On Wednesday morning before the British GT Brands Hatch weekend, I was in a car park at Silverstone throwing a Caterham around. Learning to control the car on the throttle when sliding and drifting, how to pivot the car – again on the throttle – around roundabouts made of bollards. It’s the second time I’ve done it and it’s a lot of fun. I was there with my pro driver and coach, Joe, who was teaching a 15-year-old Ginetta Junior driver to do the same thing in the afternoon.
It might seem an odd thing to have done when I race a McLaren with traction control, ABS and servo-assisted brakes, none of which the Caterham has. But I had a big accident at a test day at Oulton Park earlier in the year – the result of me losing the rear coming out of Knickerbrook, nearly saving the car and then backing out of the throttle at precisely the wrong moment. Joe had suggested the Caterham ‘experience’ as a way of learning throttle control. The half-day cost about one-thirtieth of the Oulton crash repairs, so it seemed like a bargain to me!
It was physically very tough and after three hours my shoulders were ‘broken’, but I had made some good progress and it all felt a bit more natural. The reason for mentioning this, other than it’s yet another learning experience, is that it came in very handy at the Brands Hatch race on the following Sunday.
Brands Hatch was the penultimate round of the British GT season and it followed a good (could have been great… grrr!) weekend at Spa, where I felt like I’d contributed and driven well. We had picked up a lot of Pro-Am points and an overall podium. So that meant we’d be carrying a 10-second success penalty into the next race. Due to other peoples’ misfortune and our points haul, we were now second in the Pro-Am championship, although a long way short of the Graham Johnson/Mike Robinson McLaren in first.
Brands Hatch GP circuit is a really difficult track to get testing time on, so we decided to race at the European GT4 round earlier in the season to prepare for the British GT meeting. It had gone well, we felt well prepared and even picked up some silverware to take home. So we arrived at the track for British GT feeling positive and hoping we were a bit in front of our competition.
Joe loves the GP configuration at Brands, it’s his favourite UK venue. The GP loop turns an unsatisfyingly short club track into a flowing, challenging and fast circuit. When you come out of the back section you always feel like you could have done it faster. Although I’m assuming that there’s one driver, somewhere in the world, who once didn’t feel like that.
It’s my ‘home’ circuit (I was born and raised about 15 miles away) and in the past it’s been kind to me. In the four races I’d previously competed in at Brands Hatch, I’d been on the podium three out of four times! My only ever top step was achieved at Brands. In true racing-driver style, I’m dismissing the race where I didn’t get a podium, as it was in an uncompetitive and unreliable car. There, forgotten already!
So, with good preparation and a mutual love of the circuit, we felt positive going into the weekend.
Normal routine on the Friday: arrived about lunchtime and just mooched around, relaxing into the weekend. Visited those lovely people Adrien and Jamie at Stand 21, who help to keep us in comfortable and safe driver kit.
Later in the afternoon when Joe arrived, we looked at data and video from the European GT4 round and started to get comfortable with the track. My traditional BBC weather app ritual was performed and it seemed to be changing minute-by-minute, i.e. they had no idea! There was definitely going to be some rain at sometime that would affect Saturday, but qualifying, late in the afternoon, looked safe – but turned out not to be!
On Friday night, Joe and I had dinner with the very entertaining Richard Neary, who drives a gorgeous chrome green Mercedes-AMG, and his 15-year-old son, Sam. He’s a really smart boy and it was so interesting to listen to someone just at the start of the motor-racing ladder. A lot of gaming, bags and bags of technical knowledge and aspirations to get into all sorts of categories. I have no doubt he’ll give it a real go.
Into Saturday and it had rained overnight. Free practice one was dry. Joe went out and didn’t make any changes to the setup. The car was ‘mega’ and when I went out it really was! On old-ish tyres and a full tank of fuel, I got to within three tenths of my qualifying time from the European GT4 round and felt like there was lots to come. It transpired that we didn’t make one setup change all weekend – amazing! A testament to the Tolman team, and even the primadonnas behind the steering wheel didn’t call on the driver’s book of excuses to make changes. We were both just really enjoying the car.
Free practice two was also dry and it was more of the same. The car was quick, Joe was quick and I was quick. I was given a new set of tyres to do a simulation of qualifying and was almost two seconds faster than I had been in qualifying at the European GT meeting. Joe went out and set a fastest McLaren time and for the first time ever, said he struggled to beat my delta time.
Hilariously, Tom at SRO, who handles their PR, came and asked if the times being set were mine. Our driver recognition system wasn’t working properly, so all of the times, including Joe’s, were recorded against my name. I’m sure he didn’t mean to make it sound like I wasn’t capable of those times, but that’s sort of how it came across. The reality was that I was one and a half seconds behind Joe. Well within target, mixing it with the very fastest amateurs and getting a nice satisfied glow inside. I couldn’t wait for qualifying.
As we finished free practice two, the heavens opened, but the weather app said it would clear quickly and that there’d be plenty of time for the track to dry. We watched the Minis, Ginettas and F3 cars slither around and off, safe in the knowledge that we’d have a dry qualifying.
Only we didn’t. Another short and sharp downpour arrived just before I was due to go out. I was feeling anxious, as I’d never done a wet qualifying and we’ve done very little wet running in the McLaren. It’s surprising how little wet running we do, given how much rainy weather we get.
I did my best but was only fifth in class (albeit by two hundredths of a second), which didn’t feel great. I was five seconds behind the pros and the fastest amateur, Adam Balon, who was again up the road and around the corner. Joe seemed genuine when he said “good job”, he isn’t generally very free with his praise, so I took it at face value.
Joe then went out and demonstrated a complete masterclass in how to qualify in mixed conditions. In a 10-minute session, he went out on wet tyres, did one lap, set the fastest time on wets, came in for a lightning-quick tyre change onto slick tyres and set the fastest time on slicks. Bizarrely, by really spreading both fields out, the rain had actually worked for us and we were to start sixth on the grid and first in class. Our best qualifying of the season.
All we had to do now was race well from the front, for the two hours of the race. Easy, easy, easy… err…
It turned out to be a dry race. We’d talked a bit about strategy, most of which usually becomes irrelevant within the first three or four corners. Directly behind me on the grid was the pro driver pairing of Stuart Middleton/Will Tregurtha in a Ginetta, who were leading the overall championship and are not only lightning quick, but lovely, professional boys.
In reality I wasn’t racing them, but behind them was the fastest amateur driver, Adam Balon who has consistently been up to a couple of seconds a lap faster than me all season and had endured a dreadful weekend not racing at Spa.
So what we wanted to achieve was to let the Ginetta through and keep Adam behind me for as long as possible, without losing time driving defensively. My thought was to let the Ginetta through on the inside at Druids, the second corner, and then close the door on Adam on the way down to Graham Hill Bend.
On the grid I felt the calmest I’d ever felt in a racing car, confident in the car and myself. The first time I could remember feeling like that. I got a good start and went through turn one in my starting position and then – don’t you just love it when a plan comes together! – one quick Ginetta up the inside at Druids, me on the outside and then the door firmly closed on Adam before Graham Hill Bend. I was where I wanted to be with only 59 minutes and 40 seconds to go! Expecting to be fiercely defending for a good chunk of it. But it didn’t seem to work out like that, in a good way.
Adam was ‘there’ but not right on my rear bumper. My times were consistently quick and I was driving looking forward, not losing time to defensive driving. In fact, Adam seemed to have a mirror full of Ginetta to deal with. A pro in an Aston, the eventual race winner, got past me, but I was more than holding my own. Then, coming out of Graham Hill Bend after about 10 laps, I had my ‘Caterham moment’.
In my head, I made a small mistake coming out of the corner. Adam got close so I gave him some room at Surtees, but he clipped my rear left flank and I got sent out wide and then skidded across the track, fishtailing along the grass with a measured throttle and then back onto the track to try and chase him and the Ginetta down to Hawthorns. Which I did and caught them up. I’d lost two places but not much time, and crucially the Caterham training meant I was still in the race and not in the wall.
Later, reviewing the video would suggest a rather different scenario. For some inexplicable reason, I went onto the grass halfway along the straight after Graham Hill Bend (must have been tyres, radio distraction, the car, the team, Joe – but obviously not my fault!) allowing myself to be caught. I then took the racing line at Surtees and not surprisingly got clipped. I preferred the version in my head, but there seemed to be no escape from the video scrutiny.
Now, of course Adam would start to drive away from me. But he didn’t. There was a safety car about halfway through the stint and it allowed the amateurs to catch up with the pros. This certainly helped Joe when he took his stint later in the race. At the restart, I had to defend ‘robustly’ for the first two corners and then pulled out a nice gap. But over the next half of the stint, Adam was still there in front of me. I could see him all the time. My times were getting quicker as others got slower.
The team told me there were 10 minutes to go and I was starting to feel tired. My throat was so dry. A big breath, refocus and then in no time it was ‘box this lap’. But I didn’t want to ‘box this lap’ because this was the best race I’d ever driven and, without seeming to be immodest, I finally, after four-and-a-bit years, felt like I ‘belonged’. Like a ‘proper racing driver’. Like a real contributor to a potentially good result. All that work and this is what it felt like. Wow, mega, awesome, satisfying, proud!
The pitstop went well, we took our 10-second penalty for the Spa result and then Joe did what Joe does. The penalty had cost us a couple of Pro-Am places, but Joe reeled them all in and was soon first in class. But he didn’t stop there, overtaking all of the pros in front of him, with the exception of the winning Aston. The Astons had been very quick all weekend. Joe had to back off a little at the end as we had a minor brake issue, but the Aston looked very strong. We finished first in class and second overall. I had never finished second in a race before.
On the way to the podium, fast Adam Balon came and said some genuinely nice things to me about my pace. We had some friends, family and my long-suffering lovely wife visiting us for the race and they were all there to help us celebrate. The team were elated. Our number-one mechanic, the talented Martin Sørensen, had flown his dad over from Denmark – he could definitely come again!
British GT now gives a trophy to the winners of Pro-Am as well as the overall winner, so we picked up two trophies. It sounds a dreadful cliché, but I felt really alive. There was no luck in this one, I had contributed. I was now a racing driver. If I never do it again, I can say I have done it. Heaven.
As I said earlier, Joe is not big on unnecessary or false praise. He can always find a reason for me/us/the team to improve. He was only 99.9% happy with the result. He wanted to win overall, not just be first in class, be second overall, be fastest McLaren all weekend (again), fastest of all in qualifying (in the wet and the dry) and be great at getting the best out of me. But when he said it was my best ever, I believed him and when he repeated it on his Twitter feed to his audience, I believed him again.
It had been a great weekend with a great result, but on the way out I bumped into Shaun Goff, who runs Optimum Motorsport, the team that looks after Graham Johnson/Mike Robinson. They had not been out in either qualifying or the race. I genuinely felt for them and genuinely wanted them to be in the race, hopefully, but not likely, in the distance in my rear-view mirror. Miserable for them, tough for the team and a reminder that you should enjoy the good times, because you can bet the racing gods will even it up at some point.
We left Brands Hatch leading the Pro-Am championship, albeit by a slim margin. Our target for the season was to finish in the top three in Pro-Am and that has now been achieved with the round at Donington still to go.
One two-hour race, three McLarens, the Donington GP circuit, three teams and three driver pairings: Graham Johnson/Mike Robinson, Adam Balon/Adam McKay and myself/Joe. All three cars can finish first, second or third. All three cars have pretty much had three DNFs this season. I’m hoping all three make it through the two hours. We’ll have a 15-second success penalty carried over from Brands, which will make it tough for us, and a couple of other factors that’ll influence our performance. But with a little bit of luck, we’ll make a fight of it. Donington in late September – I can’t wait!