No fairytale ending – but an epic year

Sadly, I don’t get a fairytale ending to my Academy year. I couldn’t beat an on form Henry Heaton and so, ended up coming second in the championship. I have to say though, that I’m not half as disappointed as I thought I would be! And there’s good reason for that…

My weekend started on Thursday, with two days testing ahead of qualification on Saturday. All my testing went well and I got to play with tyres and made sure I pushed hard and found the limits wherever possible. I set some great times and I knew I’d be on the pace.

Come qualification, we had extremely mixed conditions. The track was very damp after overnight rain, although there was a drying line. I chose to go out on dry tyres and this proved to be the correct choice. However, I didn’t manage the traffic well and with such a wide spread of speeds on track (20 seconds difference in lap time from front to back of grid) that ended up being crucial. Fortunately, I found half a gap right at the end of qualification and managed to put a safe lap together. This put me second on the grid behind Henry.

Our race was due off late in the day and clouds were building as we set off. The track was dry and my grid position meant I had the dryer line. I took the lead early but made silly mistakes through the first couple of laps and that dropped me to 5th and meant I was having to battle hard.

This is where things changed for me… I could see Henry moving away as we all fought for 2nd to 5th tooth and nail. I desperately wanted to be there fighting for the lead but I also had one of the most fun and enjoyable times on track racing for second. Regularly going three abreast into and around corners, being nose to tail as close as I’ve ever been. Fighting for the slipstream and jostling for position was just the best fun. After the absolute disappointment of Rockingham, I remembered that I absolutely love racing.

I’m definitely not saying that I didn’t want to win the championship. I wanted that hugely. But given that it wasn’t to be, I am extremely glad that I got to share some brilliant track time with Dan Livingstone, James Houston and Nick Horton. You have to trust the guys you’re racing against and at Silverstone, they were epic.

As the race drew to a close, the weather had one last ace up its sleeve. It rained a wall of rain, turning the track from dry to flooded in the space of 5 seconds. Dry tyres were now definitely not the correct choice! And the car was aquaplaning everywhere. However, with only one lap to go, the race wasn’t stopped prematurely. I am not exaggerating when I say you couldn’t see anything. With the bad light and the fact that the car was covered in rain on the inside and the outside of every surface, sitting in the cockpit was not a pleasant experience. You couldn’t even see the light pods at the end of the bonnet.

Driving at 100mph down hanger straight, with the car twitching and with no visibility isn’t something I want to try again in a hurry but I had managed to get past Dan as the rain fell and so I finished the race in second place.

Another podium to finish the year off, and this one was earned. I feel extremely honoured to be able to step up there and celebrate. I know that the vast majority of the field don’t get to experience that. Next year I’m under no illusions that getting up on the rostrum is going to be extremely hard with at least 9 drivers all in a position to be challenging – and that’s not taking into account those drivers who have surged forward as the season has come to a close.

Everything’s pointing to another brilliant year next year and I just hope I can keep my budget on track and keep on racing.

As for this year, I remain extremely proud of what I have achieved. I went into the season hoping to be top half of the grid but I surprised myself with my pace and I’m over the moon that I not only got to achieve a childhood ambition of going racing but also got to experience the emotional highs of winning and the lows of losing everything in a barrier.

And what of the people that I’ve shared the front of the grid with? I’ve made friends with all of them and look forward to spending more time with them over the coming years.

James’ never give up attitude is a thing to behold! He’s as competitive as they come and over the past few races, he’s absolutely kicked himself and his car into submission and found the last few tenths he needed to be on the ultimate Academy pace. Those 10ths are not easy to come by and I know he’s going to find a few more by the start of year 2.

Dan’s a racing natural and where he doesn’t always have the ultimate pace at the moment, he has race craft and his car is always in the right place at the right time. He always races hard and doesn’t give an inch. That being said, there are very few people I’d go round Stowe with absolutely side by side, inches apart, and I did it 3 times with him. It’s a real shame he’s not going to be with us next year in Roadsports. There will be a hole in the grid for that fact.

Nick Horton is opposite to Dan. He doesn’t learn a track so much as feel his way around. He has a natural speed that’s arguably the fastest of both groups. However, he’s ragged at the moment and lacks consistency. As you hear in commentary all the time, you can teach someone not to spin, you can’t teach them to be a rocket ship… I think Nick is going to be a rocket ship in the years to come. Again, he’s not due to be on the Roadsport grid but I’m sure he will make a suitable impression higher up the ladder.

And then there’s Henry. What can I say? I guess I should start by saying that I lost to someone who has all the qualities you’d want in a racer. He’s extremely quick, has car control that makes his car dance, he races hard and has craft to match. Crucially for him, he also makes his mistakes in practice and testing. I’ve made too many mistakes in the races and he hasn’t… that was the ultimate difference. That I got so close to winning gives me heart.

Henry Heaton, 2013 Caterham Academy Champion. Well done!