The trip to Holland always promised to be a tough prospect after the unbridled excitement of my first podium at Lydden Hill. Graham and Tristan were going to continue their form, and Chris Mullen would certainly be wanting to put his season back on track after car problems in the first round.
We also had the return of rapid, seasoned Suzuki Swift competitor, Darren Scott, and last year’s 3rd place finisher Kris Fruru was returning for his home race in a Peter Gwynne car.
Dale Cousins and me made up a seven car grid heading over the channel for our international race, but none of the new drivers from Lydden were going. As I found last year, a National “A” license is required to race on the continent, requiring 6 race stamps in your log book. It was therefore a field of experience, all more than me, who would line up for three, seven car heats and an A-final on Sunday 13th April.
We’d decided to have a weeks holiday at De Kempervennen (Centre Parcs) right next to the track, but that meant a logistical problem with Maud in tow. Amazingly, Graham Strugnell’s old sponsor, owner of Café de Pomp, Jan Van Nunen, offered to put her up in his unit nearby. Maud would spend the week alongside Porsche GT3s and other immaculate and valuable machinery; lucky girl. But first raceday…
Practice was, erm, slippery! I’ve never driven in dry conditions with so little grip, attributed to the vast amount of “moon dust” in the gravel traps which had been dragged or blown over the track. It would take some time to clear, but the consensus was that it would later in the day.
Three laps of practice was all I had to get to grips with the layout of the circuit and grip levels, simply trying to determine the right gear and entry speeds whilst fighting oodles of understeer off line, and oversteer going onto the main straight – great fun but ultimately slow.
Heat one I started in the middle row, with loads of wheelspin I thought would never end! I changed up way too late and would have been better to short-shift in the slippery conditions to get some traction. After avoiding a wayward Rodemark who ran wide in the first corner, I settled in and ended up having a fairly straightforward race simply trying to keep it on the island and gain some confidence to start to push in some of the corners.
The oversteer onto the main straight was the highlight of the race from a fun perspective, but I finished in 6th place. Not a million miles from the gaggle of cars ahead, but they’d got up to speed and gained confidence much faster. It was going to be tough to make the heats count.
Heat two saw me start on the back row of the grid. Everyone got a very similar start, with me yielding to Kris on the exit of turn one and running at the back for the first couple of laps. After my joker on lap 2, I came out in 6th and maintained that.
It was, to be honest, a lacklustre performance, and from my onboard footage could see I was still struggling to get to grips with the basics. Taking different gears on the same corner each lap, letting the revs drop too low, shifting too early, changing down mid corner because I’d got it wrong. All novice behaviour highlighting my lack of experience in getting up to speed quickly. I was pretty disappointed and self-critical, feeling this weekend was going to pass me by on the results front.
A few changes to pressures and rear damper settings saw the car more drivable in heat 3 and I’d tried to focus on the positives from the first 2 heats and re-establish some mental control of my day.
Heat three was brilliant. Starting on pole, I followed Mr Fruru into the first corner, giving him a bit of a nerf as I tried not to yield and show him I was there to fight for position. Dale ran into the dust trap on the outside, so I followed Kris for the first lap and a half, again opting for the joker on lap two.
I came out in 4th, ahead of the hard tussle between Darren and Tristan. Three men from Kent sharing 50 yards of track in Holland! Holding my best post-joker position of the day, I pushed too hard into the chicane, taking too much curb and fighting the car on exit. I knew Darren was close, and that fact pushed me to make a further mistake. Running wide into dust trap of turn one, I kept my foot in hopelessly as Darren and Tristan blatted past.
I kept in touch with them, and their battle meant I could spy an opportunity to nick a position or two on the last lap. I was so close! In the second to last corner, they were alongside each other having a bit of a ding dong and generally slowing each other down with Tristan muscling his way past into 4th. Darren’s line was compromised to the outside of the turn, but gave him the inside for the final corner. I opted to simply have some fun and hang it out around the outside of the final turn, staying alongside Scott until the tightening turn meant I had to drop in behind.
Great fun, and compliment of the weekend followed from Darren himself. “Anyone willing to try and go around the outside of that last corner has got some balls!”. I was happy with that!
So for the final, I lined up on the back row having had 3 sixth place finishes. Yet again, everyone had a similar start, and we pretty much maintained position going into the first corner. Kris had lost out to Graham and Tristan from the outside of the front row, and I headed towards turn two in – you’ve guessed it – sixth position.
We all bunched up into the tight right hand hairpin on the loose at turn three, and I fancied my chances inside Kris, before opting to avoid a collision. But we were all nose-to-tail. I opted for a first-lap joker behind Tristan, possibly subconsciously hoping he’d tow me along like at Lydden.
Sure enough, after Kris’s joker on lap two, he popped out just ahead, running wide in the last corner. Fancying a go at my 2013 rival on home turf, I reeled him in with better momentum and decided my move would be on the loose into turn 3. I got a good run through the chicane, making my intentions clear but was, in fact, too far away. When I went for the move, I realised I’d left it way too late to be alongside and ended up in the wall on the inside. Firm and sudden impact, but ultimately low speed.
Dale was swiftly past me too as I selected reverse with waved yellows above me. Even salvaging sixth would now be beyond me. I chased hard and gained on Dale in the last lap, but the damage was done. I was livid with myself, because I felt I should be. As I write this now, to me it is simply a reminder of how close the Swift racing is, and that the difference between an un-encumbered front row in the final and the back is about 4-5 seconds over the course of a heat.
I just need to find that extra edge where I look back and consider my performance lack-lustre. Too conservative. Too safe. Not smart enough. Not calm enough. But learning a slippery new track was what put me on the back foot. Mr Strugnell had reminded me before the race that I know Lydden very well and that Valkenswaard would be a new challenge. He was proved right.
I will return to that track one day, and firmly believe I will put right my performance. A win at Valkenswaard would be my Monaco GP victory. That’s got to be the goal.
We returned Maud to her holiday garage, and settled into a week of family holiday. Plenty of time to digest the race and ponder what went wrong. Graham knew I was down and gave me a call a couple of days later. He told me all the stuff I needed to hear from a mentor, so I was able to put it behind me and started to think about Scotland.
My son and I also took the opportunity to go back to the track on a morning run and we did a couple of laps on foot and bike respectively. Without the hubbub, noise and pressure of a race weekend, a desolate rallycross circuit is really quite serene… We used the time to reflect on what went wrong, talk about futures, feel the track a bit closer and simply enjoy the peace of a racetrack in the Dutch sunshine. That was a great day and allowed me to put the weekend to bed. It’s nice to hope that one day maybe he’ll hurtle around here…?
Centre Parcs consisted mainly of swimming, sliding, hurting, laughing, beer & food. Not a lot of sun, but that’s the price my wife is paying for me to race! What a woman. Suffice to say, as a sun-seeker, she won’t be joining me at Knockhill…