Knocked About at Knockhill

I was relishing the trek up to Knockhill. It’s a mammoth journey, but some of the scenery is lovely – even from the various motorways you have to trudge for hours. My particular favourite part is between Carlisle and Glasgow. The motorway weaves its way through rolling, deserted hills, with wind turbines aplenty, mist and rain adding to the drama.

But enough of the romance of the road trip. This year, I was accompanied by a young motorsport student, Jason Chidwick who is studying at Canterbury College but desperate to get to as many race events as possible to marshal, if possible. So having hooked up with him back at Lydden, we’d laid plans for me to pick him up.

Just before the trek up to Scotland, it had occurred to me that the windscreen washer really wasn’t up to scratch. Driving with one hand on the wheel and pulling on a windscreen wiper stalk is not very easy. So I’d decided to take Pete’s advice and get a much larger washer bottle. Nothing like last minute, I found myself wiring and plumbing the salvaged part into Maud late on Friday evening. By the time I went to bed, it was working – but not fixed into the car. I was becoming a bit more comfortable with last-minute changes and remaining calm about it.

We set off early on the Saturday, opting for the 520 mile route to Dunfermline. Between 10 and 11 hours later, Maud was de-trailered after her exhausting journey. We caught up with Guy Pettit, who raced at Lydden and was PR’ing the event for the Swifts, and headed out to walk of the track. This confirmed that the previous few days of rain had made the loose section up the hill particularly rutted, but figured it would get smoothed out pretty quick during race day.

At the top of the gravel section, it was clear that the top of the hill had been carved away and the marshals’ post moved to the inside of the track. This meant that there was no menacing drop-off the hill back onto the circuit which hurt us last year, and reckoned it was all good. It was certainly going to make some difference to the speed you could carry over the top of the hill and beyond.

We headed back to the paddock, and Pete took charge of fitting the Peugeot 406 washer bottle in the passenger footwell. I just hoped the scrutineers would uphold an improvised fitters job, and they did. Well done Pete!

Now desperate to get to the hotel for a beer and burger that I’d been looking forward to all day, we hooked up with Pete, Sarah and Guy to make an evening of it, but we also had the company of Matt Bristow and Trev Coulson which made an interesting evening of banter and story telling. We missed the call for last orders, and I took that as a sign to head back to the hotel and get my head down.

Race day dawned, good and fresh as ever up in Scotland. The forecast threatened rain later in the day, but as it transpired it never really materialised, with Knockhill only catching a few showers.

My mistake in practice was, for once, not pushing hard enough. I was so pre-occupied with trying to get the measure of the first corner that I didn’t really push up the hill on my practice laps, and didn’t identify what was to be a major issue for my weekend.

The first corner is a fast, downhill, off-camber right hander, after which is a very tight right hand hairpin onto the start of the loose. After my skilful (or as Johny Bean might say, “completely out of control”) reverse undertake in 2013 on Kris Fruru, I gave those corners my focus. Carrying good speed through, getting the car settled and hard on the brakes into the hairpin was my priority. And that went well; at least I didn’t spin there all weekend…

Knockhill 2014 - PracticeFirst Corner Practice (Photo Courtesy of Rubber Duck)

For heat one I was starting on the front row. When the lights went out, I knew there had been a problem with the start, but as I learned at Lydden – you go. Drive like the clappers and wait for the waved red flags. So I went – as did Jack Brown. But at the first corner the red flags were waving. My opportune take-off was scuppered.

Jack took the sensible decision to reverse back to the grid, but I opted for a full parade lap! I simply wasn’t sure what was the best way to get back to the start, and my gut feel was that it was against circuit etiquette to turn around and go “against the flow”, even though the race was halted.

I think the crowd must have wondered why it had become a very slow, one-horse race! But I’m sure they took their opportunity to pap me..! About 2 minutes later, I arrived at the back of the grid and retook my slot on the front row. The second start was also aborted, but obviously so. Third time lucky, we headed off to the first corner, with Graham and Chris getting better starts, and Tristan having me into the first corner. Damn it – 4th again!!

I kept with Tristan well that first lap, and on the start of the second lap, Tristan ran wide into the tight hairpin. I got well hooked up into the first couple of corners in the first two heats, and as a result of a slight mistake by Tristan, got alongside him onto the gravel section. Reminded me of our rub at Lydden and I was pleased to be near the sharp end again. But he squeezed me to the outside of the track giving me no option but to fall back or mount the banks. I’ve seen what happens when you clip one of those, courtesy of Baggsy’s roll last year.

Knockhill 2014 - RubbingRubbin’ (Photo Courtesy of Rubber Duck)

I seemed to be able to stick with the pack up the hill much better than 2013, but when we got to the top and entered the new section of “flattened” gravel section, the problem became apparent. There was a trench across the track at the top of the hill which was unavoidable. Lap after lap I sought a better line, but every time I drove over that dip, the car would hammer down, smashing the sump guard. Even the GoPro headed south in misery. Was this right?

After each heat, I compared notes with the others who agreed it was a bad bump but that the best line was to the inside. So I tried hugging the tyre wall; all to no avail. I should have gone back to basics with the car setup, but it would take a more severe heat to make me sit up and take note that something had to change.

Knockhill 2014 - Pesky BumpPesky Bump (Photo Courtesy of Rubber Duck)

In heat 2, I out-braked myself twice into the first corner, the second time giving Jack Brown the gap he needed to slip through into fourth. No! I felt I could not allow myself to finish lower than fourth this weekend. That had to be my target given the usual suspects of Mullen, Ovenden and Rodemark were already showing their heels.

Heat 3 was where the punishing dip damaged the car. Starting on pole, I was fourth by the first corner with front-row starters Brown and Ovenden getting ahead. The ever-rapid Rodemark followed Tristan through into second come the second corner.

After the joker, I was down to fifth with Jack retaining his position and the early-jokering Mullen jumping us both. Smashing down across the chasm at the top of the hill on the last lap, it was clear something broke as coming off the gravel section, as the steering wheel was at 3 o’clock to go in a straight line. The front left was up in the air and I was obviously concerned the damage would end my weekend there and then.

A marshal informed me that something had fallen off the car had been retrieved. As it transpired, the entire suspension strut had pulled out of the suspension turret, ripping off the braided connection between it and the damper canister. It was the canister which had been retrieved, and the suspension strut had repositioned itself up under the wing – hence the raised ride height on the nearside front.

Returning to the paddock I cursed that damn bump – believing it had probably put me out. But Pete’s mechanics calmly entered the scene after I’d done the basic disassembly of the front left corner, and I left them to it. Twenty minutes later, and well in time for the final, Maud was back on the ground, level, and with her ride height raised about a centimetre to prevent a repeat performance.

I regained my composure over those twenty minutes, and for the first time since starting this rallycross malarkey I entrusted a swift repair (pardon the pun) to men who were, essentially, complete strangers. Their brief was to get the car sorted for the final – and it was.

Going into the final, I was on the outside of the second row, starting fifth. I made a good start – but so did everyone else. Jack had the inside line to slot into 4th and I duly followed him up the hill, praying the raised suspension would enable me to crack on and compete. The bump was still big, but the car rode it rather than hitting it and my confidence was immediately restored.

Knockhill 2014 - AirborneAirborne (Photo Courtesy of Rubber Duck)

I pressed on to minimise the gap to Jack. My only real hope of passing him was to out-joker him – the cars are just so evenly matched. That or for Jack to make a mistake.

In reality, both of these things happened. On lap 2, Jack hesitated on his decision to joker or not, and messed up his entry into the last corner, opting not to joker at the last second. I took my opportunity headed into the joker to capitalise on his mistake, taking it carefully so as not to end my weekend swiping the tight chicane. Already we had lost way too much time to the three leaders – the battle for 4th was on!

Coming in to the final corner on lap 3, I could see Jack had jokered and was just exiting the chicane. This was going to be close, and he would be carrying more speed down the entire straight.

I popped out of the last corner just ahead, and prayed now he wouldn’t simply breeze past me. I took a defensive line right the way along the pit straight, opting for a controlled, steady entry to the first corner and not allowing a mistake to catch me out now.

I held my nerve, seeing Jack bobbing around in my mirrors, but once onto the gravel, I had the upper hand. Cool and calm was how I played that final lap and it paid off. I’d salvaged 4th place and was over the moon. It was the most I could hope for after a very difficult day.

Whilst most teams packed up and disembarked for a long evening or night returning home, we headed only an hour down the road to Glasgow and pulled up for the night. There is no way I can do a 10 hour drive through the night after racing. Instead I opted for a Toby Carvery and a glass of Rioja to reflect on a tough weekend. Logistically, physically and mentally.

For me to do rallycross, I do pretty much everything myself. Plan and book hotels, sort logistics, prep the car, pack and load, drive and tow, race and mechanic. I am proof that it is possible, but it’s damn intense and a massive commitment. Why do I do it? Because I absolutely love it, just for that feeling of coming over the line 4th!! I use that feeling to drive me on to believe I can achieve even more.

I missed my usual companion on my long haul trip to Scotland. Graham Strugnell has been my mentor, psychologist, believer and does anything he can to relieve the burden on race day to help me concentrate on the task at hand. For a start I know he would have told me to raise the suspension after heat 1. But he has a other commitments too, and having him there all the time is just not feasible. I had to fly the nest sometime.

I write this some 7 or 8 weeks after Knockhill. Now into July, Pembrey beckons at the end of the month. After Knockhill, I’m kinda sick of finishing 4th…

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