would give me much more chance to practice overtakes and defence against overtakes: which it did - but it also led to the carnage which was to follow.

With lots of Caterhams out, it inevitably became practice racing - rather than practice FOR racing. Snetterton with its long straights gives plenty of options for slipstreaming, and within a few minutes of the start of the first session we were merrily swapping places backwards and forwards.

About fifteen laps into the session, I found myself close behind Simon Young in his red car, and Chris Sedgewick in his yellow one. Going onto the back straight, I got a better drive out and started to gain on them both.

An R400 tucked itself between us and I got a bit of extra tow of him before he disappeared off into the distance. I passed the Chris, and was gaining on Simon. I tucked in briefly behind him for the tow, but then had to move out in case he braked early. Sure enough, before I braked, Simon disappeared backwards.

Then I'm not sure what happened, because they both overtook me - one left and one right on the entry to the esses. I guess they just let off the brakes earlier. Either way, we're all heading through the esses with Simon in front. But Simon's late breaking left him much too tight for the right hander, and he couldn't make it around the corner. He went out onto the dirt - not for the first time, I might add! I guess at this time I should have braked hard - but the current racing mentality meant I was happy to "take the place". Last time he'd just driven on the dirt for a bit and rejoined - I expected the same to happen. Unfortunately, this time he swerved back onto the track, narrowly missing Chris's car and heading straight into my path. Rather too late I jumped on the brakes, and - of course - tried to avoid him by steering into the gap in front of him. Had I tried to steer at him, I might have gone through the gap behind. Instead I hit him hard, square on the front wheel.

Fortunately the video didn't record my words.

1.2MB short video

8MB longer video

The impact didn't feel too bad, but there was no way I was driving back round a "live" circuit without checking it over, so I headed for the infield gate. I got out to inspect the damage and open the gate, and realised from the pool of coolant leaking from the crumpled nose cone that I wasn't going to drive it anywhere.

Meanwhile Simon was out of his car, and it was clear his car wasn't going to move at all. The whole front suspension was ripped away from the chassis.

First viewing of my damage looked pretty bad, but we got away with a new radiator, patching the nose cone with cardboard and gaffa tape, and judicious use of a large hammer to straighten various brackets.

I was able to get out for part of the last session, but Simon's car wasn't going to be going anywhere for a while. My damage was perhaps 500 quid all in, whereas Simon's was estimated at about six grand. Ouch.

People are inevitably going to ask whose fault it was. As far as I'm concerned, it was nobody's. Simon was the one who spun off, but if I'd acted differently I could probably have avoided hitting him. Perhaps if he'd got away with 500 quid and I'd had the six grand bill (and missed raceday) I might have been a bit more agrieved - but that's the risk you take if you go on track with others. This is one big reason why my brother prefers sprints - if something goes wrong it's because you've screwed up, not someone else. Either way, I'm pleased there was no animosity between us, and Simon and his whole crew lent a hand to help fix my car.

Raceday

I was very pleased that I'd got the car out for at least half a session (it could have been more but I'd failed to take advantage of the slack time to put some fuel in!) - as it meant I was confident that it was driving straight on raceday.

Qualifying

One thing hasn't changed between bike racing and car racing - I'm still crap at qualifying. Although I'd been doing something like 1:26.5 before the incident, during qualifying the best I could manage was 1:27.6 - and that was only a single lap, if I hadn't done that it would have been in the high 28's. In my defence I site traffic getting in the way, and several near spins at the Russells chicane. But really it was just crap driving.

That got me 10th place on the grid, which was much worse than I'd hoped for. Never mind, I know that grid positions aren't all that important - in early bike races I used to regularly start near the back of that grid and end up in the top three within a couple of laps.

Nevertheless, I was feeling a bit dispirited, and had gone from hoping for a top five place to just hoping to improve on my qualifying position.

Academy Group One Race

Group One was the first race in the afternoon, and most of us in group two went to watch from the viewpoint at Russels. There had already been drama as Patrick Scharfenegger (?) had set pole and then been found underweight on the notoriously fickle Snetterton scales, and sent to the back of the grid with a 10 second penalty on top.

Watching from Russels showed several attempts at completely impossible overtakes. Drivers seemed to be seeing a gap and just assuming it would still be there when they drove their car into it. Contact was made several times, until someone spun and Patrick - who had worked his way through half the pack, slammed into him and broke his front suspension. He tried to drive off, but with no steering he ended up stuck in the middle of the track, causing the red flags to come out.

The race was restarted after Pat's car was removed, and seemed slightly more civilised until the last lap, when poor old Fabian Somerville-Cotton rolled his car back at the Esses, completely destroying it and calling out the red flags again.

We headed back to our pit somewhat sobered. I think most of us had hoped for a more "gentlemanly" race than group one had just demonstrated (and, indeed our race was later to be much more civilised).

Our Race

Note "race" in the singular - in the relaxed world of car racing you get no free practice, one qualifying session, and one race. There's only seven races - a far cry from the 25 or more you get at a typical Bemsee bike meeting.

The warmup - or green flag - lap was a sedate affair. My fellow academists clearly took the instructions at the letter and cruised round checking the locations of the green flags. Little attempt was made to warm tyres or brakes, which was slightly frustrating as my Pagid pads really don't work well when they're cold.

Sat on the grid for race one, the old butterflies were back. It's been two years now since I felt that overwhelming mixture of apprehension, fear and excitement. Perhaps the fear was rather less - no bad thing as I often used to feel physically sick on the grid of a bike race.

Five second board, red lights, and they're out. My start had no subtlety, with wheels spinning wildly, but it was quick enough to give me an immediate advantage over Keith Chanter in front and Robin Russel beside me. I used that advantage to tuck up the inside of Keith through the first corner, and set off after Guy Harrington and Chris Fryer ahead.

On the second lap Chris nearly spun at Russels, and I had to brake to avoid him. Keith was able to maintain momentum and easily cruised past on the following straight. We maintained the order of Chris, Keith and me for several laps. I was hoping to slipstream Keith and take him at the end of the back straight, but I was struggling to do so (probably because he was getting a tow off Chris), I have to congratulate Keith though, whenever it looked like I was going to have a go at him he left some space, rather than "shutting the door" like many drivers would have.

Although I hadn't overtaken, I was pleased to see my pitboard showing me gaining one position each time I went past. They must be falling like flies in front! Only after a few laps did I realise that this was the number of laps left, and I was in fact still in eighth place!

The real drama all happened in lap 9 (out of 10). Kevin Dodd, in fifth place, clearly decided to test the theory that Riches can be taken flat, and disproved it, spinning wildly. Keith took avoiding action, and left me a clear run through the inside, which I took. Last minute braking for Sear and an unusually clean line through left me right behind Chris Fryer, perfectly positioned for slipstreaming him, which I duly did, accelerating easily past. My first thought when I saw the yellow flags at the end of the straight was "great - he can't get back at me". Unfortunately it wasn't "I wonder if Tim Skipper's car is spinning in the middle of track just out of view" - and thus I came close to smashing hard into Tim. My next mistake was slowing enough to let him rejoin the race in front of me - aargh - could have been another place! I contemplated a last minute dash up the inside at Russel, but it wasn't worth the risk and I wasn't really close enough anyway.

I crossed the line in fifth place - a result I was more than happy with.

Interestingly all my laps (bar the last where I had to avoid Tim) were faster than my qualifying time. The "adrenaline factor" clearly DOES still work with cars!

Conclusion

I want to go back. I want to do more races at Snetterton. I want to perfect the overtaking into the Esses, and the preventing of others doing it to me. I want to see how much later you can brake. I want to know if you really can take Riches flat. And I really want to get Russells right. Just once.

But I don't want to do it on track days or test days. I want to RACE. Yes, I'm hooked again. Sorry Mr. Bank Manager, sorry kids. Retiring at the end of this year is no longer an option.

Next race: Mallory Park, Sunday 19th September 2004.