I love Oulton Park. It’s a real challenge: tight, fast and technical. You need to be at your very best every lap and if you are, it really rewards you.
I hate Oulton Park. While I’ve raced well there in the past, I’m never fast in qualifying or any of the free-practice sessions. There are two corners that I just can’t get and I’ve had two big crashes there in testing, including a few weeks before this year’s opening race weekend in British GT.
So it was with mixed emotions that I traveled to Oulton on the Thursday before the Easter race weekend. Mixed because it had been a long winter of not racing, I really, really wanted to get in the car and was excited about doing so. On the other hand, there was previous experience and a long time away for a pair of one-hour races. As it turned out, mixed emotions were what I left with as well.
As it’s the first race of the year, British GT makes available two much-needed extra practice sessions on the Friday and we can’t race on Easter Sunday. So a normal three-day weekend becomes a five-day weekend and having visited all of the local attractions in previous years, Sunday was to be a ‘loiter around the circuit day’ looking for things to do!
For 2018, I was in a unique position. It was the first time I was starting the season in the same car (McLaren 570S GT4), run by the same team (Tolman Motorsport), with the same Pro driver (Joe Osborne), the same engineer (Rob Courtneidge) and in the same championship and class (British GT GT4).
The only two changes were that Joe had, deservedly, become a McLaren works driver and Tolman had been chosen to run two more McLarens for the brand’s Driver Development Programme. So I’d be in one of three cars and one of six drivers. Not at the centre of everything as before. Both of these were, I thought, going to be easy to deal with.
The other change that I knew was going to be difficult to manage was totally new to me: expectation. I had a very good finish to the 2017 season, competing with people I had previously only dreamt of being close to. Coming into 2018, the team, Joe and maybe those on the grid that cared thought I should be close to the front of Pro/Am. In truth, I was thinking the same myself; we had a good test in February and everything looked promising.
But on the way to the weekend, it hit me that I needed to perform straight away – not just follow my normal pattern of improving as the season progressed. Not quite having the mental resolve of Vettel (or maybe the pace either!) this naturally led to me questioning myself. What if I wasn’t fast enough? What if the 2017 progress wasn’t ‘real’? Hmmm…
These feelings weren’t helped by the weather forecast apps. Having previously been a BBC loyalist, for 2018 I have doubled my number of weather apps: The BBC’s and the Weather Channel’s. Both will have seen a spike in traffic in the run-up to the weekend and over the weekend itself. No matter how many times I visited or how hard I pressed the buttons, it was always going to rain, a lot, on race day and driving in the wet is undoubtedly not a strength of mine. I’m not bad, but certainly not a front-runner. Something I realised I needed to improve and conquer. It wasn’t to be this weekend, but it arrived pretty soon afterwards.
The grid was also looking very competitive. For the first time since I’ve been involved in British GT, there were more Silver/Silver cars than Pro/Am cars on the entry list. There were also more cars. In 2015, my first season in British GT, there were 15 cars on the grid in GT4. 12 were Pro/Am and three were Silver/Silver. For 2018, there were to be 23 entries, 11 Pro/Am and 12 Silver/Silver. Which meant that I’d be racing against Pro drivers and qualifying against them as well. A real challenge.
Sure, there would be extra time in the pit stop and they’d be carrying more weight. But as an example, at Oulton Park, the penalty was to be 10kg and the extra pit time 12 seconds. In my stint, I would do around 14 laps in the dry. That meant I would need to be within nine tenths of the Pros’ lap times in the race. Not impossible and not a moan, but just an example of how competitive the series has become. GT4 is in fine health.
To be honest, I arrived at Oulton Park, on balance, with my excitement and enthusiasm for the new season overwhelmed by the weight of expectation. The apparent competitiveness of the field adding to that ‘weighty’ feel.
I’m pretty sure the Pro drivers don’t understand this feeling, and to be honest I didn’t really express this to Joe, as he definitely wouldn’t have understood it. My observation would be that the Pros can’t let themselves think like this. If they do, then then that’s probably it for them!
That feeling didn’t really change in the first practice session on Friday. When I got into the car for the first run, I felt like I’d never driven a race car before. The first few laps were so strange, and of course the harder I tried, the worse it got. Back to the pits, reset. Start at the beginning and make progress. Small steps and slowly the targets will come to you.
Of the four practice sessions we had, two were dry, one was wet and one was a bit greasy. Some good moments, but overall it was hard work.
Last season I had got closer to the super-talented Am drivers Graham Johnson and Adam Balon. I wanted to continue this trajectory and there were of course some newcomer Am drivers who needed to be competed with, and Nick [Jones] who used to drive a Porsche and was now looking handy in a quick Mercedes.
Surely, they should respect their (considerably older) elders and step aside?! Did I mention I’m the oldest driver on the grid? You’ll find it buried in chapter six of the driver excuses manual…
After four practice sessions with mixed results, we arrived at qualifying in not-too-bad shape. We had 10 minutes to get as far up the grid as we could. As this was a weekend with two one-hour races, individual qualification decided your position on the grid. No amalgamation of times. No Pro time to bolster the position.
Seventh in Pro/Am and 15th overall meant I was in front of a couple of silver drivers, but about a second behind where I wanted and needed to be. I felt I left about six tenths out on the track, which might have gained me one place. Not perfect, and I was a bit flat about it.
Joe then went out to qualify and was fifth in Pro/Am and eighth overall. Although all the drivers on his grid are at a minimum Silver (Pro) drivers, that wasn’t his customary showing. I knew he was disappointed. So we talked about it.
It soon became clear the not only did I have a love/hate relationship with Oulton Park, but Joe did as well. That was good to know and prompted a change in attitude from us. Let’s enjoy it as much as we can, let’s score points in both races and get this weekend behind us. Doesn’t sound like much of a strategy I admit, but at least it was agreed and unanimous. So the rest of the racing weekend was to follow that route.
The other area we talked about was the car. We very rarely made changes to the setup and I loved driving it. But maybe, just maybe, we’d become unquestioning or, dare I say it, a little complacent. Didn’t mean that changes were required, but at least they should be considered. With some test dates coming up we agreed with Rob the engineer that we’d at least look at this.
My team-mates, or ‘the kids’ as they’ve affectionately been christened by the team, i.e. the McLaren Driver Development Programme squad, had all qualified well and were nicely placed for results in the two races. So the other two-thirds of the garage were pretty pleased.
Race day arrived and as promised by every weather app known to man, it was wet, wet, wet. Not just greasy, but puddles and no real sign of the downpour stopping. It was also freezing cold. I felt really sorry for the spectators, as there really wasn’t anywhere to shelter and watch at the same time.
Speaking of spectators, as part of the weekend, there’s always a grid walk for the fans to get close to the cars and the drivers. Autograph sessions and a chance to have a chat. I always like this part of the weekend. The fans are really knowledgeable. It’s relaxing and seeing the excitement on the youngsters’ faces always reminds me of how much I loved racing cars when I was a kid. Joe seems to know everybody and I do my best to remember who’s who.
The rain kept coming and I was to start race one. The race director decided to start it behind the safety car – almost certainly the right decision. At some point, the decision would be made to either race or not. The rain seemed to be slowing and with that many cars going around some of the water was clearing.
As followers of this blog will know, I’m pretty good at doing what Joe tells me to do when it comes to racecraft. Before the race he’d told me to do two things. Firstly, get tight on the car in front at the restart and overtake going into the first corner. Secondly, if you’re going to hit anybody, try to do it nose-on, rather than on a corner of the car. Both noted.
After four laps, the safety car went into the pits. I’d noticed on the slow laps that the Jaguar in front was struggling for grip in the last corner and was therefore slow through Deer Leap and on to the main straight. For the restart, I was close behind and managed to get past going into turn one. It was then a question of catching the cars in front, which I did quite quickly, passing another couple of cars on the way. I was behind Graham and feeling good and pretty quick.
There was a bit of paint exchanging going on in front of me, which left me behind Mark in one of the new Mercedes on the grid. It’s a big car on a narrow track and very fast out of the corners. I got very close, but couldn’t find a way past. Then it came to the point where Joe’s second instruction came to the fore. Coming into the last corner, I was feeling confident on the brakes so left it a bit late. Mark chose this lap to place his car in the middle of the track and give me no passing opportunity.
All I could hear in my head was Joe telling me that if I was going to hit anybody then do it nose-on. There was also a smile on my face, as those who know Joe will know that he is over-endowed in the nasal area! So as the brakes locked, I sailed gently into the back of Mark… Sorry Mark! It didn’t really help and I didn’t find a way past. But I’d done as I was told and the car was intact.
After six laps of racing, I was called into the pits. I had gained three places in Pro/Am and when Joe went out we’d gained five places overall. So not bad and on course to score some points and finish the race. Joe also gained five places to reach fifth overall and got us up to third in Pro/Am. Good points in both championships.
The ‘kids’ had finished second – a great result for Michael and Charlie – and sixth overall. Three cars finished and lots of team points scored, so Chris and the team were happy.
Joe and I were pretty pleased and felt we’d done about as well as we could have given the circumstances. Just race two to navigate, and given how wet it was, navigate was probably the right word. Which turned out to be very easily done but slightly unsatisfactory in its outcome.
The rain was the gift that kept on giving, and by the time we came to race two there was standing water everywhere. Joe was to start and the race was, again, begun under the safety car. Again, it went around for four laps. The difference this time was that the race was red-flagged at the end of the fourth lap and the cars re-formed in grid order. Around 30 minutes later, the meeting was abandoned. Absolutely the right decision. Joe later told me he was aquaplaning behind the safety car, so there was no way a race could have happened.
Five days in Cheshire. Six laps of wet racing. Not a lot to show for that amount of time away. I haven’t dared to look at the cost per lap, and I needed a new front bumper!
We left assuming that we’d done okay and that the second race, having been abandoned, would carry no points. Two days later, there was a lot of social media chat around the possibility of some points being awarded. One of the teams had spotted that there was nothing in the championship regulations to cover this eventuality. That meant the MSA Blue Book became the arbiter and according to that, a race had taken place and points should be awarded on the finishing positions i.e. the starting grid places.
Everyone had a view and most of those views would suggest it wasn’t fair for most people. Most of the field felt that they’d lost out, because of course everyone believes they’ll win the race they’ve entered. Why would you do it otherwise? The guys who are at the front of the grid in qualifying also feel that, so probably feel they deserved the points. For us, it gave us a fifth in class and an eighth overall. I did mention, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, that Joe could have tried harder.
I like to look at a few stats, so I had a look at how it affected our car. In Pro/Am, it was about neutral. Without the second race points, we would have been third, 10 points behind first and three points behind second. With the second race points we’re still third, 12 points behind first and one point behind second. Where it really hurt us is in the overall championship. We moved from fifth to sixth overall. From 15 points behind the leader to 19 points behind and more importantly from eight to 16 points behind second, 11 behind third and 10 behind fourth.
Nothing to be done, but I just hope the points given for this race don’t prove crucial to any of the championship outcomes. It does seem to have had a greater effect in GT3, because it’s a smaller field and most cars score points in most races.
Four days after the race weekend, we finally understood where we were. We’d scored points in both races and both championships. More than we had last year and closer to the competition. Much as we loved the circuit, our love/hate relationship with Oulton Park was behind us.
A few congratulations were due as well. To Flick Haigh for becoming the first woman to put a car on pole in British GT3 and then following it up with becoming the first woman to win a race in British GT3. I know Flick herself, and the grid, see her as a racing driver first and foremost, but it’s another milestone passed.
It was also great to see Billy Monger on the grid in the British F3 races. I think the biggest cheer of the weekend was for his podium finish. Amazing, what mental strength and racing ability. I hope it’s the first of many. Finally to Adam Balon, who showed all the Ams and a good few Pros how to drive fast in the wet… damn him! Even Joe commented….
Off to Rockingham next. An odd circuit and I usually finish here. But after Oulton we had a two-day test at Rockingham. Joe has always talked about ‘eureka’ moments for a racing driver and at that test one of those arrived quite unexpectedly.
When we got there on Wednesday, the weather was wet and misty, and Thursday didn’t look like it was going to be any better. The weather matched my mood – as discussed earlier, wet racing is not something I love!
But I resolved to myself that maybe this was the time to start doing two things: stop fretting about the wet and learn how to drive in it. Before the pitlane opened, we were allowed to go around the track in our road cars for familiarisation. Joe took his car.
In the past he has said to me, ‘drive to the grip in the wet’. He then proceeded to show me how that worked in his 1.0-litre SEAT. I immediately realised that while the words had previously gone in, I really had had no idea what that meant. Now I understood and when I got into the car the effect was instant and substantial. ‘Eureka!’
Usually in the wet, I’m miles away from Joe. I found loads of time and was within the normal range for our dry times. I cut the usual deficit by two-thirds. Even ‘the kids’ noticed it. What’s more, I really enjoyed the challenge. Now I’m not saying I’m hoping for a wet Rockingham, but if it were to be…
Finally, just to show how frustrating racing can sometimes be. The second day of testing was wetter, with thicker mist. The track was closed for long periods and I didn’t get in the car all day. A cost per lap even higher than at Oulton Park. It really does feel like it has been a long winter. Let’s hope the Rockingham race weekend is kinder to us all.