Pace and Performance at Pembrey

On then, to the penultimate round of the British Rallycross Championship 2013 at Pembrey in South Wales.

Following Lydden, I had some work to do on the car. Fit the new front wing, get it painted by Bumper2Bumper and try to get rid of the black marks and rubs down the driver’s side. That in addition to the usual thorough wash and polish, removal of wheels and checking for other “hidden” issues. The only other thing wrong was a broken cable tie for a rear damper which would have been costly had it broken away completely.

Nothing like last minute, I got the wing back from the paintshop on the Friday before the race, fitted it and the mudflaps before embarking on the usual trailer pickup and loading of Maud, race gear, tools, jack, stands, spare wheels and tyres, gazebo and weekend bag. Heading off for a race is now a well-oiled logistical routine.

On the road by lunchtime on Saturday, I wasn’t taking the family this time. I’d made contact with Graham Strugnell again, and he was up for another road trip with me. We headed round the M25 and down the M4, reaching the circuit just after 6pm.

Once the car was unloaded and trailer deposited, I insisted to Graham (who was already tucking into the paddock hospitality at this point with Johny Bean) that I wanted a lap of the track (on foot) under my belt before leaving. So in the late dusk of a lovely warm, clear Welsh evening, I hot-footed it around, checking out the state of the gravel, the corner characteristics, the lines, the ruts and rises to avoid. Walking the track the day before really helps me to start visualising and preparing mentally for race day. I can spend my last waking moments going through a few laps in my mind, and I’m much more at ease about the challenge ahead.

Graham and I then headed back to Llanelli to meet up with Pete, Sarah, Nick, Nigel (“Team Gwynne”) and Kris. They were already settled and tucking in to a few beers. We had an entertaining but restrained evening of beer, banter and good food, making it to bed around half midnight.

Race day began before dawn. I was up, showered and kitted up well before 7. Graham and I hopped into the car and back to the circuit where the Swift camp were busy preparing the marquee and kitchen for the day’s catering and hospitality. Soon I was signed on, and the car and my kit had been scrutineered. Then the black Monster appeared…

It was a mystery who was going to be driving the late Monster entry, but it transpired to be Alan Tapscott, a veritable legend of front wheel drive rallycross who would hit the ground running. Now here was someone who was going to present a serious challenge to my aspirations for the weekend. An unknown to the Swift class, but certainly not there to make up the numbers.

Contrary to everyone’s expectation of a cold and/or wet and windy event, the weather was superb. Not hot, but clear, still and sunny – perfect rallycross conditions. In fact they had to wet the gravel sections to keep the dust down during the day. This is certainly effective, and gives spectators and TV crews a much clearer view of the action. It also adds to the challenge for the drivers who approach each heat wondering how slippery will it be. Getting off line on sludgy gravel saps your laptimes, and following other cars can be a visibility nightmare. So after the all-important race day reccy of the track with Graham, we were ready for practice.

Pembrey 1Photo by Rubber Duck

I went out behind a couple of others, with Kris and cars from other classes coming out behind me. Learning from my mistakes in practice for earlier rounds, I approach the first one or two laps of practice very tentatively. I only really start to try and find the limits on the last practice lap in preparation for heat one. However, it is still true with my limited experience to say that keeping up with the pack during races is much easier than finding the limits on your own during practice with no pacesetter as a marker. My mental approach has to change and will, I’m sure, as I gain more experience. But I have to learn to attack practice as the pacesetter, otherwise what’s the point?

Leaving the pitlane a couple of seconds behind me, Kris was soon up on me with more immediate pace. After about a lap of following me, he stuck it up the inside of the second corner transition from tarmac to gravel. OK, I thought, so there’s loads more grip on the way in than I’m guessing there is. Then I had Ash Simpson (MSA Super National Lotus Exige) and Craig Lomax (Hot Hatch Citroen Saxo) up behind me. Ash made mincemeat of me out of the final turn onto the main staight as I recall. Not wanting a clumsy collision on the gravel infield, he opted to simply power past me safely. Then I had Craig on me, but practice was over.

I have found being out with cars from different classes to be quite intimidating. Me, the inexperienced newcomer who could put a foot wrong and ruin someones weekend before it’s even began. But I have to stop thinking that way, and concentrate on my practice; my pace; my weekend. “If they want to come past, they’ll have to find a way” I can hear Graham saying in my head – “don’t just assume you should be behind them and certainly don’t move out of the way.”

Pembrey 2Photo by Rubber Duck

The heats and final were actually fairly uneventful. Pembrey has no joker section, and it’s pretty difficult to pass in identical cars – so with the Swifts it’s down to a good start, getting track position and making no mistakes…

In the first heat, I started from the back which was ideal to hang onto the bunch and pick up my pace. But I got a good start, and Alan and I sandwiched Kris on the exit of the first corner. Ultimately, Alan made it stick and made it up to 3rd, with Kris 4th and me settling for 5th into the second bend. There were a couple of ding-dong laps with Kris, with me out-dragging him from the first hairpin twice. However I made a mistake at the gravel hairpin and spun, letting Kris through. That’s how we finished.

Between the first two heats, I’d caught up with Timmy Hansen, there to support Kevin’s championship finale. Finishing overall in third place in the European Rallycross Championship the weekend before, here he was comparing notes and passing on his knowledge and advice to me! Both the Hansen boys are true gents, and extremely keen to impart their love of rallycross to everyone. Little was I to know that Timmy would be critiquing my next heat…

Heat 2 started on pole, but ended up at the back again after being swamped in the first corner squabble. Rubbish! In my defence, I’d had a slow start due to looking at the wrong set of start lights, and being too cautious into the first corner. What followed was an uneventful race chasing Kris.

Returning to the pits, Timmy made a beeline for me, advising me to come off the power earlier on the gravel section before the final corner. This would keep me tighter and more settled ,allowing me to get on the power earlier, but more progressively, so I was optimising my entry onto the straight.

“I could only see you on that section…” he said, implying he would have given me far more advice had he been able to observe the rest of my lap! Unfortunately, Pembrey is a very flat airfield. Spectator views are good from the outside, but from within the track and paddock, there is a limited view. You have to pick your viewing position.

You can’t buy that sort of input to your drive, and I’ve been truly priveleged to share conversations and experience with some great drivers, past, present and future of this sport during 2013.

For heat 2, Kris had replaced his air filter, and Graham asked if I’d checked mine. “Yeah” I said, “checked it on Thursday”. Graham was not convinved, and extracted said filter. “It’s f****d” was his professional conclusion.

OK, so I thought that the thick clog of oil wouldn’t affect airflow (me, with an Automotive Engineering degree!!), but clearly everyone else did. Fortunately, Pete had a brand new spare Pipercross filter, so I entered heat 3 with Maud breathing easily. Whether it made any difference or not wasn’t really apparent, but I’ve always found her to pull well. Maybe it would give me an extra something…

Pembrey 4Photo by Rubber Duck

Sure enough in heat 3, after a good start and confidence building on the gravel, I was able to pull away from Kris somewhat, finishing a firm 4th. The points damage was done in the first two heats though, so I’d line up last on the grid for the final, with Kris inside me. Graham, Tristan and Alan on the front row.

After a good start, I decided to take a fairly wide line through the first corner, and get back on the power to capitalise on anyone getting tangled or slowed excessively in the first corner. Yet again, Alan had a terrific start and had jumped Tristan. I had also managed to jump Kris.

I held onto Tristan Ovenden pretty well for the whole race, and he was right with Alan and Graham Rodemark. So for once I really was near the sharp end, if not near enough to pressure Tristan in any serious way. Towards the end of lap 3 of 4, it was clear that the race was pretty static and I decided to consolidate my 4th place. Slowing your pace significantly is not a great idea, as it can cause your concentration to dip, but at the same time you start over-thinking things instead of letting it flow. As a result, I made a mistake, drifting a bit wide in the first gravel section and getting crossed up and wide into the gravel hairpin. I doubt I lost much time at all, but the fear was that Kris might be fired up enough to capitalise. Fortunately for me, he wasn’t.

Pembrey 5Photo by Rubber Duck

I pressed on for the final part of the lap, and finished only 2.5 seconds behind Tristan! More importantly I’d finished only 5 seconds behind the winner – newly crowned champion Graham Rodemark! I finally felt that my pace is really getting there. Loose or tarmac, dry or wet. I’ve had every weather and track condition thrown at me this year, so finally I hope that experience is starting to pay.

I was actually so shocked at having finished so close to Graham, that when I congratulated him on the win and the championship, I had the cheek to ask him if he had had a problem with the car during the race! I hope he took it the way it was intended which was my surprise at my performance, which I feared might have been artificial. Pleasingly, he said he’d had no problems, and as ever he was full of beans and encouragement, assuring me that next year I will be right up there.

Hang on a second. There’s one more race to go yet this season. And I intend to be even closer at Croft…

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