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.