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Diary Of A Gentleman Driver 2018, Part 5: Spa

A big hit for Pattison at British GT's overseas round

The last blog felt like a difficult one to write, given we had been knocked out of the race on the first lap of a three-hour race. But this one has been harder. Why? Well I hadn’t really thought about what a ‘big accident’ blog might read like.

The thought of a big accident is always floating around at the back of your mind, particularly in the run-up to race weekends, but you hope that you never have to address it.

So, here it is: the ‘big accident’ blog. I have tried to be factual and unemotional, although it’s almost impossible not to be emotional, because once you’ve worked out that you’re physically okay, the rest of it tends to play with your mind.

It’s very easy to forget, or take for granted, the things that get you to the grid for a race. Without a good team and without a good car, you really don’t stand a chance of achieving anything. Small set-up changes and good qualifying sessions all stem from starting with a well ‘spannered’ car.

I can safely say, no pun intended, that the time you don’t take a team for granted or just assume that you have a good car, is when you have a big accident. The Spa weekend turned out to be the weekend where I saw an amazing team in action and thanked McLaren for building a very strong car. An accident at Eau Rouge is never a small accident and mine, in qualifying, was both big and lucky.

This is my sixth year of racing and this was my second big accident. In my first year, I ended up in hospital with a couple of broken ribs, but I was a passenger in the accident and didn’t see it coming. This one was entirely my fault and I can, unfortunately, remember every second of it. It’s not a great experience and I hope to never have to go through it again.

Everyone says it: Spa is an amazing circuit. It’s very fast and very long. It’s just over two and a half minutes a lap and I suspect that no-one has ever done a perfect lap because there’s so much of it. It has been a privilege to race here over the years and it’s a fantastic addition to the British GT programme.

In the past, British GT has been the support race to the 25-hour Fun Cup. For 2018, we were to be the main event as part of the ‘SRO Speedweek’. Which was more like a three-day long Weekendweek! Our race was on Sunday afternoon and was a single, two-hour event. The Saturday was to be really busy, with two free-practice sessions and an early-afternoon qualifying.

We had been at Spa a couple of weeks before on a two-day test. Day one was really a trackday, with about 90 cars, and day two was a test day, with 13 cars. As you can imagine they were very different. On the first day, I didn’t get a clear lap until about 4:30 in the afternoon, but focusing on the track a corner at a time seemed to help day two a lot. The second day, the track was really quick and everybody was fast. My new-tyre run was two-and-a-half seconds faster than qualifying in 2017. Everybody felt very positive and I felt well set for the race weekend.

My pro driver Joe and I travelled on the Eurostar to Brussels and Joe then proved beyond doubt that the fastest car he drives is a hire car. Who knew that an Opel mini-SUV could outperform a McLaren! We arrived at the circuit with clenched buttocks, well I did, anyway. The garages at Spa are enormous and ours was all set up and looked great with the three team cars in it. The team were all smiling and the atmosphere was as relaxed as my now less-stressed buttocks!

Saturday arrived and for some reason I felt really out of sorts. My performance in the car seemed to confirm that all wasn’t spot-on. Lap times were okay, but things I had done on the test just weren’t happening. Something definitely wasn’t right and, much worse, I wasn’t enjoying it much. Something I had vowed was the number-one priority for the season. How can you not enjoy driving around Spa in a McLaren? Good question, albeit with no good answer in sight.

Then it was qualifying. The Am driver qualifies first and I was therefore first out. I knew I’d have to work hard to achieve anything I might be slightly proud of. The circuit is long, so finding a good gap for qualifying isn’t difficult. And so it proved. I went out behind a couple of cars I wanted to be in front of, but managed to get past them fairly easily. Then I slowed down to open the gap to the car in front.

Joe said some encouraging words and then off I went. The first corner is La Source and I was the quickest through there I had been all weekend. Then down towards Eau Rouge. It’s flat-out to the bottom of the hill, fifth gear and probably over 200kph as you touch the brake to get through the left and then the right up to Raidillon.

It felt like I was going fast. The key is to aim for the low point in the trees at the top of the hill. I didn’t. For some reason, just as the car went light, I decided to make a small steering correction to the right and from then on, I was a passenger in my own accident. The equivalent of a motorcycle tank-slapper threw the back of the car left, and as I corrected it, right.

Being in an accident is an odd experience. I’ve spun cars before and done well to control them. Three years ago, I spun at Blanchimont at high speed and seemed to have loads of time to get the car under control, even though I was going backwards. I’ve always felt like everything was happening in slow-motion and I always seemed to have the time to work out how to avoid the walls.

This one was different. It all happened incredibly fast, mainly because I was travelling incredibly fast. Joe was good enough to say afterwards that I had done everything I could have done to try and control the car. He could have been much less complimentary about how I got into trouble in the first place.

As I said earlier, I can remember every second of the crash. For most of the ‘pre-crash’ time, you’re very busy trying to save the car, and I was very busy. With about five metres to go, I knew the game was up. It’s not a very ‘macho racing driver’ thing to admit, but I’m not going to duck the fact that I was err… terrified. I thought it was really going to hurt and maybe worse than that. The worst was that I had time to think.

All I could see was a big yellow tyre wall. Bang! And then it went very quiet. Amazingly, very little hurt. My knees had banged into the dashboard, but that was about it. Both doors opened and both marshals asked how my neck was. I was able to turn both sides and say it felt fine. Amazing.

Because there was no live stream of the race weekend, the team let me know that there was a red flag and I should be ready to ‘box this lap’. They had no idea what had happened, and I couldn’t tell them.

Off to the medical centre, at the other end of the circuit, for a check-up and I still couldn’t believe that something wasn’t hurting. After all, I’m not a young man and as anyone who’s witnessed my inelegant exits from the car, not exactly an athlete in my prime. Thankfully, I was given the all-clear.

As I came out of the centre, Joe and my engineer Rob were there to greet me. They looked concerned and I obviously looked shaken. A few hugs and a few tears, obviously not from me, and then back to the garage.

Looking at the car and the in-car footage confirmed what an amazing piece of engineering the McLaren is. The carbon tub was fully intact. Even the pickup points were undamaged. The crumple zone had done just that and crumpled. Even the front radiator was in one piece.

From the footage we could see that I’d hit the wall at about 150kph. The seat hadn’t moved an inch and the HANS device had restricted the movement in my neck to about an inch. It helped that I’d hit a tyre wall rather than the less-forgiving concrete walls that line the circuit elsewhere.

Thank you, McLaren.

Even though I felt like a man that needed to ‘get back in the saddle’ I was assuming that the weekend was done, and I started apologising to everybody for my error.

From the team, lots of pastoral care, lots of tea from Gordon the tyre man and lots of genuine concern. From the GT4 grid, a lot of heads round the door to see if I was okay and the same from SRO and Peter, the race director. All much appreciated, even though I was in a bit of a state of shock.

And then the team went into top gear. The team manager Chris asked me if I wanted to race on Sunday. I really needed to get ‘back in the saddle’ but surely we couldn’t? He seemed pretty convinced that we could. And so it proved.

The whole three-car team gave as much as they could to our car. From around 3.30pm on Saturday until 5.30am on Sunday, everyone moved heaven and earth to get the car fixed. They quite rightly won the ‘Team Of The Weekend’ trophy. Although they’re my team of the weekend every time I race. They were/are magnificent.

Spa is notoriously heavy on fuel and without a safety car, we couldn’t see how we were going to make the car run for 60 minutes as well as the lap to the grid and the green-flag lap. We had even talked about starting from the pit lane if qualifying didn’t go welL… I just didn’t expect qualifying to go that badly!

We were to start from the pit lane, something I’d never done before. The car looked like a prop from Mad Max with its mix of panel finishes and odd headlights. But it had worked well in the warm up and we were all hopeful of running well in the race.

The start was great as I was allowed out of the pits right on the back of the last car. Our hopes of no safety car were immediately dashed at Eau Rouge as two GT3 cars came together. Never leave strategy to the drivers!

After making a few overtakes, the race became a bit of a drive in the country, punctuated by the occasional GT3 car lapping me. The only excitement was when one of the Bentleys seemed to think his car was six feet shorter than it really was. Without me standing on the brake it would have taken the front of my car off, and I guess the six feet he had forgotten about.

The pit window was about to open. ‘Box this lap’ and then the car decided it had had enough, dropped into limp mode and then stopped just by the medical centre that I had spent some time in the day before. Given the abuse the car had taken, I suspect it decided it needed some medical attention.

At that point and without me really knowing it, the car was running ninth overall and second in class, and another safety car was about to happen. We had started 16th overall and eighth in class. Who knows where we could have finished, but it wasn’t to be.

Driving for that stint felt odd. Eau Rouge felt like a challenge every lap. I wasn’t quick, but the car felt good. The early overtakes were relatively straightforward and then it felt like a test day, and that was probably about right given the day before.

I was disappointed for the team that we didn’t finish, and it would have been amazing to see what Joe could have done for the rest of the race. Tough for Joe as he didn’t do qualifying and didn’t get into the car in the race. But he was an amazingly supportive team-mate through the whole weekend. He has had accidents and was very candid about how they affected him. He also was very keen for me to get back in the car, and he was right.

Reflecting on the weekend in the following days, I spent most of the time trying to retake that corner, being thankful to everyone involved, paying to fix the car, trying not to freak out my wife and kids and wondering what the future holds.

Eventually I discovered that my accident was on YouTube for all to see. It would appear that 8,800 views, and counting, have entertained people. My two-year-old grandson loved it! I am assuming my share of the advertising revenue is in the post.

Brands Hatch next, I have to sort the mind games out, but I’m reassured that I have the best team and car to help me succeed!