The opening round of the first ever EnduroKA season saw 24 cars assemble on the starting grid. How good is that? They all looked the part, too. And each put down a competitive qualifying time - meaning that what followed was less a steady-paced endurance race and more a five-hour sprint. Thankfully - and beyond all expectation - Racing Pete did a sterling job, putting car number 98 on the front row of the grid, just 0.109 behind the pacesetter, I P Racing.
Those who’ve followed our car’s progress up to this point will know it’s been a nerve-racking and rushed journey, with our 23,000-mile-old KA having only completed its first test at Brands Hatch last week - but there’s no more time for excuses now. And don’t we know it, because the collective nerves of Pete, Ben, Olly and myself far exceed the ‘bit of fun’ we’ve all signed up for. The whine of 1,680hp-worth of 1.3-litre engines screaming towards the start-finish straight will do that to you.
Granted, even stripped out and weighing less than 900kg, KAs are not fast, so when the field whizzes towards Redgate for the first time, most are barely surpassing outside lane motorway speed. But squeezing two dozen of them through the narrow section and then down the Craner Curves makes for some extremely exciting racing, which, to commend the drivers in the field, includes little more than a few scuffs and bumps – all well within the realms of fair and close competition. EnduroKA is go!
Pete’s start is good and he sticks with the main leading group, trading places and moving from second to fifth and back a few times, with the advantage always falling to the car behind that’s tucked into a KA-shaped hole in the air. It’s so close that drivers are forced to plan their moves well ahead or to make reflex decisions in order to capitalise on minuscule mistakes from the driver ahead. Proper, old school racing then – and about as far as possible from a DRS manoeuvre as you can get.
Pete’s stint is a hard-fought one, and includes an unwarranted trip through the pitlane thanks to a misread penalty board for a rival – an easy mistake to make in the heat of a battle and thankfully one that had no effect on our end result. He hands over to Ben just under an hour later as we make an early driver change to take advantage of a safety car (Ross Brawn eat your heart out) and the call is a very good one. Ben’s consistent pace allows us to creep up the order again. Rivals have minor issues – a car overheats and another has a failed alternator – but our low-mileage KA apparently has all the advantages of youth, so we gradually move up into first position as cars duck into the pits and Ben leads the way until the end of his stint. Much to our surprise, everything is going very well.
Well, aside from the front left tyre. When Olly jumps in, with the clock now past the two-hour mark, there are already signs that the near side Toyo is suffering on such a demanding clockwise circuit. All the fastest corners are right handers, after all. A rush to swap the same boot on a rival’s car suggest that all four tyres are not going to make the end of the race either – not without some heavy management, anyway. But with no data from previous races to go on, no communication possible from Olly (we’re thinking of getting a radio like some of our rivals for the next round) and no ability of seeing the health of the tyre further into the stint, we've no way of knowing whether our tyre is similarly close to its end. We prepare one that lived on the right rear of the car at the Brands Hatch test day (so it spent much of that day airborne!) for the next stop, just in case.
It’s needed. The front left is looking very worn and our stop is a longer one because of the resulting tyre change. But Ben does an excellent impression of Guido from Cars, so before I can even fully tighten the harnesses, the KA’s back on all fours and the engine’s spinning back into life. No excuses now. This is the final leg.
Once the new boot’s up to temp about five bends into the lap, the car’s inherent agility is immediately clear. How the heck can a humble KA that’s been thrashed for nearly four hours still feel so good? The engine’s definitely loosened up since yesterday – staying above 4,000rpm for an afternoon probably helped with that – and despite the tyres bearing little resemblance to each other, the KA responds eagerly to a dab of the brakes and flick of the wheel. It rotates beautifully on its centre, like a proper performance hatch, and then hunkers down as you stamp on the not-very-loud-at-all 70hp pedal.
Our decision to put far more air in the rears than fronts pays dividends through the Old Hairpin, McLeans and Coppice, the three fast right handers that make Donington so epic. Lobbing the car at the apex of each with a trailed brake or closed throttle gets the car rotated immediately, meaning you can chase the accelerator before the nose has four-wheel drifted passed the corner’s middle. Even to a former go-karter the result is go-kartish. Familiarity, and the sheer consistency of the KA, means I can drive at my limit for over an hour. Which means - tingles - we’re hunting down the third tier of the podium with only minutes left to run.
There’s no way I’d have known this, of course, were it not for our team manager, experienced racer and PHer, Dan. Thanks to his smart strategy and continuous use of the PH pit board to keep the driver of car 98 up to speed, we get the job done right at the death – pipping I P Racing on the final lap of 174. Against all expectations we got to taste something like champagne, and that’s all that matters. What. A. Buzz.
Almost as importantly, our KA left the Midlands unscathed, too (barring the scuffs which simply prove it is now a proper race car). And when I say ‘left’ I mean ‘drove away from’ because it departed Donington under its own steam, our trailer-based solution having fallen at the first hurdle. Quite an indignity for a podium-finisher - made worse by the closure of the Dartford bridge, which meant that five hours of service on the track was closely followed by a four-hour commute back to Kent. Room for improvement, then, ahead of 12 Hours of Norfolk on June 15/16th. But we’re up and running. And over the bloody moon.