The car reemerges in the pit lane a mere couple of minutes after first heading out, a huge cloud of steam billowing out behind it. We know we’re in trouble.
We were always going to be up against it. Two out of our four-man driver team haven’t completed a single lap of Donington Park before, and the car hasn’t even been on track before this qualifying session.
Everything about TeamCT’s effort in MSVR’s new EnduroKa endurance racing series was last minute. It seems we’re paying for that now, as Lawrence Davey - the man drafted in to build and run our car only a couple of weeks ago - frantically searches the engine bay for the cause of the huge coolant leak.
On the sidelines, CT video chief Alex Kersten and I - the aforementioned pair with zero experience of the track - have tense talks with organisers, who confirm that if we don’t get out on circuit to do our required three laps each, there won’t be time to accommodate us in a later session. In other words, if we don’t get the car working now, we don’t race. Balls.
Contemplating the family and friends that have come to watch, and all the excruciating pre-race nerves that will have been for nothing, I’m not sure how to feel. But finally, we receive some good news - it’s only a popped hose, which is quickly fixed for Lawrence to head out on track to check that all is well.
After two more qualifying laps at a reasonable pace with no more leaks, Lawrence comes back in to the pits and our fourth team member - Finnish driver Pete Jokinen - is strapped in and sent out.
Alex is next, and then it’s my go, but none of us is able to better Lawrence’s time, which sees us start the race 21st of 24 entrants. And with five hours to get used to the car and make up ground, a good result could still be doable, although expectations remain low…
We field Pete for the rolling start of the race, and it turns out to be a good call - he is, as Finns tend to be, bloody quick. By the end of lap one, we’re in 15th. Fast forward an hour, and we’re up to 11th. And that makes me feel sick.
Sick because suddenly we have a lot more to lose, so if I don’t get up to speed quickly, we’ll soon be tumbling down the order. I don’t have long to dwell on this, however - the safety car is out, so Pete dives into the pits. I quickly grab my helmet, Hans and gloves…and gulp.
The fleshy bit behind the wheel is definitely the weakest link, as this KA is a properly sweet-driving thing. The Bilstein dampers and Burton Power springs still allow for a little roll, but the car feels nicely composed, and reasonably grippy on the Toyo Proxes CF2 control tyres. The gear shift with the long lever isn’t exactly ideal for racing, though, and a few times I find myself shifting from fourth to fifth instead of third.
Navigating the chicane onto the pit straight, I think I’ve done it again, but nope - that’s just how fast this 1.3-litre N/A KA is. Or indeed isn’t. Carrying speed through corners like Old Hairpin and McLeans is key here, but I’m not carrying enough. My lap times are getting quicker, and after what feels like an age, I’m finally doing 1min 40s, but need to be hitting those 39s.
This means, as I’d feared, I’m getting passed. Aware of how long the race is, and the number of people I have to disappoint if proceedings take a crashy turn, I don’t defend particularly vigorously. Plus, I’ve no idea who’s battling me for position, and who’s merely lapping me - I scan for blue flags as each car approaches but see none.
What was supposed to be a stint of at least 75 minutes comes to an end after an hour - an issue with the refuelling jug meant I left the pit with only two-thirds of a tank - so I peel in to hand over to Alex who’s been waiting nervously.
As I lift my sweaty, tired form out of the bucket seat, I’m hit smack in the chops with a huge surprise. “You smashed it, we’re 8th,” Alex tells me, a look of excitement and mild terror beaming out of his visor opening. Consistency had seen us not just hold our position, but make up a few places, so I’m ecstatic.
The early stop immediately demotes us to 14th, however, but Alex builds his pace quickly. As the pit stops work themselves out, we’re back to 8th, which quickly becomes 7th. He’s catching the guy just ahead in 6th at a rate of over a second a lap, and none of us can believe where we are after such a shaky start and lack of preparation. And then, something weird happens.
The tracker shows our car - number 19 - fixed on the start-finish line, where it quite clearly isn’t. I watch on the pit wall for a few minutes, but Alex fails to appear. I hear a commentator mention something about a ‘missing car’. This isn’t good.
We hear it from a marshal and the commentary at the same time - the car’s parked up behind a barrier near McLeans, apparently with a dead gearbox.
About 10 minutes later our stricken KA appears in the paddock, along with Alex. I let him know he’d gotten us up to 7th, not knowing if that’s a consolation or if it merely adds insult to injury. The problem is a broken driveshaft rather than a transmission, Alex reckoning his mechanically-unsympathetic overdriving - involving frequent use of the kerbs - is to blame. A dead driveshaft isn’t as bad as a dead ‘box, but we don’t have a spare, so that’s moot. Or so we think.
Our garage neighbours, M&D Racing, have the part and are happy to help, so suddenly, we’re back in the game. The swap happens absurdly quickly, and while I’m still trying to process exactly what’s going on, Lawrence is out on track and smashing out some seriously fast laps, keeping pace with the leaders.
We’ve lost about half an hour though, so we’re now - ironically - back where we started in 21st. Lawrence is soon up to 20th, with the next car up the road four laps ahead. A heroic effort sees the gap reduced to two laps, the number 19 car consistently lapping multiple seconds faster.
It’s not enough, and when the chequered flag comes out, we have to settle for 20th. But it’s a finish, and we’re comfortably not last. After all the challenges we’ve been up against today, I’ll take that.
Besides, this kind of racing is, first and foremost, supposed to be about having fun. And damn, did we had plenty of that. Waiting over two months for our next race - a 12-hour jaunt at Snetterton - is going to be painful.