FROM THE DRIVER'S SEAT
Unless you've never been to this site before, or met me, you don't need to be told how I feel about Cadwell. We all like coming here, it's a nice place to be even if there weren't a race track here. After now ten years of coming here I have only now discovered this green and pleasant land is quite so close to the horrific fish-scented wasteland that is Grimsby, but if I try very hard I can probably forget that. A fast lap of Cadwell, on a nice day, and when the car is working, I don't think can be equalled in this country. It's pure enjoyment. You can get it wrong and you can get damaged and you can get hurt, but it's also a stunning place to get right.
We steam in here on the back of a double-defeat at Rockingham, and attention is largely on the braking issues we had. The post-Rockingham prep was meant to be easy, but it was more involved than expected. An engine oil leak, easily cured by replacing the ever-splitting cam cover seals. New brake pads all round. New front discs. Rear wheel bearing. Driveshaft UJs. Windscreen. New tyres - 2 of them killed dead at Rockingham in 2 hours flat. Not the work of moments, not cheap. But, we found a few little improvements, and that is always nice as a driver, you can tell yourself your car is now faster.
And so to testing. Testing was almost a complete waste of time. 49 laps of Cadwell covered, and how many of them were clear of traffic, dry, and full-bore? One. One single bloody lap. The problem? 2CVs, and sodding Smart Cars. Also Legends. Or, you might suggest, the BARC, for jamming a record 26 races into the Cadwell weekend and thus flooding the test day with very slow cars. Cadwell had split testing into three session, but two of them were for the precious Caterhams, who are too delicate to race together and have to be segregated, but anything with a roof can obviously be clumped together. As a Saker sports prototype bore down on me and we both weaved through the mobile road blocks this seemed like a really sensible plan.
It is, always, the responsibility of the faster car to safely pass the slower. No problem with that, I spent years as the slowest thing on the tarmac, and even now probably 75% of the club racing scene travels faster than we do, but a 2CV that might find 70mph, a Smart car that takes a week to see triple digits, both testing en masse, with a 160mph Jag, slick-shod M3s and sports prototypes that can snap your spine just by looking at the throttle, that's a mix that is asking for carnage.
And carnage we nearly found, when after one of the numerous red flags we left assembly, one of a train of cars including 3 tin snails drafting down the left of the main straight failed to check the mirrors before pulling out of the tow, just as Helen found her full voice down the right. 50 or 60mph closing speed, and leaning on the anchors hard wagged the tail well out of line such that we were heading broadside for the end of the pitwall. Off the brake and she wagged hard left, then corrected herself, slowing with inches to spare. I have no need for Senokot. The offender did come to find me in the paddock just as I was in full rant about that fucking 2CV.
A fresh-tyre banzai lap never happened. The speed disparity with these ridiculous Smarts or the French sheds was such that there was no space to do it. Whilst Clios and the like are maybe half a dozen seconds off pace, and clued-up, aware racers such that you can go by without incident, the slow stuff is so slow that if you're wanging down towards Park and you can see one at the Gooseneck, your lap is already ruined.
The 2CVs are pretty aware, they know what they are and they're not out to prove otherwise, but the Smarts think they're real racing cars and want to prove it. If I were on track with the British GTs in my XJS, I'd be well out of the bloody way, not defending them into corners.
Grid up. An eternity for the field to form, lights out, go. Initial bite was good, but at the top end of first gear the wheels lose grip. Grab second and it calms down, but there slides the Escort past the nose. Never mind, get him in a minute. He's braver round Charlies than I am, and onto the back straight he has a little gap. No panic, lots of time. I think I want to try the brakes early into Park, but he makes late work, nice. He's pretty well stuck round Chris too, the Jag feels a bit looser than that looks, interesting. Into the Mountain, and he appears to be scampering off. Distant alarm bells start, because I'm not taking it that easy, and that's a lot of time he's gained in a lap, better push this a bit harder.
Except, there isn't a lot of harder to find, the little voice in the back of my head finds a megaphone - there's no bloody grip. Shit. Primett seems to have found it, but I need to find more grip than he does, there's more of me to move. Feeling around for it, it starts to come to me, probably more a factor of many wheels running over the tarmac than anything else.
Diving inside the Falcon into Chris felt brave. Pretty sure he would have called it something else. Same as I went round the Capri up Coppice, but there's an element of desperation in this. And what traffic giveth, so does it taketh away, late in the race as Primett clears a gaggle of cars, I hit them and a wall of spray into Coppice. I can't see, and I can't find a hole, he's away again. Muddling through and in pursuit, convinced I am now the faster car, I went too hot into the Mountain, slid in too deep, and lost enough that even I have to accept that this is now over. It was, the flag was just round the corner. The timesheets would tell the tale, I stole fastest lap by a fraction, but too little, too late.
First time I have run in the wet in this series and not won, and my tiny little brain and oversized ego are both left confused. I should be faster, but couldn't feel the tarmac this time. Sometimes, I suppose, there are conditions that I just can't actually manage. This is news. I don't like it. The lap charts also suggest we were 30 seconds clear of the next car. Once again, all we have demonstrated is that it is sort of possible to run at Steve's pace. If we weren't here, he'd be bored. Second place, and no damage. Have to settle for that. As Officer David notes, we're not in the ambulance.
The sun made an appearance, and summer steamed the track bone dry in about four minutes. Other than a tiny late shower, that was the tone for the day. Settings restored to dry, the long afternoon dragged by, 7 hours of doing nothing sucked the energy from the day. Worst timetable I've ever seen. Then, it happens faster than expected. A flourescent green Anglia racing in Thunder, a Special Saloons defector, appears to have blatted down the grass into Park and rather shortened itself, they're safety car-red on lap 1, and red flagged on three, race over and back to the paddock. Time saving in operation again. That moves us up by fifteen minutes, but also screws us. To get them another go at the end of the day, the remaining races are shortened by a lap.
To the race. No green flag lap, short race distance, you might as well reverse the grid and add paintball guns at this point, this is bloody weird. Leaving assembly, Steve has the Escort oversteering on power in each corner, we have 400 yards to warm the cars up. Helen doesn't really behave like that, I can warm the brakes a bit but that's it. On the grid, it takes the field 3 years to form up because they haven't practiced it, and then suddenly we're lights on.
A smidge of wheelspin, but she sits down and goes, fires me into the lead. Holding third all the way and onto Park with a slight cushion, luxury. The braking boards at Park all have giant bites out of them where the Anglia special went through the lot. Impressive to hit all three, how far back did he have the problem! On cold rubber you have to be a tad careful on the brakes, and my gap erodes to nothing coming out of Mansfield, I was probably too slow with hindsight, so we have to close the inside to the Mountain, which slows us through it even as you see the Escort sweep wide for the faster line that is going to give him the run towards Hall Bends.
Last year he did me on the inside here, so we're shutting that door now. He tries the outside, but he's not ahead, we're neck and neck and i don't think the outside move works. To avoid killing him, I cut the inner kerb and flatten the marker, but hold ground and take my line for the left, the Escort gets out of it and slots in astern. Good.
Out of Barn, and my head is settled, which is vital. No stress or drama here, I have seven laps to do, that's one down, and I can relax until Mansfield next time round, I have it covered til then. We know the relative strengths, Helen is a missile on the exit of Charlies and he's a demon on the middle pedal. And so it is. He gains it all back through the Gooseneck and Mansfield, I close the inside and we repeat the Mountain trick again, but a little more comfortable this time and no Hall Bends dice.
Without being ahead at Barn he loses a lot of time following me, it's vital to keep him behind because that puts him slow where he should be fast, and I'm fast where he's slow, I get the double benefit. Two laps done. We're not at full pace, we're racing. What I want to do is escape and run clean and clear, because I love hitting this place at speed, but that's not combat. You pay your fee for the fight. This is a fight.
Lap 3, and more of the same, he's closer but my brain has thus far refused to be bothered by it. After the overload that was Rockingham, it seems the rust has fallen off, and I'm counting the laps down and waiting for his tyres to go off because that's what I've decided happens. At that point we'll drop the hammer and hopefully crack a laptime. Then, on the fourth circuit, a miracle, a gap appearing. Interesting. Before I can locate said hammer and create the escape, the gap widens. He's broken it, must have. Tyres don't fall off that fast, and I didn't see an excursion.
And with that, a thought. I've won this. P3 is nowhere near. Risking a hot lap - and I would need to break my own lap record to score a point - means we could screw up and not win. I sort of want the win. Keep the pace barely-respectable but back it right down, cruise in, that's what sanity says. Traffic can still screw us, or Steve's fault might fix itself, but so long as I can't see that white flicker in the mirror we're safe.
This is unusual territory. I've always had to go flat out chasing or running from faster cars. We are, right now, the fastest car on the track. Winning at the slowest speed is a strange concept. It's a little dull. Unlike last year when this was a fast, triumphant romp to the flag I'm feeling a bit cheated out of my race. Shouldn't, that's not at all fair, but I do. Still pissed off about Friday really.
Then Morris Minors cause me an hour of panic, entering Park there are two side by side, and no way through. Blue flags, but who gives way in that scenario, two cars neck and neck racing for position and blocking the full width, who yields? I'm frantic, this is taking at least a month and Steve's coming, shift. The black one eases off, there's room to pull right, pass, and pull in again. Cost me a year, clearly, maybe two. More 66s ahead, I split a Cortina and Mini into Hall Bends, then ate the Mini halfway through. Sorry chaps, but I lost a decade back on Park Straight.
No last lap board, it's just suddenly over. I feel a bit robbed to be honest, short race and my opponent broken down, we got three laps of excitement. It was good, but I wanted more. And a small niggle, one hot lap in three days. 69 laps of this glorious circuit, only one of them flat out in clear air. I wanted to drive fast, proper hair on fire tyres on the edge fast, see what we could do. But racing is not about lap times. It's about the scrap. We had that, and now they give me a £2000 hat. To parc ferme, and the weekend is done.
The score is still a tie, it's three-all Escort v XJS. We'll have to go again. Oh no, what a pity.
Testing. Cadwell. A glorious situation under almost any circumstances.
Hangover of the quali-that-wasn't, the bloody Ford is at the front almost without challenge.
Wet, but sunny. Perfect conditions for a Jag.
And away those horses go. At this moment, utterly brimming with confidence.
I had wheelspin. The Falcon had more.
A familiar sight. What was not familiar was that I couldn't seem to catch it.
The Alfa is on an alternate line. I've tried that one in the past, and I'm not a fan.
Stay off the kerbs in the wet, they say. Pah.
Nothing like the wettest conditions we've ever raced in, but amongst the most slippery.
For once the rain didn't play in our favour. Whether settings, circuit or pilot, it wasn't sticking.
Magic picture box talking shadows.
The sun came out and poached the circuit in about ten minutes flat.
Lifting the wheels again. We pre-breathe helium to assist this.
Eyes fixed on target. It at least proves that we still remember to look through the corner.
Reach for the sky. The Mountain's airborne shots all come as the hill suddenly flattens, but even then it's not flat.
Green, isn't it? Even going round you notice how nice it is here.
More video, courtesy of the man we call Officer David. No, he doesn't ride along.
Handily, once clear, that next two tours was then the single cleanest pair of laps of testing, the tyre warming lap clocked a 1.43, the next found us 1.42.09, a tenth faster than my previous recorded best. Using the TSL live timing option on the test day is a £15 luxury, but it gives you precise times using the same system you will be recorded with on race day. Useful.
I cannot complain about reliability. Helen covered 6 race distances in testing, without us even lifting the bonnet. We played with tyre pressures, and we played with tyre pressures on new tyres, but the oily bits did not so much as flinch, and it's the same mileage as some people cover in half a race season.
The Legends were a mixed bag. Some appeared to be very capable, and sane, some seemed to be on a suicide mission that wanted to take you with them if possible. A grey one weaved from verge to verge, throwing dust and grass, with the Jaguar calmly sitting astern waiting for him to shift before growing tired of it, dropping back 400 yards, and then finding that you could close that back down in two corners. One that boasted of making houses into smarter homes also appeared to have a date with destiny that he was late for, I must have seen that car a dozen times. Odd how there is time to read their sponsors.
In the middle of all this, and given there were no hot laps coming my way, I elected to test my long-standing belief that there is time to find in turn 2. You tend to turn into this early as the car always slides wide, which might be a result of the camber. But XJS speed has generally been about the later apex, and somewhere in my little brain is the question of what happens if we wind the clock back to the days where we had no grip, and take this later. Do we avoid the understeer and carry more speed?
No. No we do not. What you do is use the grass, and go for a nice long sideways autograss trip before sheepishly finding second gear and chugging back onto the circuit. It's not a bad corner to fall off at, actually, if you're planning to visit the scenery at Cadwell this is about the only place you get away with it, I recommend going and having a go.
So, after throwing the contents of my wallet in the bin with a test day, all I had to show for this was a reminder of the track, some grass in the wheels, and 100 frustrating miles. No clue if we have actually improved or not. I was so sure we had, but no time to tell us.
As 5pm dawned, a wandering scrutineer approved the car. Usually this is brilliant, saves a load of time. But the timetable this weekend has been BARCed. We qualify at 5pm tomorrow evening. Yes, 5pm. Then race first thing Sunday morning, and about 5pm Sunday night. We have 24 hours to kill, then a frantic splurge of action, and then another long, long wait. About as crap as you can get. With such times you are also at risk of being the ones affected by timetable slippages. Given the events of Saturday this would become all too clear.
During the long, long Saturday wait, a distant scream of tyres, followed by a prolonged clatter. We know the signs. Crash. Then, a minute later, the distant drone of engines dies. Red flag. The silence persists, it's eerie. Gradual recognition across the paddock, heads rise, people climb transporters. There are too many marshalls at Chris, and the blue flashing lights of the ambulance.
Time ticks by. Silence at a race track is bad news. A thumping in the air announces the helicopter. No racer ever wants to hear that. It also tells us that, half an hour into this delay, and with no move to shift the car, this one is bad. Eventual snippets would reveal that a Caterham in the wall at Chris suffered a broken cage, the driver being hospitalised and in a coma. None of us enjoy that sort of news. Even now, we don't know the outcome of that, and it's sad indeed.
But, racers are inherently selfish, and swiftly the talk is how it affects us. The timetable loses an hour, on a day when race organisers were already shaving time off by doing away with green flag laps and driver interviews. They've rammed this meeting solid. Qualifying was cut to ten minutes. We know the drill here, 28 cars on this grid, narrow track. Get to assembly first, the first lap might be your only clear lap. So we did. As assembly filled with metal of varying ages, this seemed an increasingly-smart move. Probably would have been, but there was a wrinkle.
When they opened the gate and the Jag howled out on a mission, some drivers weren't ready, there had been little warning. As Helen laid into the track at full chat on cold rubber, my aim was something like a 1.44, maybe a 1.43, a good solid time on the clock as a banker. As she skipped over the mountain, however, and bore down on Hall bends, Sheraton's Anglia was released from assembly. To me, you wouldn't get this even on a trackday, but he was released into the path of an oncoming fast car. Not an immediate lock the wheels emergency, not shit-your-pants dangerous, but my opener was thus blunted by following the Anglebox through the hairpin at slow speed. Lap ruined.
Never mind, cleared it, lap 2 will work. Except for the big old Falcon cruising up turn one, had to go round that and he didn't seem to see it coming. Then cars to pass on Park straight. Lap ruined. That was my actual fastest lap, a terrifyingly-poor 1.46. That it would put me p2 speaks as to the fact that nobody could find a lap. Save Primett, who found a space and cleared a 1.44. Snails pace by his own standard, but on pole by 2 seconds. Horrible.
Battling through, my final lap was clear, and I was on it, I know that would have been pole by a long way, until I caught a Mini into Hall Bends. It looked like he was letting me have it, but he wasn't. Brakes, follow him, lap ruined. Flag. Not one hot lap set, at all. Pathetic. Ten minutes is not enough for this.
A muttering, swearing parc ferme. I have now done 54 laps of Cadwell without setting a full-on laptime, and it will get into my head because it's what I desperately want to do. It's not enough to race or win, I want to drive fast. With testing and now quali frustrated, that leaves the race, and you don't often get to go flat out in search of your perfect lap in a race because you're usually having a fight.
The grid order is a muddle. Fast cars that should be p3 or so are 10th or worse. Drivers shaking their heads. All day you wait, for ten minutes of frustrated nothing. It being now 6pm, there is now little time for more than a quick check of the car, fuel it for quali and fire up the meat incinerator, because we're on track at 9am.
The thump of rain droplets on the roof at 5am brings a deep grin. We're invincible in the rain. Much as I want a full-bore fight with Steve, I'll take a slow terrifying slither of a race any day. The rain deepens, but lets go just before 8am, and then vanishes into bright sunshine. Magic. Good visibility, warm air so no fogging up, but no grip. Absolutely spot on. In my stylish carrier bag shoes to keep the boots dry I am practically tap-dancing.
Originally they were not going to green flag us, but given this is now officially a change of conditions they have no choice, but we're dismayed to see the safety car lining up to collect us. Oh no. Round it takes us in a long crocodile, at about thirty miles per hour. I can feel nothing of the track at all, at this speed there is little feedback. You can't drop back too far, technically that's a penalty if you do, so you can do little but repeatedly prod the brake to generate a bit of heat and maybe feel the track. It does seem a tad slippery, and several of the poor buggers in the 66 cars on their historic tyres can barely keep this pace. An '83 Escort almost span it up the mountain, it's not just wet, it's greasy. Nothing has been round to clear it for us, we're the first tyres on track.
Coppice grips up fast, and the immaculate Coppice/Charlies/Park sequence comes back to us, the Jag's hunting ground. The gap narrows through this section, but I can't put the end of the lap together, that traditional Escort territory is a massacre. Slow in third up the Mountain and she still slings the tail on the crest, the Hall Bends see me struggling to even make the left hander, this is not good. This is also what you call egg meeting face. Many, many eggs.
Just as I think I've pegged his escape, and am trying to work out how the hell to close him down, a blessing in the form of backmarkers. A chunk of his lead evaporates in the traffic, and we're after him again. Excellent. Backmarkers have little chance in the spray, they can't see us coming really, and if they do it's very hard to get out of the way when they're using all their grip to stay on the island. There's a jelly-mould off at the Mountain, an Escort off backwards at Charlies on the infield - how you do that I am unclear - but the pre-66s are basically on ice in this lot.