Dan invited back to drive race-prepped MX-5 (c) Gary Hawkins
Arriving at Snetterton I am, it has to be said, somewhat nervous. I've never even seen the track before and a lap squeezed into the back of a Mazda6 with team mates Kyle Fortune, Jade Paveley and Kevin Haggarthy is all the prep I get, Snetterton passing in a blur of fog, kerbing and "clip the drain cover here, you can get on the power early there" from our nameless racing driver guide. That's clear then. Mark Hales hasn't arrived yet but we figure he can probably find his way around.
Sitting in the car waiting my qualifying session I find myself falling back on some visualisation techniques taught to me by sports psychologist Gavin Gough at a recent Nissan GT Academy event. Think Obi-Wan's "Luke, stretch out with your feelings..." delivered with a Middlesbrough accent and you're half way there. Usually sceptical of such things it's all I've got and I sit in the car, eyes closed and mentally 'drive' the lap based on the YouTube vids I've just been watching in the Jota truck.
Note sneakily applied PH smiley... (c) Eddie Hurren
And you know what? When I get out there, heart thumping, it actually seems to work and once under way it feels like the track is coming to me. It's pretty intense but not half as terrifying as I'd feared and I get a 2:29. Some way off Mazda team driver Mark Ticehurst's 2:23.025 but I'm happy enough given my lack of track knowledge. Mark's lap has us second on the grid for tomorrow behind the slick looking Paul Sheard Autos team and their ominously quick 2:19.7.
Come the 9am race start and we've got Ticehurst going off first, setting a blistering early pace and clearing the Sheard car - another Mk3 - to lead the first lap. OK, it's a marathon and not a sprint and all that but it's a good way to kick things off!
Clear of the safety car it's time to get stuck in (c) Eddie Hurren
By the time I get in the car pit stops (every car has to make a minimum of 10 three-minute stops) mean we're back in 6th and I join the track behind the safety car. Which is actually quite handy because it means I can at least get my eye in on the circuit in daylight. It does, of course, mean that when the safety car goes back in the pack is all bunched up and I'm totally caught napping. Numpty error number one.
Red mist engaged, I set about making up the lost ground, perhaps ignorant of the fact I'm possibly not on the same lap as many of the cars I'm battling. After an epic scrap with a lime green Mk1 I get a radio call to say my lap times have fallen back into the 29s after some solid 25s and even a 24 dead. "Mark says you might be over-driving the car a little bit, try calming down, get the consistency back and keep your concentration."
What do you mean we're not on the same lap? (c) Gary Hawkins
It's good advice and my laps fall back into the 25s and 26s and I fall into a comfortable rhythm. Not that there's anyone to compare myself against, to the point where I radio in and ask if everyone else has cleared off and gone home.
Back in the Jota truck after my stint Ticehurst helps out with some advice about lines, gear choice and the like. I'm going to need all the help I can get too because it seems I've got the final stint and the honour/responsibility of taking the car to the flag.
As the hour looms and we've battled up to third place it's more the latter that's weighing on my shoulders and I pace the garage restlessly. If I can keep a good pace there's a chance we'll catch the number 11 BS Motorsport car ahead and take second. Then again I could bin it and ruin everything.
Racing in the dark means living on your wits (c) Gary Hawkins
It's a very different ball game in the dark and I really have to feel my way around. I start out in the 29s, which is a disappointment because it feels quicker. Dig deep time. The lap times are falling and I'm gaining and then a gift from the gods - a safety car with half an hour to go.
I just about catch the tail end of the snake, the white BS Motorsport car four places ahead. When the safety car goes back in I'm ready and instantly pitched headlong into a fierce battle between two fast-moving Mk1s and a Mk3 who's been racing the last few hours stuck in third gear but still lapping fast.
I carry loads more speed out of Palmer and manage to take a whole bunch in one go. Getting round the fast-moving number 11 car demands a bit more commitment and I'm aware of heads craning over the pit wall. Do I try a move under the brakes into the scary first turn? Hmm. Probably not a good idea. Oh what the hell...
Pressure is on to bring the car back home intact (c) Gary Hawkins
I'm through. But in my elation things start going to pieces somewhat and I have a couple of off-track excursions. Nothing dramatic, just a couple of wheels on the grass here, a bit too much kerb there but enough to get my heart racing. And not just mine. "You're doing a great job but you've fallen back into the 29s and the number 11 car has picked up his pace. You've got five seconds on him currently but you need to calm down and get back into the 27s."
Finally, the flag. And, oh boy, what a feeling. By the time I arrive in the pits everyone is out of the garage and though we were never in any danger of troubling the Paul Sheard car second place feels like a win. As ever with endurance racing it's a team effort and though I'm enjoying the undeserved glory of bringing the car home we're here thanks to the blistering pace set by Marks Ticehurst and Hales. Having one fast bloke called Mark on your team is handy, having two is possibly a bit much but who's to argue.
PH in shameless attempt to steal the glory and the trophy (c) Gary Hawkins
A fabulous result and credit due to all the boys from Jota and the organisers for putting on such a fantastic event. Credit also to the rest of the drivers and teams too - as ever with endurance racing it's the taking part as much as anything and the collective euphoria was just about enough to get me home on the long, foggy drive back from Snetterton.
Images: Gary Hawkins, additional photography by Eddie Hurren
(c) Eddie Hurren
(c) Gary Hawkins
(c) Gary Hawkins
(c) Gary Hawkins