Well, this is surreal, isn’t it? I’ve driven on race tracks before, but this time it’s different. This time I’m lined up on the grid. With 24 other cars. And the red lights have started appearing. Oh god, this is actually happening, isn’t it?
Fast forward 20 or so minutes, and my first ever race - taking place at the legendary Brands Hatch circuit in its Indy configuration - is over. Having qualified 10th, I’d seemingly gone backwards in the first few laps thanks to some sloppy driving, but managed to claw some of those places back to finish 11th in a grid made up of 25 cars. This is exactly the same position I finished at during the Rockingham Sprint a couple of weeks before, as it happens.
The podium also came with a dash of Rockingham deja vu - we had the same people in the top three, only this time with Greg Monks taking a hard-fought first place ahead of Chris Moore, with Dan Piper lining up in third.
As for me, I was a little disappointed to finish further back than my starting position, but over the moon to have completed my first race, while keeping my nose clean. So here’s what I learned from the experience…
Given that Lewis Hamilton and co can be belting around for anything up to two hours, 20 minutes doesn’t seem like much, does it? And yet, at what must have been about three quarters through of the race , I was absolutely sure I’d be coming around Clark Curve to face the chequered flag. OK fine, maybe not, but surely the next lap, right? Nope, we still weren’t done.
It wasn’t until a few more trips around the circuit that the ‘last lap’ board was held up (yep, I’d forgotten that was a thing). By the time I at last crossed the chequered flag, I was physically and mentally exhausted. Racing really takes it out of you!
You’re never going to get a massive turnout on the Saturday of a mid-level motorsport weekend (all Caterham championships aside 420R were supporting the new TCR UK series at Brands), but nevertheless, a decent crowd had amassed by the time of our race. Extra pressure, then? Well no, not really - I didn’t think about the spectators once, then suddenly remembered they were there after passing the chequered flag, making sure I gave everyone a good wave. Nor did I think about them after my little off in qualifying (above), which probably coated 30 or so people in a cloud of dust…
While I’d managed to clock a respectable time in qualifying, actually achieving that again in the race proved difficult. I seemed to be all over the place in the first few laps (stumping up the extra cash to attend the Friday test session suddenly seemed like something I should have done), finally snagging the closest time to my best qualifying effort by lap 9.
But here’s the thing: most people got faster and faster, achieving their best times by more like lap 18 or 19, while I seemed to get slower, as the mistakes started to slip in. Going too deep into one corner, getting on the throttle too soon on another and ruining my line on the corner exit - it all costs precious time. Settling into a consistent rhythm while slowly building my pace is definitely something I need to work on.
OK, it’s confession time: save for out-dragging ninth place-starting Andy Tate off the line - who nabbed the place back at Turn 1 anyway - I didn’t actually overtake anyone for position on merit. I had a cheeky look down the inside of one competitor on the approach to Druids, but didn’t brake anywhere near late enough for it to work. All the other places I gained - which nicely offset the places I lost during my messy initial laps - were due to other people spinning or crashing, plus an ill-timed miss-shift from Luke Fryer which allowed me to blast up the inside exiting Graham Hill bend. Oh, and I soon lost that via a lovely little manouevre from the man at Druids, which went exactly how I’d wanted my aborted pass attempt at the hairpin to go a few laps earlier.
So, why the lack of passing? Simple: without a hefty bit of overspeed, it’s bloody daunting. And I wussed out. I’d seen a couple of costly clashes due to overtaking cock-ups further up the grid, and at this early stage of our motorsport life, mistakes are going to be more common. The overtaker might make a misjudgement, and the overtakee might not give the former the requisite space, at which point crunchy things will happen.
That said, a little more bravery in this area is definitely something I need to extract, particularly during the first few corners. A little caution is good, but too much will compromise you hugely for the rest of the race, as I discovered.
As well as having no idea how many laps I’d done nor how much of the race was left, I very quickly lost track of the position I was in. I knew I’d lost a bunch of places in the early stages and was sure I’d made a good few back as cars up ahead experienced, erm…issues, but I really had no idea.
You’re just too busy to work out your position, and sure, you might have just passed a driver who’s spun or hit a gravel trap, but is that someone ahead or someone you’ve just lapped? It wasn’t until we pulled into the pits following the race that I did a quick head count of the cars in front and discovered my finishing position.
If you’re quick enough to be challenging for the lead it should be easy to work out where you are, but if you’re mid-field? Good luck!
My favourite part of the day was reaching parc ferme, both after qualifying and the race itself. Not just because of the satisfaction of hearing over the tannoy that I’d qualified 10th, or the relief of having gotten through my first ever race, but also because of the general feeling of joy in the place.
Podium finishers were congratulated, hands were shaken, racers embraced with family members, all while I stumbled out of the car and struggled to get my head around the madness of the last half an hour.
That feeling of relief post-race did not last long. As soon as I started making my way back to the paddock, I was thinking about the next race at Snetterton, and rueing the fact it was - at the time - over a month away.
All I wanted to do was get back on track to have another go. Actually pull off some proper overtakes. Try and break into the top 10. I get the feeling these next few weeks are going to feel like they’re passing at a glacial pace…