Roger's back with Part 4 of his 'I want to Race' Blog Series!
The day had arrived and my first duty was signing on and going to drivers’ briefing. Now I had done a few of those and there were about 20 drivers in them at a maximum. However, there were so many drivers and team owners in this room it felt like we had got the whole membership of the MSA (as it was then) present. As well as the standard briefing, there was a big session on how the previous years’ Top Gear filming had raised the profile of the race so much that there were a lot of inexperienced racers out there. From this we were asked to be sensible (!), respect the yellow and black crosses on the back of cars, and basically not act in any way to hurt motor racing’s image. After that, I got given my Britcar 24 hours Dunlop starters medal. It is something I have cherished ever since and is in a picture frame on my wall.
At the time I can remember thinking that the rest of the day was pretty boring – support races, lunch breaks, then pit walks and all I wanted to do was race. I was getting quite wound up as the tension increased even though I was going third in the car. We had decided on a driver change every time the fuel ran out which came in at just under 2 hours. With 4 of us, none of whom had done a 24 hour race before, we thought this would allow us to get some rest and be ready for the next session.
The cars were called for warm up and out she went. Angus was starting as it was his car and he was the fastest and most experienced of us all. It is well known that you cant win a race at the first corner but you can lose it so his plan was “fast and careful”. Since I wrote the last episode I found out we were 28th on the grid, from 52 starters and our car looked great on the grid walk; in sight of the front but a long way from the back.
The race started at 4.30. It got off badly with a huge crash off the rolling start and one driver, Andy Neate, trapped in his car for 35 minutes until he was released. Sorry to say he was not a well man, with a broken neck, but he is OK nowadays. Obviously the safety car was straight out.
We lost out in this because the safety car picked up the first car it came to and this meant that the cars up until about 6th or 7th gained a lap on everyone else. By the end of the first hour we were up to 11th. Our sister car, run by the same team, also an M3 but with some very trick bits such as sequential shift gearbox and flat floor aerodynamics was in 4th.
5.45pm – Our nearest rival was in his pit garage – the game of chicken that a hare played with him and lost, had left the front splitter and spotlights all busted up – this was good for us but not good for the hare, or the car.
At the end of the second hour we were listed as 7th, not in class but overall and only 1 minute 41 seconds behind the leader – amazing since we lost the lap at the start.
Our second driver went out and was back within a couple of laps with no brakes and a wide eyed look not dissimilar to that hare! An armoured brake hose had been rubbing on the right hand driveshaft and worn through – We lost five laps fixing it.
Generally the tactics for a 24 hour race are to run at a pace that is less than your maximum but good enough to keep you in the hunt ready for a maximum attack in the later stages. Surviving the night from 8pm until 6.00am is the hardest part and after that it is time to reassess your strategy for the last 12 hours or so.
I got in the car around 8.50 for the first night session. Our plan was still to save the car and not risk anything and with quotes from Jackie Stewart ringing round in my head (“To finish first, first you must finish”) I was off.
It was fantastic, the car relished the cooling air and it felt easy to drive. It was light over the kerbs, turned in to where you pointed it and the brakes were so powerful. It is deeply satisfying knowing that you can be the last of the late brakers and take cars much more powerful than you in places they are not expecting.
An Aston Martin in another class had no aero but potfuls of power and I spent a good few laps being overtaken on the Hanger Straight and then taking him back at Stowe under aero and brake assist. Finally I managed to have enough of a lead coming onto Hanger that he didn’t get past and I was away.
I was lucky at this point in that our sister car, on a slightly different strategy than us, came out of the pits in front of me and I could tag onto him. They were quicker than us by a few seconds a lap but were not running at full pace for the same reason we were not either; save the car for a big push in the morning.
Our car could do the same dance over the kerbs and brake as late as them and it was great because this “follow my leader” gave me confidence to push and I did some wonderfully fast laps without risk during that time. Slowly though they eked out a second and then a couple more and I was on my own again but faster.
My first ever stint round Silverstone, in a saloon car, at night, in my first 24 hour race was quite awesome. As I got used to the car, and the night, the laptimes came down and what seemed like 5 minutes later, a crackle on the pit to helmet radio asked how much fuel I had left. The needle had moved to 1/4 and so I was ready for when the warning light came on and I peeled off to the refuellling pit and driver no 4 got in.
After dropping way down the field to 40th+ with the brake hose and being 29th when I got in the car we were up to 20th at the end of my time. I was so fired up I couldn’t have slept ready for my next stint (4.00am to 6.00am) so I walked around for an hour until I had calmed down
Driver 4 was very quick and into the groove immediately, being really light on the car and we were soon into the teens places.
Then disaster struck – Another Aston Martin turned in on us in a corner, not expecting an upstart BMW to be in its way and knocked Jason into the gravel trap. The wheel mark on the door – and their paint, so we know which one it was! (Yes Autocar – it was you), was branded into the car for the rest of the race. Jason limped in and the team emptied enough gravel to fill Brighton beach from the underside of the car and checked for big damage. Off we went again and Jason finished his stint but he was complaining the handling was all over the place.
Our lead driver and car owner climbed in and although quick, he was complaining that the car was very loose. He completed the stint but there was some choice language on the radio as he caught the car a couple of times when it threatened to fire him off track. When he came in the tyres were changed and driver 2 was sent out. It was hoped that the change of tyres would kill off the issue but it was not to be and driver 2 was not able to match his earlier laptimes.
The old tyres were looked at and it was obvious that the shove from the Aston had caused a problem – one of the rears was down to the canvas on the edge and one of the fronts was worn in all the wrong places.
We had no choice but to make repairs; with the handling as it was there was too great a risk of burst tyres and mistakes as the drivers got more tired.
So we didn’t waste too much time, it was elected this would be done at the end of the stint and just as the team manager was about to call, the driver radioed that the car was moving around “like a donkey on roller skates” but worse than that the exhaust was blowing. This race is run under strict noise regulations and so a blowing exhaust is an excludable offence. The mechanics fell on the car when it came in and found the problems immediately;
The exhaust had a little kink in it and had blown at the manifold – almost certainly a legacy of my shunt on Thursday when I tweaked the exhaust back pipes on the barriers and bent the system.
The handling problem was caused by a bent steering arm. The drivers had been driving round the problem but to the expense of tyre life. It really does help having all the wheels pointing in the same direction. Together the problems were sorted in a calm and efficient manner – no histrionics, no yelling, everyone knowing what to do and doing it quietly and quickly – Time was going quickly though – each lap is just over 2 minutes and is easy to lose but difficult to get back.
I got back in just before the 12 hour mark. My earlier stint had given me a huge confidence boost and as we were now playing catch up, with hope of a class win falling into the distance, it was near maximum attack time. The class leader was now 16 laps ahead of us with one pit stop less. A pit stop was worth 3 laps – so 13 laps were needed in 13 hours and all assuming they didn’t manage to pick up their pace. A tall order.
By this time our other team car was out of the race. It had got to second overall but took a stone through the radiator guard and the engine let go in a fairly dramatic way – having suddenly became air cooled, a little end bearing went big and a big end bearing went huge; it grenaded. Glum faces in our sister pit were the order of the day when I left for the track.
The flash of cameras reminded me that there were people in the stands watching and the bits of fibreglass and carbon fibre on the edge of the track told me that the night had taken its toll and to be careful. I got faster through the stint and managed to get 2 of the laps back. I am pleased to say that the class leader’s driver was not their fastest and so flattered me. The car felt like new, no handling problems, no lost power from the exhaust fracture – the pit crew were fantastic.
Physically though I was starting to feel the pace – neck, shoulders and ankles mainly. I can remember that by the end of the Monday after the race I felt like I had been in a tumble dryer for 24 hours. At the end of the stint we needed to get 11 laps to get the class win.
The next driver, “Chalky” White is a serious pedaller of race cars and went for it straight away. I am sorry but it all got a little hazy for me for a while at this point through exhaustion. We had been at the circuit since 9am the previous morning for the drivers briefing, warm up, car parade and the support races and despite my very best efforts I could not sleep for more than 10/15 minutes when I wasn’t driving.
By the end of Chalky’s stint – we were up to 13th overall but our next victim was a full 6 laps away.
Our lead driver and the fastest racer had just popped in the fastest lap the car was to do all race at 2:05.933 – the cool morning air and ability to see meant this is the best time for quick laps.
Then it went wrong – On lap 378 at 8.45am Angus was in with a problem – the exhaust was blowing – it had to be fixed because the noise and the waste gases were coming into the car. Welding, for good reason is not allowed in the pits and so the car was pushed out the back to the transporter lorry and jacked up.
Routine service such as tyres, brakes, body checks and windscreen cleaning are done at the same time – there is never an opportunity to fettle the car that is lost. 11 minutes are lost welding up the exhaust manifold and there are some worried faces in the team now. It is not all bad though – as soon as Angus got onto the circuit he was lapping as quickly as ever – we were still in this race and we had only lost one place. It didn’t look like a class win was on now but we were second in class with a margin of 12 laps to 3rd.
At 9.30 driver 2 got in and off we went again – I was well asleep by this time, but had been feeling slightly strange with a type of motion sickness – laying down with my eyes closed and all I could feel was myself lapping the circuit – it was very uncomfortable but I was so tired nothing would stop me sleeping. During this stint there was a safety car period when two cars did some synchronised spinning and beached themselves on the turn in point of one of the trickiest corners. The cars were hauled off the rumble strips by the marshals and the race resumed.
A crackle on the radio said that our car was in the refuelling area and there was another problem – the exhaust had broken again. There was no messing, it was straight out the back of the pits when the car arrived and the mechanics had the welder ready. It was not to be easily fixed this time though. The exhaust manifold on this car is a beautifully measured and hand crafted affair, optimised for gas flow and not dissimilar to the Hydra of Greek legend.
The split was on the underside in one of the branches where the welder could not get to – if we wanted to finish the race there was no choice but to take the manifold off and repair it – This was at least an hour and a half job. It was a crushing blow to all of us. The mechanics didn’t let it show though – they just got on with dismantling, working as a co-coordinated team where each person had a part to play and knew exactly what it was. Spare mechanics removed the wheels and replaced the rear brake pads and bolted new tyres on, ready for the next stint. A crowd had formed by this time – because we were the first garage and easily accessible. Plenty of people came and asked what was wrong and offered their sympathies and I even got asked for an autograph by a young boy with his programme!
It was ready to go – we were 21 hours into the race and we had dropped to 26th place. Our only possible target was 3rd in class and that was 8 laps ahead of us. They were lapping 10 secs slower than us so we would make 2 laps an hour. Not possible really but the only hope we had.
The team manager told me to “win it or bin it….but don’t bin it really please” Confused, I set off and in the daylight and full of clever energy stuff I drove the weary M3 like I had stolen it (do we dare ask? Ed)
By 22 hours we were only 6 laps down and charging – we were back in 20th place. By 23 hours, with a refuel and a driver change we were back in 21st but still charging and then a safety car came out as a car shed a bumper along the main straight. Effectively that was the end, Angus drove hard to get us into the top 20 at 19th which we managed before the 24 hour mark.
It should be noted that we were 17th on the road, but there were two dead race cars that had done more laps than us and they counted under Britcar rules.
We had got the car home – 24 hours of racing. I have never felt more alive than that moment – and never felt more exhausted 5 minutes later.
A few facts – with the laps we lost in the pits for repairs added to our total we won the race – not just our class, but the race.
We used £3000 worth of fuel and more than £5000 worth of tyres – some teams used 3 times more tyres than we did; new tyres being faster and easier to drive on, yet they were still no faster than us.
Our budget for the whole race probably did not cover the hospitality and marketing budget of a couple of the teams
If you think we were disappointed, what about the car that first led the race at hour 2, then hour 10 to hour 19 and finally finished in 29th place, 10 below us?
Or the other way round – the eventual winner dropped as low as 23rd, but being in the top class it was a very quick car and pulled that back.
I decided I liked this endurance racing lark so the next trip was The Gold Cup 6 Hours of Vallelunga – you get that one in the next instalment.