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On track with Steven Roy - A review of several racing days with a lot of learning to do

Published by Steven Roy

Many years ago I was lucky enough to fit in a couple of experience days then a 4 day racing school course and after that a couple of races all in Formula Ford 1600s. As usual when I start a post I know some of the stuff I want to include but I am not really sure how I am going to stitch it all together but I am sure I will find a way.

The first time I drove a racing car was at the now defunct Ingliston circuit near Edinburgh. Although it was next to an airport and part of the Royal Highland Agricultural Show grounds it was more like a street circuit being only 1.03 miles long and with Armco at the track edge all the way round. I did a few laps in my road car with an instructor giving advice and decided I didn’t like the barriers being so close.

I then did 5 laps in the FFord and during the third lap I decided I hated it. I had never worn a crash helmet before and the 6 point racing harness means your body just can’t move. Add to that you are so low in the car and those barriers and it just wasn’t fun. After deciding racing definitely wasn’t for me my Scottish gene kicked in and decided that I had paid for 5 laps so I was going to do them all and try to enjoy it. I often wonder what I would have done with all the money I would have saved if I had parked that car two laps earlier.

After another similar day just to be sure I really liked it I committed to finding a full racing school program. After a long and complicated search (no internet then) I eventually settled on the school at Aintree which used to hold the Grand Prix and still holds the Grand National horse race. I did a couple of days around October then the final two between Xmas and New Year. I learned all the basic techniques you would expect and also that you should not always investigate potential hazards because they can be scarier than you first thought.

The track is actually part of the road that you see camera cars using during the horse race. I thought that crashing into one of those fences on the exit of a corner would not be fun but since they are only really twigs they wouldn’t do much damage. I can’t remember why but I found myself standing close to one of the fences and wandered over to take a look. Those things have branches that are at least 2 inches in diameter. Hitting it face first in a single-seater would hurt. The other thing I learned was that racing school makes you drive faster.

The program was alternate runs in your own road car with advice then runs in the race car to apply what you had learned. Because you are improving gradually and the rev limit on the race car is gradually being increased you don’t really understand how much you are improving. The two days I did between Xmas and New Year started with everyone going out in their own cars and driving laps to break up the frost that covered the circuit. Most of the people had been given experience vouchers for Xmas and were desperate to use them. As a result they were very cautious on the track. I was being careful because I was the most advanced their so I was being very protective of my car with all these ‘rookies’ who didn’t have two days experience. Despite that at the end of the straight there was an open hairpin and on one lap I passed 7 cars into that corner.

After you have completed racing school the only thing to do is race. Fortunately the racing school were prepared to hire out their cars to ex-pupils. The car hire prices were expensive as you would expect but the insurance was horrific. Although Aintree had a racing school it no longer had a racing licence so my race debut would be at Oulton Park which is about as different to Aintree as possible. The Aintree club circuit is flat and has 4 relatively simple corners. Oulton is up and down and has a huge range of corners. So after a quick diversion to Demon Tweeks to acquire the latest in affordable racing driver fashion I reported to Oulton at stupid o’clock one Thursday morning.

I had a full day’s testing on the Thursday with all sorts of different cars ranging from professional FFord to saloon cars to someone in a full ground effect ex F2 car or something similar. After being told where the course went and what gears to take I set off having seen only the two corners I could see form the pits. It was very strange to have to set out blind after being spoon fed all the way through racing school. At the end of lap one I was back into the pits after discovering for myself that the second last corner was second gear and not third. No harm done though other than the gravel trap being short of a couple of pounds of stones.

Through the day my times gradually came down and the track started to flow. There is nothing like banging in laps to make sense of a track. By mid afternoon I was doing laps around 1 minute 40 (100 seconds) which was not startlingly quick but so far I hadn’t bent the car or myself and I could see some improvement so I was happy. I was doing ten lap runs followed by a debrief and discussion of where I thought I could make time. No telemetry or technology to help figure it out. After a couple of ten lap runs with no improvement I decided that I was going to do a couple of fast laps then a slow one to have a good look at each corner before finishing with fast laps.

The slow lap was painfully slow. I would accelerate as normal out of a corner but lift off early and cruise through each corner to see if there was something I was missing. When I reached the end of the run and saw the lap times I just couldn’t believe the time. That lap felt like walking pace. I had gone putting in 100% effort to putting in about 10% effort and the time was only two seconds more than my fast laps. 90% less effort made me 2% slower and I was still 8-10 seconds off the really fast guys. So when you see F1 drivers half a second off a fast time they really are cruising and putting no effort in.

I had a few spins during the day but only made contact with anything on one of them. I lost the back end of the car going into Knickerbrook which was a corner rather than a chicane then. It is very odd to be going forward at 90 mph and then have the rear of the car decide it is its turn to sit in the front seat. So I caught the spin heading backwards at 70ish mph. It doesn’t feel fast at the time but if anyone suggested you reverse at motorway speed you would think they were crazy. The real problem is braking going backwards. It is awkward as most of the braking force is applied to the front wheels but when you are going backwards all the load is on the rear wheels. So eventually despite being very careful I locked the front wheels and the car snapped round and the front right tapped a barrier. The engine had stalled during the spin so I jumped out of the car to see how much damage I had done and spotted someone running toward me through the neck high grass.

I had checked the car and it was fine but I thought as there are no marshals and this person is obviously coming to make sure I am OK I will wait and have a word with him. As he reached me completely out of breath his first words were “What kind of engine do you have in that?”. He had fought his way through 200 yards of Cheshire jungle not to save me but to ask a racing geek question. So after a brief chat I jumped in and headed back to explain why the lap had taken 15 minutes and to prove that I had not destroyed the car.

That corner caused me no end of problems. Even when I got through it OK I would run into trouble at the next corner. It was an uphill left hander but you couldn’t see the corner until you crested the hill 10 yards before it. So you were committed to a line before you could see the corner. On one lap I came over the rise to find myself looking at a rabbit which was looking straight back at me. I was committed to a line and could not have reacted in time to avoid it anyway.

So the nose of the car hit the rabbit and stood it upright – head up, bum down – and it flew past my right hand side just like those MIGs in Top Gun. Needless to say the suspension mangled the rabbit. I completed my run without giving it another thought and returned to the pits to find out how much faster I had gone. I was greeted by looks of horror and questions about how big the accident was. I hadn’t realised the whole side of the car was covered in blood like flo-vis. I explained it was only a rabbit and everyone calmed down.

As I said earlier there were a range of different cars with hugely different performance on the track at the same time. On one lap I overtook double 500cc motorbike world champion in his Toyota saloon car. I think he was just letting me by so he could pit without me getting in his way but not many people overtake a double world champion in their first public test session so I am claiming it as a proper overtake.

I went to bed with my brain trying to process 120 laps worth of information. At that time Oulton Park was 2.35 miles long so I had done more than a full grand prix distance at racing speed. Friday morning was a shock to the system. Despite a car with zero downforce and me being young and fit I couldn’t move anything above my waist. My back and neck were seized solid. It stayed like that all day and I had to get up the next morning and do my first qualifying and race. I spent a couple of hours in a hot bath and fortunately in the morning I felt great.

Qualifying was only about 15 minutes so you had to be out and on the pace immediately. The field was made up of a few rookies like me and a bunch of people who had been racing for anything up to 20 odd years. I qualified towards the back of the middle third of the grid so I was happy with that. The grid was not the usual F1 staggered grid with one car on each row. The front row had 3 cars all in line with 2 cars on the second row and then all the other rows having alternately 3 or 2 cars. As a result of that there are cars all round you at the start. I started on one of the rows of two so I had a car beside me, 2 cars in front on either side and the same behind.

That Saturday I imagine was the wettest day in Cheshire’s history. I may have had 120 laps of experience but that was in the dry. I had never been on a wet track. To make matters worse our race had been scheduled to be the first race after lunch but the powers that be decided to have a couple of races before lunch. It made no difference to me but it was the first race of the season and some of the more serious drivers had sponsors arriving after lunch to watch and they were not at all happy. Needless to say having a dozen angry drivers on grid on the wettest day in history is a recipe for carnage.

The organisers decided to line our cars up in the pit lane in grid order while the last qualifying session that was in progress finished. As soon as they let us go the guy in front floored it and left the pits. The pit exit was not as wide as you would expect and had solid posts at either side of it. I hadn’t really noticed it because every time I left the pits previously I had been going slowly. This time because everyone was flooring the throttle and going by the time I reached the pit exit I must have been doing about 80mph and at that speed the gap was far narrower than I had realised. I got through OK but it did occur to me my race debut could have ended by crashing into the pit exit.

I arrived at the grid to realise that although I knew which position I was in numerically I had no idea geographically where to find it. Fortunately a helpful marshal was there to make sure we all found our correct position. After that it was a case of watching for the countdown boards which we had been warned would be quick. 2 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds all in the space of about 20 seconds. Then the weirdest experience I have ever had in my life. It is impossible to convey the level of concentration you have in a racing car. It is not like anything you experience in any other endeavour. Applying all that concentration to a red light so that you can synchronise the clutch and accelerator to get the perfect get away really gets your brain working. Just before the light went out my brain felt like my blood had been replaced with ice water. I mean that literally. I felt like my brain temperature had dropped 40 degrees and I could feel something freezing cold flowing through it. In any other situation that would be scary; really terrifyingly scary but while staring at that light I remember my only thought was “that’s odd”. My brain had frozen from my point of view and I had one short thought and filed that to consider it later because a red light was more important. I have asked many people about that feeling and I can’t find anyone else who has ever experienced it.

My start turned out to be quite good and I made up a few places by the first corner. The first lap was fine as I did not lose any of the places I had gained. Visibility was horrendous because of the rain. For much of the time I could see nothing. In the braking zones I could see the red light of the car in front but that was all. These were more like small road car fog lights rather than the flashing high intensity F1 lights. On the second lap I lost a couple of places as people started to find the limit in the monsoon conditions. I was passed by one of the other four cars run by the same people who run mine. I decided my best plan was to follow it and match its speed. I knew the two cars were identical so what could go wrong. What went wrong was I had a lap and a half of racing experience and the driver in front had 20 years experience in similar cars on that track so he went through Knickerbrook a little faster than I thought I could do it but I decided to trust his speed because if I dropped further back from him I couldn’t learn as much and would probably start losing more places. He went through the corner and my rear decided it wanted to lead again so I spun away and ended up nose first in the same barrier I had tapped 2 days earlier. This time there were marshals to get me out and take the damaged nose cone behind the barriers. So my first race finished with me standing in a monsoon in Cheshire in March. Rather annoyingly I jumped in the car after the race to get towed back to the pits and decided to try the starter and it fired. Had I been thinking about starting the engine rather than being annoyed about spinning I could probably have continued rather than abandoning the car.

This post is several weeks late but hopefully I can be forgiven for that. The whole series has ground to a halt after a promising start so hopefully others will follow my lead and post their own experiences of being on track.

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