Penultimate Round – Croft

The final round of the main British Rallycross season was at Croft in late October. This time I was accompanied by my son Isaac (now a regular!) and good friend Graham Strugnell. We whiled away the hours up the A1 with plans for raceday and the usual bolstering of my confidence.

As we walked the track on the morning of the race, the air was damp and the ground still wet from overnight rain. The first corner begs you to carry too much speed and either plough off into the gravel or overcompensate into a tank-slapping spin. This was what I did during practice in 2013 and how to prevent it happening again was foremost in my mind.

Carrying good speed through that first corner is important, as it catapults you into a neat left/right chicane and a right hander which opens up but then tightens into the chicane onto the back gravel section. Ever so satisfying when you get it right. If someone runs wide on the wide right hander, they can be outbraked into the following chicane.

Croft is split 60/40 tarmac to gravel, but the 40% gravel is one, long back section. It was this section that looked particularly sticky with clay. It was clear staying on line and keeping to the tracks created over the day was going to affect the speed and momentum carried all the way down the back straight. It is here, into the tight right hand hairpin that most of the overtaking can be done.

As we walked the track close to practice time, it felt familiar and I was ready for the day ahead. We had a few new and celebrity drivers for this race which added to the excitement and unknowns, but I tried to remain focussed on the front runners.

Sure enough, in practice, I found the limit in the first corner again, but simply went round and couldn’t get it back, with the front wheels scrabbling for grip under full throttle. It wasn’t the out-of-control tank slapper from 2013, but I swore that would be the last mistake there. I’d found the limit. As usual, Mr Bristow was there to capture the moment of ignominy, which I shall not share here…

Due to the number of Swift entries for Croft (fifteen of us!) we were split into two groups for the heats. I was fully concentrated on staying at the sharp end of the timings, and avoid the pressure of a B-final route to the A-final again.

Picture courtesy of Rubber DuckBritish Rallycross Championship 2014 - Round 6

In heat 1, from the second row, I made it into 3rd for the first corner behind Graham and Darren. On the wide right hander, local boy Jack Brown flew up my inside as I struggled with first-lap confidence, and Harry Vaulkhard gave me a hard time going onto the loose as well. I kept Harry at bay, and pushed Jack going into lap two.

Jack promptly made a mistake into the first corner, and having missed the following chicane was on the back-foot going back onto the gravel. He went in too hot and tank-slapped in front of me to the inside of the gravel section. I was back into third which I maintained to the flag. A solid result, but with the fast other heat, I only ended up with the 7th best time in heat one. Must try harder…

Picture courtesy of Rubber DuckBritish Rallycross Championship 2014 - Round 6

In heat two, I started at the back of the grid, and was 4th by the first corner behind Tristan, Graham and Kelvin Fletcher of Emmerdale fame. After running wide going onto the loose, I had Mr Mullen trying to go around the outside into the hairpin at the end of the first lap. I managed to hold him off, but on lap two, I was distracted by my washer bottle sounding empty around the long right hander and I simply dropped the ball. He nailed me into the chicane and set off after Kelvin. Chris is a local lad and I knew he’d be quick this weekend, but none the less I just couldn’t live with him.

At the following hairpin, Kelvin ran wide and Chris and I were both through, with me finishing the heat 4th behind the very rapid Mr Ovenden, Graham and the chasing Chris who didn’t have time to catch them. As a result of being in the “usual suspects” heat, I ended up with the 4th best heat time. That was more like it!

Picture courtesy of Rubber DuckBritish Rallycross Championship 2014 - Round 6

Heat 3 I started in pole, but had Rocketman Rodemark simply drive away from me off the line, and Kelvin have me into the first corner. He’d use that one again later… Into the hairpin on the first lap, Jack tried around the outside and we had a light touch but he didn’t get through. He wasn’t to be held back for long though.

I ran very wide on the long right hander into the back chicane he had me again. These northern boys certainly know their way around Croft and I was wary of feeling like a duck out of water on this track. To compound my poor capitalisation of a pole start, Darren came past me at the end of the loose into the hairpin, and that’s where I finished, giving me 7th best heat time overall. Not great.

All in all, an up-and-down set of heats which saw me line up on the back row for the A-final. Alongside me was Kelvin and Dave Ellis who won the B-final.

Picture courtesy of Rubber DuckBritish Rallycross Championship 2014 - Round 6

I got a pretty good start, getting to the first corner ahead of Darren, who was suffering engine or clutch problems, but with my mirrors full of Fletcher in the ex-Johny Bean-mobile. I gave him too much room and he punished me by diving down the inside and using me to physically assist him around the corner. It was hard, but epitomised the approach you need in rallycross. Flat out from lights to flag, and Kelvin was learning fast.

Having been clobbered, losing momentum and having to drop a gear, Darren was back past immediately too. I gave chase, and we soon found ourselves right up behind a slowing Mr Fletcher. It seems something on that first couple of corners had given him a puncture and he was out of it. Darren was past before the loose section and I was held up as Kelvin struggled but held the racing line. I was soon past on the rough stuff.

Picture courtesy of Rubber DuckBritish Rallycross Championship 2014 - Round 6

I gave chase to Darren and gained somewhat over the closing laps, but simply couldn’t get back in front of him. He was likewise making little impact on catching Jack. So that’s how it finished. Overall 6th which, given the heats, was about my pace all in all. Croft it seems, was still eluding me in terms of pace, and this was emphasised by the change in my cornering style and even gear selection during the races. I was still not able to get the most out of the car right from the get-go. You can watch the onboard footage of the A-final below.

With such a packed grid of experience (including Pat Doran who I didn’t race against in a single heat on track) I should have felt satisfied, and I suppose overall I was. I write this after the season finished in January 2015, and at the time my main concern was that the challenger for my 4th place in the Swift championship had finished ahead of me again. Jack Brown.

It would be down to the final race where it was still mathematically possible for him to overhaul me once I dropped one of my round results. This was necessary because not all drivers making it to Valkenswaard. My worst result of 2014 was 7th in Valkenswaard which I would drop assuming I finished higher at Blyton – the final round of the Swift championship.

Whilst the rest of the British Rallycross Championship crowned their champions, and with Tristan Ovenden having done pretty much enough to secure the Swift championship short of not turning up to the final round, we headed home as I’d decided I needed to save the car rather than “compete” in the Grand Prix. If it was just for fun then I might have done, but the objective was Blyton, and finishing 4th in the championship.

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