Matt Robinson profile picture Matt Robinson 3 months ago 9
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Why Learning A New Track During A Qualifying Session Is A Dumb Idea

With no prior experience of the long and technical Snetterton 300 track, the second race of my Caterham Academy year proved to be rather challenging…

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

After talking to a few of my fellow competitors, I knew I’d made a colossal balls-up. The reactions to my admission of having never driven Snetterton before - which ranged from comments like, “You don’t like to make things easy for yourself, do you?” to actual gasps - said it all. No one told me I was an idiot, but I’m sure at least a few people were thinking it.

Caterham Academy testing sessions are optional, and I had to give them a miss for both Brands Hatch and Snetterton. At Brands Hatch that was fine, as I’d been at a track day there six months before, and that was in an Academy car. But Snett? I’d, erm, driven it in Project Cars 2 to give me a vague idea of where it went. And that was it.

Qualifying had its dramatic moments for others too... (Image via Snappyracers.com)
Qualifying had its dramatic moments for others too... (Image via Snappyracers.com)

I’d have probably gotten away with it at Brands, but the very technical Snetterton is a rather different beast. While it doesn’t have any tricky elevation changes to tackle, it’s long. Nearly three miles and 12 corners long, in fact. Brands Hatch Indy has six turns and is only 1.2 miles long, for context. So Snett is particularly difficult to learn, and you don’t get many attempts to learn it - in a 15 minute qualifying session, I managed six laps. And what messy laps they were.

I felt out of my depth. I felt like a rolling road block. I looked at the leisurely lap times flashing up on my Vbox at the end of each lap in horror. I ruined one of my six laps by spinning (but check out the swift recovery above!), and lost the last one due to a yellow flag. Not that it would have been much quicker, anyway.

I pulled into parc ferme deflated and mentally exhausted, unsurprised yet still disappointed to learn I’d be 21st on the grid. Suddenly, my 10th place qualifying at the last round felt like rather a long time ago.

To add insult to (self-inflicted) injury, the slot for 21st in the assembly area is next to a portaloo... (Image via Snappyracers.com)
To add insult to (self-inflicted) injury, the slot for 21st in the assembly area is next to a portaloo... (Image via Snappyracers.com)

But, there was an unexpected side-effect to all of this: the pressure I’d been feeling all week had evaporated. At Brands Hatch, I was terrified of messing up and wasting my qualifying efforts. Back in 21st, I had no such worries. With only a handful of cars behind me, what did I have to lose? Instead of looking in my mirrors on the grid and being fearful of losing places, I had my eyes focused forward and sensing the opportunity to make up some ground.

A big start-line shunt at the pointier end of the grid saw the red flag come out mere seconds into the race, sadly leaving the cars of Luke Fryer and Brands winner Greg Monks out of action. Thankfully both drivers were fine, and the rest of us were soon lined up once more for a shortened race - 15 minutes down from 20.

I'm in there somewhere... (Image via Snappyracers.com)
I'm in there somewhere... (Image via Snappyracers.com)

And you know what? That first lap was an utter joy. A clean start saw me shoot past two cars up ahead, before a mis-shift dropped me back again. No matter, as a good exit from turn one meant I managed to breeze past three cars in one sitting. My motorsport journey had gone from misery to ecstasy in the space of a few hours.

Mid-battle with Nick Smith (Image via Snappyracers.com)
Mid-battle with Nick Smith (Image via Snappyracers.com)

A corner later, my mirrors were full of the #53 car of Nick Smith, keen to snatch that place back. Our cars ran side-by-side for what must have been four corners as I tried everything I could to keep him at bay. It was such a brilliant battle that I didn’t even care when Smith eventually out-braked me and slid by, picking his way through the pack before ending up 11th.

From there it was a mostly lonely race holding 16th place. I was pulling out a reasonable gap to the cars behind, but wasn’t able to keep up with the pack up ahead. Crucially though, I was getting faster: while my best lap at Brands was during qualifying, my sixth and final lap of Snetterton was three seconds better than my best effort in qualifying. Of course that makes me wonder how much better I might have done if I’d have just done some damn practice, but hey, probably best I don’t dwell on that.

Image via Snappyracers.com
Image via Snappyracers.com

A recovering Andy Tate - who’d qualified 10th but dropped back on lap 1 - caught and easily passed me in the latter stages, just as Jim Clark (no, not that one) came into view in front, getting back on track after a grassy excursion. A good final sector meant that the pair didn’t pull away, and I sensed a chance. I threw everything I had at the last lap but it wasn’t enough, and I crossed the line 17th, which became 16th following a disqualification for the start-line crash on the first start. That’s five places down from the previous race, but I really didn’t care: I’d enjoyed myself far more, and was - oddly - more satisfied with the result.

This racing business really does weird things with your emotions…

Make sure you read more about Caterham and the Academy, to find out what I’ve let myself in for!