FROM THE DRIVER'S SEAT
The season opened for the Group One Touring Cars at Rockingham, and for a change we could actually be here. Hurrah. We've not been here since 2008. That was in a barely-uprated road car, a 1550kg 234bhp bus wobbling about on rubber bushes and road tyres. A 1.45.5 time was sufficient to win the class that day, after a hard fight with a dive bomber, those early days marking a process of learning and development that would lead, ultimately, to what we do today.
But, history lesson aside, the stark reality is that last year at this track the Mk1 Escort of Steve Primett won the Group 1 race by 30 seconds, spanking along at a 1.37.5. To be on pace, I need to be 8 seconds per lap faster than last time I was here. That is a lifetime.
We know the laptime for the fastest Jags in 2008, the big V12s that used to dominate. That tells us what the big power, fully-modified machines were doing on T1Rs. We know what cars did on 888s back then in terms of laptime improvement from road to race tyre. Combining the two bits of data still sees us a couple of seconds short. That has to come from me, or the hope that the car is actually better than anything that existed back then. Or, of course, that we cannot actually match the time and we're going to lose. These things are possible.
So, testing is very necessary. I've not driven since Donington, 9 months ago. The plan to upgrade the car was lost in a long year of construction and renovation to larger, more brick-based projects, the only changes are a new oil pump, and a proper rev counter. Yes, at last the comedy Jaguar item that bounces from 0 to 4000rpm on a constant throttle is gone, in with the Stack.
4 brand new 888s, and send it. So long since we were here that I've forgotten things like where scrutineering and assembly are, or the layout, or that it's all left turns, the Rock is a unique anti-clockwise track, and I need to learn to oversteer the less-favoured direction. That would turn out to have physical consequences.
A lot of a race weekend is what you see that isn't in your normal wheelhouse. Rolling in on the Thursday evening, we find ourselves waiting on the ouskirts of the outer paddock, parked on a desolate dustbowl watching a cult. A group of car modders have congregated to talk about turbochargers they want to own, and to go to the gents toilets in suspicious pairs. We were warned to expect this, though not the toilet thing, and not to show up until 9pm, but in an email that came after we had already set off, and they don't do you much good. Standing out amongst this group of poorly-worn baseball caps (peak goes to the front you know) is a chap with a Midget, who drove its tiny wheels off at the little autotest they had set up, and quite plainly had nothing to do with the larger mob. Comedy car of the show was the MX5 with massive tyres, with so much rear camber that the outer third of the tyre never touched the road. You could tell, because he'd tyre-shined the tread. And that car was sitting on 888s. Sigh.
The herd of deer that bolted across this windswept waste was unexpected. As were the Smart cars. Some idiot decided to race Smart cars. Not the little toy sports car, but what looks like an old Merc A class that's shrunk in the wash and now only has two seats. Bloody weird little things. They have a race series. They can keep it. The usual fight over power hookup - which I don't give a damn about but which seems to generate all manner of amusing arguments, and we're in.
The morning brings signing on, and noise testing, and we're on. The first moment of the race season as all the gear goes on, and you sink into that seat, is a very tactile, ritualistic experience. There's a sequence to it, individual to each driver, and a moment of brief, quiet calm as you take a little look about and think about what you're about to do before you thumb the starter button. Your last chance not to go and do this. Push the button, go on... That moment vanishes as the engine fires in anger for the first time, there is a definite moment in the year when you mentally commit to this game.
A scrappy day, so many red flags thrown that at no point in the morning did we run more than 6 consecutive laps. Why? Well, we're out with the junior saloons, and whilst these are not the tiny, tiny kids, they're not old bastards like us, and they are throwing their little Saxos into the weeds with gay abandon.
First two sessions will be on old tyres. The good news is I appear to remember the track. Pulling out of the pits as round comes some Honda thing with a wing and diffuser, and that means something to chase straight away. I can chase it, or I can play myself in. Screw it, let's chase it. I am told the first lap was in the 1.38s. So, yes, then. One lap, 7 seconds found, the game appears to be afoot. It was, we hit the target 1.37 in the first session.
It is also very quickly clear that this is hard work. Helen is a physical car to drive, there's a lot of castor and there's no power assistance. A full day pounding round Cadwell takes it out of you, but Rockingham was far worse. I don't know whether it's the twiddly nature of the infield requiring some fairly aggressive steering input, whether I'm feeling my age, or if it's the fact that it's mostly left handers. There is some evidence for the latter, and by mid-morning, despite the limited running I was whining about my shoulders as if someone gave a shit. They didn't.
The track is presenting some interesting challenges. The big, long banking with the curve in it, full power and peeling down from the wall on the right down to the apron and back up to meet it again, full chat, God-knows what speed, but clearly Jaguar territory, right? Well, in theory, but I don't think I took that flat out even once. I have no doubt that the car does it, all day long, and as you're turning the wheel the detached, academic part of my brain is quite confident in the science of it all. But I can hear the tyres, and whatever that clever bastard has to say about science is drowned in the screams of the team in charge of self-preservation, and the throttle feathers. Doesn't matter what I think about it, it happens. This is now the second track at which my testicles have failed to supply the necessary input. Must be getting old. Maybe in the heat of combat.
Second thing is, it's really physical. Coming out of Tarzan and I'm struggling to breathe. The bumps, the sharper corners, and the effort involved, and I'm actually having to work. This is when you remember that your car comes equipped with a window, and that you don't usually cover your nose with a balaclava, you great tit.
Oxygen supply restored and things get a bit easier. Part of it, however, is race-rustiness. The sheer excitement of it all can be a bit overwhelming, and we're coming from 9 months off straight onto race pace, and the fragile little tart driving needs a bit of time to gather his wits. Some people drive with their hair on fire and blood lust in their heart. I am more effective when calm and dispassionate about it, my Bruce Banner is much faster than my Hulk. Takes a while to find that.
Third, that fast sequence of left handers is great fun, and I am steering the car on the throttle. I don't usually play like this, but the front's sliding, feeding power in gets the back going, and we're back into the old drifting game we used to enjoy on the old T1Rs. Just going a lot faster. Very entertaining, and it's fast, but what it's doing at the tyre I don't want to know.
Session 2 is more focussed, hot bleeding tyre pressures, pressing on a bit harder, and there's pace here, there is not a lot out here that can match the speed. Ginettas are testing, and two of them are faster. Several are slower. None have our top speed, and if you want you can actually hold the quick guys off, which would be rude, if amusing. We're not playing like that. Cars keep falling off. It's all very interesting to watch, but that means many red flags. We're not getting long run data, and the feeling is that these tyres are now fried, the laptimes are there but the grip isn't as it should be.
The Smart cars are lethal. One fell over. The rest were just mobile road blocks. Every right to be out here, but not a lot of mirror use going on. Their encampment of about twelve Winnebagos for 9 small cars was awash with champagne for most of the weekend, so perhaps they're not really so much about the racing part.
As the lunch break descends, we're up on the target time, we've not only broken the 1.37.5 we wanted, we're into the 1.36s. That's the lap record broken, already. Confidence descends. When I get confident, it goes wrong. When the odds are against us, it works out, when it looks good it isn't.
New tyres for the afternoon. Those coming off show significant wear, even from the morning. They were very thin to begin with, but their wear suggests a need to add some pressure to the new set. And that this track is pretty hard on the tyres. The difference in grip on the new rubber is tangible, and as Bear notes it is a peculiarity that you can tell the grip is different even travelling in a straight line, and neither of us can work out how that comes about. 1.36s are now consistently achievable. 1.36.3 appears, twice. That is getting a bit quick, we think. Can the pesky Escort find himself another 1.2 seconds? That's a lot to ask. Could be our weekend. But we don't know what he can do, last time here he was utterly unchallenged, could have five seconds in his pocket. Unlikely, as he drives flat out whatever the situation.
Day done. Many cars left spinning in the dust, pace seems to be there, car is working as it should. A look round it, refuelled and ready for quali. Brake pads are all on their last meeting, not thin enough to bin now, but they will be after Sunday afternoon. As are the front discs, now well worn and wavy, they've done a lot of time, really quite amazing when we count it up, but they've been circulating tracks since 2010 on three different cars. Probably had our money's worth.
Morning brings an easy but very thorough scrutineering in the outer paddock, after signing in in the inner paddock. Don't ask. First time in a long time that the scrutineer has done a bulkhead daylight check, and we approve. The frustration of the outer paddock is that you can never hear the tannoy. With engines and people a constant roar, you just have to trust to the timetable and make your move at the right moment. We like to be at the front in quali, it's a 27 car grid and there's a big speed difference between XJS and Morris Minor, traffic will be hell. Judged it pretty well, as it happens, and we're at the front. Important, I think, today. And I was, as it happened, correct, because it went south in a hurry.
As the pit exit goes green we did the usual trick and went for it immediately. Get a lap in the bag in case something happens. The first flyer would have given us pole. Just as well, as lap 2 had the red and yellow stripes hung for spilled fluid through the fast left, and cars all over the shop. Oddly not the Jag, but by luck rather than judgement. A red flag swiftly followed as a little blue Moggie sat steaming on the infield. We know where the fluid came from now. Queued in the pits, about sixth in line, waiting as the minutes tick by, and we're released again. Again, flat out, pass everyone immediately and get on this, anyone who hasn't spotted we've little time left is going to screw this up. First flyer gave us pole again, by more, the one after went better again. In time for the flag. Three flying laps, I think I counted.
I always bang on about this, but this is the sort of situation that explains why. If you play yourself in, and something happens, you never set a time. The timesheets gave us a ridiculous lead, we're 2 seconds clear of the next car because of this. There are three dangerous cars astern, the Escort has two friends, but they're both in front of him, Primett didn't get a good lap in. 2 seconds clear and the danger man with people to fight, that's gravy. Smugness abounds. We also have a new lap record on the timesheet, so that's good. We cannot win the championship here, not enough heavy metal in my class, but we can have some of the little perks like lap records. We're here for the racing, but I won't deny I enjoy having my name on the list.
And so to race. The plan was simple. We're bound to make turn one first, and as the Escorts fight, we bugger off. Simple. Did not work. My green flag launch was perfect. Trying to duplicate it as the red lights went out, and I can't have got enough revs on, she gripped and bogged and threatened to stall. Got out of it and had to have another go, but p2 is now p1 and there are bloody Fords everywhere. Power was enough to ram a big blue wedge up the inside to make turn 1 in first place again, but a lock up took me in deep, and in the confusion my nemesis appears in the mirror, Primett's on my tail. Arse biscuits.
Plan B. Defend against him this lap, tight lines, park on all the apexes, drop a cog and simply point and squirt my way out of danger, start again on the main straight and have another go at plan A. He's hanging on round the outside, a bit, but not enough to properly threaten, this is good, here comes the straight. Nice big gap, here comes turn 1, lean on the brakes, lock the tyres and steam straight on, off the pedal, bit of rallycross, just miss the tyres, gather it up, and there goes the little white Ford into the distance. Bollocks. Chase him. There's an Escort astern, but it doesn't seem to have that same fandango approach, half a lap blunts that challenge. Head down and hunt.
Lap by lap, down comes the gap. My little escapade has cost about 3 seconds, but we're biting into that, he's closer as each corner unfolds. We gain time on the banking, and remarkably under braking for turn 1. Higher speed on approach, of course, and he brakes later, but the difference in retardation means we actually get closer because I want an extra mph or two on the apex, more grip than he has. The long fast left also gains us a tenth, so it's on.
His lead erodes, until we're on the tail. It's beyond half distance or so, I reckon we have about 3 more laps. Might be 4, and I can see traffic ahead. Traffic brings opportunity. As we hurtle into backmarkers at turn 1, a move to his inside is not serious, or wasn't until, again, the tyres lock. I must have done this corner 50 times yesterday without one incident, this is three in one race. Something wrong in my brain, clearly. Nobody dies, we're still on his boot, but there's a red Moggie, Primett goes to the outside and sweeps through 2, I went inside as the Morris takes that line, and have to wait. Called it wrong, Primo's gone.
Mutterings in my helmet. Got to close him down again now, and I don't think there's time. There isn't, the next tour has a red flag hung. The poor bugger in the Moggie rolled it shortly after we lapped him. Now, red flag, are we getting a restart? If we do, sorry Steve, but we're going to mug you for a totally undeserved win. Sure enough, they start to sort out the cars. Amazing. And then they don't. The universal hand across throat motion, and the race is done. Nobody dropped the chequer, but it's over. Definitely a race I lost. Not the first, won't be the last.
Bear and Officer David are extremely sympathetic, hanging over the fence to parc ferme giving me the wanker sign. Hard to argue. Primett's usual laconic cool is a contrast to my wide-eyed mania, we both know where that race went wrong, and we both know that was a dead heat, if I don't screw up tomorrow we're in for a proper fight. After last year's boredom he couldn't be happier.
Back to base, take my grief, allow Bear to drunkenly abuse me hour after hour, it's our version of debriefing. But the timesheet gives news. Primett did a 1.36.3 Shit. He said earlier there was no way he could manage a 1.36. He's nicked the lap record. No, wait, we did a 1.36.1, we stole it back. TSL confirms we ground him down lap by lap, same margin each time, give or take, we are the faster car.
People who watched it enjoyed it. Two utterly different cars split by two tenths over two miles. Not a scratch on either. The rivalry is part of the fun, and it's fair to say that it is becoming known, people are already talking about Cadwell next month, and where best to watch from. Initial disappointment at 2nd place, and having made a mistake that lost the race, which it was, gives way to more careful analysis. Heading into this meeting the question was whether we could hit a 1.37.5 and chase the Escort. What we've done is match it, beat it, and then cause both of us to raise the game further. That part was our original mission statement back in 2012. It also proves that you can live with Primett at Rockingham, which last year seemed a hopeless quest to many. Bear is still throwing beer cans at me as I grasp for that silver lining.
A fairly early race on the Sunday means we're not spending the morning eternally wandering in circles for something to do, we're packed away and on track before the third cuppa. The plan for today is to try 2nd gear exiting Tarzan, see if we can punch out a little faster. We didn't test this, but in the heat of combat it felt as if it might become necessary now that we've discovered race pace is far, far faster than what we thought we were testing against. 3rd gear is more stable, but in a few key corners here it's not giving us the kick in the back we need.
On the outside this time for the start, and a bit of wheelspin, but we're away and in front before the bend in the banking, chop down to the inside, we're ahead. Ginger on the brakes, no repeat of yesterday, but probably overdid it, because up alongside comes the Escort as we exit the hairpin. No problem, he's on the outside for the next corner. But he braves it out, trusting I won't simply run him out of road, and he's right, I won't do that. I probably should, but I won't. Neck and neck up to turn 3, I have the inside again, but he's going to tough it out on the outside again, and we're going to have to cede this unless we want to rub paint.
Through he wiggles, and away. Tail chase. Fine, we're faster, we know this, we'll do him on the banking. Black Escort in the mirrors, guard against that at Tarzan, no sense making this too hard, through the chicane, unleash the extra litres. Pulling in Primett as if he's on a rope, and a nose up the inside as we peel down to the apron, close this, and a wobble from his rear, the tiniest waver, and a noise that sounds like contact as I lose sight of the nose compared to his rear arch. Last thing I want is to nudge him into a spin here, it would be utter demolition, and big right foot comes off the power.
Scare over, it wasn't contact, it was just a skipping Escort, but it's enough to change what looked like a likely pass into an abandoned move. No problem, we'll keep at it. By turn 2 the Escort in the mirrors is no longer a threat, it's a two-horse race. And race we did. I didn't win this, but it was bloody good fun, and it was a true race, attack and defend, hard at it until both cars ran out of resources.
The Escort is a bit faster in the infield, but only a bit. The sequence of fast lefts is slightly in the Jag's favour, as is the banking. Tarzan is about a dead heat. The Escort dances and slides, and its low speed acceleration is superb, it really punches out of a corner, but the Jag has more grip. Sliding and dancing is lovely to see and do, but in terms of tyre on track and actually biting, the Jag wins. We've more to move about, which is why the Escort can out-do us in some respects, and this is why we keep having these interesting little contests. The advantages to each car are not so clear cut in some unusual places.
Gaining on the brakes as yesterday into the hairpin, but he gets out of the corner better. He's slower into two but faster out, and through three and four before the Jag unleashes the power through five and six into the dead heat of Tarzan and then a run into the final chicane, where the Escort's low-speed punch gets it onto the banking faster and the Jag waits to wind up the engine. Probably the wrong diff for this track, really, I need gear 2.5 here and there isn't one. It's a good dice, lap 3 sees us set identical laptimes, to the 1/1000th. Never seen that before.
Couple of laps of this and the car gets a little looser, the tyres are in that "push no harder" window, so this is it. We're alongside on the brakes a couple of times, both cars are about out of tyres. But he's suffering worse, that car is getting ragged. Backmarkers appear, and are kinder to me today, as we head for Tarzan the little Fiesta ahead takes a standard line, the Escort goes wide, the Jag goes tight, and on the exit it's three abreast, Jag surging into a rather narrow gap, nose ahead but on the outside for the braking zone.
Into the hairpin again, and the Escort is done, he goes way wide, we're a bit squealy on the tyres but up the inside, but as he wobbles back onto the circuit the nose wags with oversteer and my steering wheel reacts to it, that tiny moment of hesitation and distraction as I should be stealing 2nd gear and firing the car ahead, and he's in front again. But you can smell blood in the water. Until I hit the brakes, and the car doesn't stop, front tyres screaming and ploughing on. We've just lost the rear brakes.
Game over. We gave chase, but the car's now wounded, it won't stop. That 30-40% you get from the rear end, now missing, and you might as well have no brakes at all from a competitive standpoint, we've fried the brakes. Bollocks.
With third place a distant memory, a slow last lap brings us home in p2, six seconds adrift. To parc ferme, and Steve's not quite as chilled as yesterday, that was a good battle and he's adamant that he was dead meat until he saw my brakes had gone. A good scrap, no damage, no harm. I can't really find it in myself to be upset, it was fun, and that's what you pay for.
The timesheet gives us a 1.35.8, the fourth time the lap record has fallen this weekend, it's been demolished by 1.7 seconds over the past two days. We've shown that you can race Primo here, and in doing so we've pushed each other on to a faster pace. Spectators come to find us, the apparent David v Goliath contest intrigues. That'll do Rockingham, we'll take that.
Cadwell is next. Primett onimously notes that it's 2-all at Cadwell, so there's a score to settle. There is. Cannot wait.
Test day dawns, time to take the covers off 2017.
Bear appears to have smeared something on the Smart car. Helen gets new rubber.
New season, new sunstrip. Probably my favourite yet.
A crowd of Escorts. No, er, group? Herd? Brothel. A brothel of Escorts.
Qualifying. Get there first. That's all there is to this plan.
I don't know why they put me here, four feet shy of my line, but they did.
And this is what it looks like when you make a bollocks of the start.
Late race chase, but traffic would undo the gains.
Get back here. Two cars charge along the top of a web browser.
For the Youtube generation, this is so you don't have to read anything.
Let's do this again. For the packed grandstand of devoted fans.
Ha, got you. In front and blocking the road like a two women chatting in a supermarket aisle.
One of the buggers sneaked by. Though sneak isn't accurate, he drove right round me.
Hi Steve! Sorry about earlier, but I'm back now...
Race 2 was a far tighter contest.
Out of brakes and out of luck, but smiling under the helmet.
Race 2 also comes with video, courtesy of the man we call Officer David, for reasons very few ever question.