British GT Rockingham: Unlocking pace in qualifying
Two weeks after the first race weekend of the season, we were back for the second round of the British GT Championship. The difference with Rockingham is that we had a single two-hour race, rather than two one-hour races. I would do the first hour and pro driver Joe Osborne would complete the balance post-pitstop.
In round one, we had one good result at Oulton Park and one non-finish, so we needed to get back into the mix in the Pro/Am championship and see if we could upset a few of the Pro/Pro partnerships.
It’s often the ‘50p part’ that lets you down in the racing, and while a McLaren bonnet catch costs slightly more than 50p, the major change to the car for Rockingham was a new, more secure, set of catches. I had also given my BBC weather app a good talking to. It promised dry weather all weekend, and I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Rockingham is probably the slipperiest track in the country in the wet, so even the Pros wanted it to be dry.
Rockingham is an odd circuit and no-one seems to like it very much. Originally built as a NASCAR-style oval, it’s now a hybrid of one corner from the oval and a short infield extension. It’s very abrasive and rapidly chews through tyres.
The first corner is taken flat out with a nice concrete wall to greet you on the other side, and if that doesn’t get you, there’s then a very hard brake into a 180-degree hairpin, with another concrete wall beckoning if you get it wrong. Going flat is a proper racing driver ‘challenge’ and as a gent driver, it takes a couple of tries to get it right.
There aren’t any long straights, and we felt that our car wouldn’t be as quick as the Ginettas through the twisty stuff, but we might be able to use straight-line speed to pull away a little. Damn those pesky quick Ginettas, which seem to be populated with quick, young talent!
There was no testing on Friday, but the normal Saturday of two free-practice sessions and then two qualifying sessions for Joe and I at the end of the day. Then warm-up and the race on Sunday.
This season, I’ve started arriving at the circuit the day before the race weekend. I find that it helps to clear my head of work issues and day-to-day ‘stuff’. The team are normally setting up and by the time I get there, the garage is pretty much in shape and they’re beginning to unwind. Our garage is always smart and the Tolman team take great pride in looking the part. It helps me relax knowing that they really care and it bodes well for the car, too.
It doesn’t happen very often that the ‘squidgy bits’ (as one mechanic once described the drivers) eat with the team, but Friday evening was a rare occasion. It doesn’t usually happen, because of the need for the team to let off a bit of steam and us prima donna drivers expecting to be the centre of attention. The main lesson of the evening is that Joe is very ticklish, and not only that, but he also hates being tickled. This won’t affect the car’s performance, but it is hilarious!
BBC weather delivered and it was a dry Saturday. It’s a relatively short lap of about 85 seconds, so there was a lot of traffic during the practice sessions. There were also many areas where letting the faster GT3 cars through could really compromise your lap. We’ve installed a brilliant Motec system that includes a rear camera and it tells us when cars are closing in. At Rockingham we knew it would really help.
The ‘retail opportunities’ in motor racing are infinite. For a gent of limited experience, adding the data, video, telemetry and measurement systems really helps to improve my technique and lap times. But there are no hiding places. If you make a mistake, it shows. The ‘traffic’ issues that could be previously claimed are easily checked on. “Yes, I was flat through turn one” is staring you in the face through the throttle trace (or not!). Braking points are measured within a couple of metres and my customary rolling off the throttle gives the engineer and the pro driver lots of room to be critical.
For the last few years, there was a longstanding joke in the team that in testing, the data, the video, or both, always broke down when I did my fastest lap. It frustrated me, as the timing screens suggested I was faster, and I knew that I had improved in some areas, but with no real proof. This was no longer the case, as we now have the equivalent of NASA technology, backed up by FBI ‘snooping’ tech.
FP1 was pretty uneventful, and in my case uneventfully slow. Joe was fast straight out of the box. That meant the car setup was spot-on for him, and I would get some good running time. I clearly needed it and couldn’t really improve my times. It was decided that we would make a big setup change for FP2.
We made the change, Joe checked it out and then we embarked on a live-‘ish’ session, with me staying in the car for almost the full duration. In British GT, you aren’t allowed to use live telemetry, so I came in every couple of laps, downloaded the data and headed back out to ‘fix the faults’. I really like this way of doing things. It works for me and it really gets me dialled in. It’s still a new car to me, so the more ‘bum in seat’ time, the better. The addition of lots of little tweaks in my laps brought a solid improvement in my times, albeit on very old tyres.
As I’ve said in previous pieces, I’m pretty good at doing what Joe tells me to do. Through the session, I completed two or three laps, then tried to improve in a couple of areas, but still remembered to do the two things better from the session before, and so on.
We have a very talented engineer, Rob Courtneidge, who I’ve worked with for a couple of years now. The relationship between him, Joe and I is key to our performance. Rob will come up with our session strategies and it’s also his job to identify where the room for improvement is. Joe’s job is to tell me how to achieve it and then it’s in my hands to make it happen. Not a lot of responsibility then! The ‘all-telling data’ soon shows whether I’ve done a proper job or not!
We had one set of new tyres for testing and everyone (except me obviously!) decided I should do a qualifying simulation. Gulp! Just to make it really easy, I only had one lap to achieve the target time. Past experience would tell everyone that this is not my strong suit. The pros can turn on the tyres and the times on lap one. Most of the gents take a little while to get there, unless you’re that quick driver called Graham in the luminous orange, black and yellow Ginetta. Damn him!
In my case, it usually takes time to get there, and then I only gain tenths over race-pace times. But it turned out a little different this time. I don’t often look at the timing delta until I cross the line, but there it was, target achieved! Over a second and a half faster than race pace. Progress. I felt very pleased. The team were slightly surprised.
Joe went out on the newish tyres and we compared data. It looked alright, comfortably within my target range of the pro’s time and only the gent’s ‘disease’ of rolling off the throttle to sort out. Which is easier said than done, but is picked up by the data despite my protestations of innocence. Note to self: look into the driver excuses manual for a believable, or more likely an unbelievable, reason!
Qualifying came around and I had to turn the learning into a grid slot. I was ready to go, but I waited as I saw a slower car pull into the line just in front of me. I told the team I wanted to hold back and they quite rightly pointed out that I could overtake him on the out lap. Good point well made! With my dawdling, a fast pro driver – and he is proper fast – pulls up behind the slower car and then it’s me. We both overtake and then I tracked the pro in front as we set off.
The McLaren felt great and I was staying with the pro. I stayed with him and I stayed with him. I dare not look at the time, but see a little flash of green that tells me I’m in front of the pro’s race pace! Last corner and I’m still there – don’t screw it up now, David! I crossed the line and found yet another second, which placed us fourth on the Pro/Am grid and 12th overall. Only three tenths off second place in Pro/Am. And it was done on lap one!
I decided I wasn’t going to improve, so I completed the statutory second lap and then headed for the pits. Job done. Team pleased and a bit incredulous, Joe aghast in a good way and me super smiley. Joe qualified third, so we ended up second in Pro/Am and seventh on the grid. The positions that we will start, maintain and finish in during the race.
It was the best qualifying I had ever done and the start position is so high up I had a virtual nosebleed. I am closer to Joe in qualifying than I have ever been to any pro partner, and not because he had an off day. I was the fastest of all the 38 GT4 drivers, both Pro and Am, at the start/finish speed trap. I’m quick to point out that I was faster than Joe in two of the three speed traps! Apparently this meant I would have ‘my ass handed to me’ at some point. Nice.
Later the data’s revenge reared its ugly head when it’s revealed I had done the last corner half a second quicker in the qualifying simulation, which would have put me second in Pro/Am and us sixth on the grid. It seems there’s always half a second to find and in this case, I knew exactly where. Didn’t stop me feeling proud, though.
The evening was spent doing pitstop practice, which is about as inelegant as a process can be and in truth, this is when I feel, and look, my age. I then started to wind down before race day. I always struggle to get a long sleep in – drift off quickly, but always wake early. It’s a consistent pattern.
Race day came around and the weather behaved itself, thank you BBC! With the 10-minute warm-up complete, we sign autographs before the race. It’s great fun talking to the fans, especially the young kids who are just like I was, aspiring to be a racing driver.
I took the start, which went rather well and the race was pretty uneventful, other than we got on the wrong end of a safety car. Because we race with GT3 cars, a safety car will always come out in front of the leading GT3. I had been racing with an Aston GT4 for most of my stint and congratulated myself on handling traffic when the GT3 cars went past. The leader in GT3 had just gone past myself and the Aston when the safety car came out. It meant that the GT4 cars in front of us were able gain almost a whole lap while joining the rear of the train. This effectively finished our race. Safety cars can be hit-and-miss and are a real problem for the slower class cars in mixed races. This time we really suffered. Despite pleading with the race stewards, we weren’t allowed through and that was that.
Started second in class and seventh overall, pitted second in class and seventh overall and Joe had a lonely race to bring the car home. A good weekend of learning and a bittersweet race, where we genuinely believed that we could have threatened the overall podium with Joe’s speed in the second stint. The team were immaculate and we all came away feeling pretty good.
I was still waiting, and expecting, to have ‘my ass handed to me’, so with some trepidation I looked at the race data. There it was, I was still the fastest GT4 at the start/finish speed trap and faster than Joe in not just two out of three, but three out of three speed traps. Ass firmly intact. Boom!
GT4 European Series Brands Hatch: A tale of two safety cars
At the end of the race weekend at Rockingham, the car was intact, which was very good news for both my wallet and the fact that we had entered a one-off race at Brands Hatch, in the GT4 European Series – a support race to the Blancpain GT Sprint Cup. It’s notoriously difficult to access testing on the Brands Hatch GP circuit, as there are limited days of use and huge noise restrictions. We wanted to use the weekend to learn as much as we could about the car and how it handled, ready for our British GT race there in August.
I don’t intend to go into too much detail, other than to say this was a weekend where safety cars really worked for us in the first race and worked against us in the second.
The Simpson Ginetta was miles ahead of everyone all weekend, but Joe ensured that we were the fastest McLaren for most sessions and I was towards the front of the Am grid.
This season being faster means I’m now racing more. In past years I have had races where I was pretty much on my own. But now, I’m not as fast as the fastest, most experienced guys and not as slow as the slower, newer novices. So I’m starting in the middle of grids and properly racing both pros and ams. It also means I have a lot to learn!
We use the free-practice sessions to help with car setup. We qualified well, started race one in 19th overall and I was the third Am driver. A dreadful start lost me five places and I spent the rest of the stint reclaiming them. Just before our pitstop there was a safety car, which bunched the whole field. We were the third car into the pits and once all stops were complete, we had managed to gain 10 places, mostly by the team being fantastic and Rob timing it perfectly.
Joe then set about the field from 11th and stormed through to fourth. The safety car had really given Joe a chance to shine and he shone brilliantly. It’s worked for us. We crossed the line fourth, but the car in third is then penalised for overtaking under a yellow flag. We won a trophy, amazing. This was only meant to be a test! Everyone happy and lots of smiles, a real bonus.
The opposite happens in race two. Joe started third on the grid and brought the car into the pits in second. Another brilliant pitstop meant I hold onto second with a gap of about 12 seconds to the marauding European pros behind me. But I only had to do 23 minutes. No-one, including the TV commentator, bless him, expected me to finish second, but I have got a cushion.
As I exited the pits I can see the lead car and a safety car. Which meant that the gap Joe had given me was gone. On the restart, I lost a place almost immediately and then held off a train of five pros for three laps. This was through a combination of the car having good straight-line speed, me sticking my elbows out, using the Motec camera system and some very good luck. It all came crashing down when I made a small mistake at Graham Hill Bend and lost five places in a heartbeat. I feel like King Canute trying to stem the tide. Still, we finished eighth and it wrapped up a great weekend.
It’s poor driving standards that lead to safety cars – of course we need them, but they do have a huge impact on results. As I’ve found out, they work for you and against you in equal-ish measure.
It was very good driving in a one-class series, and I learned a lot. The GT4 European Series team under Max Braams needs to be congratulated for setting very high standards and running a great weekend.
Next up is Snetterton for the next round of British GT this weekend.