I love being a racing driver, but it would be fair to say that my motor-racing experiences since the first weekend of British GT at Oulton Park have been a series of very high highs, and very low lows. My commitment and resolve have been challenged like never before, and without sounding over-dramatic I have, at times, questioned why I’m doing it. A first-world problem and I realise I’m very lucky to have been able to do it at all. So it’s not a moan, but it has definitely been character-building.
After a literal damp squib at Oulton for the first two races of the new season in British GT, the second weekend and the third race took us to Rockingham. Oulton delivered one very wet race and a second that was so wet, even Noah and his Ark would have refused to compete. That was abandoned after four laps behind the safety car. There was some subsequent debate around points allocation for race two, but we left in an okay place from a track that neither myself nor my co-driver Joe Osborne are particularly quick at.
Rockingham is an odd track. It consists of about a third of the speedway oval and then links up with a pretty technical infield section. Time-wise, it’s the shortest lap time of the season. There are two really big positives about it, and one real negative. The positives are that the garages are enormous and the spectators can see pretty much the whole track from the main grandstand. The negative for the teams and drivers is that no matter how hard you try, achieving the perfect setup seems to be impossible.
In the races I’ve done there, I’ve never achieved it, and this weekend was no different. It can’t really be explained, although my hunch is that it’s the circuit surface, which is different to every other track.
For the race weekend we decided not to stray too far from our normal setup, because experience had taught us that we wouldn’t achieve much, if anything. Joe, in his normal direct and pragmatic way came up with a solution: “Just drive around whatever the issue is”. Simple, and prophetic when race day came.
Rockingham was also going to be the start of a fairly full-on, 11-day period where I’d be in the car for six of those days: a two-day weekend at Rockingham, followed by a one-day test at Snetterton, a two-day weekend at Brands Hatch (in a one-off race in European GT4) and finally a test at Silverstone.
My feeling was that if I wasn’t ‘on it’ after all that, then I probably wasn’t going to be for the season. It turned out Joe and the team (well, mainly Joe) were in complete agreement on this. He’s so tough! But he showed uncharacteristic and admirable restraint in not telling me until the end of the 11 days…
My only concern was that I arrived at Rockingham feeling very under par. I don’t remember having had an ‘unhealthy’ racing weekend, but I felt there was one coming. Not an excuse, but it definitely had an effect.
Prior to the weekend, we’d booked two and a half days of testing. For one and a half of those days, we didn’t get into the car, as it was just so wet. On one of the days the circuit was closed as the mist was so thick that if you were standing in the centre of the pit lane you couldn’t see either the first corner or the last corner. The one day we did get into the car it was wet, but it was manageable enough to make it worth learning how to drive in the wet, which I duly did and did pretty well.
For the Saturday of the race weekend, it was wet in FP1, wet in FP2 and wet in qualifying. Having thought I’d mastered driving in the wet at Rockingham, by taking Joe’s advice and driving to the grip, I was absolutely nowhere. Mainly, in my head, because there didn’t seem to be any grip to drive to! The track was like ice. Every driver commented on it, but most seemed to handle it much better than me. Admiring the wet driving skills of Jon Minshaw in GT3 and Adam Balon in GT4 didn’t seem to help!
Joe had always said that every wet track is different. Because Rockingham was a ‘different wet’ from testing, Joe was four seconds down on testing times and I was seven seconds down and not getting any better through the two practice sessions. I was pounding around and getting nowhere, the harder I tried the worst it seemed to get. To be honest, I was a bit surprised and downhearted
When qualifying came, I was somewhere between dread, hoping for a miracle, wanting to avoid being humiliated and on top of that, not feeling great. This was the first two-hour race of the season and the grid was to be decided by adding the two drivers’ times together.
First the good news: The McLaren is very good in the wet. My team-mates in the McLaren Driver Development Programme run by Tolman Motorsport locked out the front row and Joe was the fastest of all cars across both qualifying sessions; he was amazing as usual. The bad news for me was that the hoped-for miracle didn’t happen…
On the way out for qualifying, I needed to get past the car in front of me to find some space for my quick laps. The previous evening, Joe, myself and my engineer Rob had done a track walk to have a look at the circuit. We couldn’t quite understand why there was a ‘useless’ gravel trap on the left-hand side coming out of the left-handed Hamilton corner. So, coming up to Hamilton on the warm-up lap, I dived down the inside onto a very wet racing line to get the run out of the corner and find some space. The next thing I knew I was gently sailing into the ‘useless’ gravel trap. Red flag for everyone and a red face for me. This probably didn’t help with my subsequent qualifying. I got a time, but not much of one.
In the GT4 Am qualifying, five of the six McLarens were in the top eight. In the GT4 Pro qualifying, five of the six McLarens were in the top nine. And the missing McLaren in Am qualifying was… me.
I think it would be fair to say that at that point, despite a potential driver’s excuse of spinning off, I reached probably my lowest point in motor racing. I didn’t even hang around to congratulate Joe on his pole position, which I had helpfully turned into 13th on the grid. Sorry Joe and belatedly well done!
I just wanted to be somewhere, anywhere that wasn’t a garage full of people celebrating their amazing achievements. Michael, Charlie, Lewis, Jordan and the big-nosed one had done brilliantly and deserved to celebrate their successes. In my head I was the bloke who had just farted in the lift with 20 floors to go!
At that point I wanted a ‘quickie’ divorce from motor racing and would have been very happy to be generous on the 50/50 split of assets. Seriously questioning what I was doing. It was so frustrating, it wasn’t enjoyable, it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t progress, it wasn’t cheap and I felt ill.
The good Pro driver partners don’t really do compassion and sympathy, and Joe is no different from the rest. I really think it would be a weakness if he was. However, team principals do, and Chris Tolman stepped up and got me on a more even keel pretty quickly.
Race day arrived and not only had the black clouds left the sky; they seemed to have lifted from my head. It wasn’t raining. Hallelujah.
It stayed dry all morning and the spectator pit walk was busy and full of well informed motorsport fans and excited kids. Given my obsession with weather apps, it was both funny and helpful that a reader of this blog (there is one!) suggested the Met Office app as an addition to my other two. Duly downloaded and now referred to on a very regular basis.
Just before the race it started to rain a little. Although it depends who you were as to how you described it. I said it was raining, the team said it was a bit misty and Joe said it had stopped. Anyway, the start was delayed to see whether the rain would stop, or the mist would clear or the non-rain would stop non-raining.
The start at Rockingham is difficult, particularly in GT4. The format demands that you line up, two by two, in the straight before the final chicane, on to the start-finish line for a rolling start. In theory that’s fine, but the reality is that even at slow speeds it’s almost impossible to go through the chicane two by two; there just isn’t enough room and if you manage it the ‘launch’ at the start is compromised all the way around the banked turn one.
In addition, in GT4, you can’t see the start-line lights and the race normally starts as you go through the final chicane. Despite all of this, I got a great start and made up two places, right on the back of the people I wanted to be racing. All went pretty well; I even did the best overtake I’ve ever done coming into the last chicane.
About 20 minutes in, I got caught up in some GT3 traffic and made a mistake that cost four seconds in one lap. That put me back into the chasing pack and all of a sudden I was defending. This proved to be the defining moment in our race.
Two laps later, one of the Team Hard Ginettas caught my rear right with its left front and I was off into a slightly more useful gravel trap. Definitely not my fault, even Joe agreed, but it appeared that Team Hard were so hard, they didn’t see the need to apologise.
This time it was a yellow flag and then a safety car. We lost three laps and the impact had bent a rear strut to the point where the steering wheel was at a 45-degree angle. Now it was my time to ‘drive around the problem’. Which I just got on with, two to three seconds off the pace and a huge vibration through turn one flat and with a concrete wall to greet you at the other side.
I didn’t really say much to the team and when I came into the pits the rear right tyre was down to the canvas. The car had been a real handful. When Joe went out he couldn’t believe how bad the car was and more positively, was very complimentary about my ability to drive around this particular problem. Joe nursed the car home, also reaching the canvas on the rear right, and we scored a few points for eighth in class.
Overall, a pretty awful weekend. I left Rockingham wondering if it was all worth it. The season just felt like it hadn’t started, even though we were three races in. The rain hadn’t stopped and the progress from last year seemed to have screeched to a halt and engaged reverse. Worst of all there was a danger of me becoming a bit of a primadonna!
Four days later we arrived at Snetterton for a test in the dry. The sun shone, and it seemed to shine on me, and all was well in my world of motorsport. Quickie divorce on hold please. Covering well over 500km, Joe rated it as the best test day we’d ever had. Everything felt amazing and the only red face was caused by the sunshine.
During the day, there was one corner I couldn’t quite get right. Some advice from Joe then clicked and made sense, even though he’d said it a thousand times before. He said, “you only have 100% grip”, obviously, “and if you’re hard on the brakes, you have no grip left to steer with”. Ah: light-bulb moment! Corner problem solved.
From Snetterton on Thursday to Brands Hatch for a one-off race weekend in European GT4. We’d done this race last year and it had proven very beneficial for our British GT race weekend later in the season. Getting proper testing on the Brands Hatch GP circuit is almost impossible, so we were using this as a test weekend. Close to three hours of running on the Saturday and then two races on Sunday of an hour each. We’d really enjoyed the weekend last year; the series has a very chilled feel to it and is very well organised. So we were looking forward to repeating the experience.
The Saturday ran very well and we achieved most of what we needed to do. Joe’s always fast at Brands and I did well. We made a mistake on setup and in scrutineering after qualifying, we were just under the minimum front ride height, so unfortunately we’d start both races at the back of the grid. A massive grid of 46 cars.
On Saturday night before the races, Joe and I did discuss the size of the grid, where we were due to start and the potential carnage that could happen. It was decided to hold back a little at the start and let the inevitable happen at Paddock Hill Bend, Druids and Graham Hill Bend. Which it duly did.
The first race was ‘an experience’. In a one-hour race, we had four full laps of racing. The rest was either under a safety car, a virtual safety car, waved yellow flags or eventually a red flag. Joe didn’t have a single full lap of racing in his stint.
In one of the few racing laps, approaching Paddock Hill Bend, I was hit from behind then hit twice in the side by an impatient BMW, who then ran into the gravel with broken suspension. The television commentators and every driver I talked to said it was not even one percent my fault. Even Joe, who always blames me when I have a coming-together, was on my side. The European stewards seemed to have a different view and, with no right of appeal, decided to impose a time penalty for the second race. Must be a Brexit thing!
With the driving standards, the stewards’ decision (I’m still seething about it) and a good Saturday of learning behind us, we decided to miss the second race and prepare the car for our day of testing at Silverstone on the Tuesday.
It turned out to be the right decision, as we had a good day at Silverstone. The GP circuit has been resurfaced and it’s definitely faster as a result. We were just not sure how much quicker, as we didn’t really have anyone to measure ourselves against. But I can confidently predict that the British GT field will set a whole raft of new lap records at the Silverstone 500 in June.
An eventful 11 days for us. High highs and low lows for me, and still a feeling that the racing season hadn’t started. It has been emotional.
I really hope that Snetterton at the end of May will finally get the season started. My weather apps are poised and ready, hopefully to give us some sunny days.