FROM THE DRIVER'S PITLANE SEAT
The usual suspects would already be forming a team, but it’s time for some fresh blood, we want people who don’t usually go, put more Jags out there than usual. Some of our choices were obvious. Philip Comer, his car in the back of the truck even as I formed the plan, still steaming from its second blown head gasket of the weekend. We’re running out of races to try that car, might as well sneak that out for an extra test session.
Bruce Cologne Brookes, his rather underdeveloped X300 barge might be a good car to start the race with, that can tread on a few Caterhams without noticing. Dean Sewell, his XJ6 has broken down this weekend, and he’s a clean racer. Plus he’s made out of granite, and if there’s a Birkett punch up we can hide behind him.
Roger Webster, his car broke that day with a brake issue, but he doesn’t smack people off the road, nor does he give places away easily, that’s 4. A swift call to Matt Jeffery, his powerful blue tank instantly recruited, given we need to put some miles on that too. Which leaves a sixth, and that means me and Helen.
It might look as if I’m outside my own criteria because I’ve had the odd decent result over the years. But there were extenuating circumstances each time, and my poor Helen is up north at this moment with no engine in, whilst I haven’t raced since last October. So I fit the bill here, in that I’m as rusty as a Lancia, with a broken car. Perfect.
So that makes six, everybody with a broken car at the time they signed on. We swiftly lost Bruce, who decided that there are better things to throw cash at in the Autumn, and that left us casting about for a sixth. At the same time a call from The Six Potters tried to recruit me to their team, and though it might have been amusing to race my car in both teams on the same day, it’s not really feasible. It was tempting though.
We managed to get hold of Tom Butterfield, however, as our sixth. We had been impressed by him this season, but at this point he had not yet put in his stellar Pembrey and Donington drives, we recruited him before he became over-qualified. News that his car was being raced about a thousand times the month before the race and he expected it to be a smoking ruin made us feel a bit better about him fitting right in.
Paperwork sorted, discovering that not one of my team-mates is capable of filling in a form properly, and developing some sympathy with race organisers everywhere. Half my drivers tried to enter the wrong race on the wrong day at the wrong track. There are many garage spannering sessions and at least three trips to rolling roads between this moment and the eventual race, and both Helen and I have to get our act together and on track. I’ve done the Birkett three times before, 07, 08, and ’09. That ’07 team was an assembly of cretins in terrible cars, and we’ve come a long way since then. In ’08 we missed the handicap win by only 12 seconds when Stew’s car inhaled something that crushed a spark plug and caused an extra pitstop.
‘09 was wet, and my memory of that race was the hour and a quarter they left me out there on my T1R monsoon tyres, the heaviest car with the biggest tank and the deepest tyre treads left endlessly circulating the international circuit as we waited for conditions to improve, every lap a wild, buttock-clenching ride weaving amongst spun cars and morons with bigger brakes than brains. And that was after a season of racing, when I was switched on. This year I’ve done nothing at all yet, I’ve only been on circuit twice, briefly, testing another car.
Clear that some preparation would be in order then. First on the list was not the car, but the corpse. When I fell out of the car in 2009 I looked like I’d been in a fight with a sack of badgers. Personal endurance is an issue if you’re going to try to set fast laps consistently for an hour, and since 2009 we’ve moved from road tyres to proper rubber, my car is far faster than back then, and we ditched the power steering, so it will certainly be a more demanding machine this time out. If I’m in the same shape I was in late 2009 I might die at the wheel.
A solution of sorts is found, the old exercise bike was dusted off and resolutely pedalled for an hour a night to ensure that I wouldn’t keel over with a heart attack. Ridiculous to get in training for a club motorsport event? Yes, but no. I don’t think so. The link between physical endurance and speed is logical and proven. This whole Birkett plan was my daft idea, so I really don’t want to be the weak link in the chain here. Helen and I have to be dependable, and in reality we ought to try to be fastest, lead by example. If that means pedalling through a hundred hours of television so I don’t choke on my own lungs after seven laps then so be it. At least I’ve tried, I won’t fall asleep at the wheel.
Then there’s the car. We’ve been working on that awhile, and just two weeks before the Birkett Helen ventured out with the Classic Touring Car boys at Silverstone for a pre-race shakedown, a wet test day re-educating the pilot in the art of car control, and testing the new engine, springs and dampers. That seemed to work pretty well, we have a decent car in the rain. No dry data yet, but it’s late October in England, so moisture seems likely.
Obviously I then changed the diff for a higher ratio, modified unit invented by the McGiverns and built by a Bear, then I changed the camber on every wheel. It’s what you do when a car behaves properly, you change everything. Road testing appeared to suggest the diff worked. The higher ratio diff is to take account of what looks like, from onboard video on Youtube, a very long Hangar straight, and a much faster entry onto Wellington straight, the 3.77 I tried 2 weeks ago wasn’t really tall enough for the National circuit so I’ve no hope on this one.
The problem with this team, however, is that I’m both driver, part-organiser, and support crew. I have my own car and woes to deal with, which means I’ve my role as test driver to fulfil, talk about handling and tyres and commandeering a Dermott for a bounce on the shocks etc, remember to put fuel in it, all the usual stuff that comes with running and testing your own, under-development, car. That’s the selfish, greedy part of racing, I’ve got a car I want to make as fast as possible, commandeering every resource for myself in a quest for personal glory. It’s how we all are the circuit, always has been, it’s just that after a couple of years supporting other drivers I now know that’s what we do!
But this is a team, and in addition to my own game there is the support crew gig. Neither Matt nor Philip have raced in the same meeting as me for three years, they are used to being the centre of attention, with us being on hand to check things and put fuel in cars and set pressures and fix problems, they are not autonomous at these meetings, indeed they have forgotten what it is like to race without support. I can’t really look after them and do my own thing properly, which puts pressure on the Bear because he has it all to do, plus the demands I will put on him as I transform into stroppy diva.
Then there are the other three, Roger is self-sufficient but Tom and Dean at least claim to be mechanically clueless, so it could get awfully busy servicing 6 cars both in testing and in the race, we will need a real team effort. The usual trick of a check over the car after testing is not going to fly because there are 6 cars, it will be dark before 6pm, and there is no room in the garages once you add 6 Jaguars. For us then the work would be done in the workshop before we left, we need three working cars that can do four hours without attention. Helen is sorted, and road tested, we even have tyres both wet and dry, it’s as good as it gets.
Comer’s car was not a tough one to prep, it left Donington in good order but for the rotor arm, so other than a spanner check and a red rotor arm that wasn’t too bad. He has dry tyres or super-dry tyres only.
Matt’s car has had massive work done, both engine and panels, that car took weeks, but we’re packed and ready a day early, and we’re on the road for Silverstone bang on time. The poor bloody lorry though is straining at the seams with kit. Three cars for two days with mixed weather means toting 37 tyres, every possible spare part, tool and toy we have. As the thing labours up some of the hills Bear is unclear if we’re breaking down with fuel starvation, or merely feeling the 21 tonnes we reckon it’s grossing out at. 37 wheels and tyres alone is nearly a tonne!
All 6 cars testing was interesting. Only one of us has ever driven the track before, Philip has done the Historic GP circuit. Remember that I said that. The rest of us have a new experience ahead of us, and we’re all on-site Thursday evening.
Testing dawned wet. We like that. Cars unloaded, signed on, tyres swapped for wets, and Helen immediately killed her battery, jump started to be allowed to venture out. It’s a long time since I’ve done a new circuit, and that sense of wonder is much missed, the challenge of conquering a new circuit is fun. I’d watched 2 laps of on-board, and then in reality forgotten it all. Not that it would have helped, the camera does no justice to it, the full GP track does have some minor elevation changes and none of the corners are quite as they appear, they’re all a hint sharper than you think. Late apexing would be the lesson of the day, yet again.
THE BIRKETT 2013; part 1
Testing was busy, the full team out all day, and six Jags create their own issues without any help.
Get your arse off my car or I'm putting on my short shorts. Cold enough to need a hat, still in his shorts.
A wet start meant R1Rs. The neon wheels have been garishly clashing since 2007.
And you think this "beer"stuff will cure my addiction to polish? Do I rub it on?
Rolling into Copse Slippery. Testing was great fun, it was almost a shame it dried out.
No, you fools, stay away from the spicy dishes, nooooo.
Now, where are the car keys, it's time to go racing.
A slightly battered XJ40 looks a lot more shiny and professional under the lights. Surprisingly fast.
After a year of unexpected woes, Katy pounded round all day without a hitch. And quickly too.
Slithering around the wet track on new R1Rs put Helen comfortably faster than most, weight and tread meant grip, and the new diff worked well, much better traction than a fortnight ago even if I don’t know where I’m going. More understeer in the car though, back to her old predicatable ways with a nose that pushes a little, but once you know it’s going to turn in, laying into the power early. Interesting track, couple of obvious points to be careful on the middle pedal, but that complex of corners from Maggots to Hangar straight are great fun. Complicated and slippery, but fun. So too the exit from Hangar, that corner longer than it looks and that inviting exit curb that sucks you onto the wet astroturf, I caught Matt there as he gave it some serious wobble.
Bear reports from his pitwall perch that we were closing in on Bellamy’s M3, that little mock rivalry from a fortnight ago has proven most amusing and Bear can’t resist giving him the royal wind-up, the Jag is faster in the rain because it’s heavy and it bites because of it, and we have to make the most of that.
As the session drew to an end, Helen swapped ends with sudden venom, never even felt that start, one moment we’d blown past a Morgan and feeling smug, the next it’s sideways. Corrective steering and throttle don’t fetch it back, which is odd, just kept rotating. Takes a long time too, I reckon it’s two whole seconds before we’re facing backwards, and sliding backwards with the tyres locked, looking out of the screen at a surprised Morgan pilot. So long does this take that I’ve dropped the clutch and revved the engine to prevent stalling, waved at the Morgan, and when the speed dropped enough, cranked the wheel to reverse through a half circle, select first and resume. A little sheepish, my first spin in this car since 2009, but the grip all seems to have fallen off the track, and the next corner was like ice, so brought it home to find out what the hell had happened. My confidence in the rain had been at a real high, so the sudden spin has me flushed with humiliation.
The answer is at base, Dean’s car is pouring fuel out of the boot floor, indeed when the tank was emptied he’d left at least 20 litres of it out on track. That explained a lot. My ego held a ticker-tape parade. With only one morning session there is time for repair and change. The rain has gone, track drying out fast, and all cars are being seen to. Tyre swap for Helen and Katy to dry rubber. Tank out for Dean. Minor oil leak to be repaired for Jeffery. Bear is directing operations and moving from one repair to the next, oddly in his element working on two cars at once. Dean’s problem would turn out to be an ancient fuel hose. We’re a bit baffled how a fuel hose on a 2 year-old car can be in such a state, and Bear takes the opportunity to swap all the fuel lines in the boot to be safe, and he’s back in action. The car must have been put together with old fuel hoses, which is a bit naughty.
To say how long the gap was, everyone was in action for most of the break, there was a real sense of industry, and a collaborative team effort you don’t see at any other time in the same way. It’s rather nice, actually.
It was now a dry session as the afternoon opened and we’re back to 888s. On cold rubber I span immediately on the new infield as I tried to figure out the line, fortunately there was again enough time to stop it stalling – no juice in the battery means it wouldn’t have restarted. You have to be quick on the pedals though. Can’t blame the fuel this time, that’s me overdoing it. Some of the lines here are not that obvious, and on the very green track even dry corners were a bit lethal. Remembering not to force the car to stay on the track when she’s trying to drift two wheels off was the only way to prevent a lot more spins. But red flags come out almost immediately. What the hell? Comer is in the gravel trap. Oh no. Can’t see his front wheel. Oh dear, I’ve only just put those on. I did torque the nuts, didn’t I? It’s OK, it’s merely buried, not missing. Two black lines suggest he out-braked himself. Phew.
Later would come the truth. He went howling in there to tackle the Historic circuit. We’re not on that Historic circuit today. There’s a 3rd gear chicane today, not a 4th gear left hander. Oops. He would be made to remember this for the rest of the weekend. And probably for a year or so yet.
Resumed, and starting to get to grips with the place. It takes me some time to work it out, there is enough extra track here that it’s like learning Rockingham on top of the National circuit. The answer seems to be to batter some corners very aggressively, but then be gentle with those that ask for a very late apex, carrying what you can by way of apex speed but squaring off the corner to get a good exit onto the straights, the entry to and exit from Hangar straight in particular seeming to be very sensitive to that approach. Late on and ahead is the junior Clarke in a swift modified 6 pot, and I’m not gaining on it by much each lap, it seems to be having its neck wrung, but its pace suddenly declines sharply and persistently and then we gain on it hand over fist. It looked very much as if the car had been exhausted of its reserves and run out of tyres, something we’re trying to avoid after our experience here a fortnight ago. It is part of the reason we changed Helen’s settings for this race.
Repairs before the final session were more modest, and consisted of fuel for pilots and cars. A Dermott bounce on the car adjusted damper settings, as I had felt the car was a bit bouncy on the front through some of the turns. And what’s the point of increasing the number of adjustment knobs on the front dampers if you don’t twiddle them?
The last session was fully dry, and I caught a fierce battle between Butterfield and Clarke. It’s only testing, but they were having a good race. Again, their pace seemed to suddenly fall off, the rate of closure goes from tens of metres to hundreds. I think, think, that my tyres – I’m running my worn 225/50 balloons at this point, not the wider race rubber - are lasting a lot better. I am trying not to lean on them too hard, and braking is more gentle than I could perhaps go because I don’t want to fry the still-standard brakes, but I think the car is simply better this time out.
Having caught them, the question was what to do. It’s a bit silly, but on the other hand practice racing is hard to come by, it’s tempting to join in. Better not. A lap passes. Oh, go on then. But as I make the call, Butterfield runs wide, Clarke passes him but also goes a bit wide into the next corner, and Helen nips by the pair. So much for practice racing then. But that Clarke machine is a swift car, happy to have that astern. I was setting about clearing off from that when the reds came out again. Taking stock of the situation there is 20 min left of testing, the damper twiddle has improved things, I reckon I’ve got my eye in, all I’m doing is burning resources if I keep going. Back to camp then, day done.
Handling is better than it was a fortnight ago, the rear is far tamer, if anything we now tend back to mild understeer, but the pace is better too. The direct comparison with the same car on parts of the same track in the same conditions, 2 weeks apart, allows me to make a straight back to back assessment of solid vs metalastic rear subframe mounts. For the very first time I felt the rear steer in the car as the subframe pivots. I would never have noticed that otherwise. It feels like the start of oversteer, which means you back off a bit, but it isn’t, if you keep your foot in the “oversteer” ceases to worsen. I wonder if this is why Helen has always been so forgiving in the rain, as when you lift off and counter-steer you get both ends applying corrective steering?
The diff ratio, changed for this event, is actually too high, I think, the 3.77 would have been better in places. But then, this an endurance race, and saving the car from those high rpm isn’t such a bad plan. Definitely a step up on where we were 2 weeks ago, and this, in current form, is a very good wet weather car.
How do you write about an event that you helped support but also took part in? Part from the pitlane, part from the driver’s seat? Write a long ramble and stick it in both, I think.
Months ago, as we were leaving the sweltering misery of Castle Combe, surveying a series of broken cars and unhappy drivers, a bright idea dawned. Why not do the Birkett this year? And why not populate the team only with also-rans? No front runners, but people who by way of age, infirmity, inability or the specification of their machinery are unlikely to ever get a winner’s hat. No lunatics, no wild, knuckle-dragging psychopaths, nobody with a complete lack of situational awareness, but solid car/driver pairings but who aren’t going to otherwise get asked to join a team.
The Birkett is a well-planned event, and we’ve already signed on for tomorrow’s race, so now the cars can go to scrutineering. Both Helen and Deano’s XJ6 have brakelight failure, swift remedial action required to both cars to fix that, but all six cars sail through scrutineering. Once Deano had performed the thankless task of re-numbering all six cars with our race numbers and letters. Don’t get me started on the letters.
Better yet, after a season of woe, Comer’s car has at last come good, it ran faultlessly all day, and tyre pressures are identical all round. It’s not easy to get a car to do that. Finally, the damned thing works.
Time to set up in the garages, and it takes time because the lower paddock is full of dickheads who insist on putting every possible transporter in the pit garage access, and blocking what’s left with dumped cars. We set Roger on them, which seemed to work. He’s a lot like an enraged bull when he gets cross, I wouldn’t want to face that either.
As we left the truck in the outer paddock, we have to wheel 24 spare wheels and tyres down to the garage, tools, tables, food, coffee machines, everything for the Saturday race. The garage with 6 cars in is full before you start with the rest of the kit. Race day will be less packed. Loaded backwards to allow the cars out in the order they must qualify, they are all fuelled but not tyred for race day, we’ll wait for the morning weather for that.
Night has fallen, time for the curry house. Three designated drivers, of which I am one. No beer for me before race day, that’s how I roll these days, so I’m piloting the Dermott’s Volvo. There might have been a small race on the way home between old Volvo estate and new Skoda, but Jeffery senior got himself boxed in at the roundabout and the night-time wet weather top speed challenge went the way of the Scandinavians. We don’t know what happened to Philip, they seemingly got lost. The suggestion was that Philip had headed for the Historic curry house.
The morning dawns wet, and the no beer plan meant a nice early clear-headed start, moving some more kit down to the garage, getting the coffee on, polishing the car, the world getting louder as more people stir. You don’t get a sunrise at a circuit, you get a noise-rise, and dawn is whenever curfew says you can fire up the engines.
The odd thing to this event is that, what with sign on and scrutineering last night, there is no start to the day, a tannoy call for group A to qualify goes out, and that’s it, the event is underway. The busy chaos of this event is something else. You’ve got 400 cars, give or take, and on average I would guess 5 people per car, mechanics, drivers, managers, pitwall crew, friends and family, so the lower paddock is swarming. The fight to keep your roadway open all day takes some doing, everybody wants their support vehicles to hand, plus sixteen extra cars and a lorry. But there is a buzz about it all, this event runs from 9am through to 5.30 or so, and there is no dead period at any point, it’s a full day in which you have a car out there for all but about 30 minutes of it.
Quali runs in groups according to the letter on your car. It counts for nothing, but you get to set a time that is then ignored. We think. Every 20 min or so you send another car to assembly, which is not where you usually go, and they sort it all out when you get there. Quali will therefore run for 2 hours, and when you get the last car back, the race will kick off within about 20 minutes, so it’s a constant flow of cars. As they leave our pit, in order because we lined them up last night, and qualify, they will return to the outer paddock to brim the tanks, and the first car will, without fanfare, scuttle off to take the start without ever coming back to base.
The rest will return to the garage on demand so we don’t get too cluttered. Quali is wet, the race start will likely be wet, but the race will dry out. But then it might rain again. Tricky. A swift change of Tom’s tyres for R1Rs and he’s off to qualify. He and I both have R1Rs, and Helen accepts her nice new rubber as well, a look at the track as the cars circulate tells me that even as it dries it will still be R1R conditions. As my turn comes round, and having stolen the battery off Dermott’s Volvo, so does it prove. Team managers make all sorts of sacrifices.
Assembly is chaotic, the marshalls doing a pretty bang-up job of sorting the couple of hundred cars that all arrive at once, and though there’s a panic as you park amongst a group of Cs with a D on your door, everybody goes out at the right time. Which is impressive enough. If last night’s chicken Ceylon wasn’t demanding urgent attention I could have sat here watching this ballet all morning.
Now, Dermott did say to set a solid lap, take no risks, so smooth and steady does it, but he wasn’t full of curry, and that smooth and steady seemed to be pretty quick, the wet-ish track had the Jag laying down the grip in a way that so manyof them just didn’t, we could out-brake and out-corner Caterhams in this lot, and Helen caught and killed all but the G55 that romped past. First lap though, and we discovered the track has changed to the one that Philip tried to drive yesterday, so we do have a little to learn here
Spinners everywhere, indeed on the second lap I could see the wreckage of baby Coppock’s car on the infield at Copse. No idea how he’d got that there with rear end damage, there’s nothing to hit that would park you there, it must have been a collision with the pitwall. To reach the exit of Copse having dropped it at Woodcote, which is merely a kink in the pit straight, means a very, very long accident that must have been pretty terrifying to experience, that’s a quarter-mile accident at 100mph in a car that won’t stop sliding on the wet grass/gravel/tarmac. The car, however, is not badly damaged, and I can be assured even from here that he’ll be OK. These things do matter to you even in qualifying, because I do know the guy, and we’re all in this together.
Scraping off a vivid-green Beemer by boxing it in against a Smart car was quite amusing. He seemed to have tunnel vision, didn’t see the slow car on the corner exit despite it being blindingly obvious what was about to happen, and only when it loomed in the windscreen did he look for an alternative line, which now had a Jaguar in it because we saw it coming ten seconds ago. I watched him try to squeeze up the inside of the Smart with two wheels on the wet grass, and wished him luck with that. Helen felt very stable in the rain, the best she has for over 2 years, and yesterday’s testing has helped a great deal.
Stayed out longer than I planned because it was good fun, little bit guilty when the flag fell because I might have been going a bit faster than we’d planned and I’m sure I’m going to be in trouble for that, but it felt so stable and planted that it was hard not to, we could have done that pace all day. Back to base, refuel, every car is brimmed, and line her up in the garage, still on wets, Helen will sit here on wet rubber much of the day in case the skies re-open. This would prove to be something of a ballache, because the weather kept threatening all day, but more on that later.
As qualifying ends, it’s an almost immediate turnaround for the race, Tom Margerine Meadows would not return to the garage at all. He’s taking the start so he refuels, adjusts his tyre pressures and rolls straight to take the race start almost the moment the last car comes in from quali. It’s still wet, he’s on wets, his car seemed likely to suit, so he’s taking the start. Whilst he’s off sorting out at one side of the track, two cars are being readied in the garage, Helen on wets, Kermit on dry tyres. If I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butterfield prangs it early doors then Helen will roll on wets. If he manages the hour we can reassess the track and send either car out. But that means sitting there ready to go from the moment the race begins.
The noise and flags and lights sensed out there say that it’s time to race. Game time.
A few niggles today for Deano, but teamwork has real advantages. Was the XJ6 the oldest car in this race?
Roger swears this is the last race for him and Kermit.
Of course he said that a year ago too.
They've only blocked me in to stop me taking this car to the curry house.
Last race in this form for the Thundertank, it has a diet that starts in 2 days' time.
The garage is full as soon as we put the cars in. Smaller cars had to go 2 teams to a garage.
Forgot to take my phone out of my pocket when I went to quali. This is what a photo from an old phone looks like.
Surfing through quali. Conditions near identical to testing, thanks to the usual sacrifices to the Rain God.
Time to go racing.
In three or four hours.