Five minutes. Doesn’t sound very long does it? For our race weekend at Spa, it was the difference between achieving a very good weekend and missing out on a sublime weekend.
Spa-Francorchamps, the iconic, classic circuit that most drivers love, both for the challenge and the experience. The circuit is always exciting and a privilege to drive. It’s very fast and very long. The famous Eau Rouge corner that drivers aim to go ‘flat’ through, is followed by the long, long Kemmel straight. Amazing. Later in the lap, other highlights are the double left-hander of Pouhon and the ‘almost flat’ Blanchimont. We drive on great circuits in British GT, but nothing compares to Spa. It’s one of the main reasons I do this.
This year we had two races of one hour, both on Saturday morning. This followed two free practices and qualifying on Friday. So there wasn’t much downtime and a lot was packed in. Organisation is always a bit shambolic at Spa and things aren’t made any easier by the 10-minute walk and 100-foot drop between our truck and the shared garages.
My pro driver partner Joe Osborne and myself got the Eurostar to Brussels and then a hire car to the circuit. Not any quicker than flying, but certainly a lot more relaxing, with the possible exception of the hire-car bit with Joe’s driving. What is it with racing drivers and hire cars?!
We arrived in one piece at the circuit. Chris and the Tolman team were set up and ready to go in a garage shared with one of the other McLaren teams, adding a little spice to the weekend’s competitive spirit.
My customary BBC weather app check showed the chance of a thunderstorm on Thursday afternoon/evening and then dry, hot and sunny conditions for the racing days of Friday and Saturday. It turned out to be spot-on for the whole weekend. The thunderstorm was spectacular!
Spa is a very long lap and a small mistake gets magnified like nowhere else. Two tenths down through Eau Rouge translates to over a second at the end of the Kemmel Straight and you can do absolutely nothing about it. No matter how hard you push your foot to the floor or try to cajole the car along. Equally, being two tenths up gains you so much time.
Thanks to Balance of Performance (BoP), we had yet more weight added to our car for the weekend. With a driver and a full tank of fuel, this took us up over 1,800kg. Heavier than any other car on the grid, including the GT3s. We were getting increasingly worried about tyre safety and now fuel consumption. As I’ve said before, everyone moans about BoP, but I felt like we had some legitimate concerns for this weekend and we weren’t alone.
A couple of weeks before the race, we’d managed to get on a really good trackday at Spa with testing sessions, run by Curbstone. Well run, lots of freedom and a limited number of cars. So we felt well prepared.
In FP1, that seemed to be true. Joe set the car up, it worked well after a couple of tweaks and after I got in, my times were consistent and pretty quick. Due to the speed of our car in a straight line and the weight we were carrying, Eau Rouge was nowhere near ‘flat’, even for Joe. The large testicles were only required for a soft brake rather than a hard brake at the bottom of the hill. Obviously I wasn’t physically braking with my testicles, but it sometimes felt like it!
We finished the session feeling relaxed and ready to improve further in FP2. Which then failed to materialise. The track was much warmer and therefore slower. Everyone was a bit slower, but I felt like I was going backwards. We even wasted a set of new tyres trying to change something… anything! It was fair to say Joe wasn’t happy.
My logical mind tells me I should progress through the sessions. It’s how I set myself up mentally for the weekend. I should get quicker and quicker. Of course, changes in conditions will affect that enormously, but I never quite account for that. FP2 was a slower session for everyone, even Joe, but I still felt like I wasn’t where I should be.
I needed to change something, so I went and had a sleep in the truck, hoping I’d wake up having morphed into a super-quick racing driver! I gave myself a good talking to as well. Enjoy, enjoy. Obviously it’s easier to enjoy it if you’re competing at the front.
Qualifying turned out to be a triumph. Probably the best I’ve ever done. The car just felt amazing and I was so relaxed. And that’s despite my normal trick of not finding enough space, which at Spa is a ridiculous mistake to make and made Joe doubly grumpy.
As I went out, there was a Porsche in front of me that I knew was slower than me. Joe’s last words to me were: “it’s a long lap, so don’t waste the tyres on the warm-up, leave the curbs alone and stay off the ABS.” So I was trying to overtake the Porsche with no brakes and no real power, and – surprise, surprise – didn’t make it past in time to start the fast lap.
At the same time, the nice Tim Eakin was right behind me and wanting to pass. I decided to let him and then dropped as far back as I could to give me room to do two or three fast laps. With a 10-minute session and a long lap, that was probably all I’d get. But, you guessed it, I didn’t give myself enough space. Which meant that on the first two fast laps I had to overtake, which of course cost me time.
The first flying lap I was proper flying. Sector one I was the fastest of all the cars, including the pro drivers, setting the timing screens purple. Joe and Rob, our engineer, told me later that they assumed I’d gone off the track and taken a short cut. I rather forcefully told them to go away, or words to that effect. The time stayed that way until the last minute of qualifying and I ended up third in that sector. Very proud of myself.
Unfortunately, the Porsche in front was looming larger and larger. The lap was too good to waste, so coming out of Pouhon, I just threw the car up the inside at Pif Paf and miraculously got through and stayed on track. It felt amazing and I did a time two seconds faster than I’d ever driven around Spa and just over a second behind Joe’s delta time. Boom!
On to lap two and not quite so fast through Eau Rouge, but getting closer to Eakin’s Nissan in front. Decided that the only way was to muscle past on the Kemmel straight and did exactly that. Continued the lap and was a tenth down on lap one. For lap three, I tried too hard and ran wide at Pouhon, allowing Tim through. He went on to beat my quali time by seven hundredths of a second. I like to think I inspired him to achieve that time!
Tim and I agreed afterwards that it was real fun ‘racing’ in qualifying, he’s such a good bloke. Later, ‘deep’ analysis showed that without the two overtakes I would have been fastest Am, but the lap time didn’t say that, so I couldn’t claim it. No matter how hard I tried! Almost a proper, over-claiming racing driver now.
Winding up 10th overall, in front of three Pros and third in the Am class, four tenths off the fastest Am. Everyone was very happy and some of them, okay everyone, including me, were wondering where it came from!
I think for the first time this season Joe then felt under a bit of pressure to perform and promptly put the car on pole for his race start. Fastest McLaren, again. I was the closest I’d been to him in qualifying all season. The team were happy and looking forward to race day.
No warm up on race day, but a very early start for race one. I was to start and Joe would start race two.
We’d talked about race strategy and with the weight we were carrying and the high-speed nature of the circuit, the big worry for us was fuel consumption. If we didn’t have a safety car, then we reckoned we might run out on the last lap. With refuelling impossible, there was nothing we could do about it other than wait for the engine to cut out.
For the start of races, Joe had been encouraging me to stay as close as I could to the back of the car in front. I had even been practicing on the M40, but it just made people pull over. Unlikely to have the same effect on the race track though!
All lined up on the formation lap and we all got through the last chicane before the red lights went out. Green light, and what a start. On the outside line, I got past the car I was supposed to be sticking to, and my target car had decided to take the inside line. A slight nudge from someone in the first corner, but going into Eau Rouge I went from 10th to seventh overall and second in class. Behind me was someone who I knew was a little slower than me, and seemingly holding the others at bay, so I just looked forward.
Marcus Hoggarth, a very quick Am in another McLaren, was in front of me. He’s someone I wanted to be racing and I resolved to myself that I was going to try as hard as I could to stick to him. And that’s exactly what I did for a lap and a half. I was watching where he was quicker than me and getting encouraged when I was catching him. This felt great and we were at Spa!
I noticed a Ginetta in the barriers at the top of Raidillon just after Eau Rouge. Safety car. We went around a couple of times and then the safety car came in. We were off again and I made another good start. Within a few corners there was another safety car, as two cars had a coming-together at the first corner after the restart. Nasty accident but everybody okay, thank goodness.
The safety car then took us through to the pitstop window. We were still seventh, and five of the cars in front had a ‘pro penalty’ of 14 extra seconds in the pits. Marcus had a success penalty from the previous race. In theory, a good pitstop would put Joe out in the lead, and that is exactly what happened. Perfect pitstop from the team and Joe exited in the lead. He also didn’t have to worry about fuel, as we’d had about 20 minutes of safety car.
We were on for a win, the top step at Spa. Not just a class win, a win-win. What could possibly go wrong? If there was such a thing as a ‘tensionometer’, then on our side of the garage it would have gone off the scale. Please, please, please let it be so.
I was interviewed by Hayfisher TV, and did my hair and everything. But something inside was telling me it wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t. With a lap and a half to go, sitting 14 seconds in front, we got a puncture. Urgh. The long lap meant it took forever for Joe to get back to the pits and we finished dead last. Four minutes from motor-racing ecstasy.
Joe came in and everyone wanted to be alone. So we all disappeared to try and get over it quickly. I went to the pit wall and put on my sunglasses. There were definitely a few tears in my eyes. I didn’t know what to do or say and I felt empty. That nice Tim Eakin came and said some lovely things about my driving and then gave me a great big bear hug. Thanks Tim!
But we had another race in three hours’ time. A team to pick up off of the floor. Two drivers to convince that there was a second chance of glory and the slightly trickier situation of working out what went wrong and how to fix it for race two, without pointing fingers.
We had two punctures at the previous race at Silverstone, but we knew what we did wrong there. This time there wasn’t an obvious answer and over the days that followed it became clear that a set of unlikely circumstances converged to completely do us in. Those bloody racing gods!
I can’t say some fingers weren’t pointed, because they were, and it did get heated. It’s a competitive world and people want to win, and the chance to take the top step at Spa was, well, you know… But ultimately there was nothing we could do to change the result. There, easily and reasonably said and I almost mean it, but in truth I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over it.
So on to race two. Joe was on pole. Great start and he pulled away from the chasing pack. Except for the ‘guest’ Maserati that appears to have an added turbocharger and a BoP that could be described as ‘friendly’. Started at the back of the grid and reeled Joe in, went past him like he wasn’t there. No-one has done that this year.
Bar the guest Maserati, Joe handed over a small lead but I got the benefit of the 14 second pro pitstop penalty from most of the cars close to him and I was first in Pro/Am. We had made changes to the car to ensure, as much as we could, that we didn’t get a puncture.
Unfortunately for me, it made the car a real handful and I was struggling from the first corner. There also hadn’t been a safety car, so fuel could have become an issue. Apart from that, it was going to be a walk in the park! The guest Maserati went past like I wasn’t there and ended up winning by 35 seconds. An Aston went past and then didn’t, as it had a drive-through penalty. My times seemed slow to me but I was managing the gap pretty well and even the pros were struggling to catch me.
I was told there were five laps to go and that sounded okay. A ‘guest’ GT3 Ferrari, who of course wasn’t there to compete, did his best to run me off the road at Eau Rouge and I lost three seconds. With what I thought was one lap to go, I was told ‘there are two laps to go’ and I could see the marauding pack behind me.
They were fighting each other and so were holding each other up. One lap to go and they were still far enough behind, but one of the young pros had made a break for it and was after me. About two-thirds of the way around the lap in the ‘twisty’ bits, the championship-leading Ginetta got past me. One minute from the end of the race. We were first in class and third overall, so on the podium. Scored lots of points in both championships which sort of made up for race one, but not really.
As I said at the beginning, five minutes isn’t very long, but in motor racing it sometimes feels like a lifetime. Four minutes in race one and one minute in race two were the difference between a very good weekend and a sublime weekend. Ho hum.
Joe and I left Spa circuit and I opened my front door in London four and a half hours later. I couldn’t look while we were in the hire car! We got a lovely message from one of our competitors, Graham Johnson, which was much appreciated. My former pro partner, Luke Davenport, who thankfully is on the mend after his big BTCC accident, had followed the race and told me that race two was the best race I’d ever driven. But after race one, it just didn’t quite feel like it…
Next up, Brands Hatch. Racing gods?