I’m back on UK soil after the Caterham Motorsport’s yearly foray into Europe and I’ve just about had enough time to reflect on what was an awesome visit to the legendary Cirquit de Spa-Francorchamps.
We only had two sessions testing ahead of the race weekend; far less than normal for a new track. Everything was compressed into a very tight schedule. It’s a track full of fast, committed corners where you have to settle the car quickly and get back to the throttle. The kind of corners I go well around.
However, it’s also got the two longest flat out sections of any track we visit. From La Source all the way to Les Combes and from Stavelot right up to the bus stop.
In a Caterham, this means the track is all about managing the slipstream and racing tactically. Outright pace is not actually required!
I felt comfortable with the track after the first session out and was putting in times at the top of the timing-sheets quite comfortably.
I therefore went into Qualifying putting a little more pressure on myself than I have been used to recently. I knew pole was possible but trying to manage the ideal time when you only have 6 laps to do it is far from easy. This was also complicated by us sharing our qualifying session with the 420Rs.
Extremely early on, I got a super tow from Dan Gore up the Kemel straight. I was squeezed through Les Fanges between Dan and an 420R. This put me off and I made mistakes at the tail end of the lap. However, this lap was good enough for 2nd on the grid and for Dan, was good enough for pole. Without those mistakes… could have had Spa pole on my racing CV – which would have been very nice indeed!
Pole could still have been on, but sadly, a great lap was written off by a very slow car in the bus stop. (preparing for their own lap no doubt, but annoying none the less…)
My ideal lap in Quali was 1.4 seconds faster than the time I ended up with but that just shows how powerful the tow is around this track.
The weather through the whole weekend was threatening and forecasts changed from minute to minute. However, the sun shone down on Race 1 and an earlier cloud burst that caused havoc in the Roadsport race had completely dried by the time we got out on track.
There were over 50 cars set on the grid as the 420Rs were also lined up with us. It’s the first time we’ve run split grids at a Caterham weekend and seeing the sheer amount of cars ahead was pretty daunting. Getting through La Source on the first lap was always going to be a bit of a lottery and so it was for Ben Tuck and Roy Gray who were out after just 400m or so of racing.
I made a great start and was hooked onto the tail end of the 420Rs going up Kemel. But for a safety car due to the first corner incident, it felt like I had the chance at a break from the group.
The safety car seemed to drag on forever and the race only got going again with under 16 minutes remaining of the race.
There followed 16 minutes of frantic action working the tow and trying to figure out how to finish the last lap in the lead. I didn’t quite get it right, sadly, and missed out on the win by just a couple of car lengths but was extremely pleased with 3rd place. Back on the podium after an absence of over a year and it felt great. What was even more encouraging was I felt I had more to bring to race 2.
Sunday was another threatening day according to the forecasts, however, race time was sunny and it certainly looked like we’d be dry throughout.
This time, everyone got through turn one without incident and I settled into the lead pack. A much larger lead pack this time and one that just grew as the race went on.
There’s over 10mph difference between a Caterham Supersport running on it’s own as opposed to running in the tow; so again, the management of this process along the two hugely long flat out stretches of track was an art form.
For 90% of the race, I managed this process OK. I’d switched around my rear tyres ahead of the race to manage the tyre wear and ensure they remained legal after the race, however, they didn’t bed in very quickly so the rear of the car was very lose throughout. I also had one missed gear which sent me tumbling down the field; and one unlucky run up the Kemel straight that also cost me 6 places due to the tow. With, just a touch of patience and planning, I did manage to get back to the front on each occasion. Things were certainly looking good!
As the 30 minutes race period elapsed, Ben Tuck and myself broke very slightly clear of the pack and up the final straight into Balnchimon, I was able to take the lead. I crossed the line thinking I’d finally won another race. However, no chequered flag was waved and it dawned on me that we had another lap to go. Sadly, this lap went badly and while trying to go side by side with Ben Tuck through Pouhon, my rear tyres ran out of grip and I ran out of talent. That left me out wide scrabbling to get back to the track and the whole lead pack through. I was back in 10th or 11th at that point with only 3 real corners left to go.
At Blanchimont, Mike Evans cut across Henry and Christian causing some wings to go flying and a cascade effect of braking and swerving within a pack of 10 drivers. I was at the rear of this and had to jink right around the flat out left hander. I was closer than I would have wanted to having a big accident in the tyre barrier and also no further forward up the field and now with only one corner to go.
The right hander of the Bus Stop Chicane also had a yellow flag for Ian Sparshott’s stranded 420R. However, I noticed that the left hand part of the chicane was showing a green flag. Dan Gore was spun out of the pack ahead of me, having been overtaken under yellows and I just about managed to squeeze through to take a wider line into the left and cut up the inside of several drivers to make it to 7th place over the line. In the stewards office afterwards, Richard Noordhof was unfortunately excluded from the results. I therefore came in with a 6th place finish. Certainly a lot better than it could have been with 3 corners to go but also a huge part of me knew I’d blown another great result.
In my head, I’d won the 30 minute race of Spa – but clearly my old bones can’t cope with 35 minutes!
Well done to everyone for largely keeping it clean and tidy under immense and sustained pressure. I loved the weekend at Spa and am extremely happy to be able to say I’ve not only raced at Spa, but I’ve also had a podium there.
Next up is Brands hatch in just 3 weeks time. Can’t wait!