Is it possible to take an engineer test evaluator and turn him into a racing driver?
A first race “Rabbit in the Headlights” perspective.
28th April 2019
3:45pm live TV stream coverage: “Oo, someone’s, now… is he ok, has he had a fall? No… it’s just the sheer exhaustion, you can just see, bent over…. This is what endurance racing does to drivers irrespective of their level”.
Wayne’s World [flash back sound and wobbly images] diddle de dum, diddle de dum…
31st October 2018
Colin: “What else would you like to do now with all that’s happened this year, changing jobs and so on?”
Me: “I’d love to find a way to have a go at endurance racing as my first ever trip to Le Mans this year blew me away, but I don’t know where to start.”
Colin: “Say that again?”
Me (nervously): “I’d like to try a 24-hour endurance race but don’t know how or where to start”.
Colin: “CAT has just bought a Citroen C1 and we’re going to enter into some C1 Endurance races next year – if you’re serious about this I will ask David & Phil, my core racing team mates, if they would be ok with you racing with us. I know you know how to drive so I’ve not got a problem, but let me ask Phil and Dave”.
Me: “Er…wow, thank you”. Get in the car to drive home from Millbrook thinking ‘what just happened?’
22nd November 2018
The phone rings it’s Colin: “Hi Nic, sorry for the delay with this, but if you’re still up for an adventure, we’d love you to join us, for the 24 hour Silverstone Race at the end of April 2019 as a member of the CATDT endurance team.”
Friday 26th April. Silverstone Circuit. 20:50 pm
“What the hell am I doing? I’m strapped into the car, in the garage. I’m actually strapped into a racing car and about to do my first ever qualifying session… in the dark and damp…with 98 other cars. I feel sick. They’re all looking at me and smiling.
Oh look a thumbs up from someone – who was that? I’ve forgotten everyone’s names all of a sudden. What did Matt just say to me? Was it something about full fuel or foot on brake clutch and first gear then they’ll tell me when to go? God it’s warm in here. What’s that noise? Ah, that will be my heart I can hear in my helmet. Stop breathing so hard you’ll steam your eyeballs up. I feel bloody awful.
Stop opening the door and telling me things, I don’t have the mental capacity anymore to deal with any more stuff. What time is it now? Ooohhhh my stomach is going now and I’m shaking, don’t let anyone see your hands, just hold the wheel and shut your eyes, yeah, like that’s going to help. I need a Dave hug – we like Dave, Dave is awesome.
What did Phil say about things? Just concentrate and relax into it and drive your own laps. Go with that, Phil knows his onions, he’s given me such a boost the last few track days we’ve had with confidence and calming me down as I’m worrying about letting them all down.
Fast feet, fast hands, remember all the training we’ve done over the years, if you can pedal a McLaren P1 around a track, you can pedal a C1 around Silverstone. Great, Colin’s now just arrived in my head, that’s all I can hear now – no bad thing.
S**t, start the car, start the car, oh they’re pushing me back, stop breathing so hard, you’ll start hyperventilating, slow it down. Don’t stall the car. Give them a thumbs up and go up the pit lane sensibly. At least give the impression you know what you’re doing. Arm up – show my HUE tag to the scanner, will it go green or am I going to look like a complete idiot… it’s gone green. Ohhh shizzle – hello Silverstone!”
Adapting my engineer mindset
It’s funny how things can happen in your life that you weren’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting to be sat behind the wheel of a little Citroen C1 in 2019. Taking part in my first ever race with a group of utterly amazing individuals who put their trust in me, to be part of a totally amazing adventure, that started off with a throw-away comment to Colin back in 2018.
Is it at all possible to take an engineer who has spent his automotive career testing and signing off vehicles around the world, for manufacturers before the public gets to buy them, and turn him into a racer?
From little Hyundai i10’s to mighty McLarens, Astons and Radicals on proving grounds. You’re responsible for millions of pounds’ worth of prototype vehicle, basically trying to break them and ensure that they meet all of the Regulations required, to make them safe and legal. Now I’m navigating Silverstone competitively amongst traffic who are hell bent on being in that space in front of you at all costs.
Everything I do is measured, evaluated and consistent. Every steering input is controlled to ensure that changes to set up do not have an adverse effect on the vehicle. Vehicles “need” to feel like they’re on rails when cornering, brakes and ABS systems need to be totally efficient and there must be no surprises. Now, this is about speed, consistency and throwing some skills out the window for a bit, but ultimately, that’s the base I have to work on so it has to be adapted and improved.
Stepping into the world of circuit racing with the CATDTC1 endurance team with Colin, Phil Marsh who is a seasoned Fun Cup racer and David Alstadter who’s pedalled his way to Porsche Championship wins in the USA was going to be one of, if not the, biggest challenges I’d had behind the wheel of a car – ever.
The love and attention that has been poured onto this C1 by the three of them and the amazing Track Toys team in Cannock is testament to their professionalism as drivers and vehicle builders. Going half-cocked into a 24-hour endurance race is simply not worth it – and we saw that during the event. Poor preparation saw vehicles failing for items that should not have been a reason to fail.
Testing – Finding my racing rhythm
Once the car was prepared and unveiled to the world, everyone gathered at Millbrook to understand the car, discuss set up and spend time learning how the car felt.
Silverstone was used to spend time learning the car on the full GP circuit at the end of March and start of April. Each session was a learning experience. Feel the car, explore the limits and work on tyre pressures/geometry to give us the best handling car that we could. The end of the first full GP circuit battered me both physically and mentally and my lap times were quite a way off Phil, David and Colin’s. That feeling of doubt was starting to creep in. But, being sensible, I was learning the circuit, I’d never driven the full circuit only the National one years ago in a very different car.
A smaller day on the National circuit which gave us valuable learning for a few corners that were problems for us all, Brooklands and Luffield as they’re difficult corners when you only have 68bhp to pull you around, so entry and exits are critical. My times were improving listening and learning from the guys about how the car works.
I will admit to having a proper “driver diva strop” after a session as I was so frustrated with the car as I couldn’t get it to hook up and drive like how I “thought” a race car should drive. I wanted this amazing feeling of lateral g-acceleration building up and getting round the corners like it was on rails, not slipping and sliding about and having to work the wheel to get the car to go round.
I was properly annoyed and frustrated with the car. It was at this point, once I’d downloaded all of my experience from the session into Colin and Matt that the clouds parted and I had a lightbulb moment…
This is what they wanted the car to do. If you’re putting single inputs into the steering around corners that are high speed in the C1, you’re not going fast enough and you’re slow out of the corners, park Roadcraft for now. To use Colin’s turn of phrase:
“If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not going fast enough.”
The aim is to get the car to move around and rotate at the rear to enable you to come out of a corner with as little steering lock on as possible. This means you’ve carried your corner entry speed out of the corner and can accelerate towards the next one better, this is where your lap times come down. It’s all about consistency as we all know, but it’s a different consistency to what I am familiar with, what I’m comfortable with.
The “clang” of the penny dropping was deafening to me. I let all of my experience from the session “process” through my now highly overworked brain cell. Later in the afternoon I now found that if I put the engineer in me to one side for a moment and stopped worrying about passenger comfort, NVH and reducing my worry for wrapping the car in cotton wool, it started to work. The words of wisdom and advice from all of the guys started to make sense and my times began to drop. I began to feel more and more comfortable being uncomfortable.
Rhythm is key, it’s finding that racing rhythm that is the difficult bit, but if you take the time to listen – and by that I mean shut up, and actively listen to what’s being said to you, learn to visualise and feel what’s being said to you about positions, lines and what the car is doing underneath you at any given time, you stand a far greater chance of improving your lap times and staying out of trouble. And more importantly, not getting yourself into trouble – which we all know will happen as you’re constantly pushing your boundaries and limits to find out what works for you and what doesn’t.
At the beginning of this blog, you read what my head was doing on the night of qualifying, my first ever outing into a world that I had no knowledge of! Needless to say, I survived. Not happy with our final time and position as we know we could have been much higher, but trying to get a clean lap was nigh on impossible with 99 cars out there on the track. So that was chalked up to experience and a big beaming smile from Phil who said “that’s the hard bit over and done with, the race will be better”. And he was right, qualifying was hard as it was a flurry of activity and we learned from it.
My worst fear had been realised about going out first. What if it rains and my time is the qualifying time? This then played out, but Phil managed to get a lap in, but he was held up and we qualified in 54th position – soon to become 53rd due to someone getting sent to the back of the grid for being underweight.
Pit stop strategy was to run Phil for the first hour of the race as he had recent rolling race start experience that needed to be utilised, then after an hour, Colin would get in. This staggered our pit stop times to a quieter pit lane, as we thought people would be going by the two-hour driving stint, as that was roughly the fuel run time. Handing over to Colin in position 53, Colin then ran his two hours before handing over to me in position 33, for my turn. I was shaking like a leaf before I went in the car, but everyone calmed me down, I took the leap into the unknown… To be continued.