My alarm goes off at 04:30, and I wake up with my heart pumping harder than yesterday morning. It’s race day, and this time I’m the experienced guy in the team because Matt R is on holiday.
Ahead of me lies a three-hour journey north from west London to Oulton Park race circuit for round three of the EnduroKA championship. But first, I need to brush my teeth and make sure that my German buddy who’s staying with me for a few days is ready to roll too; 6ft 7in Leon is here in his hilariously small Clio 172 track car for a tour of the UK’s best race tracks…
But we’re not heading north in his track weapon; that journey is reserved for a new BMW 330i that I’ve been given for a week of testing. It’s a great all-rounder, but if it were my money, I’d have the new 330d Touring instead. It’s more spacious and features six cylinders, unlike the 330i’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder which is strong, but lacks the usual refinement you get with the big six.
At 09:30, it’s time for qualifying. My teammates for this race will be Andy Grear-Hardy (with whom Matt and I raced at Snetterton), as well as a new addition to the team, David Bywater.
Because the guys were at Oulton Park yesterday (Friday) for testing, I let them set their times first in case I mess up and crash the car; unlike Andy and David, I’ve never driven the track, so qualifying will be my testing too.
Before I know it at 10:00, my time has come to get out there, quickly learn the track and try to set a qualifying time to improve on 20th. No pressure…
I’m back in the bloody rain again, which leaves even less room for error from a rookie like me, but thankfully, I’m quickly joined by a group of racers who overtake me. They’re clearly gunning for a good qualifying position, so I decide to try to hang with them and learn the lines and corners by keeping up.
And keep up I do; after my second lap, I’ve set a time that puts us in P17 for qualifying, and things are looking good to improve further so long as the guys in front stay out for me to follow. Which, of course, they don’t, instead peeling in to the pits for their driver swap. This means I’m driving blind again, resulting in laps that are now five seconds slower than before. Sigh.
No matter, though, because after lap eight, I’m getting used to the track and back into the low 2min 40sec realms. Until disaster struck…
With two laps of qualifying remaining, I’m punted off track by another driver who outbrakes himself at a chicane, then rejoins the racing line just as I’m coming in hot.
The impact into the side of his car spins us both off track, and while I’m able to limp #19 back in, his car’s a little worse for wear with a heavily dented rear-three-quarter and door. For us, the damage is largely superficial - smashed light, bent slam panel and dented wing - and thankfully these things are fixed before the race with a hammer and duct tape, so no harm done.
A few hours have passed now, and it’s time for the EnduroKa five-hour Oulton Park race to commence. Because I’m currently quickest of the three of us, I’ll take the first and last stint (Andy and David will take care of stints two and three).
And so, at 13:25, the grid lines up in the pit lane for two safety car laps before lights out.
Before I know it, we’re at full race pace. My knowledge of the track has probably been topped up to 70 per cent by now, so I’m still very much relying on the cars ahead to set the pace, especially into the very greasy first right-hander after the start/finish line.
Visibility at this point is almost zero, however, and with 16 cars ahead of me, the thick cloud of spray means I’m unable to make up any places for fear of outbraking myself or smashing into another competitor who’s currently facing the wrong way.
As the lead pack of five or six break away, the 10-car chain I’m in continues to battle for position. The car feels great, so a few places are won, at which point the safety car is deployed because a car’s gone into the barrier. Team boss Lawrence calls me in, meaning that Andy’s now the man to lead the charge.
He does well, and after settling into race pace, we’re placed in the high teens. The continuous rain has thrown more cars off track, with more and more KAs limping into the pits with damage. Meanwhile, the team who gave our car a wallop in qualifying are having their own problems with a dodgy fuel pump. We don’t have one to spare, and after failing to find a replacement, they’re back in the pits again shortly after; sometimes it just isn’t your race.
After another hour with Andy keeping his nose clean and lines tidy, it’s time for him to hand over to David, who looks as nervous as I felt before my first stint in a race car a few months ago.
But now’s not the time for nerves, so David’s bundled in the car and sent on his way. Just like me, David’s start is cautious and steady, which sees us fall down the leader board, but at least he’s not pushing to the point of falling off the track and ending our race prematurely. At this point, we’re a good few laps behind the leaders, and after David’s stint, it’s time for me to have another shot.
Once I’ve settled back into the Ka, it’s clear that we need to push hard; we’re in 20th place and five laps down. After a few minutes, I set our fastest lap time (2min 40.4sec vs second place Octane Junkies’ untouchable 2min 36.6sec time), and continue to push hard.
The KA’s diminutive engine means that passing is difficult on a tight and twisty track like Oulton, so frustration gets the best of me on occasion, which is why I start to exceed track limits and screw up my braking to the point of locking up. Still, we’re up one place to 19th and now up to four laps down, and before I know it, Lawrence is willing me on for the last lap of the race!
At this point, I shout at myself to get on and push as hard as I dare. I’ve no idea if an overtake will make any difference to our current standings, but I go for it anyway, pushing myself past a competitor on the inside of the hairpin and trading a little paint in the process; it’s a great feeling getting past someone cleanly, but there’s a weird satisfaction you get when you’ve really had to battle to overcome the enemy.
We cross the finish line in 19th place which, considering the bad weather and the fact that our race almost ended before it had the chance to begin, is a good result.
And at this point, too, race experience is all we’re after. Still, I’d love for us to finish in the top 10 some time, so hopefully the next time you read our race report, we’ll be able to deliver the good news!
So far, the EnduroKa championship has been one hell of a ride. I’ve learnt a lot, made a bunch of new friends and have overcome anxiety and fears I never knew I had. It’s also accessible racing for salt of the earth folk who want to have fun and improve on what they love most: driving and racing.
What’s more, there are always places available for guest drivers, so if this sounds like something you’d like to get involved with, the chances are high that a phone call, email or message to someone like Lawrence Davey (our team boss) could result in you joining us for the next round at Cadwell Park on 24 August.
Maybe see you there!
Photography by Leon Schult.