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Down to the last lap

In the lead up to the Championship finale weekend at Silverstone, storm Ali and storm Bronagh were playing their parts in what was already a turbulent and delicately balanced set of variables.

It was apt that the weather was as unsettled and unpredictable as the Championship leaderboard and the lack of certainty was doing nothing to settle the nerves!

You tell yourself, and others, “it’s just another race weekend”. But you know that’s not true. On the cosmological scale, the Caterham Seven 310R Championship is an insignificant blip. But for the competitive spirits that are part of the whole Caterham Motorsport family, it means a lot.

We went into the weekend with three DPR drivers heading the points. Myself, Christian Szaruta and Gordon Sawyer all separated by a few points. With drop scores taken into account, just 2 points split us.

Lee Bristow was the only other driver in the field to be able to take the top spot, but that would require a perfect weekend for his orange machine (certainly not impossible given his speed and consistency), and a disaster to hit in both races for all the DPR drivers (again, not impossible given what was at stake).

Qualification was scheduled for late morning, at about the same time as the storm rain was due to hit. Spits of rain were in the air as we got into assembly and it really wasn’t clear how many laps would be possible before the rain affected grip. As it turns out, it was around 3 laps. Andy Perry managed to ping in a lap for 4th on the grid before spinning into the gravel at Vale. That brought out the yellow flags and effectively ended qualification at that point.

I’d grabbed a 6th place, with just 2/10ths covering the top 6, there’s always the feeling that more was possible! But given the conditions, it was an OK result. Gordon managed a great lap to bag him 2nd on the grid but Christian missed out on a crucial tow in the dry laps at the beginning of the session and ended up 13th.

The weather set in for the afternoon and constant rain made sure the track was absolutely soaked. Not having turned any wet laps at Silverstone all weekend did little to settle the nerves. Neither did the memory of Castle Combe, where Christian and Gordon both out-classed me in the wet. Being in 6th also meant being right in the middle of all the action at the start. To keep the championship alive, I needed to make sure Gordon didn’t get a break off the front of the group.

My clutch foot was doing a nervous jig as we waited for the lights and it was quite amazing that I managed to hook up a great launch. With a little manoeuvring, I got to turn 2 in 2nd place with Gordon out front. Andy Perry briefly managed to get ahead with a very brave move into Stowe on lap 1 but he couldn’t quite hold it together and I managed to regain 2nd by Vale.

There was then a settling in period where I could tell Gordon and myself were pulling clear of the chase pack and I was gradually learning where all the grip was. Gordon did start to pull a gap, but whereas at Castle Combe, this was due to a lack of pace on my part, here I knew I was comfortable and happy to wait. 

On more than one occasion, the marshals put their own lives on the line to push cars out of dangerous positions in the gravel. On many other weekends, there would have been multiple safety car periods in the race and it’s only down to those brave men and women in orange that we were able to fight out the championship with no interruptions and no reduction in the lead gap over the pack.

Around 10 minutes into the race, the gap back to the chase pack had grown a lot and I felt more at home in the soaked conditions, so I pushed on and fairly quickly closed the gap to Gordon. However, closing was easy compared to getting by. There was a ‘slightly less wet’ line around most of the track which was giving up all the grip. Off this line, there were puddles and a lower level of grip. Therefore, Gordon just had to remain on line and an overtake would be all but impossible. 

I managed to get briefly in front going down hanger straight but was left on the wet track and Gordon took the lead back again comfortably. I almost went to the outside of Gordon when pulling out of the slip stream as there was JUST a cars width available. That could well have got me the place, but it would have been highly risky and I think caution was probably the correct approach.

I was also getting a little frustrated at track limits around this time. In the morning briefing, we had been told that they would be enforcing track limits on the corner out onto hanger straight. There’s a curb out in the middle of the track, put there for the MotoGP racers, and we were told that we weren’t allowed to go over the green part of that curb. Gordon had consistently taken a wide line over the curb and I was trying my best to keep it all inside, which was costing me time onto hanger straight. However, no warnings were issued and no penalties given. 

It wasn’t then long before the back markers came into play. With visibility virtually zero at times, it was always going to be hard to check they had seen you coming through and also that they had clocked it wasn’t one of their own rivals. A little caution on my part and catching some tail enders in bad places meant I dropped away from Gordon and didn’t have any time to pull it back for a last lap attempt for the win.

So, 2nd place over the line and a fastest lap by 0.6s meant that I had a 1 point lead over Gordon going into the final race. Christian had made an absolutely epic comeback drive to make it to 4th place (see previous comments about how impossible it was to overtake…) and with Alan Cooper sticking it in 3rd place, that was a 1,2,3,4 for DPR Motorsport. Amazing result.

Sunday dawned and the weather looked like more of the same, with constant rain and overcast skies. However, the forecast had changed over night and the rain was due to fade by lunchtime. With our race due on track at 14:30, it was going to be a nail biter on whether the circuit would dry and therefore what tyres / setup to apply to the car.

Changes were being made right up until the cars left for the formation lap. I’d chosen dry tyres but softened the car off one step all round. Going to the grid, I could tell that the fully dry setup would have been the way to go, but there’s nothing that could be done about it and the car was still in a good spot.

To make what was already a nerve racking start to begin with even more so… the lights failed. After a couple of attempts to get them working, we were sent on another green flag lap. We were then started using the drop of the Union Flag… that’s another first for me! 6 years into this hobby and still new things are thrown at you every time.

Being on the dry side of the circuit meant I got a flying start compared to Gordon. I even pulled a gap to the chasing field. However, it was always going to be an impossible task to keep the gap far enough to break any tow and, sure enough, down Hanger Straight, Christian had passed me by the time we reached Stowe corner.

It wasn’t in his best interest to try and break away from the field, and so from that moment on, I knew it was going to be a long hard race.

Not too long into the race, Gordon had caught and passed me as well an we traded places a few times. Again, there was a small chance we were going to break away from the chase group but Lee Bristow and Tom Grensinger continued their end season charge to the front and it was a pack of 4 changing spots.

Around 1/3 of the way into the race, a change of places let Gordon slip the group very slightly. This gap then began to slowly grow. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have quite the speed to make any impact when it was my time at the front to try and claw back Gordon and Lee and Tom were not necessarily as interested in doing that as I was!

It was a race long battle between the three of us. Hard and epically close as ever around this fast track. As the race was drawing to its conclusion, I briefly took 2nd place and promptly tried too hard to make up time on Gordon, actually costing myself and slipping to a very disappointing 4th place when the flag waved.

It was such a disappointing end to the weekend for me. I’d been properly beaten by Gordon on both days. He’d pulled it out the bag and shown a clean pair of heals when he needed to.

Heading into Parc Ferme though, everything changed. It transpired that Gordon had received a 5 second penalty for track limits infringement. And that had slipped his position behind me. I’d got a 3rd place and 4th place for Gordon meant I’d won then Championship!

Utter, utter, disbelief ensued. I hadn’t spotted the warnings / penalty notice for Gordon and what I thought was Lee / Tom settling for 2nd was actually them knowing that Gordon wasn’t a factor in the race so long as they kept within 5 seconds. 

I can’t explain the feelings. I’m still trying to process them. There was a tidal wave of congratulations from so many people in the pit lane that I still can’t take it all in. Wow. Just wow.

I can now say that I am 2018 Caterham Seven 310R Champion and, boy, does that feel good.

It’s been another ridiculously close year of racing. Remaining friends with the people you race so hard against isn’t overly common in such a competitive environment. However, I think we’ve done it. One last hoorah at the awards evening in a months time to really let the hair down and enjoy the moment.

I may be the one that is lucky enough to drive the car when the racing starts but even at this level, there’s a whole army of people that are right there, helping me do that to the best of my ability.

DPR Motorsport have been by my side since the very start of my Caterham racing experience. They have gone so far beyond the call on so many occasions that I just can’t thank them all enough. It’s a debt I hope has been helped by finally bringing home the big trophy 6 years after we started. Ben Clucas, Darren Burke and Dave Robinson have all helped my point the car in the right direction at one time or another.

The people I race against month on month change occasionally, but they all share the same passion and the same drive. And the whole year has gone by with so little friction that it’s testimony to the respect that everyone has for each other.

There are too many people to mention from the Caterham team individually but Simon, Abi, Lucy, Kirsty, Darren and crew make the paddock and the racing experience better and better year on year.

In how may other motorsport paddocks around the world does the championship photographer play such a pivotal part in so many drivers weekends? Jon Bryant (SnappyRacers) is motivator, friend, bloody good at photography and not a shabby racer himself.

Friends and family, who support me, pick me up, dust me off and kick me up the butt to get out there again. Thank you! Hanging around in car parks over a weekend where you could be doing something far more productive is dedication and forever appreciated.

Finally, Mum and Dad. My chief mechanics; pit crew; sounding boards; administration team. My rocks. They are the engine that’s helped me to this win. I can’t thank them enough.

I’m so happy we could all bring this one home together and so many people got to share this dream that’s been 6 long years in the making.

Cheesy out.

Thruxton Thriller

I don’t think I’ve ever been at a race weekend that could be described as boring, however, Thruxton was the complete opposite. An absolute roller coaster of a weekend with high highs and low lows.

Due to noise limits, the race ‘weekend’ actually started on Wednesday with an early track day, so I was stationed in Andover for an extended period of time.

The Championship was very tightly poised going into the weekend and so the pressure was on to produce a strong set of results to keep in the running for the overall Championship trophy.

DPR Motorsport had a different driving coach on the truck this weekend as Darren Burke was racing at Silverstone. It’s always interesting having a new view of your racing style and I spent the majority of Friday testing tweaking my technique, trying new things as well as resurrecting techniques that I’ve lost over time. It all came together, just in time, during the last session of testing.

Could I put it all together in qualification the following morning? Well, ‘not really’ was the answer. It was a pretty diabolical qualification session to be honest. An early lap wasn’t anything particularly special but unfortunately, with a whole lot of drivers abandoning laps, parking on apexes and generally easing back to create gaps, I never got another lap together and it was only good enough for 9th on the grid. My worst performance ever I think.

With Christian and Gordon on the front row, I was left with a lot to do in race 1 to keep the championship alive. However, the huge tow on offer at Thruxton meant that it wasn’t the end of the world.

I held position early in the race. Roughly 8 laps passed before I began to make progress above 8th place. However, through the middle part of the race I did start ticking off places to move into the top 4.

There was a settling in period where positions for the top five cars regularly changed lap by lap. This routine was broken with around 4 laps to go, when Gordon out braked himself going into the last chicane and span. This also compromised Christian and the chasing pack and so Lee Bristow and myself pulled clear. It looked like it could be enough of a gap but unfortunately, the chase pack did get back in contention with a lap to go.

It was therefore a fight with five cars on the final lap of the race. It was always going to be a lottery and on the way through the final chicane I found myself in 2nd place, just behind Christian. However, the race wasn’t quite over as Christian made the dreaded 2nd to 5th gear mis-change on the way out of the chicane. I JUST squeezed past the slowing car and took the win, ahead of David Yates, with Christian coming home in 3rd.

I couldn’t believe it. It’s not over until the fat lady sings – and Christian was singing merrily away out of the final corner. I did feel a BIT bad but, heck, that gear change mistake has cost me a lot this year as well.

It was brilliant to see David Yates on the podium. I’ve been racing David for 6 years and this was his first podium. He’s threatened many times and has been getting closer and closer this year. So it’s great that he finally made it all stick and held it together.

I had lots of friends and family down for the weekend, so it was another amazing post race feeling sharing the win with everyone. I really don’t do this alone and it’s so rewarding to be able to reward all the help and support from friends, family and DPR Motorsport.

Half the race weekend done then and a fantastic start. But there was still half a job to do.

I got a good enough blast off the line in race 2, enough to be leading around the first part of the lap. And the early part of the race went largely to plan. The standard drop of places every other lap at the chicane, then picking them back again a lap later.

It looked as though things had settled a bit in the race and there was even a chance that the front pack of four were slightly pulling clear of the chasing pack. Certainly, the chicane started to calm down and was generally under control, rather than a complete madhouse.

However, any hopes that this would continue was scuppered by contact lower down in the field, causing big car damage and enough carnage to require a safety car. At the time, I was in second place behind Christian and at the restart, things got going again and, of course, the chicane turned into a madhouse once more.

With only 5 minutes remaining the tactics of where to be in the queue of cars started. I managed to get to 4th place on the final lap, which is where I was aiming for to get the super tow. However, everyone did a good job of getting themselves in a position where they could win the race and at the chicane, the pack went in 6 wide.

It was never likely to come off without a hitch and sadly, I had contact with Tom Grensinger, who had slightly outbraked himself and his recovery line through the chicane clashed with my more natural line. It resulted in a spin for me and by the time I’d fired up the engine once more, I was left down in 15th place over the line.

Really not the end to the race I’d hoped for and also one that uses up a ‘get out of jail free’ card with the drop scores we have in the championship. I could really have done with a podium to make things slightly more comfortable going into the final round at Silverstone.

That being said, once drop scores are taken into account, I actually go into the final meeting ahead by 1 point to Christian and 2 points ahead of Gordon.

It’s always been heading towards a crichendo and it’s only fitting that we won’t have an outcome until the last lap of the last race of the season. I am extremely hopeful that we can get this whole thing sorted out with some brilliant racing at Silverstone. It’s what this season deserves.

Double rescue at Castle Combe

The last time Caterham were at Castle Combe was in 2015 and I was racing in the Tracksport Championship. It coincided with the height of my car problems I suffered from at the time and I have some fairly poor memories of two races where all I could do was hang on to top 10 places.

Castle Combe is also a track where the event team run things their own way and very differently from all the other tracks we visit. Frankly, their communication on testing and track day organisation was downright poor this year, not helped by very difficult conditions out on track and drivers failing to keep away from the famously unforgiving Castle Doom barriers.

Thankfully, the race weekend organisation was faultless and all the frustrations of testing melted away once the real action got under way.

I got a good lap in early in qualification but never bettered it and it was only good enough for 4th on the grid. The correct end of the grid but the first time I’ve been off the front row since the opening round of the year. More frustratingly, looking back at the data, I gave up my first flying lap of th session and that could well have been good enough for a higher spot. My DPR Motorsport team mates, and championship rivals, were first and second on the grid so there was everything to play for.

Whilst the rain did threaten before the start of race 1, it never materialised fully. I got a brilliant initial start, but in the excitement of thinking I was going to come out of turn 1 in the lead, I managed to do the dreaded 2nd-5th gear change once more. It seems I can’t do a race weekend without at least one of these mistakes and it’s becoming increasingly irksome.

So, I ended in 4th through the first lap. I felt strong, like I could make up spaces. However, an over exuberant throttle application down at tower on lap two saw me slide wide and onto the damp grass. The dirt on the tyres then meant I locked up and wasn’t able to make the next corner.

A bouncy trip across the grass dropped me down to 12th in the queue. Memories of 2015 came flooding back! However, my DPR Motorsport car this year is top notch and I immediately got my head down and started to make up spaces.

The 30 minute race went by in a bit of a blur and I slowly clawed my way back up through the field. A small gap had appeared to get back to the top 6 and it took several laps to make up the distance. Was there enough time left to get back through the front of the field? JUST was the answer. Although Gordon Sawyer had a gap out in the lead, some exciting dicing with Christian Szaruta and Tom Grensinger eventually bagged me 2nd place in the race to the flag.

The fight for 2nd with Tom was extremely tight but ultimately very fair and all the more fun for that fact. Tom has jumped straight from Academy to 310R and he raced like someone with far more experience.

Whilst closing the gap to the lead group, I also set the fastest lap of the race, bagging the additional point and dropping the advantage of Gordon’s win to just a single point.

It was a great result from what could have been a championship changer after the mistake early on and it’s a result I am proud of.

Sunday was always forecast to be a wet race and it delivered on that promise. Initially, I felt strong in the soaking conditions and held onto 2nd place for a couple of laps. However, I was never able to maximise my braking and I lost a spaces, initially to Christian Szaruta and, after a mistake which dropped me back from the lead battle, I also lost out to Nathan Bell.

A safety car intervention brought everything back together but even that stroke of luck wasn’t able to move me forward. I was relatively safe from the attack from behind, so it looked like 4th would be the end result.

However, incidents with cars ending in the barrier caused yellow flags and eventually the chequered flag was thrown 5 minutes early, crucially, just after Christian had spun at the second chicane and fallen back behind.

A very sad / sore end to his race was a gift of a podium for me. A lucky result indeed but one that also means the championship battle is ridiculously close going into the final 2 events of the year.

Just two point separate the top 3 positions in the championship.

Next up is Thruxton, a track that is famously fast. It only has 2 braking points and will be the ultimate game of chess as the tow will play an incredible part in the racing.

The season is getting closer to its conclusion and it’s building very nicely to a climax. It really is anyone’s to win at the moment and you can be sure that it will be as hard fought as ever for the podium spots.

Brands Indy 2018 – Rounds 5 and 6

Brands Hatch holds my best and worst memories of my racing career. It’s been the scene of my best wins and it’s been the scene of a season ending accident.

As my most local track, it’s never dull though and, as ever, I had friends and family on hand to cheer me on all the way.

I only did Friday testing this year, so some of my competitors had a bit of a head start on me. However, I managed to put in a quick time in the first session out and I felt comfortable that I had some raw speed for the weekend.

In qualification, my VBOX decided it wouldn’t pick up any satellites for the GPS, I was therefore left blind, not knowing if I was putting in good laps or not. It was actually quite refreshing to just go fast, look for tows and keep pushing on as much as I could right until the flag came out.

The result was a pole lap of 51.7s. Well under lap record pace and a 10th clear of my closest rival. A nice way to start the weekend then.

It was an important weekend as well. With the race entries being over subscribed, we ran a 3 race format. There were therefore lots of points on offer and, theoretically, one third less competition for the top spots in each of the races.

Race 1 was a normal hectic Brands Hatch slug fest. The main straight always giving a restorative tow to anyone dropping back and action a plenty with overtakes into all the corners on the track.

I lead for the first 10 minutes or so of the race, before starting to trade places with Alan Cooper and Lee Bristow. Track temperatures  were high and, as the race went on, our little trio pulled clear of the chasing pack. However, my tyres were also beginning to complain and a general imbalance in the car crept in during the closing stages. This lead to some small mistakes and I fell back from the lead pair by about a second. Third was therefore the end result.

Whilst this is a good result, I was left feeling disappointed with my performance and wanted more. We were on track again at 10am on Sunday morning. I fully expected that we would see lower track temperatures this early on and, hopefully, this would keep the tyres in good shape. However, it was already over 23 degrees by the time the lights went out and the lack of cloud cover made it feel hotter still.

I got the best start of my career to date. Everything just hooked up and the car absolutely flew away off the line. This meant I could take the standard line through the whole first lap, something which is pretty unheard of in Caterham Racing.

I kept the pressure on the chasing pack, turning in quick and consistent laps. And it worked. I broke clear of the chasing cars and managed to build over a second lead on the second placed car of Chris Rankin. This lead gap varied a little over the opening 20 minutes of racing but never felt uncomfortable. And with Chris also well clear of the battle for 3rd / 4th and 5th, we were away and gone.

However, all this hard work was rendered pointless after a very late safety car saw the gap evaporate. Although I got a small jump at the restart, I missed gear coming out of Druids (missed gears are my nemesis this year it seems) and fell back into the clutches of the pack. After some frantic, hard but ultimately fair racing, I was left ‘hung out to dry’ on the outside of Graham Hill bend and I dropped to 4th place. With no time left on the clock to fight back, it was a really sad way to end the race and I was gutted.

I felt I’d done everything I could to win at Brands and it had been taken away. But, that’s the way things go in racing. I was glad that the demons had been cast aside from last year and I’d more than proved to myself that I could still race as hard and close as ever into paddock bend.

3rd and 4th doesn’t sound too bad but unfortunately, I lost points to all my main rivals over the weekend. Everything is extremely close in the Championship now and I hope that these lost points don’t haunt me too much.

Crest of a wave, bottom of a trench

It’s taken me a long time to post this write-up from Brands. It was a weekend I’m not going to forget any time soon.

From the first laps of the circuit on Friday, I could tell that the car was super quick and stable. All the hard work to reduce my weight and get back to the weight limit had finally paid off in full.

Due to my normal support crew (my parents), being away on holiday, I was running the weekend out of the DPR awning. Having to prepare the car myself through testing and the weekend just proved to me how much I now rely on mum, dad, family and friends. Seemingly large gaps between sessions on track soon got eaten by cleaning, refuelling and general preparation work. I lean on everyone around me and I missed their support.

However, DPR were always on hand for any questions and, vitally, to check pressures and change settings in the pit lane. I’ve never before carried out an in session back-to-back test of a front anti-roll bar and boy, was that eye opening.

Every time you take a car out on track, you learn something, and being able to feel a direct comparison between one setup and another has changed my outlook on testing. All possible because of the DPR boys.

It’s one thing to turn in some speed in testing, quite another to convert that into a good grid spot. And for the majority of the qualification session, it looked like I’d blown it. I spent too long out front in clear air trying to get a good banker and catch the tail of the field for a tow. I dropped back to find some traffic to use for a tow but there was a fair amount of gamesmanship out on track, with plenty of abandoned laps costing time. I wasn’t alone in being affected for sure and there were some grumpy faces in parc ferme after the session. However, on the last lap, I managed to put a decent lap together, including a tow and 2nd on the grid was the result. A few thousandths of a second behind Henry Heaton.

Given the last minute nature of the lap and the track temperature, it was definitely a rescue and a good start to the competitive element of the weekend.

Come race time, the track temperature had risen massively. This is always a bad sign for our tyres, which don’t like it when things get hot. I made a reasonable start off the line and was ahead of Henry going into turn 1. However, Mike Evans made his normal spectacular start and was in the lead from 3rd on the grid going into Druids.

I managed to get back out in front in fairly short order and lead an opening stint of the race. An incident at druids saw the race red flagged. It was looking like Mike was going to be able to get back past at the point the flag was shown, so it may have been a turning point. A re-grid of the race was the decision of the steward for a 15 minute blast.

Another reasonable start off the line but another screamer by mike saw him in paddock bend first.  I was able to get past into druids and got me head down as fast as possible to try and spring a gap.

It’s a rare thing to manage to pull a lead over a field of Caterhams, but over the course of a few laps, I was able to pull away enough to be able to take the full racing line consistently. Battles further back then meant I was able to consolidate that lead.

With around 5 minutes to go, I had a gap of 2.5 seconds and knew, subject to not cocking things up, I could bring this one home. Even the sight of Christian Szaruta taking second place and gradually getting closer wasn’t enough to put me off in that race! And I took the flag with a comfortable gap back to the rest of the field.

Four long years it has taken to finally cross the line in first place again. Four years. Boy did it feel great. It was such a shame I didn’t get to share it with my family, but my friends inside and outside of the paddock were all carrying me on the crest of a wave. A feeling that never grows old.

Sunday was another scorcher. Any threat of a thunderous downpour slowly ebbed away through the day and we were in for another hot, dry race.

I made a good start from pole and the early part of the race was similar to race one; fighting with Mike Evans and trying hard to try and spring a gap. However, that wasn’t to be in this race and it was a much more traditional clump of cars through the first 10 minutes of the race. Into the middle phase of the race, Henry Heaton, Tim Dickens and myself all had good battle, with Henry and myself swapping positions on a number of occasions.

Just as things looked like they had settled down a little with Henry and myself pulling a slight gap on Tim, I was preparing to try and solidify that gap. However, I was caught out by Henry braking earlier than I expected for paddock bend and, following very closely to him at the time, I did what turned out to be a bad job of avoiding his car. My front left tyre hit the rear right of Henry’s.

What followed was a big accident. After the initial contact, the front of the car skipped in the air and initially landed interlocked with Henry’s car. It then launched again, this time with both the front and rear wheels contacting at the same time. The car pitched up at about 45 degrees and I was close to rolling. Thankfully, when the car landed, it righted itself and I skipped across the gravel and made heavy contact with the barrier.

As the dust settled and I caught my breath, I was thankful that everything felt in one piece and I could see Henry jumping out of the car.

It was such a sad end to what was shaping up to be a great battle between Henry and myself. We’ve had some great battles in the past and we’ve shared a racing journey for the past 5 years. In the cold hard light of day, I made contact with a friend out on track whilst he was leading the race. Nothing’s going to change that now.

The contrast in emotion was, and is, enormous between the highs of Saturday and the lows of Sunday. Motoracing gives and motoracing takes away.

Flat through Eau-Rouge

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!

 

Clinging on in Croft

September saw the Caterham paddock head up North to Croft, in Yorkshire. Croft was a mixed weekend for me last time we visited in Roadsport.

It was probably the end of my Roadsport Championship campaign, I threw away a podium on pretty much the last corner of race 1. But a return to form for race 2 saw me just missing out on a win and keeping a glimmer of hope that the Championship could still happen.

I like the track and coming back with the Supersport car now hasn’t reduced the enjoyment.
It’s got, probably, the tightest hairpin of any track in the UK as well as a long section of fast and flowing corners. So there’s a bit of something for everyone.

After a couple of days of testing, my neck was really feeling the strain. Come qualification, things were as competitive as ever. All the normal front pack within a second of pole. 7th for me was a fair result and kept me in the right region coming into the race. However, the gearbox started to feel week through the session and Croft has a reputation for eating gearboxes in Caterhams.

Race 1 started OK. I was able to make some spots up on the start and was holding onto the train of cars. However, on lap 2, through the fast chicane, something went awry inside the gearbox and after a horrible period of grinding crunching, I did get the gear. However, the damage was done and I lost places.

Some of these were made back quickly with mistakes coming from other drivers. I also managed to lose a wing and damage my exhaust at Tower. It was fortunate the contact didn’t end worse off. From the sound of the exhaust, I was sure that it had come off.

The majority of the rest of the race was spent battling with Mike Evans. We swapped places a number of times but as the race wore on, I was able to break free. I very nearly caught up the battle for 4th but ran out of laps.

Race 2 was another hot one. We’ve had a whole season of scorchers this year. Only race 1 at Brands has been even damp. With a failing gearbox, I had to go into the race with some mechanical sensitivity. Not ideal but necessary to ensure a finish.

The start went well and I found myself in a good spot, fighting Henry Heaton for 4th place. However, I was unable to cling on as Mike Evans and Max McDonagh began fighting for spots. It was a great race with plenty of swapping. Nice to get back involved. However, I wasn’t able to hold onto the end of the race and I slipped to another 8th place.

With the gearbox on its last legs, I am happy that I got to the end of the race in one piece. Although not spectacular results, both races were fun and some of the battles were great.

Final round of the season is next up – at Donington. A track I generally go well at. Let’s see if we can finish off the season on a high.

Hot and Bothered in Zolder

Zolder holds some great memories from my Roadsport year in 2014. It was a hot hot weekend but I also had one of the most hard fought races to date.

I was therefore looking forward to my return to this iconic Belgian track. With bad flooding all over Europe and with thunderstorms and heavy rain predicted all weekend, I wasn’t too sure what to expect out on track. But with 2 days of testing ahead of the weekend, there was going to be plenty of time to get to grips with the place once more.

As it transpired, the threat of rain disappeared over the weekend and we were left with a hot, sticky weekend on the continent. Unfortunately, hot and sticky seems to be the worst conditions for me and my car at the moment.

The tyres we run overheat and quickly cause the car to become unbalanced. Some drivers seem to cope with this OK but I find it doesn’t suit my driving style at all.

Qualification was damp to begin with but was always going to dry out by the end of the 20 minute session. I set a good banker time early on and had ‘the one that got away’ late on. However, 7th on the grid wasn’t too shabby and I matched my fastest testing times.

However, come race time, the temperatures had risen out on track and a fairly aggressive setup choice meant that as we got under way, it was only a couple of laps into the race before I started to suffer from the tyre related oversteer issues. About half way into the race, the car was also running hot and seemed to suffer with lack of eagerness in 4th gear.

All this saw a gradual slipping down the order throughout the race and an ultimately disappointing 12th place at the flag.

The second race took place in slightly cooler conditions and with a tweaked setup. This did see an improvement in the cars performance, and I was running well early on. However, the rot did eventually set in as the car got hot again and I made silly mistakes trying too hard to defend positions and push to maintain speed.

Again, this saw me dropping down the order and even say a high speed trip across the gravel at one point. Certainly not my finest hour.

I crossed the line a disappointed 11th place.

I said ahead of the year that there would be very little in it across the top 15 or so drivers in the championship this year. Being slightly off the pace means you inevitably finish down the order. Zolder was confirmation of this. Qualification saw the majority of the field covered by a second and in race 2, the top 11 cars were nose to tail at the flag after 30 minutes of frantic racing.

Being in such a competitive field is both a blessing and a curse.

I like Snetterton as a track and we’re headed there next. I’m really hoping that we get some cool weather – dare I even hope for wet conditions! Perhaps unlikely for our July event! But whatever happens, I’ll be out on track, pushing hard as ever.

Seaside racing at Anglesey

There’s no denying that Anglesey is an awfully long way from most places. It took around 6 hours to get to the track for 2 days of testing ahead of the weekend. However, there’s also no doubt that the effort is worth it.

The track is perched right on the coast of the Irish Sea and it takes all the weather that is thrown at it. We experienced it all, from strong winds and heavy rain, through to barmy summer sun.

Testing highlighted how tricky the track was to master. With increasing temperatures, the times actually got slower on track as the weekend approached. I therefore set my best time on day 1 testing and didn’t match it again until race 1. That’s rather off putting and dispiriting. However, it all comes out in the wash in the end and I went into qualification with no knowledge of where I was going to end up.

It was raining right up until we left assembly in qualification. The track was therefore damp, but with much higher ambient temperatures, it quickly became obvious that my completely wet setup wasn’t ideal as the track dried within a few laps. Most others were in a similar situation though, so not all was lost.

As ever in Caterhams, the tow was extremely important for lap time. However, with a red flag interruption to the session, there were gaggles of cars all fighting to take – but not give – a tow. Several people backing out of laps mid corner, or making space for themselves at the end of the lap, meant that I didn’t have a good lap on the board as the clock approached zero. However, the final lap was a good one and I snuck 5th on the grid. Better than expected. It wasn’t a session without excitement though, with possibly my closest near miss to date taking place just after the restart after the red flag.

Boosted by a good performance. race 1 dawned and although the weather was changeable through the day, by the time our slot came up, it had dried out fully.

After a good start, the race settled in and I was following nose to tail with Andres Sinclair. I felt comfortable and fast and felt I had something in hand to go for 3rd at the end of the race.

However, a fast recovering Christian Szaruta put the pressure on as the clock counted down, and when I tried to make use of the additional pace I felt I had at the start of the race, it wasn’t there any more. On the second last lap, Christian took full advantage of a poor piece of track positioning by me to take away 4th. That left me in a comfortable 5th at the flag. Happy with the result but certainly feeling I’d left something on the table.

Sunday was a scorcher. This isn’t a good thing on the Avons we run on currently. They seem to have an ideal operating temperature, beyond which they lose grip and begin degrading really fast. In the car, the grip feels low and what can only be described as ‘squelchy’! (You never hear that said in F1!)

Still, conditions were the same for everyone and it all led to a pretty epic battle. Another reasonable start saw me in 4th. However, it wasn’t a lonely affair and I had battles with Andres, Christian, Tony Mingoia and Alastair Weaver variously through the course of the hot 30 mins.

I was relatively pleased to end up in 6th at the flag. That could easily have been 8-10th place if circumstances had played out even slightly differently.

It was a weekend of good points. But it was also one that I would have liked to have gone slightly better. The other lead rivals in the championship had brilliant weekends and so gaps are starting to appear in the points. With some others having had bad starts to the year, it’s also going to be important to make hay whilst the sun shines.

Next up on the calendar is Zolder in Belgium. I got on well with the track in Roadsport when we were last there and so I’m looking forward to returning. However, I’d also like it to be a few degrees cooler than last time.

Oulton Park Promise…

Oulton Park is a long way away from home for me. I’ve not raced there before this weekend and have only made the trek up once, earlier this year, to turn some testing laps. However, the track itself is worth the effort.

I think it’s largely regarded as one of the best in the UK and you can see why. It has gradient, demanding corners, it takes no prisoners but is ultimately extremely satisfying to hook together into a good lap.

Testing still wasn’t looking ideal with my lap times some way off the ultimate pace. However, a very lose rear balance on the car wasn’t helping and a setup change going into qualifying felt a lot better.

Unfortunately, an abbreviated qualifying issue due to fog only left 3 laps to put a time in, and I succeeded in not doing so! That left me in 10th for race 1. But with the feeling that more performance would be available for the race.

A reasonable start and a fair opening few corners saw me in good position. Unfortunately, I was in completely the wrong position for a spin by Max going through turn 1 on lap 2. The inevitable carnage that resulted left me further down the order as people took advantage of the situation.

Unfortunately, the rest of the race was spent trying to get the places back lost from the lap 2 incident. I never really got to use the pace I felt I had. Having said that, the battle at the end with Christian was great fun and was nice to come out on top. 6th was the result. Much better feeling than past few race meets and still a feeling of more to come.

Because of Oulton’s noise restrictions, everything happens in one frantic day’s action.  That leads to inevitable brain ache as you try and process that you’ve got to do it all again a few hours after race 1 finishes and not with the normal sleep in between!

I guess things weren’t too bad though as I got one of my best starts, coming out of turn 1 in 4th place. And what was most pleasing was that for the first half of the race, it was a legitimate place and I was right with the lead pack and we were gapping the rest.

Henry and Dan didn’t work together well though and at around the half way point, they were slowing our groups progress and letting Jack Brown disappear in the lead. I could also see Christian and Max closing up behind. I took advantage of some more Dan / Henry battling to move forward and I was looking to get past Tim when a combination of waved yellows and fluid down on the track meant I overshot the second chicane.

Normally, this isn’t such an issue, however, to go off under waved yellows and subsequently past marshals pushing a car is an extremely bad thing.

These marshals put their lives at risk for us and so I was absolutely gutted to have let them down. I let it get to me and spent the rest of the race trailing Max as we caught up the lead pack – but the fight had gone. I was sure I’d be out of the  results after the inevitable trip to the clerks office.

An end result of 8th BUT with so much more promise that I’ve seen for the past 6 races that I couldn’t help but be fairly hopeful for the coming races at Silverstone.

And the meeting with the clerk? Well, watching the video back, there was no stationary yellow ahead of the double waved yellows and from the first point of being able to see the flags, I took the only course of action open to me. The reason for the run on was fluid down at that corner from another incident and I went by the marshals at around 20mph. No further action taken and so a positive end to a positive weekend.