Racing with Caterham: part two

Wednesday 17th October 2012

Racing's about keeping your nose clean and bringing your car home intact - Dan achieves neither

I arrive at Snetterton on another clear late summer's morning blissfully unaware of the dramas to follow.

Fancy new helmet hides look of fear
Fancy new helmet hides look of fear
Part one of this tale, and the blog from the day, tell of the journey here. The headlines? Come 5:20pm I'm going racing. And bricking it.

There may be a lack of horsepower and downforce but there's no want for competitive spirit, ably demonstrated by the previous races. My 28.6 qualifying lap has put me eighth on a grid of 13 Roadsports; over two seconds down on pole sitting Brad Smith who's on a 26.2.

When the lights go out Smith and Elliott Norris, also in the 26s, disappear and I'm thrown into one hell of a midfield fight with Adrians Hume and Barwick, Jake Bradshaw, Humphrey Bucknell, 'well old' Frank and a couple of others.

It's pitched battle from the word go
It's pitched battle from the word go
Scraping the barrel
Any pretence that years of track day driving would equip me for this is rudely overruled. I'm scraping the barrel of talent and found wanting, not least on the exit of Murrays where all four wheels run wide of the kerbing and onto the rough stuff. This knocks me down from the fifth of the first couple of laps back to the eighth where I started. Another lap on I'm down to ninth. And cross.

Every corner is a three, four, five-car battle for late-braking honours and last minute lunges. Despite best efforts to avoid contact nudges come thick and fast and it's a two-way street. One cracks a radiator hose, spraying water over the screen and forcing a nervous eye on the temperature gauge.

Midfield battle is intense to say the least
Midfield battle is intense to say the least
It stays cool (I don't) and by lap five I'm back up to sixth and another lap on and I'm into fifth again, consistently in the low 30s. Places swap between myself, Bucknell and Hume, positions changing seemingly every corner and body panels flying as it all starts getting a bit tasty.

Looking good
I get a blinder of a penultimate lap, setting me up for a run on fifth for the final lap. I get my chance on the approach to Brundle, staying on the outside, holding the line and keeping the inside for Nelson and the Bombhole. Elated but wary I cling on round Coram, fixated on Murrays. So fixated I miss a locked-up lunge up the inside and the opportunity to take avoiding action. And my race ends a few hundred yards from the finish in a cloud of coolant and expletives.

I'm heartbroken. And in trouble.

Crunch! The last corner of the last lap...
Crunch! The last corner of the last lap...
Summoned to the headmaster's office en route I encounter another Roadsport driver of the opinion I should have wound my neck in a little and, as a guest of the championship, perhaps not gotten quite so stuck in. He may have a point. The officials aren't exactly filled with delight either, even if I'm officially absolved of blame for the final corner incident. DNF. Gutted.

Humble pie
But after a belly full of humble pie a lifeline is presented. There's a possibility of a second signature for some marshalling. Teeth are sucked and it's agreed that if I do a day with the boys in orange - with a short break from my post to go and race - I could yet complete the weekend with the two signatures I need to progress to National A.

Lesson one: stand the right side of the Armco
Lesson one: stand the right side of the Armco
The early start the next day for the marshals' briefing wipes out any hope of a relaxed Sunday morning. The full story of the day with Karl, Academy driver Alex Gurr (check out his blog here) and the other marshals at Snetterton can also be found in the blog but, suffice to say, I come away with real admiration for these tireless and unsung heroes. Reflecting this by later spinning right in front them isn't quite the vote of thanks I had in mind but when I rejoin them they're suitably amused. "We thought you were coming over to say hello!" they laugh.

That excitement aside my second race is very much an effort in keeping out of trouble, bringing the car home and not getting in the way of anyone else's race and this seems to go down well. And there's some personal satisfaction in breaking - just - into the 27s with a 1:27.984. Which is at least to within a second of the pace of winner (again) Brad Smith, whose best is a 27.284.

'Tactical' spin keeps Dan out of trouble
'Tactical' spin keeps Dan out of trouble
By the time the day is done I'm spent, physically, mentally and emotionally. It's been a hell of a harsh introduction and tested me in ways I never expected.

It's also a very, very impressive demonstration of how Caterham makes a successful business out of racing at this level. The 185 drivers competing this year will, between them, contest 64 races (plus sprints), take home 228 trophies and celebrate it all with one huge party at the end of it. With a 60 per cent retention rate and demand for new cars and championships - catered for by the new Superlight R600 revealed recently and already nearly with a full grid - the place of the Seven at the heart of grassroots British motorsport would seem assured.

It's been an eye-opening experience for sure. But if they'll ever have me back I'll jump at the chance!

With thanks to:
GP Racewear

Racer Mike for the loan of the suit
Simon, Jen and everyone at Caterham
PHer Rooster for the action pics
My fellow Roadsport racers
And, of course, Karl and all the Snetterton marshals

Further reading:
For an in-depth look at life as an Academy racer check out Alex Gurr's blog.

Footage from Dan's race is being collated and will be posted on PH soon - watch this space!

Additional photography: Rooster, Mrs T and Rick Wilson/Caterham

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