Matt Robinson profile picture Matt Robinson 9 months ago 22
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How My Best Ever Finish Happened On My Worst Ever Race

The last round of the Caterham Academy season was a disaster for me, but somehow I salvaged my best result of the year!

Remind me later
Image via Snappyracers.com
Image via Snappyracers.com

Red lights. That’s all I can see through the spray. I’m not entirely sure how far away the cars they’re attached to are, and I can’t even see the edge of the track. As we approach Village and the field slows, I can see again, and suddenly a wall of cars seemingly appears from nowhere.

There’s a gap between two Sevens which I go for, backing out when it swiftly closes, narrowly avoiding contact. My bottom clenches. A few corners later we’re on Silverstone International’s Hangar straight, and the spray gets worse. I know the third-gear Stowe corner is approaching, but I haven’t a clue how far off it is.

My brain is embroiled in an argument with itself as one part screams at my right foot to stay planted, while the other wants to lift off. And pull into the pits. And have a cup of tea while escaping this madness. This is my first taste of wet weather racing, and good Lord is it terrifying.

I went for a gap that ceased to exist... (Image via Snappyracers.com)
I went for a gap that ceased to exist... (Image via Snappyracers.com)

Only a minute earlier, I was buzzing following what might just have been my best start of the year. I’d started 12th on a grid of 24, which I’d have been pleased with, were it not for the fact I was about a second and a half off the times I’d managed in testing. As at Thruxton, I did a terrible job of finding space in qualifying. Had I replicated my best testing time I’d have been… well, I’d rather not think about it, really, but it didn’t seem to matter as I jumped from 12th to 9th by turn one.

Being conservative with the throttle off the line and short-shifting into second had done wonders, although Nick Smith managed an even better start, snatching that 9th place almost immediately after I’d taken it, from 13th on the grid. Consider my helmet doffed.

Image via Snappyracers.com
Image via Snappyracers.com

Right now, I’m just trying to stay on track. It’s extremely slippery, and almost every corner exit involves at least a little bit of opposite lock. Part way through the second lap, though, the rain is easing, and with the field drifting apart, there’s no longer a wall of spray enveloping all the cars in front of me.

Everything starts to fall into place. I’m getting into a good rhythm and take a few places, lifting me to 7th toward the end of lap three. I’m putting pressure on the Lighting McQueen-liveried car of Tom Power, and although I drop back at Stowe thanks to some more unintended oversteer, I’m confident I’ll be able to turn 7th to 6th part-way through lap four.

Image via Snappyracers.com
Image via Snappyracers.com

I’m much too far back at the Club Chicane to try everything, so I start to brake progressively at what I think is a sensible point considering the conditions. But I’ve misjudged. I’m closing up to the number 95 car quicker than anticipated. I press the brake pedal harder, but I’ve made things worse - I’ve locked up. I start to cadence brake but it’s too little, too late - there’s a sickening thump as I plough into the back of the other car, sending it pirouetting around, with its severed rear lights clattering off into the distance.

Thankfully, we’re both back on track quickly, having remarkably only lost a few seconds each, and only one position each. But immediately, I can tell something’s wrong with my car - I wrestle with the steering coming back onto the main straight, realising that to keep the car pointing forwards, the steering wheel has to be at a near 90-degree angle. Ah.

The impact has clearly put the suspension geometry way out, and my first thought is pulling off to a marshal post at Abbey and retiring. But the car seems to be driveable, despite a rather extreme near-side front toe angle making it want to drift like mad at every right-hander. I decide the best thing to do is limp back around to the pits, and end my race there.

After a cautious but still reasonably swift lap, I drive straight past the pits. The car hasn’t gotten any worse, is tracking just fine on the straights, and although slower than it was before, can still be driven at pace. Could I actually limp this thing home for another seven laps?

The next few laps are a careful balance. I need to keep going swiftly, but cornering speeds need to be lowered to stop the car washing out or oversteering massively. I’m getting the hang of the car’s skewed handling balance, but that isn’t stopping me losing places. That doesn’t matter - I just need to get this car to the flag, and right now I’d take any kind of finish.

As I settle in for the last few laps, my mistake starts to dawn on me. I’ve not only wrecked my own race, but I’ve also caused someone the hassle and financial burden of having to replace a big chunk of bodywork. I’ve made it all this way through the season without a single bit of contact, and now I’ve done this. Why the hell wasn’t I just a little more cautious? Then there’s the fact I’ve punted Lightning McQueen off track - will my three-year-old son ever forgive me?

The banjaxed front suspension geometry was throwing off the rear of the car, making it something of a handful to drive!

I’ve completely lost track of the race, so the ‘last lap’ board on the start-finish straight comes as a huge relief. It’s a lonely final circuit around the track, but I can see a car behind closing in. There’s no point in trying to drive faster, I just need to stay calm and keep doing what I’m doing. The two little headlamps are getting bigger in my rear-view, but we’ve just Club to go.

Gingerly maneuvering around the chicane, I tickle the throttle a little too much on the exit onto the main straight, prompting another slide and an armful of opposite lock. No matter, the chequered flag is in sight, and what a joy it is to shoot past it.

Look closely, and you'll see something's not right with this Caterham's front suspension... (Image via Altitude Media)
Look closely, and you'll see something's not right with this Caterham's front suspension... (Image via Altitude Media)

Back in park ferme, I take off my helmet and Hans device, peel off my nicely sweaty balaclava and lift myself out of the damp driver’s seat. I spot Tom, and immediately apologise. “Oh, so that was you!” He exclaimed. That’s when it dawned on me - he’d have had no idea I was the culprit until now. He isn’t too happy. I don’t blame him.

My unofficial race mechanic Chris Gregory - who, it must be said, has been awesome all season - arrives with the race results on his phone. “I’ve honestly no idea. 15th? 16th?” I venture, but to my surprise, I’m 10th. Ironically, having ruined my race, I’d ended up with my best result of the season. Go figure.

Dan Piper won ahead of Greg Monks and 2018 Car Throttle Caterham Academy champion Chris Moore
Dan Piper won ahead of Greg Monks and 2018 Car Throttle Caterham Academy champion Chris Moore

Uncomfortably sinking back down into my seat, I fire my wounded car back up for the slow and embarrassing trip over to the Caterham support garage. Having driven the car to and from every round, I’m determined to bring it home one last time. I’ve battered the nose cone, slightly caved in a side panel and bent the steering arm, hence the extreme toe out angle. But the prognosis is good: it can all be fixed within an hour. And that’s when Kirsty from Caterham takes me to one side - I’m told I need to visit the steward’s office…

A new steering arm plus some gaffer tape, and I was good to drive home!
A new steering arm plus some gaffer tape, and I was good to drive home!

Watching back my onboard footage with the stewards, I’m let off with a verbal warning, and in the post-race judiciary notes, it’s declared a ‘racing incident’. I’m keeping my tenth place.

It’s little consolation in the knowledge that I’ve damaged another car as well as my own and also thrown away what could have been a 6th place finish. All of this on a race weekend that held such promise, given that I’d been reasonably quick here in testing. It’s not how I wanted to round off what’s been an incredible year in the Caterham Academy, but it serves as one final lesson in the world of motorsport.

Yes, being quick in a quiet test session is all well and good, but there’s much more to being a good racing driver than that. You have to be able to find space in qualifying. You have to keep your cool in the early stages of a race, particularly in the wet. I’ve come so far as a driver this year, but there’s still so much more to learn.