Don’t you find it usually in a pub that you get talked into doing daft things? Well for me it was at this years Autosport show that a friend said … “Haven’t you always fancied doing a 24 hour race?” “Yes” I said, perhaps I should have known that he wasn’t giving Audi my number!
A week on from Le Mans I find myself taking part in a very different 24-hour race. In the months between the Autosport show and that fateful day myself and friends Guy Loveridge and Clive Bergman have acquired a new racecar, and along with fellow racer Matt Shepherd we apparently intend to race it for 24 hours. It’s a 2CV! It’s 4pm on Saturday and at the start time of Le Mans the lights go off and the race is on!
We had not had a great build up, none of us had driven the car before, and the test drive round the paddock gave us an idea of what we were letting ourselves in for. For me the biggest worry seemed to be reaching the pedals and switches! As free practice got underway the challenge of just getting used to our new machine was vast. We had a new engine and were keeping it 1,500 revs below the red line but still it seemed fellow competitors were flying past us. As dusk fell and we starting to qualify in the evening we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were unlikely to be challenging for pole!
We finished the evening having qualified 30th out of the 32 cars that would start the race. We ate and retired to bed, none of us really sure what was ahead. After the morning shake down session we were beginning to be worried about front-end wheel patter. In stepped the friendly mechanics from the Frome 2CV centre, they were to prove our knights in shinning armour. With one glance they pronounced the tracking fine but our steering rack good enough only for the scrap heap. Within moments they had found us a new one and fitting was underway. We were £100 lighter but would we make the start as the time ticked past 3 O’clock? Finally the car was finished, Clive would start the race and there were no more excuses available for us not to take our place on the grid.
The race progressed for us: Clive putting in the laps in his first stint. I was to be next but as the one hour bulletin was released where would be in the standings? 21st and pushing hard, things were going well and we were still not using full revs!
At five thirty I took over the car and quickly slipped into a rhythm, you quickly get used to the cars you can fight with and those that can’t. Slip streaming is vital in these little cars and can give you such a boost down the long Snetterton straights, the one trick is not to tuck back into the line and give the advantage straight back! An hour and a half can pass very quickly when you are busy - and you are never so busy as when driving a 2CV round Snetterton, especially when you are watching the weather close in on you from across the fields.
It was sunny, then it hailed, then a little rain for good measure before the sun appeared again - all in all typical June weather! By the time I handed the car over to Matt at 7pm the three-hour bulletin showed we were holding 18th place - really more than we could have hoped for.
It's so hard to sleep during a 24 hour race while you know you car is out there circulating but as I was due for a stint just after midnight I had to grab some shut eye. It all went smoothly through the night and we maintained our pace to hover around the 18th position. All around us cars were coming in with gearbox problems, blown engines and damaged body panels. We, however, circulated and stayed out of trouble.
At eight am our smug complacency was broken - the car arrived in the pits unexpectedly with a damaged left front! “I got involved in someone else’s spin” apologised Clive, again it’s our knights in shining armour that help us fix the track rod end and we patch up the wing with that ever useful: tank tape. The car goes back out and we hold 18th place. After my stint Matt again takes the wheel and we all decide with just over four hours left to split it between Matt and Guy. It is decided that if we can secure a top 18th place I will take the last ten or fifteen minutes for a splash and dash to take the car home.
We have been fighting with the Red Nose Scotland car all race, they are at about the same pace as us and it’s always good to have someone to draft out on track. Guy is going well and we optimistically calculate we could finish as high as 15th. We were busy discussing if we will need more fuel or if the car can run till the end when car 21 came into the pits with front end damage and the pace car switched its lights on. Our car fails to materialise and as all the other cars stream into the pits, a driver from the garage next to us says “He’s rolled it!”
They are towing the car back in but I will have to take over if the car is fit. Car 21 had hit us side on in an impossible manoeuvre into the bomb hole. The car performed a gentle roll and ended up on its side in the middle of the track. Guy is unhurt but still needs to be checked out at the medical centre, the car has surprisingly little damage and it is bashed back into shape - refuelled and I am strapped in to the drivers seat.
1 Hour to Go
There is still an hour left of the race and now little chance of that top 20 position after incurring the five lap tow back penalty, but now it’s even more important that we finish. I begin to lap, the handling is appalling but we press on. I see a car I know I can fight with and push hard to overtake it. Then from the pit wall comes a board with plus on it - it’s the symbol to speed up! I push harder nearly having the steering wheel shaken out of my hands. Little did I know there are just minutes remaining and the 21 car that caused the accident is closing on us fast for position. As the flag falls we cross the line a little over two seconds ahead of them. It is considered a moral victory and the sight of the marshals all waving flags like at Le Mans is enough to bring a tear to the eye of the most hardened racer!
After 24 hours we had covered 658 laps; almost 1285miles finishing 87 laps behind the winners and were one of only two teams not to change an engine! Plans are already afoot for next year!