Funny, it seems harder to write this blog when the weekend went well, than when we have had ‘issues’. There is a danger of sounding a bit ‘show offy’ and that isn’t my normal style. But for once I am prepared to make an exception, so here goes…
Wow, wow and wow. After personally suffering an all time low at Rockingham in round 3, the racing gods made amends and lined up a win at Snetterton in round 4. Not just a class win but a top step, overall, beat everyone win. I cannot tell you how amazing I felt at the end of the race. Well actually I am going to attempt to tell you, but to really understand you had to be there and you had to be me. End of ‘show offy’.
Snetterton is a track that I really like. Its fast and challenging. Coram, the long right hand corner just before the start/finish straight is, in my opinion, physically the hardest corner we drive in the whole series. I know I am doing it well if I get a sharp soreness on the left hand side of my torso, from being forced into, and rubbing on, the side panel of the seat.
We had tested well a few weeks before the race weekend. Joe, my Pro co-driver partner, had called it our best ever test day. So the standard was set. We knew that we had a quick car and that we would be ready to go from the off. We had also had an overall podium and class win in 2017. In fact, a badly timed safety car cost us a win. So the omens were good.
There had also been a change in attitude from me. Rockingham had been miserable and personally difficult. What was the point if motor racing made me feel like that? None at all. So a more relaxed, confident and smiley person decided to turn up for this weekend. I had given myself a good talking to and had listened well.
Even my four weather apps behaved themselves. The new addition from The Met Office was particularly optimistic and proved to be spot on all weekend. Now my new favourite.
The weekend was the standard format on the Saturday, with two sprint races of one hour on the Sunday. With me starting the first race and Joe starting the second. A pit stop and driver change somewhere in the middle of both races, but due to the narrow pit lane no refuelling, and as it turned out, no tyre changes.
The two-race format made both of the days busy and the time flew by. There wasn’t much down time, and most of that was spent looking at data. All of which meant there was little time for self-reflection.
It turned out that the track was slower than when we tested. Everyone commented on it. It seemed to be about one and a half seconds slower per lap. During FP1 and FP2 Joe and I were about there, time wise. So we felt good and seemed to be where we left off at the end of the test day.
I always find it so extraordinary that a track can differ by so much in what seemed to be very similar conditions.
In FP2 we did a new tyre run for me in preparation for qualifying. After a couple of laps Joe went out and used what was left in the tyres for his preparation. For the first time in a very long time I made no improvement in lap time with new tyres. All I had was a big vibration that seemed to become more intrusive as the time went on.
I didn’t report it, and should have, but afterwards Joe said it was “a five out of 10 vibration” and in true Joe style told me that I “should have just driven around it”. I was informed that in Pro driver world, a seven or eight out of 10 level of vibration is when you should be starting to worry.
It seemed that I must have missed the vibration level pro driver master class seminar, so I resisted the opportunity to point out to Joe that I had no real experience to lean on. Although I have no doubt that there is a very expensive piece of motor racing kit somewhere that can help with that particular data.
With the two race format the two drivers qualifying times set the positions for the two grids. So it was important for me to get as high up the grid as I could. Which didn’t really happen. My time was ok and it was the fastest lap I did all weekend but it was probably half a second off where I should have been. 16th on the grid and sixth in class. But right behind Nick, who used to drive a Porsche and is now in the fast new Mercedes, and Graham who I have always aspired to be as fast as, and haven’t yet achieved. But overall room for optimism and some proper racing to look forward to.
For qualifying, Joe always tries to find me some space on the track, so he usually calls me on the radio to tell me when I should leave the garage. As I was sitting in the car Joe decided that there were two cars that he didn’t want me to be directly behind. So when he decided to release me for qualifying it seemed very odd that the two cars in front of me were precisely the two he had suggested we avoid.
I wasn’t slow to point this out to Joe on the radio. As we all know Pro drivers are never wrong, or even occasionally mistaken, so I was told to ‘deal with it’. Either drop back and find some space or try and overtake two cars on the out lap, without pushing or taking anything out of the tyres! Given my off in the qualifying warm up lap at Rockingham, you can probably guess I decided to drop back and find some space.
Joe was the fastest McLaren in his qualifying and was fifth overall. Only three tenths off pole most of which he felt he left at the last corner. But he was looking forward to starting a proper race for the first, and only time in the season against a tightly bunched group of Pro drivers.
The starting grid for race one was slightly confusing. We all lined up for the formation lap and it became clear that there was something wrong. There was, and we were instructed to move to the opposite side of the grid on our way around the lap and for those who found themselves on the left hand side of the grid to move forward one position. As my engineer Rob pointed out this was a recipe for confusion and maybe an opportunity to move up some places at the start. Which for me was exactly what happened.
There was confusion and some cars at the start were a little slow to react. At the end of lap one I found myself P9. My start was investigated but I had done nothing wrong. Being that high up the grid and in front of some silver drivers had me breathing in rarefied air. So for the next eight or nine laps I was trying to keep cars behind me. Which I pretty much managed to achieve. One or two got past, but my pace was good and I defended pretty well.
With about seven minutes to go until the pit window opened there was a safety car, which lasted until the pit window. Everybody caught up the chain, I was P10 and the cars in front were mostly Pro drivers who had a slightly longer pit stop or cars that were carrying success penalties from the previous race. The result was that after a faultless pit stop by the team, Joe left the pits in second place, behind a car that was about to be penalised for a short pit stop. Just to prove a point he overtook it anyway.
I know that my job is to give Joe the car in one piece in the best position that I can achieve. Sure the safety car helped, but I felt that I had done my job. What Joe had to do was to get the car home. He had a healthy lead and no one behind him who was fast enough to eat into that lead.
So now came 30 minutes of anguish, nail biting, team nervousness and time seemingly standing still. I had won a race in British GT in 2015 and remember that feeling. I had also been in good positions to win on other occasions and hadn’t. As you can imagine the emotional difference is about as far apart as it can be.
So for the next 30 minutes I wanted the time to pass quickly. I went to the truck, went to the toilet, went for something to eat. All of which seemed to only take a few seconds out of the time countdown.
As time progressed and we got closer to the win, the Channel 4 crew arrived for the ‘you are close to a win’ interview. Most drivers hate this moment. You really want the win, but know that something can happen that will deny you. You want to be positive but not cocky, you can look a proper idiot if you don’t end up winning. Fortunately, we did win and I had remembered to brush my hair! Channel 4 were also in the garage to capture the moment as Joe went across the line. He had done a great job, the collective sigh of pleasure in the garage was audible and then there was a breakout of big grins, big hugs and big thank yous.
I felt fantastic. The welling up of disappointment at Rockingham replaced by the welling up of achievement at Snetterton. It was a feeling like nothing else. Everyone had done a great job and we had deserved to win.
Bizarrely at that moment, even though we had another race to run, all I wanted to do was to not race again and go home. I wanted that winning warmth to last for as long as possible. I wanted to be the latest race winner, not the last but one.
I lapped up every moment on the podium and posed for all the photos anyone wanted. Knowing that it was a fleeting moment, but one of the highlights of my entire 61 years, that I would remember for as long as I was able to.
It was also a very good race for the team, not just because Michael and Charlie came in second after a hard fought battle with two other cars, but because they all performed. A very happy team came and deservedly celebrated at the podium. In the third car Lewis and Jordan would have their podium moment in the second race.
Talking to Joe afterwards really highlighted the difference between the attitudes of the Pros and the Ams. It was our first outright win together and he was obviously very happy but, goodness knows how, this was his first win in British GT since 2012.
And yet he explained that in his head, as a Pro, he goes into every race expecting to win. In my head, as an Am, I hope to win. So when it happens Joe isn’t surprised, he expects it. On the other hand, I am very pleasantly surprised. Ok, euphoric. For Joe it’s him doing his job really well, for me it’s fulfilling a lifetime ambition.
I can see why a Pro driver has to have this attitude, but I think it was a bit of a shock to Joe to see what it really meant to me.
After all the celebrations, it was back to the pit lane for the fans grid walk and then race two. The grid walk was fun as a lot of the fans congratulated us on our win. So much interest and knowledge.
Then we were getting ready for race two. Joe was to start. Having already spotted that the all Pro grid was very close lap time wise, we agreed that Joe should go and have some fun and try and bring the car into the pits in as close to one piece as possible. I would then try and get us as many Pro/Am championship points as possible.
We had an extra 10-second success penalty in the pit stop to add to our time. Which meant we were racing the Pro/Pro teams on equal terms. Amazingly Joe doesn’t expect me to be able to race the Pro drivers (he must be going soft in his old age!) but he does expect me to compete with the best of the Pro/Ams.
In the race there was immediately a safety car which lasted for four laps. From there, Joe worked his way up to second from fifth. It was tough racing and after the race, our beautiful McLaren looked like it had been in a banger race. Joe even apologised.
Despite the penalty, and after a brilliant pit stop from the team, I emerged from the pits in first place. We had no right to be there given our penalty but there we were. However, the Pro drivers behind me were setting about closing in. They could smell blood, well actually a rather sweaty race suit!
I was trying very hard to go as quick as I could, but was nowhere near the pace of race one. I just couldn’t get the car to stick to the road. That heady mix of turn in under steer and exit snap over steer. I couldn’t understand why and the harder I tried, the worse it got. This is where the Pros show why they are Pros. They can drive around these issues. It’s why Joes times in his stint were on the pace. I am pretty sure that Joe knew the car wasn’t handling that well but decided that not telling me as I got into the car was the better strategy.
Sure enough the Pro’s were soon all over me and three went past in pretty quick succession, including my team mate Lewis who, with Jordan, went on to take a deserved second place overall.
It was then a question of trying to hang on to first place in Pro/Am and finishing as high as possible overall. I didn’t handle the faster GT3 traffic terribly well as they seemed to catch me at exactly the wrong moments. This was definitely my fault and it cost me some places. So by the end I had lost the lead of Pro/Am to Graham and finished seventh overall. But again I had done my job in getting good Pro/Am points.
When I got out of the car I was a bit disappointed but the win in race one was still fresh and kept the smile on my face. It was then I looked at the car, what a mess, and none of it my doing. Joe!!!
GT4 cars don’t really have a lot of aero and don’t really rely on it much for handling, but the pieces of aero that do help on a McLaren are the front dive planes. Joe had given me the car with one completely gone and the other half missing. There was also the little matter of a damaged rear wishbone.
I now understood why the car wasn’t handling to its normal level. The result was what it was and I couldn’t change that, but at least there were some contributing factors outside of my control. I could have saved some time in the GT3 traffic, but it wasn’t just me being slow.
So a good weekend all round. Good points in both championships and that lovely lovely win for us. The team had achieved three podiums across the two races. The racing gods had smiled on us. But what we had really enjoyed was a fantastic team effort where everybody had contributed to the full and the rewards were there for all to see. I can’t thank them enough for those joyous moments.