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Silver Dream Racer: Diary Of A Gentleman Driver

Tolman Motorsport’s David Pattison reports back from a successful British GT weekend at Snetterton

After a four-week break from British GT, it was time for round three at Snetterton. We had enjoyed some unexpected success at our ‘test’ weekend competing in the European GT4 round at Brands Hatch and we were ready to resume our challenge in British GT’s GT4 Pro-Am class.

Earlier in the year, someone had decided that a two-day test at Snetterton would be an ideal replacement for our normal two days in Spain. Something to do with the predictable weather and the glamour of Norwich nightlife I think… or not. It did mean we felt we knew the circuit well and had enjoyed an extra test session there, 10 days ahead of the race weekend.

Weather was predicted to be anything from very hot and sunny, to very hot and thunderstorms – the BBC app returning to type and making it really easy to prepare! The format for the weekend was two one-hour races. At Snetterton, the garages are small and the pitlane is narrow, making refuelling impossible, hence the shorter races.

After Brands Hatch, everyone was happy with the car, but there was a little nagging doubt that things weren’t quite right with the setup. We held a ‘setup summit’ to discuss how we should move forward. In truth, it was a few WhatsApp messages between Joe (our pro driver), Chris (Tolman, whose team runs the car), Rob (our engineer) and nothing very useful from me.

A plan was hatched and we arrived at Snetterton with what Chris assured us all would be “a completely different car” that “should be faster”. We hadn’t tested it, so we were looking at a lot of unknowns.

When Joe and I met on Friday afternoon, there was some real excitement from the two of us, looking forward to trying the ‘new car’ and seeing if it really was faster. We both couldn’t wait to get in. To be honest, I can’t wait to get in the car whatever the situation, but this felt a little different. Nothing fazes Joe, but he seemed keen to get on with it as well. When we eat with the team on Friday night, the boys are all animated talking about the setup change – and no, of course I’m not going to tell you what was done!

I sleep badly and on Saturday morning wake up as nervous as a nervous thing. Four visits to the bathroom before 9:30am nervous. That’s a multiple of four times over my normal kind of nervous. At least weight in the car wasn’t a problem! The sense of excitement on Friday night had moved on to anticipation of instant success and then to “what if it doesn’t work?”

Joe and I know that we have to use every second of the time we have before each race to get things right. He went out in the first practice session on Saturday and came straight in – he hated it. It had every sort of understeer and oversteer you could wish for. The full set. Slightly extraordinarily, with a big grin on his face, Chris suggested that this was exactly what he expected and there were a couple of changes that would sort it out.

Over the next 20 minutes, that’s exactly what happened. Joe was faster and told us all the car is/will be faster in this setup. The team felt like progress had been made and all I had to do was get in the car and steer it around. The car would do it all for me. I could now pilot the car to pole, podiums and motor racing immortality!

Err… except that doesn’t happen. It’s a real struggle. Due to a technical glitch in the comms, or my lack of radio operating skills, I was telling the team that I was NOT loving the car, but they were hearing that I WAS loving the car! I later got told off by Joe for using a negative/positive, and despite me questioning his level of education, he usually wins these discussions. So I pounded around, figuratively, and felt as though I was going nowhere. I was called in to solve the communications issue and spent the rest of the practice sessions learning a completely different driving technique – and it was bloody hard.

Qualifying came about an hour too early. I wasn’t really ready, but I had to give it my best. Sixth in class and 12th overall. Not a great position, but closer to third than I had ever been and in a group of about six amateurs covered by about eight tenths. All the fast amateurs have to be targets for me. Marcus Hoggarth in another McLaren is almost within reach, Graham Johnson in the Ginetta is still up the road, but a little less than normal, but bloody Adam Balon is up the road and round the corner – and in a McLaren. Grr! But there were some grounds for race optimism.

It all came together in pro qualifying, i.e. something I have nothing to do with. Joe set the track on fire. On pole by, in pro terms, a mile and well ahead of all the other McLarens. He’s a star and suitably modest in telling everyone that he drove a great car averagely. Of course the car was great and the team were amazing, but Joe really delivered. If this had been a court case, the defence would now have rested and M’Lud would sum up with “David, this is the setup for the foreseeable future and you’d better get used to it”.

That evening, Joe and I talked tactics, particularly around the start, for the following day. Most of which usually go out of the window within 50 metres of the start. He was actually pleased with me and told me I shouldn’t underestimate how much new stuff is being thrown at me in such a short period of time. I threw it off as him making me feel better, but he kept at it and I saw some merit in what he was saying. The pros adapt quickly, but it’s tougher for the ams. Old dogs and new tricks come to mind.

How different can the learnings be? The successful ams have driven the same cars on the same circuits for a few years in a row. In GT3 Jon, Derek, Jon and Liam have all got faster in the same kit. In GT4, Graham has perfected the art of driving fast in a Ginetta. While I’ve driven the same circuits every year, it has always been in a different car. So the evidence suggests that a bit of familiarity works for the gents. Note to self: stick with the McLaren, who knows what might happen!

Race day arrived sunny and I was looking forward to getting into the car. Race one had me in the car first. There’s always a lot of hanging around on the grid as the TV company get their timings sorted. I was surrounded by the ams in the category and a couple of Silver drivers behind me. A few last tips from Joe – actually a few forceful instructions: “don’t go on the marbles during the green-flag lap”, “get tight to the car in front before the green light”, “make sure you’re on the inside line for the first two corners”.

Every race you hope for a good start and every race you hope for a good race with lots going on. In truth, when you’re learning, you spend a lot of time not racing, just getting the car round. But this was about to be different, I can honestly say that after four years this race was definitely the first ‘proper race’ I had driven. Here are the reasons why.

Skilfully avoided the marbles on the green-flag lap, tick. Genius driving! On the grid we were towards the back and I couldn’t see the gantry lights, so the team told me over the radio when the lights turned green for racing. It seemed to take forever for them to go green, but when they did, I wasn’t tight up against the rear of the Ginetta in front – sorry Joe! The inside line then looks busy, so I see a gap and go around the outside of turn one – sorry Joe! But after turn one I had gained two places, lost one of them at a tightly packed turn two and got it back again up the inside of the previously mentioned Ginetta at turn four. I was now fourth in class and 10th overall. That felt good, and of course I would now roar off into the distance and leave them all to chew on my dust, which, on reflection, doesn’t sound very friendly.

What actually happened is that I spent the next 25 minutes defending my position from a string of five cars. In that 25 minutes only one car got past me and that was a pro driver in an Aston, who eventually found a way past but didn’t disappear into the distance.

As GT3 cars passed us, a Ginetta GT4 followed them through, but I retook it on the pit straight despite being squeezed very close to the grass. This feels fantastic, proper racing! Every corner is a challenge, with a little bit of respite on the straights as our car is strong in a straight line. They take turns in having a go to get past but I ‘stick out my elbows’ and refuse to yield. Amazing.

Get called in for the pit stop and hand over to Joe. We were ninth overall and third in class, albeit 30 seconds behind the car second in class. Joe made up some places overall, but got held up by a car ‘sticking its elbows out’ and fell just shy of second in class. Seventh overall. Some good points for us in both championships.

I was exhausted. Shoulders (and elbows!) hurting, but I was pleased with myself. Definitely my first proper competitive race. Surely there’s little for me to learn from this race. The team seemed pleased, but I sensed that Joe had something to say. He isn’t shy in having an opinion, and when it comes to racing he’s almost always right.

So it went something like this: “great defensive driving, but it cost you too much time. If you had let the Aston through and stuck with him, you might have been 20 seconds down on the cars in front, not 30”. And of course he is right. Doesn’t dampen my pleasure, but yet another piece of learning for me.

Later on, that nice man Tim in the Nissan, who was in the following group, does congratulate me, saying it was real fun to watch and be part of.

In race two, Joe showed us all what an amazing driver he is. Started on pole and was never troubled after the first corner. All of this while doing a ‘live’ commentary as he runs around the track. Brilliant. Fastest lap after fastest lap. Fastest McLaren.

I just admire the skill and speed. Then I was confronted by the reality of ‘you have to get in that car soon’ and the fact I’d inherit quite a lead while needing to keep all the pros and fast ams at bay. I began to work out how far I might be in front. It looked like it could be up to 20 seconds. I would be doing about 11 laps. If I could lap about two seconds off the pro pace, I’d win the race! Unfortunately, Snetterton is a long lap and I was likely to be over three seconds a lap slower, so the maths wasn’t working for me. But I was looking forward to getting into the car and doing the best I could.

After all the pitstops and success penalties had been taken, I emerged with a 22-second lead. Storm out of the pits for what should have been a very challenging 24 minutes. Halfway around my first lap, a safety car is deployed. This could have been a time when a safety car worked for us and at first it seemed to me that it did. I think I was the only GT4 car in front of the safety car, so in theory I would be a lap ahead of everyone else once I caught up with the train.

But then 22 seconds became two seconds, as three GT4 cars were let past the safety car and joined behind me. The good news was that it meant there were only four of us on the lead lap. The bad news, for me, was that it was the two Ginettas and one McLaren that were first, second and third in the championship and all driven by pros. In addition, the combined ages of Alex, Will and Ciaran add up to less than one of me.

Safety car in, for half a lap my elbows were wide enough and then in one corner two slipped past. I held off the third car for another half a lap, got overtaken and then passed him again on the start-finish straight. But I knew it was only temporary and we were first in class. So with Joe’s words ringing in my ears I let them all through and then had a lonely race to the end. It was an odd race with no real racing for me, or I guess Joe (other than the first few corners). But that’s how the ebb and flow of racing works. Sometimes it all falls into place and sometimes, no matter how hard you try or what you think you deserve, you get nothing.

One of the three fast young things in front of me had an off, and there we were, on the main podium in third place and first in the Pro-Am class. What a lovely feeling. Up on the podium, photos, TV interviews, pretty girls, a slightly dodgy trophy and a big big grin. Joe deserved a podium for his qualifying and drive and the team deserved it for giving us a super-competitive car.

But for me it’s why I do it, for those moments of unbridled joy when all the hard work comes together and the racing gods smile on you. It’s a feeling like no other and I’ve woken up every day since thinking of nothing else.

So we left Snetterton with arms full of Pro-Am points, a car we know is very good, Joe in sparkling form and a happy team. I’m very happy but my nature is to never be quite satisfied, and on the way home I started to wonder what would have happened if there hadn’t been a safety car in the second race. With a 20-second lead, could I have held off those pro drivers in the second race? Stop it, David!

Next up is the Silverstone three-hour race this weekend. Can’t wait!