They say that acknowledging your problem is the first step, so I admit it, I am a motor racing junkie addicted to ‘petrolheadity’ and driving round in circles. I am an amateur ‘gent’ driver in a professional world and I love it.
Being a gent driver can be described in many ways: “the ultimate funder” by series organisers, “the reason to go racing” by teams, “an opportunity” or “in the way on the track” by pro drivers – but in my case, it is the fulfilment of a dream.
I had wanted to be a racing driver since I was five years old, finally achieving my dream at the age of 56. I am now entering my fifth year of driving and hope to help other potential gents by sharing my thoughts and experiences of what it’s like to be a gent driver.
I’ll be looking back at how I got into it and how I have progressed to where I am now, including some of the things that went well and some decisions that, given my time again, I might do differently.
After every race weekend this season, I’ll do an update and in between there’ll be posts covering the key times over the last four years, from the very start to the current day. It has been such a pleasure (apart from when it wasn’t/isn’t) and I am hoping it will encourage more gents to take up racing or follow their dream, no matter where they are on the age range.
For this season, I am racing in British GT. There are GT3 and GT4 cars, with both classes broadly split into Pro/Pro and Pro/Am divisions. I’m in the GT4 Pro/Am class in a McLaren 570S GT4. My pro driver is Joe Osborne and the car is run by Chris Tolman and the team at Tolman Motorsport, who have been running my cars since I started racing.
Oulton Park: Races 1 & 2
I had been feeling nervous and edgy for about 10 days and it took me a few days to realise that it was the imminent start of the racing season causing the butterflies.
A new car this season and a new co-driver. Lots of testing miles covered, although it never feels like enough. Apart from a rather big coming-together with a wall during a test at Oulton Park, it had all gone pretty well. I had to go deep into volume 15 of ‘Driver’s Excuses’ to find something or someone to blame for the crash. Obviously it was the curb on the outside at Knickerbrook being not big enough, or the grass not being grippy enough, or something to do with the tyres!
But testing never really tells you where you lie within the grid. Whilst you’re always timing your fellow competitors during a test, you don’t really know where you are until you qualify and then race. As a gent, you are measuring yourself against your pro, but we don’t really know where the pro is. All I knew was that I was considerably faster in the McLaren than I was last time I drove a GT4, and Joe seemed quick.
We were both learning a new car. I hadn’t really driven with traction control at this level and I had never driven a turbo car. Even someone as experienced as Joe saw it as a new learning experience, but it did feel fast. Tolman were also learning the car and having to do it on the job.
Oulton Park is a particularly challenging circuit. It’s narrow and fast, and the pros treat it with a lot of respect. It’s precise, and if you go off you will hit something, hard. This I learned to my cost, literally. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant circuit to drive. It’s usually the first destination of the year and there are regularly a lot of damaged cars at the end of the weekend.
The various weather apps get a real pounding at race weekends and for the season opener, the BBC was my favourite. It said that despite being wet for Friday’s testing, both Saturday’s free practice and qualifying sessions, and Monday’s warm-up and two races, would be dry. Turns out it was ill-informed by about 50 percent, but we planned for a dry racing weekend.
Friday testing was a mixed bag weather-wise. In the wet session I looked, felt and performed like Bambi on ice. ‘Slow’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. I think the recovery truck passed me at one point! I was really disappointed. All of which made me push the weather apps even harder! The dry session was pretty good though, both Joe and I looked racy. The Pro drivers do every lap within a few tenths, whereas most gents will have a swing of up to two seconds. I have learned that you always need to ‘find’ another half a second. Presumably there is someone, somewhere in the world that doesn’t!
Driver’s briefing and sign-on were the first port of call on Saturday morning. It’s raining and I am thinking of not paying my BBC licence fee this year. As I looked through the event programme, I realise I’m the oldest on the entire grid, and the oldest in the GT4 class by almost a decade. I also spotted that Dean MacDonald in another McLaren GT4 is 44 years my junior, and if he is still racing at my age, Dean will be in British GT’s ‘Class of 2061’. He is also, clearly, very fast. We are then weighed, as this year driver pairing weights are going to be equalised. Helpful for me being on the ‘robust’ side, and Joe’s nose ensures that we don’t need to carry any extra weight.
Track time once again offered one wet session, and one dry. I found seven seconds a lap in the wet, less Bambi-esque and more like Bambi’s slightly more confident, older sibling. Still slow… The wet session was cut short by a nasty accident, however both drivers were fortunately unhurt. But driving past the two broken cars always makes you think, and I am sure all the gents on the grid had a ‘what am I doing?!’ moment, even the tough Northern ones from Yorkshire!
The dry session was good and Joe helped me find more time. As a gent, the relationship with your Pro driver is really important. This is the first season I have raced with Joe, but he has coached me from day one, he knows how I work and how to get the best out of me. I am very much a driver that needs a target, be it time or another driver. Joe gets this, he uses data to get me there, and it mostly works. Nothing too complicated, and typically focusing on one improvement at a time.
The car was running really well and the guys at McLaren GT had been nothing but helpful all weekend. As the gent driver, you tend to sit on the fringes of the set up and technical discussions, but it felt like the team were getting their arms around the car and the small issues were all disappearing.
Qualifying is tough for the am driver. The pros can turn it on immediately on lap one, whereas the gents seem to need a bit of a run-up.
You have 10 minutes to show what you’ve got. My target was to get into the 1:45s, nearly a second faster than anything I had achieved previously. I did a 1:45.998, made it by two thousandths of a second! Fifth in class and 11th overall. I felt very pleased with myself and team seemed happy, too. Joe placed sixth on his grid, so we were well positioned in both races.
I never sleep well over the race weekend and this weekend was no exception. Wake early and look out the window. It was raining hard and showing no signs of slowing down. My heart sank a little. The BBC weather app told me it would be sunny and dry.
Arrived at the circuit and everyone was tense. The first race was imminent and there’s also the dreadful news of Billy Monger’s crash at Donington. The pros were genuinely shocked and thinking ‘that could be me’. The gents all thought ‘that could be my boy’. So hard for Billy and his family.
Race day mornings, we do the warm-up session and some more driver-change practice. This is where my advancing years tend to show themselves, as there really isn’t an elegant way to get in and out of the car at speed. It’s then down time before the first race.
All drivers react differently to the tension of racing. I get very nervous pre my time in the car, but as soon as I get in, nerves disappear and I just want to compete. I guess the day the nerves don’t disappear is the day I give up.
For the race it poured down. I was towards the back of the overall grid and couldn’t see the start lights. We waited for what seemed like forever, and then we were on the green-flag lap. At the end of which we should create a perfect two-by-two formation, ready for the rolling start, except we never really are, and it seems to be ‘everyone for themselves’. I was on the inside and as we started the green-flag lap, a GT3 Aston expired in a cloud of steam, dropping fluid all over my potential race line. Yet another thing I needed to think about.
The track was wet and slippery, I was probably too far behind the car in front and as I came out of the last corner on the inside I couldn’t get the power down and slid, so that the car on the outside was off and away as the race started.
But that was the least of the issues: as we all accelerated the spray was impenetrable. All thoughts of dropped Aston fluid were gone as I couldn’t see a thing, looking sideways for braking points, and the car in front had decided that no lights on, including the rain light, was the smart way to go! Despite that, we all kept our foot in and miraculously all got through corners one, two and three unscathed. What a well-behaved bunch we are! Although it’s worth pointing out that the gent usually pays for the damage to the car and/or the insurance. Which perhaps explains how we all got through okay!
Then good things started to happen. I was three to four seconds a lap faster than I had been in the wet. I was hanging on to the tail end of the mid pack and defending my position from cars behind me. It started to feel like fun and progress all in one. This is why testing, qualifying and racing are all so different. Racing definitely brings out the best in me.
I was only going to be in the car for 25-ish minutes and the time always flies by. A couple of cars got past me and I also passed a couple. Then I receive the “box this lap” call, which usually leaves me disappointed, as I want to stay out on track. There are now a whole series of things I must remember to do. Call the last corner, call pit entry, hit pit lane speed limiter, try not to hit car controller, but hit stop board, turn off engine, undo window net, unplug radio, loosen belts, get out, help Joe in and then run to the garage. Plenty of ‘senior moment’ opportunities here and lots to trip over – elegant, it isn’t.
But the most important thing is that I get out of the car with a smile on my face, and a lot of people comment on this. I have done the gent’s job: to get the car to the pit stop in one piece and in a place where a charging Joe can make up places, and that is exactly what he did. My pro left the pits seventh in class and finished third in class and sixth overall. Achieving all our targets for the first race.
The tension in the garage started to subside, and the team and drivers couldn’t wait for the second race of the day. When we have two races in a weekend, the pro starts the latter and I know Joe can bring the car in close to the front. Normally, I would slightly dread getting into the car that close to the front of the pack, waiting for the onslaught from behind. But this time I couldn’t wait, I felt confident and wanted to get on with it.
However, motor racing never fails to kick you just when you don’t want it to. The second race would be mainly dry and Joe would start. All the pre-race rigmarole was completed and Joe headed off on the green-flag lap. Then the start, he made up two places by the first corner, but got a tap from someone else’s accident. All seemed fine, but the bonnet catch had come loose and going down the back straight, the bonnet flew open and shattered the windscreen. Race over. Heart sinks, team try to fix it, but it’s not for fixing. No more racing for me and a big bill to pay. Bollocks!
Then something odd happened. A surge of confidence and positive thoughts. We had been unlucky, but there were so many pluses to take from the weekend. The car was good, reliable and quick. The drivers work well together and seem to have some speed. Joe is a genius! Chris and the team are relatively inexperienced with the McLaren, but they are really getting to grips with a new car. McLaren GT are responsive, interested and helpful. The SRO championship looks well organised and the GT4 class will be competitive and racy. Most of all, I am smiling and I’m looking forward to more.
On to Rockingham… I cannot wait!