What a brilliant, rewarding and satisfying weekend! The Knockhill round of the 2013 British Rallycross championship was well worth the 1000 mile round trip and atrocious racing conditions.
Friday night saw me collect the trailer from its storage location, load Maud on and get everything into the car. My checklist means that I’m less worried about forgetting something these days, and by 9ish I was relaxing with a beer.
Saturday was a very long day. Up early, I said goodbye to the family until Monday evening, and was on the road by 7:45. I picked Graham up just before 9 and we embarked on the remainder of the 500 mile road trip. I don’t think we even switched the radio on until we were north of Cumbria! We talked and talked about everything and anything, really getting to know each other. Rallycross and cycling were the main topics, but they were interspersed with politics, morals, health and family.
A mere 9 hours later, at around 6pm, we climbed into the hills north of Edinburgh and arrived at Knockhill race circuit. We didn’t hang around, dropping Maud off and heading for the hotel. After checking in, I found Graham Rodemark and Kevin Hansen in the hotel bar and briefly caught up on how his car had been put right since the Mallory roll. I think the outcome was that the car had been straightened, but until tomorrow he wasn’t going to know if it would drive right.
Mr Strugnell had made arrangements for us to visit one of his Dunfermline friends, and I spent a very pleasant evening enjoying a curry and a few beers in the company of a lovely family. It certainly helped me put race day to the back of my mind and relax.
Once back at the hotel, we were straight to bed. I say bed – more like rubble. As a result, I slept badly and had the early signs of man flu making my throat annoyingly tickly. None the less, we were up first thing Sunday, grabbed a bite to eat and headed to the circuit.
After signing on and appeasing the very thorough scrutineers, Graham and I headed out to walk the track, identify lines, braking points and discuss our approach to practice. Before we knew it, the driver’s briefing was done and we were being tannoy-summoned to the dummy grid and free practice (3 laps).
Once out on track, I didn’t muck about. This is rallycross, and I’ve realised that the onus is on getting up to speed with minimal track time. I had to push and find the limits in practice otherwise I’d be risking race finishes later – or being slow – or both.
Suffice to say practice was eventful! Over the loose, I decided to practice my left foot braking to balance the car, which really does settle it without the unpredictability of lifting off the throttle. However, while processing the success of my new found technique, I forgot to move my foot back to the clutch, and instead of dumping the clutch to take 4th on the following straight, I laid two long skid marks as I yanked on the anchors!! I felt such a nob, for a second thinking the engine or clutch had ceased – but another lesson learned and luckily no one behind to hit me.
I then locked up royally into the last corner, with the car tank-slapping and catching me out, sending me through the small cones partitioning the final corner from the joker lap section. Again, lesson learned – brake earlier for the final corner!
So to the heats, but not before the rain arrived. The cloud was still high, bright and white in the main, but over the course of the day, it darkended and descended on the hills north of Dunfermline. By the time of the supercar final, it was teeming down and you couldn’t see the cars for spray once they were 100 yards off the line.
The great thing (at the expense of some drivers who couldn’t make Knockhill) was that all 3 heats and final would include all the Swifts. This would enable me to have valuable experience in a bigger group of cars as the heat grids are lucky dip. I found myself in a number of positions for the heats, including pole, but again at the back for the final based on heat positions. But more of that later…
At the start of one of the heats, Kris and I were either side of Baggsy into the second corner, and he ran out of options. Baggsy’s green Monster machine has the old style wheels which protrude from the tyres, and the front nearside of his car mashed down the sill of my offside. No real harm done – and to be honest I was pleased to have another racing rub under my belt. I’d not given way and was driving my own race.
Later, I came off my joker lap just as Kris came onto the pit straight on a normal lap. I was carrying more momentum courtesy of a longer run onto the straight, and to be so close to him was so exciting. His want to stay ahead, and my desire to stay with him meant that we were both committed into the first corner. The weather was worse now (I think it was heat 3) and the grip just wasn’t there.
I saw him get a bit out of shape, and I had visions of steaming into his side as he span out. Almost the opposite happened, and I lost the car clockwise down the hill. I remember seeing the back of his car over my left shoulder as I just prayed I wouldn’t back right into him. Somehow – whether luck or Kris’ better judgement, I slid through backwards on the inside of the second corner and into the cones for the second time of the day.
Kris was off the hook, and I gave chase, but it was the last lap. Somehow I did get right up behind him again up the muddy and very slippery hill, but my vision was completely impaired and right at the top I had to back out and let him take the final braking point and corner alone. I just couldn’t see anything.
So to the final. Starting at the back on the outside of the circuit, I made a good start and kept with the pack. In fact I out-dragged Kris to the first corner, giving him space but ultimately taking my line for the tight second corner. I wasn’t last – on merit!
I stayed as close as possible to Phil and Baggsy ahead of me up the treacherous hill, but the front 3 were already pulling away, finding grip from somewhere. Visibility was impossible and who took the joker ahead or behind me and when is a complete mystery! Suffice to say Kris must have nailed some cleaner laps than me and jumped me on the joker.
On the last lap up the loose hill, I came upon a Monster Swift on its side with steam pouring from the bonnet. Baggsy had made contact with the barrier and rolled a couple of times, coming to rest on the outside of the track against the banking. I only slowed slightly as it’s a wide part of the track with plenty of room to get by on the right. I was obviously shocked but knew he’d be fine. I wasn’t so sure about the car, and the reason for his accident made me consider for a second whether another limping car that I could have may be ahead. How bad is that? Or is that racing?!?
There wasn’t, and I came across last of the finishers again. But another yelp of joy and relief left my mouth as I swung off the track and back into the paddock. The excess of adrenaline finding an outlet any way it can.
The rain persisted as I congratulated Chris Mullen on his first win of the season, and caught up with how the others had got on. Baggsy was fine, but the car had taken a pounding with a lot of cosmetic damage. Not the ending he wanted.
Graham and I packed and loaded Maud, said our goodbyes and headed off towards Glasgow. I wanted to break the back of the journey home on Sunday night, get to a hotel and kick back with a few beers to analyse the day with Graham. We did just that, having a couple of beers, a bottle of Rioja and a good carvery dinner. We talked for ages about how the day had progressed.
Graham had spent much of his time during the day running from start line to infield to watch me lap and monitor my progress. He’d provided great feedback and positive critique all day, masses of encouragement and aspects to concentrate improving on. Without him, I know I would not have progressed as well as I believe I have. That evening debrief put me in an even more positive and committed frame of mind. What a great mentor – thank you Graham.
The hotel beds were better, and we grabbed 6 hours sleep before getting a very early start to cover the rest of the journey on Monday. Now the considerable task of packing away, cleaning, tidying, dismantling, checking, repairing and preparing for Mallory in two weeks starts all over again. I can not wait!
But I would drive 500 miles and I would drive 500 more just to be the man who drove 1000 miles to race at Knockhill more.
Come on, I couldn’t resist it!