The state of the cars in the Brands Hatch pitlane after 500 minutes of racing was evidence of just how tough a day it had been. Bumpers were loose (or even completely missing), wings were dented and tyres were bald – and drivers looked very, very tired. But the smiles were enormous, the comradery brilliant and thanks to the neons and spotlights added to the cars for the race, the atmosphere was terrific. Nick Tandy – yes, 2015 Le Mans winning Nick Tandy – collected the top prize, but not without a proper battle, so there was also a genuine feeling of achievement from the 34 finishers. Just one car had not completed the full distance.
It wasn’t the PistonHeads Ka. It very well could have been, what with #98 having spent at least half of the 8-hour 21-minute race limping with a strut issue. But despite ever-worsening front axle geometry that multiplied tyre wear on the outside left (which takes an absolute pounding at Brands anyway), not to mention occasional violent vibrations from the bending strut that gave its drivers major cause for concern, the former shopping trolley hobbled across the line in seventh, the place it had started. Not the dream result that seemed possible in the race’s earlier parts, when even a win seemed in reach. But an excellent accomplishment none the less.
The event began well, with the qualifying times of the top ten starters separated by only a second (CHR Motorsport grabbed pole with a brilliant 1:03.89 ahead of Octane Junkies’ 1:04.08) despite the inevitable traffic issues of a circuit jam-packed with Kas. Team PH, comprised of returning racers Ben, Racing Pete, Olly and yours truly, felt hard done by with a 1:04.69 best after none of us was gifted a clear lap, but it meant the potential for race day was great. Seventh, we thought on the morning before the race, was at least on the inside for turn one. That helped bring some optimism to this driver, as with the quickest quali time, starting responsibilities were passed to me.
It was another stellar race start. Clean but brilliantly close fought, all 35 cars squeezed down Paddock Hill Bend as the leading pack – of which we were at the tail – managed to begin its breaKaway from the field. I watched as Tandy hung on around the outside to make up places from his sixth-on-the-grid, but our progress was hampered as the inside cars bunched up more closely and the door was shut. No worries, hanging onto the leaders was all we needed at this early stage – even if it slowly became clear that our outright pace wasn’t quite on par.
In truth, I was only able to cling onto the top six cars because of their ongoing (and genuinely entertaining to watch from behind) tussling. The opening stint was filled with occasional safety cars thanks to gravel trap visitors and a few discarded body panels from battles behind, which also helped us keep right up at the sharp end. Heck, we even worked our way up into second at one point by taking advantage of some close but fairly-fought argy-bargy during one of the restarts, but it took only a dozen or so laps for us to fall back into fifth where our natural pace ranked us. The Ka felt good, but the earliest effects of excessive outside left tyre wear were becoming evident. Getting the car rotated without scrubbing off too much speed was proving more and more difficult, particularly on the way into Clearways, which meant my entry line was much tighter than those ahead – and my driving style had to evolve as the wear increased.
Yet with our pace still only around three tenths off that of the cars ahead, and the gap not growing as much as it would have thanks to the now never-ending stream of traffic to lap, the team opted to leave me out – making for the most enjoyable part of my race. Chasing the lead cars, headlights flashing to clear backmarkers focussed on their own battles, made for an authentic endurance racing experience that provided proper Le Mans-like thrills – or so it felt, at least, at about a quarter of the speed. Gradually, we worked our way into the top three as our rivals stopped, but the front left tyre was beginning to break up, creating a vibration so bad that I thought the hub’s bearing had failed. Team manager Dan – aka Geeks – called for a pitstop at 2.5 hours, which proved to be a wise move, the tyre was already half disintegrated.
Here’s where the heroics began. With three quarters of a tank to fill before Dan and Olly could get to work swapping the wheel as Ben and I helped Pete climb aboard for the driver change, it was a frantic but brilliantly efficient pitstop. Before we had Pete’s belt’s fully tightened the new wheel was on and the car was back on its feet, meaning we’d lost no time with the swap. It was by far PH’s best pitstop of the year – but luck wasn’t on our side. As soon as Pete charged down the pitlane the red light at the exit went on. There was a safety car. Expletives were heard in the garage; no doubt many more were shouted in the car.
Once released – and once the safety car period had ended – Pete set about fighting his way back through the field. Consistent pace and quick driving through traffic saw us creep back up to the sharp end, with car 98 eventually inheriting the lead to give us real hopes of securing the top position some five hours later. It was impossible to know our ‘true’ position, with other teams opting for different strategies, but having Pete lead the 35-car field for the majority of his 1.5-hour stint certainly gave garage 20 a real buzz. When he handed over to Olly, we could feel the eyes of other teams on us. It was brilliant.
This time we’d opted to leave the outside left boot on without a change for Olly’s turn, as his was to be another 1.5 hour stint and the rubber was worn but not breaking up. Olly’s pace was strong, leaving us content that we’d made the right call. As he fought back through the field and we settled into what was now fifth position, the prospect of a podium was still very real, but the excessive wear of that developing strut issue (the geometry problem now joined by a knocking sound as the front anti-roll bar had disconnected) encouraged Olly to make a call via a flash of the headlights to pit early. A new wheel went on and Ben headed out to keep up the progress as the daylight began to fade. His time on track wasn’t without its moments – including a quick heart-in-mouth moment as a fantastic overtake turned into a trip across the gravel at Clark Curve thanks to the ongoing front-end issue – but Ben continued the great PH consistency despite what was now a pretty worn out car.
Pete jumped back in for the final stint, as darkness enveloped Brands Hatch and the spotlights and coloured LEDs came on to turn the circuit into a glow of Ka-shaped neon. His pace was immediately good but even so, there was no overcoming the misalignment of a bent strut, the worsening geometry it was causing and the tyre wear that was already returning. It was a stellar effort for Pete to bring the car back in one piece, let alone do it at a pace that cemented us in seventh overall. That we’d lost time with safety cars hammered home the effort of the day’s work; we almost felt like we’d won for getting the car home. That the actual winners, the experienced line-up of Tandy, James Rhodes, Elliot Mason and Lewis Selby at JTR, could only eke out a lap advantage over Burton after over eight hours of racing, emphasised the standard of this field. They looked genuinely elated to have won!
Now, with the KA dust settled, we’re not ashamed to say the post-race season depression has kicked in. By our calculations (and those of some competitors), PH’s team was the most consistent across the year, leaving us with the most accumulated points from the calendar – although EnduroKA is not a championship, so there’s no silverware to go with that. But it doesn’t matter, because simply taking part and getting properly stuck in with such a fantastic field of racers has left us extremely excited to see what’s in store for 2020. Will team PH be on the grid? Let’s just say we’re working on it. But first, anyone got some T-Cut we can borrow?
[Pic credits: action by Lloyd Horgan, pitlane by Ben Lowden]