And there it was, gone. My fifth season of racing finished – and by far my most successful. A lot more highlights than disappointments.
To summarise the season: in the 10 races we did in British GT we had three Pro/Am class wins, a second and two thirds. In the overall GT4 competition, we had three podiums, another four top 10 finishes and three DNFs. We also did two races in European GT4 and managed a podium there as well.
We, my pro driver Joe and I, had set targets at the start of the season. We wanted to finish in the top three in the British GT Pro/Am championship and for me to be consistently within 3% of Joe in qualifying and race lap times.
Against those targets, we finished second in Pro/Am and in my final race stint at Donington, my lap times were within 1.7% of Joe. He was kind enough to say that through the year he had upped his game and therefore his target for me had got harder as the year went on.
I realise that these diary pieces have in general, talked a lot about my improvements through the year, and I guess it could come across as big-headed or overconfident. But the aim has really been to show that with the right preparation and coaching, it is possible to significantly improve, even if you’re relatively inexperienced and a person ‘of a certain age’. Anyone who knows me will know that overconfidence is not close to the top of my personality traits.
Joe had always said that progress for a racing driver is not linear – actually, he doesn’t quite use that word, as he doesn’t really know what it means! He has always maintained that a driver makes big leaps. Again, without seeming big-headed, the second half of the season seemed to show one of these big leaps and other people seemed to notice it, too. Lots of nice comments from the competition mentioning significantly increased pace.
The last round of British GT at Donington probably ranks as one of the season’s slight disappointments. Only slight, because I drove well, but we didn’t finish the race.
The ‘Donington Decider’, as British GT described it, was at the end of a season that had flown by. For a lot of cars and teams, there were still titles to be decided and silverware to be won. In both GT3 and GT4, there were titles in the balance.
We were leading the GT4 Pro/Am championship, but not by much, and could have finished as low as third if things went against us. We’d had a great weekend at Brands Hatch, but our second overall finish meant we arrived at Donington with a 15-second success penalty. If Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson won the race, they would win the Pro/Am championship and there was nothing we could do about it. It’s not a state secret that they duly did win, and they deserved it. Donington ‘decided’ we weren’t going to be the winners.
For the race weekend, it wasn’t just the success penalty that I thought would hinder us. I was also expecting another rather more significant ‘penalty’. At the beginning of the season, Joe had said that he would not be able to make the Saturday of the race weekend. This would cover two free-practice sessions, which were used to tune the car (and me!) as well as qualifying. At the time, I think I said something like “well, I’m sure it won’t be a problem”. Mainly because I didn’t expect to be competing at the front of a championship!
I had been agonising about what to do since the penultimate round at Brands Hatch The two options seemed to be find a replacement for the weekend or stick with Joe and start at the back of the grid. Most people seemed to think that I should get a replacement driver.
So, of course, I decided that I would stick with Joe and start at the back of the grid. I was excited at the prospect of starting at the back and then storming through the field to deliver Joe the car in a perfect place to win the race, the championship, the undying gratitude of the team and immortality. As you can probably guess, I had some doubts about the decision and my ability to deliver, so there were some wobbles along the way. But my logic was that the team that got us to where we were should see it through. Joe had been a big part in getting us to where we were and fundamental to my progress through the year.
So the decision was made and it seemed that every free second of brain time I had in the run-up to the weekend was being used to work out how I’d start from the back and where I could overtake. It appeared that I wasn’t short on confidence! Of course I was, and there was a huge sigh of relief when Joe called a few days before the race to say that his plans had changed and he would now be available for the whole weekend. Phew!
All we had to do now was finish in front of the teams that had the two fastest Am drivers in them. Having said that, to describe them both as Am drivers does them a huge disservice. Adam Balon and Graham Johnson had been the class of the field all season and were regularly beating talented Pro drivers. To win the championship we’d have to beat Graham and Mike, which probably meant we’d need to win the race overall or be very close to the front. So we had to go for the win.
My job was to try and hang on to the back of them in my stint and then Joe would try and make up any gap I had, plus the 15 seconds of success penalty. Simple.
Donington has never really been very kind to me. In my first year of racing, I ended up in hospital after a bad accident. I seem to have got involved in other people’s accidents there on a regular basis. I don’t remember ever having had a good race there. Having said that, we had tested well at Donington a couple of weeks before the weekend and my fastest lap had been the last lap of the day. So, plenty to build on.
In the previous race at Brands Hatch, I had been the quickest I’d ever driven. Closer to the ‘class of the field’ than ever, and closer to Joe. To the point where we were now measuring time differences across whole stints and not just single fastest laps. I cannot tell you how proud I was of myself, and thankful to the Tolman team and Joe for helping me to get to that place.
The race weekend was the same schedule as the rest of the year, with a two-hour single race, and I followed the same routine. Arrived on Friday, two free-practice sessions and qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday. The BBC weather app was behaving itself and showed only a slight chance of rain on Saturday morning, which arrived but didn’t really make any difference.
As we had recently tested, there was very little in the way of setup changes. Our big concern for the race was whether the brakes would last for the full two hours. Every corner at Donington is a hard brake and the straights are relatively short, so the brakes don’t get time to cool down. The weight we had to carry from the Balance of Performance (BoP) and the speed required to win the race also meant that we were likely to suffer more than most. The team were doing everything they could to cool the brakes and we were to have new discs and pads for the race, but there was definitely a frown of concern. Which ultimately turned into a grimace of disappointment in the race.
The two practice sessions went okay. In the first, Joe was happy with the car and I was pretty quick straight out of the box. In the second, we tried a new-tyre run for me and I really couldn’t find anything much in the way of extra pace. It was a concern, as other drivers I would expect to be close to were a bit quicker. What we did notice with other cars is that the difference between the new-tyre run times and standard lap times were showing a smaller gap than would normally be expected. More like one second a lap, rather than two. Our pattern was about the same, mine was just a bit slow.
Qualifying had been increasingly good for me all season. My only issue had been traffic management. Joe decided that I would go out last and make the most of the space. The only risk would be if someone had an ‘off’ and there were yellow flags or a red flag, which there duly was on my first flying lap, when the tyres were at their best. The lovely Tim Eakin had a nasty off and there were waved yellow flags, so I had to lift. I managed to complete the lap before the red flag, but it was about a second off where I should have been. Thankfully Tim was okay, but a bit shaken up.
When the session resumed, I found some of the time and finished fourth in Pro/Am and 11th overall. Okay, but not quite where I wanted to be. Having said that, if I had been offered that at the beginning of the season, I would have been excited to accept. It shows what strides had been made in an improving season.
I then settled back and watched Joe exhibit another qualifying masterclass. Fastest overall and a full second faster than any other McLaren. He is soooo fast! Helped enormously by the skill of Team Tolman, who really know how to engineer a quick car.
That gave us a start place of sixth on the grid. But Johnson and Robinson were ahead of us and looking good for winning not only the Pro/Am title but the overall race. Balon was behind me and the car in front of me on the grid was the very quick Will Tregurtha in the Pro championship-leading Ginetta. With Stuart Middleton they’d had an amazing season and were deservedly about to win the overall GT4 series. A combined age of 35 years didn’t show, as they set the tracks alight through the season with amazing maturity. I have no doubt they will be catching eyes for a number of years to come.
For the last few races, I had felt different when in the car. Less tense, more relaxed, more confident. Most importantly, I had felt that I belonged on the grid. It wasn’t just Joe who was getting us a result, there was a contribution of some sort from me.
Coming round the corner for the rolling start at Donington I felt no different. “Stick to the rear bumper of Will Tregurtha at the start and then stay there as long as you can,” were Joe’s final instructions and that’s exactly what I did!
Every driver worries a little about getting round the first corner and I’m no different. But once I was round Redgate, I just looked forward and stayed there and stayed there. For around 15 laps, I stayed with the championship leader, same speed, same times. I thought the radio wasn’t working as I heard nothing from the pit wall. I think they were in shock!
I lost a bit of time as the GT3 cars always seemed to catch me at an awkward moment, and as a result, Balon got past me just before the pitstop window. He was kind enough to say that he thought he was never going to catch me, but he did, just. I entered the pits three seconds behind him and with the leader in sight. No fortunate safety cars, just an hour of hard driving and I had loved every minute of it. Exhausted and elated, as I was dragged out of the car to receive hugs and applause from the supporters in the garage. Big grins.
The 15-second pit penalty meant that Joe went out a few places down, but still within striking distance of the leaders. A bit of good luck and we might make it. Joe worked his way up to second overall and second in class. He was about 15 seconds behind with about 15 laps to go. Just about doable, but unlikely. Unlikely moved to impossible as with about 20 minutes to go, our fears for the brakes came to pass. Joe was pushing the car hard to get the win, but the front brakes gave up. Fortunately, Joe ended up in the gravel and not a wall. Turned out that the brake assembly had basically melted. Our race was over. It looked like we were going to finish third in class. However, retirements and points positions meant that we still got some points and we finished second in the Pro/Am class and ninth overall in Pro championship.
My only disappointment was that we didn’t finish the race. It was unlikely we would have won the race or the championship, as Graham and Mike looked really strong. But finishing the race would have been nice, rather than picking gravel out of a radiator grill. If you haven’t finished the race, the packing up of the garage can be a miserable place to be. It wasn’t the worst it could have been, but there was definitely a sense of anticlimax.
Rick Parfitt and Seb Morris won the GT3 championship and, as mentioned earlier, Will and Stuart won the GT4 overall championship. Congratulations to them all.
Having Joe, my driver coach, as my co-driver gave me a real step up this season. Chris and Team Tolman did an amazing job in giving us the fastest McLaren on the grid through great engineering, attention to detail and a positive ethical attitude. Also, the atmosphere in the garage was a joy all season. Too many people to say thank you to, but everyone knows who they are and I thank them all for helping a ‘silver dream racer’ gentleman driver achieve his lifetime ambition.
This was to be my last year, but I have persuaded myself that the ‘difficult year’ of 2016 doesn’t count. So I still have one more year of the original five to complete. My wife seems to have bought this logic… well, almost!
Three months ago, the plan was to maybe do some European races to tick off some bucket-list tracks. The plan now is to get back to British GT and try to find those few tenths a lap to compete right at the front with Graham and Mike.
A man can only dream…