Blazing Belgium

What a brilliant weekend! After all the trouble getting licenses sorted and last minute preparations, the Maasmechelen round exceeded my expectations in every way.

We hitched up Maud on Saturday morning, and my brother and I got a late lunchtime sailing out of Dover, just down the road. Forgetting the hour going on, it was 8pm before we got to the circuit and found the Swifts.

Free practice had been announced for the Saturday – which I would have missed in any case. But Johny Bean and Chris Mullen had taken the opportunity to check out the circuit and were, as a result, facing exclusion because not all the cars and drivers were there to take the option.

Clearly everyone had made a huge and costly effort to be in Maasmechelen, and it was disappointing that we would lose two drivers. But Johny and Chris made the bold decision to enter the S1600 class. Chris has had a tough couple of rounds and his championship chances were fading. Johny simply hasn’t raced for car problems all season and simply wanted some action.

That left five of us in the Swift class after a Monster no-show and the late withdrawal of young Mr Hills.

I’m clearly not interested in the relative uplift in points I’d receive if I finished in 5th. As I’ve written in previous posts, starting on a full grid is an amazing feeling. But five cars in all the heats and final would be sufficient.

The sun had blazed all day. My brother Neil (although he regained the nickname of “Robbie” lookalike from Nick and Sarah!) and I checked in to a Geleen hotel just over the border in the Netherlands. We then went to meet up with Sarah, Pete, Nick and Phil Sherwood. Who should I spy on arrival? None other than Rallycross maestro, Master Strugnell, and Phil’s support crew friend, Simon. We had a good evening tucking into Greek food and Jupiler, and enjoyed Robbie Williams gags and rallycross discussions.

Next morning, we were up and gone by 7am. I’d even been for a light jog to keep the nausea I feel on every race morning at bay. Once at the track, I quickly did my reconnaissance and found out where and when to sign on and be scrutineered. Then it was onto the track for a walk.

Maasmechelen is a 60/40 split tarmac to gravel. Joker section is gravel, up the hill is gravel and off line is gravel, but otherwise the track is fast corners, short straights and tight hairpins. A really compact amphitheatre, great for spectators.

Signed on, car scrutineered and into practice, I quickly started to get a huge sense of satisfaction from the car and layout of the track. Some of the corners and braking points eluded me all day, but I continued to gain confidence and push harder all day. Both car and track kept giving. I think this was truly the first time I felt in control of the car – not the other way around. Perhaps Graham reiterating that simple fact to me early in the day struck home.

In the heats, I generally slipped back down the order, but would like to think I’m gaining start speed and close-quarter confidence. There is no doubting that the other guys have that first-lap commitment that I don’t yet. More psychological work needed there.

I did, none the less, find myself in front of Phil and Kris at various points and keep them at bay for a short while. Either until homeboy Kris or rapid Phil came storming past into the first tight hairpin. That was my weakest spot all day.

Photo by Rubber Duck

Graham and my brother (in very different capacities of advice-giving!!) helped me all day by giving an outside perspective on my drive. I don’t think I let them down, but I really need to work on my ball size and quit checking my mirrors, according to Graham. In heat 2, I got to the grid and realised my nearside mirror had been rendered useless. “Graham!!!” I cussed. But I left it like that all day – I think he might have a point…

I didn’t spin or have any major dramas. Indeed, both Phil and Kris were broadside across the track in front of me during the day and I avoided both of them. Again more experience to bolster confidence.

So to the final where Tristan Ovenden, who had won every heat during the day, lined up on pole ahead of Graham Rodemark, Kris and Phil. In fact, I think we all finished in the same positions for every heat, so the grid was a foregone conclusion.

An uneventful first lap saw me slot in behind Kris who immediately did his joker. I jumped him, but at the start of the second lap, he drilled it down the inside again for the second or even third time that day. The boy was on fire!

I’d found all day that being a second or two behind another car gives you a much better idea of braking points and corner speed you can carry. So I didn’t lose much time to Kris over the remainder of the lap.

Into the fast first right hand corner on lap 3, it was clear something went wrong on Kris’ car. He tank slapped this way and that, leaving me guessing where he was going to end up. I slowed sufficiently to negotiate him safely on the inside and quickly got back on it.

At the time, I wasn’t aware he’d had a complete tyre failure. Whether it had just popped off the rim or failed on the concrete curbing he’d run wide on in the last corner I don’t know. But I was oblivious, and thought he’d be right back on my arse within half a lap. So I gave it the beans and in the moment of “I might finish 4th out of 5” I believe I made a costly error.

Writing this now, you’d think I had it clear as day what happened. But apparently I didn’t do my joker lap in those final 3 laps.

My 3rd lap time was consistent with avoiding Kris AND taking the joker. Which in hindsight would have been my race strategy to get the joker done and retain track position while Kris gave chase.

But it would appear that slow 3rd lap was purely Kris-avoidance. For the life of me, I cannot recall. It’s fair to say that race day is intense, and you find yourself questioning whether you checked tyres, petrol etc on the way to the grid. At least I do! Let alone whether you made a split second decision to go right instead of left on one corner of one lap.

I am sure the timing team are right and as a result, I was relegated to last of the starters. So Kris ended up 4th and me 5th. Drat.

But I still felt for Kris, as he’d returned solid 3rd places all day. At his home track, a puncture with a new tyre was really mean luck. But that’s racing.

The Belgians had given us a cracking days racing, elongated by the need for breaks between heats for the marshalls. And they were just that – “heats”. I saw 38 degree outside temperature on the grid for one race.

By the time the Swift final finished at around 7:30pm, we were all packed up and ready to go, save for the cars themselves. We hotfooted it back to Calais in 3 hours, arriving 10 minutes late for our late night departure. I wasn’t home and in bed until 3am French time. What a very long day’s racing. I was absolutely spent but so satisfied.

So now we need to look forward. I’m contemplating some one-to-one Swift tuition at Silverstone this weekend coming, just to try and get to the bottom of those confidence issues. This would be in a different Swift with two seats, giving me experience of a car setup differently. Mr Strugnell has offered his guidance yet again, but can I really get away with three weekends of racing on the trot? My wonderful wife Sarah is, as ever, fully behind what I need to do to succeed. Well, if I must then!!!

Regardless of the Silverstone event, I will go to Lydden on the August Bank Holiday weekend (my weekend birthday) with a new found confidence. Maud was singing this weekend in the sunshine – very much like my wife does! Maybe that’s the key. If it is, I hope it’s blazing hot for my home race.

Back in the cold depths of round 1 back in March, my friends and family endured watching me simply try to survive the weekend. I really am aiming to give the home crowd somewhat more to shout about next month…

Maasmechelen 3Photo by Rubber Duck

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