Spa GP Paddock – With Caterham

0.002s was all it took to top off the best weekend ever! That was how close I got to predicting my Brands Hatch qualifying time. Mine was the closest prediction across all the Caterham championships at Brands and so I won the competition for Caterham F1 paddock and hospitality passes for the Spa F1 GP…

Race win, fastest lap and competition winner… The competition was designed to offer something for everyone to shoot for, so winning the race and the competition was greedy to say the least. Coincidentally 0.002s was roughly how long I felt guilty for when Jen rang me up to let me know.

Rob Clay, Academy Group 2, had won the competition at our Donington weekend and we arranged to stay together as near the circuit as we could. Rob was accompanied by Laura and I had dad in tow. Laura and Dad did all the hard work getting arrangements sorted. After all, the drivers had done all the hard work up to that point. I almost got a blister writing the qualifying guess onto a piece of paper.

After a LONG journey across Europe, through Brussels rush hour(s) we eventually arrived at the accommodation. A great challet style house in the Belgian Ardennes.

There was no time to rest though, as we needed to pick up the passes for the weekend. Dad and I drove over to the Caterham team hotel (Mercedes were also staying there) and we met Cyril for the first time. Cyril is in charge of looking after all of Caterhams guests over race weekends and he made us feel right at home from the off. We had a great chat over a couple of beers. We also met Fatna for the first time. She heads up the front of house inside the hospitality ‘truck’. We spent a good 40 mins chatting away and generally getting excited about what lay ahead.

Saturday dawned and we were out the door early. Spa is renowned for its bad traffic. The circuit is nestled around a series of rugged valleys and the approach roads are majority country tracks rather than main roads!

It was a lovely feeling to be able to walk through so many security gates leisurely flashing our magic passess all the way into the F1 paddock. I felt like I was trespassing! We had a walk around the paddock to get our bearings and looked in awe at all the trucks and buildings that comprise the F1 circus. The Belgian paddock is split level, with the pits and car trucks on the upper level and the hospitality units on the lower level.

Linking in-between was a set of stairs. This pinch point in the paddock turned out to be a brilliant place to hang out as everyone was forced there to get around – it was easy pickings to get lots of photos there!

SpaGPPaddockCaterham 1

We went up into the Caterham hospitality and were met by Fatina with teas and coffees whilst we waited for Cyril to arrive. As soon as he did, we knew we were going to be in good hands! He had the whole day sorted for us! Viewing area in the back of the pits for FP3. Quick lunch. Pitlane walkabout. Pit garage for Qalification. Over to the media scrum to see all the interviews taking place and then back for some afternoon tea.

SpaGPPaddockCaterham 44

If that all sounds brilliant, I can assure you that it was even better in reality! Watching the qualification session from the back of the pits will stay with me forever! We were right there when the call was made for Van Der Garde to go onto slicks and joined in the huge celebrations when he went and stuck it in 3rd in session 1 of quali! Just before quali 3 started, Cyril took us in front of the garage and we were nearly in touching distance as all the main runners and riders queued up to leave the pits.

SpaGPPaddockCaterham 18
SpaGPPaddockCaterham 19

Seeing the work of the mechanics, engineers, scruteneers and pirelli tyre personnel was also fascinating. The routines are all set and rehearsed. The same things happen each and every time the car enters and leaves the garage. Cleaning and polishing are constant!

Another memorable moment was the first time the two cars were fired up in the garage ready to leave for the track. An F1 car is extremely loud when out on the track and is unbelievably loud when that noise is contained inside a garage! It’s a very physical experience as you can feel the noise right through your chest.

After afternoon tea, sat next to Guido and Charles while they talked to the worlds media, we decided we’d go and watch the GP3 race from Eau Rouge. Rob made the inspired decision to flash our passes at one of the Gold grandstands and, much to our surprise, the bemused guard said we could go through! So we got to watch the race from a prime spot half way up one of the most famous corners in motor racing! Fabulous end to the day.

We all spent the evening looking through all the photos we’d grabbed through the day whilst an epic thunderstorm raged outside! We compared who’d seen who and who’d seen what! Between the 4 of us, we’d taken literally hundreds of photos but it was great re-living the day and sharing stories!

Sunday morning! Another early start and Dad and I decided to have a walk up to the other end of the track. It’s a huge track and it took about an hour to walk all the way up past Eau-rouge, along the straight and up to Les Combes / Malmedy. The F1 cars do it in a matter of seconds! It was great to taste the atmosphere of the GP in the forrest and also the views out across the valleys.

SpaGPPaddockCaterham 27

Back in the Caterham hospitality, Cyril laid out another packed day! An early treat was watching the GP2 race from in front of the Caterham pits, litterally 3 meters from the Caterham GP2 teams pit crew whilst they changed tyres. WOW! And through the day we got to watch Guido’s mechanics put his car together again ready for the race. Hundreds of man hours every weekend go into removing and replacing all the body panels on the car to check, clean and monitor the car.

SpaGPPaddockCaterham 29

After another quick lunch stop it was back out for the second pit walk of the weekend (oh, the chore). Watching the start of the race from the outside of La source felt the most like a normal GP but it was a brilliant place to see the action! The race itself was fairly spread out after just a few laps so being able to return to the garage was great. And then the final surprise of the weekend! We were able to go down to the podium for the celebrations! Right under the rostrum for all the anthems, champaign and trophies. Ross Brawn was just behind us in the crowd! Unforgettable.

SpaGPPaddockCaterham 46
SpaGPPaddockCaterham 45

So, that was the weekend of a lifetime. We said our goodbye’s to the Caterham team and to Cyril and Fatna. We hung around in the paddock for one last blast of the cameras and then slowly made our way back to our cars and eventually back home to he UK.

This year was already a completely unforgettable one for me. This has put it in the stratosphere. It’s certainly going to be a hard one to beat…

Orange Army – a day marshalling

As part of the Academy season, you’re encouraged (and bribed just a bit) to volunteer to be a marshal for a day. For your efforts, you’re given an additional upgrade signature on your race licence and also issued 5 bonus points in the overall championship at the end of the season.

Both these factors mean that most people who are going to continue on racing after year 1 duly sign up and take part.

It appears that most years, Jenny at Caterham will arrange one of your meetings to take place on just one day of the weekend. That leaves the other open to do your marshalling. However, I had already arranged my day ahead of learning we could have done it over our Brands Hatch race weekend. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing however! For a start, the Saturday of our race weekend was absolutely baking hot. Lots of those taking part came back cooked medium rare.

Secondly, I’d chosen a top notch race meet to attend, with F3, British GT and also the Caterham R300’s all racing on the GP circuit. This meant a busy weekend on track.

Lastly, as there were far fewer drivers marshalling at this meeting, it felt a bit more special and unique. I wasn’t on a post with another Academy driver so I really had to get stuck in.

On arrival, I handned over my upgrade card, signed on and was issued with a voucher for a free cooked breakfast! Not a bad start to the day. I was allocated my post (no.5) which was up on the entry to Druids.

I was already set up on post as everyone else was arriving. I got chatting away and soon felt pretty happy that I wasn’t going to be left bored or feeling like a spare part! As soon as you let slip you’re a driver, the marshals all light up – safe in the knowledge that their day can be spent taking the piss out of you!

I think I just about held my own. It was great being able to bounce off each other as well chatting about how difficult it is for a marshal to report every incident that happens or to catch every track limits altercation etc. Having been given the opportunity to flag one of the races, I can confirm that it’s a pretty nerve wracking experience for the novice. It’s a hard job to keep up with the race and know who’s in a battle and who’s overtaking for position.

Having now experienced it first hand, it’s hard to justify ever getting annoyed that blue flags aren’t being shown to back-markers! As a driver, it’s also a skill to learn how to race and pay full attention to the flags. A day on the banks working with the team who are there to help keep you safe brings it home just how important a job this is for a driver.

The day was largely uneventful with respect to incidents at druids. There were a few bumps and scrapes, but all involved recovered back into their races. That was, until the F3 race right at the end of the day. I was just chatting to one of the recovery marshals who was saying that sometimes, days just go like this – with nothing much happening. But just as he was saying this, there was a nasty crunching sound behind and I turned to whitness an F3 car flying high through the air, tilting to 90 degrees before landing on its side, and, luckily, back on it’s wheels before heading into the barrier at high speed.

Luckily, the driver was OK and was able to get out of the car under his own steam. The snatch vehicle was sent to retrieve the car and, once the race was over, I was able to help pulling out what remained of the front wing of the car (which had managed to go completely under the tyre barrier) and generally tidy up things ready for the last race of the day.

It was quite shocking to see such a large accident up close. It was all recorded for TV by one very brave camera woman. Apparently, she never budged and the accident was coming straight for her at frightening speed. There was also no barrier to protect her had the car not landed back on the ground. Can’t wait to see the footage on TV next weekend to see if it’s as I remember it!

I’m extremely glad that I got the opportunity to work with the marshals. They do a fantastic, unpaid and often silent job all to enable us drivers to do what we love. We can’t do it without them and I hope I never forget that. A simple wave is all that’s needed as thanks at the end of a race in return – and it’s amazing how many drivers don’t even manage that.

I’ve set myself the target of volunteering to marshal at least one event every year that I race. I hope that resolution is followed better than my new years ones!

Love letter to Grubby and Caroline

SteveCaroline 251

SteveCaroline 250

I just want to say a heart felt thank-you to Steve and Caroline Grubb. Since the day that I signed up for the Academy Steve has been my partner in crime. He’s never ever batted an eye at any of my questions and has been kind and welcoming beyond what any reasonable person would expect.

When my mum hasn’t been able to come along to events, Caroline’s been my substitute! She rescued me when I had locked myself out of my car with everything inside and when the keys were in an unknown location being driven half way across Kent! What a star.

This year wouldn’t have been the same without them along for the adventure.

Steve is raising money for Arthritis Research UK this year. Something that he has, unfortunately, had first hand experience of. I know that he would really appreciate any donations that you are able to give – no matter how small. I can’t possibly donate as much as I owe for all his help and kindness, so if others have found this blog useful in any way, I’d really appreciate it if you could help me out and give his fund a boost.

Donate to Arthritis UK – please!

Brands Hatch Race – Not bad :)

The weekend began on Friday, with official testing. We shared the allocated 4 half hour sessions with the Roadsport boys. This was a new experience and I had expected to be looking in my mirrors a lot more through the day but the added grip that their tyres and roll-bar gives them is offset by their smaller wheels – meaning the Academy cars have a straight line advantage. So, to my surprise, I was actually able to keep up and even overtake some.

It’s hard getting everything done in 4 sessions through the day. I started with a list of things to try out – and I ended up not doing most of them! Still, it was great to get my eye back in and I found a very consistent pace which I knew I could replicate in our short 15 min sessions for qualification and the race.

My brakes were shocking all through the weekend – with a spongy pedal that really wasn’t doing anything for the first 2 inches of travel. I was also getting pad knock off due to a lose front left hub nut. Caterham nipped up the hub nut and tried their best to bleed the brakes – they were marginally better and at least I could heel-toe but they will need attention now the dust has settled as it’s not great being committed into corners not knowing what your brakes are going to feel like when you press the pedal! I’m sure I’ve got air getting into the system somewhere…

My Friday evening was rather spoiled by accidentally leaving my car keys in Dads car. He had driven off for the night and my car was locked – with ALL my stuff inside. It took my tired brain a long time to work out how the hell I was going to get my keys back again when my phone was locked in the car, with all the numbers to friends and family that could possibly point me in the right direction. Anyway, a long and stressful story later, I got back the keys and on returning to the paddock, made the decision to stay at the Thistle Hotel for the night. This wasn’t anywhere near cheap, but it was worth it.

Saturday was a non-day really as we weren’t on track till the Sunday. I just tinkered with the car, did a weight check and got the race fuel set. Oh, and I got Sunburn on my neck! Handy for wearing a HANS device I can tell you! As people started arriving in the paddock during the evening, we ended up at the bar – and then went onto the Thistle for food and Ferraris… There was a meeting of the Kent Farrari Group and the hotel carpark was a sight to behold.

A night sleeping in the tent in the paddock will now likely be my last. The revelation of sleeping in a bed and having a decent shower available is now too apparent and I was tired all through Sunday. I’ll find the money for hotels somewhere I’m sure! I’m glad I’ve done the proper club racing bit though and some of the best memories so far are paddock banter and late night drinks as the Sun goes down…

Anyway, onto the main action on Sunday. Qualification in the morning and Racing in the evening. The wait-to-action ratio isn’t great at 720/30 but somehow, that doesn’t matter! There’s always tonnes to be done – and loads of places to be. Sign-on, scruteneering, briefing, prep, assembly and finally track. That means a quick 15 mins on track actually takes hours to achieve! All the time, the tension rises and the adrenalin flows.

Qualification went OK. I never got out as much as I wanted and on my fastest lap, managed to tow Nick around for Pole! I’m sure he’ll return the favour one day! It was tricky finding clean air and I cocked up a good early opportunity that would have at least given a good banker lap. As the dust settled, 3rd was the result. Indeed – the front 4 racers were the same, with Nick Horton on pole, Henry Heaton 2nd and Dan Livingstone 4th.

So, it was all back to the paddock and reflection time. Then more reflection time. Followed by a touch of reflection over lunch. Some more time to reflect after lunch and then a final bit of reflection before jumping back in the car for the race.

I was lucky enough to have friends and family along for the weekend. A whole plethora of Aunts and Uncles, Mum, Dad, Sister and brother in law. Mates from Uni added to the pile as well. The banner that the Lapicki support crew brought along was just brilliant! No pressure then!

After a LONG and protracted start procedure where they tried to get everyone in the right positions, we eventually got lined up for the start. I got a great one. There was even a chance to try for the lead going into paddock but that would have meant 3 wide so I decided instead to opt for the more cautious approach and settled into 3rd.

Henry put pressure on Nick through the first couple of laps – whilst I was keeping a close eye on Dan behind. I knew if he got past, he would be tricky to get around. Henry’s pressure on Nick finally paid off as Nick locked up going into Druids leaving the door open for 3 of us to nip up through. A couple of corners later and I took an opportunity into clearways up the inside of Henry – it was close wheel to wheel stuff but I had the inside line and I knew that would be good enough to get the lead into Paddock.

So, lap 3 of 16. In Caterham racing, being at the front isn’t always a good idea! Could I hold on for 13 laps! Henry was right there in second for the first half of the race. We were managing to make a gap for ourselves as Dan and Nick were having their own battle. James Houston wasn’t far behind them. On about lap 6, Nick made a move up the inside of Dan Livingstone into Graham Hill. It’s a tricky, off camber left hander and on the exit, their wheels tangled. This immediately pulled the cars together even more and sent Dan out wide and into the gravel on the exit. This effectively ended Dans race, although he was able to continue, he had a bent steering arm and it took a long time to get out of the gravel.

What this did mean was that Henry and myself were now clear of the James by a good margin, so it was down to us to figure out who was going to win the thing. For the next 4 laps or so, Henry was never far out of my mirrors. The lap was roughly split in half, with myself faster round Graham Hill, Surtees and Clearways and Henry faster around Paddock Hill and Druids. Just as I’d managed to pull a reasonable gap, back markers came into play. It’s a tentative time trying to make your way through a pack of drivers involved in their own battles whilst trying to ensure that you don’t lose out in your own fight! I thankfully chose pretty well on the whole where and how to pass them, so although I did lose time in some cases, I ended up with a larger margin to 2nd once they were all negotiated.

I could tell from my race timer that I had nearly won my maiden Race victory – but I hadn’t seen a last lap board and the chequered wasn’t waving as I crossed the line. So, whilst the crowd and most of the field knew I had won the race, I was blissfully unaware! Henry also wasn’t going to back down so we merrily went on a flat out warm down lap! On crossing the line for the second time, I could see the flag waving and I just burst! Lost my voice in the space of 2 corners! Still hadn’t landed back to earth all the way back to park ferme.

I knew that Henry had got 2nd but I was over the moon when I found out James had got the final spot on the podium.  Last time out at Donington we had all been drinking well into the early hours of the morning, chatting and generally finding out why we each decided to do the Academy – so sharing the podium with those two was a real honour.

However, for me, seeing a whole heap of friends and family on the bank opposite the podium, with the huge banner that the Lapicki clan had made, cheering and shouting was the best moment! Thanks to you all for making the effort to be there and then sharing in my moment in the sun!

It’s taking a long time to come back down after the race. I still get tense and excited every time I think about it! I’ve watched it back lots of times already and I think I’ll probably manage a few more views at some point. In the paddock after the race, I was genuinely touched by the number of people who came up and congratulated me. Even some of those licking their wounds from a bad result or a bump/scrape.

It’s now 4 weeks until Rockingham. I may just have enough time to settle down before the build up all starts again!