Roger's back with Part 5 of his 'I want to Race' Blog Series!
Elated with the success of the team and the drivers, our car owner suggested another endurance race. One of the greatest circuits in Italy, for the Vallelunga 6 Hours. The race is an end of season 6 hour jamboree for saloon cars on an international track 25 miles north of Rome.
It was going to be cripplingly expensive but by going with two other cars, in one transporter, the costs came down in a big way, to just rudely expensive.
Just writing those words has given me the tingles (I hope it’s not the same tingles you had on the M40 in the last episode? Ed), even after 15 years. Truly, this was the most fun that you could possibly have with your clothes on.
We turned up after a big crash at the previous race at Brands Hatch with our heads a bit low, as the car was refreshed and pristine before the Brands coming together. Happily the team, Torquespeed, had straightened it out, got all the wheels pointing in the same direction and made it look as nice as it could.
It was a bit scruffy, with a mark half way up the bonnet sponsor sticker showing how far down the bonnet had been after the accident and panel damage all over it – its appearance lulled the Italians into a false sense of security………….
Anyway, after establishing that only cash would do for testing (remember we are in Italy!) and robbing us blind, the car owner and I went suited and booted for a Vallelunga discovery.
It was a circuit neither of us had been to before and wow, what a place. Very, very fast and technical. After coming off a banked hairpin to go past the pits the car is flat out in 4th, a change to 5th (135mph) and still flat out through a downhill kink, where you are a passenger because the aerodynamics are holding you on the ground. At the end of the section, with the gearing that our car was running we were hitting a theoretical 167mph. Brake at a certain trackside board – I did have a video but I just cannot find it now – to try and lose 90mph before turning into a large double apex banked corner that flings you out for the second half of the circuit.
The car was going so well considering its previous weeks’ problems – a couple of issues were sorted in free practice; One was a splitter failure – it came loose on one side and starting flapping, having the effect of making me think my fillings were going to fall out and far more worrying, it causes understeer; that phenomenon where you turn the steering wheel but the front of the car does not want to follow……an important requirement at 125mph+
This probably caused the second issue – a front wheelbearing broke up and we lost brakes – easily dealt with even if it does get your full attention when you brake for the first time after it has failed.
During this testing I was off the pace again and I really didn’t know why as I felt I was giving it LARGE everywhere. So I asked my co-driver and we narrowed it down to a hairpin in the middle part of the circuit.
“Where do you hit the brakes at the end of that straight before the hairpin?” he asked, so I told him. “Ah” he said, “too early, you are losing too much momentum” As I asked where he threw out the anchors, he described an overhead gantry and said “gantry, one…..two, brake”
Wonderful piece of advice. When my turn in the car comes round I get warmed up and start leaning on the car a bit to see how much I could shave off of the laptime. On the first quick lap I still braked in my old place and had to really have a word with myself. On the second one though I was going for death or glory. Unfortunately glory was not on the agenda and I suppose, luckily, death wasn’t either.
Strangely I found myself in the gravel trap in the blink of an eye even though I had followed what my dear leader had said. Having been dragged out of the trap and trundled back to the pits shedding kilos of gravel, I was verbally abused from 100 metres out and all the way into the garage. “But”, I pleaded, “I followed the instructions exactly – gantry, one…..two, brake”
I really couldn’t understand why the car owner and team manager suddenly clutched their sides laughing and the no 1 mechanic sat on the floor giggling like a demented creature.
“No, no, no it was gantryonetwobrake” said Angus, now crying with mirth and gasping for air. It seems each one of those full stops and breathes I put in the instructions was about 30 metres worth of tarmac…….hence my visit to some of Italy’s finest gravel.
From that day until the day Angus died I was never called Roger again. My nickname, no, my actual name, turned into Gantry.
This race was in the last week of November and when I got up the next day there was icy rain coming down. I had brought what I thought was suitable clothing and now I was freezing. As previously mentioned, I am not that tall (Gantry, you are more than just vertically challenged, Ed) and so when the biggest guy in the team gave me a coat, I looked like one of the puppets out of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time (look it up!). It kept everyone amused anyway.
My co-driver qualified – he was way faster than me and we lined up 10th on the grid. One team car was in front and one behind by a couple of places. We were going to do some giant killing.
Come the race and my co-driver had a blinder of a start and was up to 7th into the sweeping bends from the rolling start.
He got up to 5th overall with the pole sitting quasi- factory BMW running off into the distance in first place – it was estimated that this car was £250,000 worth of kit and it was being looked after by a notable selection of BMW factory motorsport staff……..
1 hour 32 minutes in and the petrol light blinks. 100 litres gone in 92 minutes. Perfect!
Then I took it out. There was no plan to change tyres on the first stint so no-one looked; after all, there were no punctures reported. Unknown to us my co-driver had driven it hard enough to chew the front left tyre, which is the one that takes all the punishment on this circuit. Within what seemed like minutes the cars’ handling on the track started going very strange and unfortunately my inexperience meant I kept trying with a car that really needed a new tyre… As it happens, I slid wide twice and lost time before I put the car into the gravel – It took six laps for the marshals to get me out.
Got it back to the pits where the team all had their heads down and then one of them apologised (!!) (I was expecting to eat major humble pie) for not changing the tyres and they showed me the left front – it was without rubber and down to the canvas and metal threads right the way across……. You can see it in the picture.
My co-driver went out again and through driving like a thing possessed got us back to 7th, with no incidents.
The final pit stop was done and I went out with new tyres this time – 1 hour 40 minutes to go and everything to play for. The team manager laid it on the line and told me what I needed to do.
We were 1 lap off of 6th, 2 laps off of 5th and 3 laps off of 3rd.
I have never driven so hard or so well, before or since – it was because there was a goal and even though I had been exonerated of blame for the tyre and gravel incident, I still felt it was my issue to deal with. I was faster than the cars ahead but had a lot of distance to make up.
At this point I hadn’t even heard of being in The Zone, so I didn’t know what I was experiencing, but I was there, no doubt. Time slowed down, I had pinpoint focus yet at the same time I could see all around me. I was so aware it was almost frightening. All the sound around me calmed; the engine, which on any day sounded like the music of the gods, growled but didn’t intrude; the gearbox, diff, tyres and wind noise disappeared, gone, nothing, almost a celestial silence. And I was doing magic.
In those 100 minutes I overtook 38 cars according to the team, lapping some of them 3 times. One car caused a problem – a BMW M5 – possibly 120 hp more than us and very quick – he had a problem though – his power steering was only working on and off – a bit of a challenge in the corners when it does work, then doesn’t.
Over the radio I get a shout – Oil on the track – the 4th placed car has crashed and bounced back onto the circuit leaving oil everywhere.
We are now 6th – in the ensuing confusion and just beyond the yellows, the 5th placed car had slowed down too much and I got him next lap.
4th was in sight but I nearly lost us the race at that point as I pushed a little too hard – I slide wide on the dirty side of the track. So did the leader as well as he came up to me, except he went off into the gravel – was he stuck, would this be the giant killing act I had promised??
Marshalls got him out quickly though and he didn’t lose a place.
I really don’t remember how long it took to catch 4th; but I got him at the end of the big straight in a banzai move on the brakes.
I couldn’t believe it and had to calm myself down again.
20 minutes – under 1 lap to third place – I then was told it was only 1 and a half laps to 2nd place as our sister car was slowing. I hadn’t even realised that our sister car had got that high up the leaderboard.
2 laps to go and another eyes shut move into the gantry hairpin (I did Gantry right this time) got 3rd and I set off for 2nd. Onto the pit straight from the banking and the chequered flag waved….No, no, no, not yet please.
I had run out of time to chase 2nd – Our team mate was just too far ahead – in the end the difference was 28 seconds 3rd to 2nd.
Suddenly the spell was broken, the magic was gone and someone turned the noise back on and it was so loud it made me jump, I was truly startled. On the slowing down lap all the marshals were waving their flags and clapping – it really was very highly charged and this is the first time I have ever admitted this, I was crying like a baby with the release of adrenaline and the emotion of delivering a blinder. On the podium, in Italy, with the team and everyone down below cheering, I couldn’t help it, I went into full blubbering mode again.
Apart from the races that you win, there is always a “what if” session afterwards – “what if I had recognised the shredded tyre?”