Aintree Sprint – Caterham Academy 2011

Sunny DayAll in all and albeit ending in a catastrophe for myself, the first Caterham Academy 2011 event was a brilliant day. A massive well done to Andy Welch of group 2 and Elliott Norris of group 1 who won their respective groups with fastest laps. Elliott attained a best of 54.16 with Andy attaining a best of 53.78, just 0.10 seconds short of Richard McCann’s class record of 53.68 in 2005.

The event was hosted by the Liverpool Motor Club on a fantastic sunny and warm but breezy day. @NoisyPaul and I arrived around 06.45am as I had previously read the Regs that the gates open at 06.30am. I wanted to arrive early and avoid any congestion and park the trailer without too much hassle, grabbing some breakfast and coffee at the cafe before the 07.30am sign-on. As we arrived, there were a number of tents erected by fellow competitors and some motorhomes too who had camped overnight and were starting to stir. After a little ‘hello’, Paul and I went off to seek out some caffeine and bacon only to find that the cafe did not open until 08.00am. I went to the little boys room and while away, @NoisyPaul who I should now perhaps rename @CheekyPaul has blagged an electrical socket from the administration office for our kettle in return for a cup of tea for the sign-on lady and time keeper with an added blag that if I were to present myself earlier, I could be first to sign-on. A great idea as I was aware of the timings that morning in that a course walk was already open and would finish at 08.15am at which time there would be a mandatory briefing.

Cups in hand, @CheekyPaul and I set off around the course looking for braking, turn, apex and exit points. Like a Wild West Indian Tracker, he was spotting brake marks and surface changes, looking for clues and indicators that may help in that day’s challenges. Half way around we ended up speaking to another gentleman riding a bike, who was also competing in another class who was helping with his own hints and tips.

We arrived back in the paddock around 08.05am, noting that no other competitor was in sight. Recalling the “Mandatory Safety Briefing” at 08.15am and not wanting to be late, I left @CheekyPaul to take the car out of the trailer while I attended the briefing. At the administrative building there was no-one to be seen which started to get me worried, wondering where everyone was. After a quick look in the cafe I returned to the admin building asking where the briefing was to be held, being told “right outside”. So I was in the correct place, but where was everyone else?

The briefing started though quite quickly was noted that there didn’t seem to be too many drivers in attendance. It then became clear in that the Academy competitors were walking the course as a group, with the ‘Clerk of the Course’ for that day. My heartbeat dropped to a normal rate in that I was not alone and that a second briefing would have to be held for the Academy drivers.

Assemby AreaAfter the second briefing I walked back to the paddock to find that the scrutineer had visited and @CheekyPaul had offloaded the car. The time was now around 09.30am and the event had already started. The next question on my mind was, when we would be called. This unanswered question enticed a recall of checklist and I started to get ready. I had packed all that I needed and just wanted to get ready sooner than later as I wanted to be calm and relaxed. @Roaders and @MrsRoaders were here by now and once suited and booted I wanted to upload the video scene from the laptop to the VBOX and as it was uploading, @CheekyPaul inserted the ignition key and turned the cut out switch to the ‘off’ position, turning off power to the car and the VBOX. An ‘unable to connect’ error message caught me unaware and to be quite terse at @CheekyPaul.

There was a definite positive vibe in the Paddock and it seemed everyone was excited and it was soon our turn to prepare for our first test run. I had more questions! If there was a red flag and if there was a re-run, how do you get back in the queue? How do you get back into the paddock after a run? Thank you to Rachel Horgan for her answers as she took a couple of shots for the Driver Profile Pages. It was then time to go.

Trailer DebriefingJumping into the car, mumbling to myself my checklist and once fully prepared we were called in numerical order to the Assembly Area. Remaining calm I was trying to think of each corner and how to traverse it. Slowly we were called to the tyre warming area and with tyres now perceivably warmer it was off to the start line, recalling the practice starts from yesterday at Anglesey, I was placed into position and the light green appeared. A rather juddery start and I was off, left at corner one, right at two, straight towards a long right hander into corner three and then bury the throttle along the finish straight. Once passed the finish line the time recorded was 56 dot something and I felt improvement could be made.

Back at the paddock and @CheekyPaul beckoned me to pull onto the trailer and not the grass. I do not know why as I wanted to park with all the other cars in a pretty row. A quick chat stating my time and I jumped out to be asked by Elliott a similar, “What was your time?”. A few seconds later Adrian Flemming was asking the same question, 56 dot something and then the rumour went around that the finishing timer display was broken as all times seemed to be the same. Not to worry as the printed results would be on the board in half an hour.

Getting ReadyThe banter in the paddock was friendly and positive, everyone wanting to share their own experiences and we heard the times were on the board and if I recall, mine a 56 something. Not bad but as my school teacher always said, “could do better” and I felt the thing that let me down was the fumbled start, something I must concentrate on next time. Already talk was of the course record and @CheekyPaul was also commenting on the YouTube video he had seen chatting about short shifts and 54 seconds. That was my target for the day I felt, a sub 55 second result would be ideal.

It wasn’t too long after when we were called again for the second run. All I could think about is my checklist though @CheekyPaul was trying to focus my mind. As you know ladies, men don’t multitask that well and low and behold, with gloves on and arm restraints in place, I forgot to attach the Hans clips. Off came the arm restraints and off the gloves!

Assembly AreaSimilar format of the first session, we all assembled again in numerical order and we were called again to the tyre warming area in good time. My clutch biting point was right at the bottom and I wondered if a steady lift rather than a harsh ‘dump’ would make the start a little easier? I wasn’t at the Silverstone handling day so this was practice in real time. Tyres warmed and I was at the start line waiting for the green light. A more progressive release of the clutch and we were off, first gear, second, third and oops, my visor was open. After a quick pull the visor was closed and hand back on the wheel before the sharp right into the 90 degree corner at ‘Country’ and wide out pulling back to the left of the circuit, recalling to enter ‘Village’ just as the Armco ends and keep high to a perceived late apex. Straitening out along ‘Valentines Way’ and an again late right into ‘Becher’s Bend’ and staying wide for the late second apex, accelerating along the ‘Railway Straight’ to the finish line.

And RelaxBack in the paddock and the discussion of times was on everyone’s lips once again albeit the finish line clock seemed again to be broken. Nonetheless I just felt this run was much faster and just a short half an hour later and my time was 55.6 something, which was a a whole second off my first attempt. Excellent news though quicker times of 54’s were starting to appear on the board and I again new I felt I could do better. But how?

My competitive edge was starting to appear and I started to think how may others be achieving such times? Looking at the results, my start times were fast enough, so it had to be the corners? Had I got the right lines I wondered? Had I got the correct entry speeds? Was I braking to hard on entry? Alas, that was the end of the practice runs and the next attempt would be the first of four timed sessions.

Time for a bottle of fizzy water and chill for a bit. Albeit there was a hard breeze, the sun was warm and it made sense to consider some strategy for the next, official timed session. One thing I tried to recall was the course itself but what I found quite astonishing is that 55 seconds flies past lightening fast. Both times on previous practice runs went by in a flash. Nonetheless I tried to think how I could better perform.

Sunny DaysPerhaps I could take corner three ‘Village’ in 4th and corner 4 ‘Bechers’ too? I have taken similar corners on race circuits in 4th and as many have stated in the past, with Academy driving, it’s all about keeping momentum and using the circuit to it’s full potential. ‘Eureka’ I thought, I would try the latter two corners in 4th.

It worked as my first official timed run placed me at 55.21 and I was happy. I was happy in the way the car handled though I felt there was a little more to give. This first timed event placed me 5th of 23 entrants, some 0.63 of a second behind the fastest 54.48 that session.

Lunch was upon us so @Roaders, @MrsRoaders, @CheekyPaul and I popped over to the cafe for some lunch. Discussions were around performances for the morning and how I could improve. It was Adrian who had already figured that all entrants were 54 something and 56 something, just two seconds spanning the whole 23 entrants times in group 1. The question remained, how could I nudge .21 of a second to attain a 54 something? Thus discussions over lunch tended to bias entry speeds and braking with one suggestion that I could take Bechers ‘flat’ in 4th, which in my opinion seemed feasible, though perhaps unnerving and perhaps something to try as it was rumoured other competitors had already taken “Becher’s flat”. The other discussion was a ‘heavy lift’ and all in all, I think my mind was made up that I felt I was taking corners one and two fine, but the time to be made up should be around Beacher’s Bend which will continue momentum along the ‘Railway Straight’.

OBVBack in the paddock and lunch over, the afternoon session recommenced. Jenny was around and already spotted I needed to make a change to the positioning of the harness for the Hans device. I didn’t know, but Jenny did design the Schroth Caterham Hybrid harness and she explained exactly how it was designed and how it would work. We agreed I would pop back to see her after this second run and she would help position the harness correctly. I had spoken to my wife and she too had asked how I think I could better my performance. It was all in my mind, I needed to enter Becher’s a little quicker, whether it was ‘flat’ or a ‘confident lift’ as in my mind, other aspects of the course were fine and it was corner three, Becher’s where the time could be made. My top speed along the Railway Straight was 108MPH in the previous 3 runs, so to grab some additional MPH on exit of Becher’s was in my mind, the answer.

We were called to Assembly and while waiting all I could see was a marshal running towards my direction with a fire extinguisher. My worse fears were forefront in my mind that my car was on fire and my hands were were placed on my buckle for a fast release. Alas not, though when looking in my mirror I could see flames behind which initially appeared to be coming from Andrew Cross’s car. Thankfully not either, but on a car just arriving in the paddock after his timed session.

Once the ambulance was in situ again, we were called forward to the tyre warning area. Both @CheekyPaul and @Roaders were up on the banking at Village Corner, hoping to see how I was progressing and take a few photos and maybe video. Tyres warmed and again I was positioned at the start. Checking my visor was down, the light went green and a cracking start. Second gear then third and a light dab of the brakes to left into ‘Country’ and the car started to overstear a little. Working with that the car feel balanced and I was happy, I felt a lot faster than previous sessions. Snatching 4th into ‘Village’ and staying high as was suggested by the man on the bike, the next think I knew I was hurtling down ‘Valentines Way’ towards ‘Becher’s Bend’ and much faster than I think I had done previously. Looking for the turn point I give a ‘confident lift’ and turned the car in, though no braking. This is where it ends sadly.

Daisy In FenceReviewing the onboard footage it seems quite apparent what went wrong. Looking for the turn point, instead of braking I lift off the gas though I am still carrying in too much speed. The car would not turn in. Although the turn in looks OK, there is simply not enough grip for that speed and soon I was running out of Tarmac. Although I tried to correct a number of times, it kept washing wide and then with the likes of Ballabriggs, I am on the Aintree turf. Seeing the fence (wire that is, not Becher’s Brook!) coming towards me I try my hardest to steer parallel but to no avail. The result is that Miss Daisy and I are a tangled mess in the fencing and concrete posts.

Again on the footage I can see tyre marks which suggests I was not the first to go off at that point that day. Though this begs a question in my mind? Should I have braked on the Tarmac or keep the gas buried? I have my own view here and that you only brake in a spin, yes?

As I tried to get out, all I could hear is the marshal shouting “stay in the car” and within a minute he was asking if I was OK. Just a couple of minutes more and the paramedics were there, checking me over and asking if I was OK. I have to say, very professional.

Daisy On TowOnce out of the car I was escorted to the rescue vehicle and what was a very slow drive to the paddock. More than anything, it was more the potential embarrassment in that I would be the first casualty on the first speed event and of course, a dented car means a dented wallet.

Once in the paddock, the comradery was most welcomed. Sarcastic comments such as “racing with the greatests on the turf at Aintree” could only bring a smile to my face. Questions of how I would feel driving home were on most lips and that I should sit down and have a cup of tea. Thank you for Andrew Cross for offering to drive me home, along with Mark Cox, @Roaders and @CheekyPaul too. A special mention to Elliott Norris and Duncan Cundall-Curry who offered to help rebuild the car and special mention to Mark Cox for awarding the ‘biggest balls’ accolade and for those who want to see the grizzly details:
[vimeo clip_id=”23143012″]

As I type the car is back at Caterham Midlands and I am waiting an estimate. Initial suggestions of a long front and a basket have quickly been surpassed with a comment of a ‘new chassis’. I hope not as this will be the second time this has happened and my credit card doesn’t need a second dent too, though that does mean more air miles!

Here’s hoping that this is my first and last incident of this series and an incident I can put down to experience and learning. As a R300 race colleague has commented, “Motorsport is an addictive drug filled with expense and depression but with the occasional high that keeps you coming back for more” and I look forward to seeing everyone at Curborough in a fortnight.

Finally a big thank you to @CheekyPaul for joining me back to Silverstone and then driving home to Donnington. Putting his ‘Noddy’ car in the trailer worked a treat.

[nggallery id=3]