Tankslider's red E30 chases an M3 for the lead
I’m sitting third on a grid of 22 cars at Brands Hatch. The hail is coming through the side window, bouncing off the floor of the car and landing on my lap. There’s a starter’s board being displayed up ahead, I can’t quite read what it says, and I can’t see any lights on. It is an absolute deluge. Where did this weather come from? It suddenly occurs to me that my datalogger and camera are now getting a soaking next to me. I’m tightly strapped in; there’s no way I can reach across without undoing my harnesses, and the car is steaming up fast.
Streaming down a (streaming) Paddock Hill
As I try to keep the rain off the electronics with my left hand I’m looking at the back of a very lovely E30 M3 and a very seasoned Ginetta race car. It may be worth five times the value of my car but I know that the M3, on pole, has a savage paddle clutch and I’m hoping that a stall or wheelspin will give me a chance.
More to the point, right behind me are any number of front-wheel drive cars, some with ESP, ABS and traction control, who will be very quick in these conditions. I’ve got the car in first gear, but my clutch leg is getting shaky. Qualifying seems a long time ago. In bone-dry conditions RWD cars had secured the first two rows on the grid, but I can’t exactly claim my overpowered 3-series is ideal in the damp, let alone a monsoon.
Sneaking up the inside for the lead
Thinking back, I dealt with the problem of those behind me by just ignoring them. Lights out and I’m spinning in first; short-shifting into second. There’s a river running across the entrance to Paddock Hill Bend, and what looks like a lake at the bottom. Somehow I’m second, with the M3 in front sending up a rooster tail of spray. The hairpin at Druids is dicey, but there’s so much water running off the international circuit at Surtees that I’d aquaplaned straight on during the preceding green flag formation lap. At race speed it is just scary.
There’s no sign of the Ginetta; instead I’ve got a very quick Clio all over the back of the car, obviously more confident on the brakes than I could be. He’s not in my class, but I’m damned if I’m going to make it easy for him, and by concentrating on getting the power down earlier out of corners he drops back a touch and I’m catching the M3 in front. He’s had a moment under the brakes for Paddock, so on the next lap I make a show of driving down the outside, and when he slows I duck down the inside.
Wiper trouble means Clio keeps a close watch
There’s a real spread of stuff racing, from an old white Nova to a bloody great XJS. In qualifying I had to kick myself for deliberately following the Jag because it just sounded lovely! Despite the extreme conditions the field has all got away safely, and is soon spread out, with individual battles raging. Clear at the front and out of the spray, my windscreen wipers decide that, as they are no longer required, they will stop working altogether. Unfortunately I then catch the backmarkers up and so my visibility just disappears, and the Clio is welded to my back bumper again – driven by PHer 90right. Every time I get some clear air I can pull out a gap on the tenacious Renault, but this instantly disappears as I catch others up. This lasts for eight laps until he makes the most of a hold-up and squeezes up the inside at Druids. I endure sitting behind him for one lap, then dive into the pits for my compulsory three-minute stop.
Last lap disaster: Tankslider gets Baulked...
The series is designed for a driver change, but as I don’t have a co-driver I have time to leap out, run around trying to fix a wiper, have a drink and get back in and belted up. I can only imagine that this activity was conducted in a Benny Hill style, as having got back in and secured my belts Richard, my ‘Team Manager’ and man with the stopwatch informs me that I still have 1 min 30 secs to wait. This feels a ridiculously long time when you’re in a hurry, and watching others leave the pit lane past you, so at my allotted time I catapult back out on the ‘G’ of ‘Go!’, wipers still not working, but at least ‘down’ rather than diagonally across the screen.
Having cleared some traffic I then get four laps in clear air, which is a godsend. Although there certainly isn’t a drying line, the track is consistent and so I press on. I haven’t a clue where I am in the running order, but there seems to be no-one near me on the circuit. Out of my side window I catch a glimpse of my pit board, and next to my number it says ‘P1’. I think about what that means for a lap, and when it’s still there the next lap it starts to dawn on me that I might actually win this thing. This causes me so much pleasure that I lock up into Paddock Hill bend and only just gather it up in time to tiptoe around the very outside of the corner.
...while a charging Xsara closes in
The spray from other cars is presenting real problems, however, particularly when I catch up with twos or threes, all rightly engrossed with racing each other. I resort to looking out of the side window to identify the turn-in for Paddock, and the approach to Druids, in particular, is an exercise in using the Force. This is exciting, all right, but I know it isn’t that quick and someone has to be closing in behind me. The pit board soon shows someone gaining about a second a lap through the traffic, and soon I can actually see the headlights of something closing. The 40 minutes must be up, soon, surely? I’ve been out here hours… I sneak a look at my watch between corners but it dawns on me that, having had a delayed start, I don’t know what time the race actually started. Although I’m a good three seconds clear I’m coming up behind a tussle, and I’m screaming with frustration as I get bottled up behind a Golf and a Nova driving two abreast and the headlights behind me resolve rapidly into the fast-charging Xsara of Gary Cole.
...and takes the lead...
I’m badly baulked at Graham Hill bend and Gary just drives straight round the outside of me; the air in my car turns blue as I watch, helpless, as the race gains its fourth leader on the final lap. I’m hard after him down the straight, but it is hopeless; there are just two corners to go before the line. Unbelievably, having driven a flawless race from 12th on the grid, Gary overcooks the left hander at the end of the back straight and I’m back past him with millimetres to spare, actually bracing for the impact as he scrabbles back onto the track. I cross the line 0.4secs ahead of him, with mud adding to my lack of vision.
I’m pretty unusual, I guess, to receive the chequered flag twice in a single race. I don’t see it the first time, and they have to wave it again before I actually clock the thing. One more lap, and I reckon they’d have deployed a stinger…
...before sliding off at the next corner
My flag blindness aside, a field comprising mainly novices ran without major incident, significant comings together or even the need for red flags or safety cars in very challenging conditions. For a 40-minute race that is some achievement. The camaraderie and excitement in the pit lane as we stop is delightful, there’s much laughing, shaking of hands and back slapping. It is deserved. We are all now ‘racers’, and all the conversation is about the next round, Rain-X, revenge, and winding the window up next time…
So, what do I think of racing? Well, I only got my licence last week and so it is early days! I can tell you that it isn’t cheap to prep a car, that it is intimidating but so rewarding overcoming the obstacles. I can also tell you that the series gave loads of help, that the people are really friendly, the atmosphere in the paddock is fabulous, and the racing itself is such a massive buzz that I’m still grinning three days later. Next race is Snetterton, and I guess I’ll be praying for rain. It can’t come soon enough.
Images: Nigel Pinder & Darran Shepherd