Brands Hatch - December 2002Another day at Brands Hatch, I really didn't expect to be back so soon after the terrific day in November. The weather is quite different from last time - it's foggy (very foggy). The track remains closed until 10am when the marshals have visibility from one corner to the next. That isn't really very encouraging as it still looks pretty damn foggy to me and I question my own wisdom of going out in the first session. But it's that or lose track time... I warm the car!
As I take to the circuit for a number of sighting laps(!), it's clear that the track is also very wet. It's not raining but the fog has kept the track nice and damp. I remind myself that my rear tyres are on the wear bars and have been very oversteery on the roads recently. I was naive to hope for a dry day - this should be interesting! After three or four slow(ish) laps I realise that the lead car must have pulled off as the car in front (Simon) nails it down the straight. I'm a bit nervous about my first flying lap around Paddock Hill Bend so I take it relatively easy and am encouraged by the amount of grip available, especially braking into Druids. My confidence builds and I pass Simon, shortly followed by Tom. And now I've got nobody to follow - eek. Turning into Surtees was quite nerve wracking and I had to really watch my right foot or we'd have oversteer on the exit of every bend. No moments to speak of but I could see that exiting Clearways onto the main straight was going to be an exercise in restraint. A couple of moderate drifts were great fun but the ease at which the back came round reminded me that I really didn't want to make a mistake.
The braking zone into Paddock was very challenging. The point where I wanted to brake was particularly slippery but beyond that there was good grip. A couple of times I locked the brakes right at the beginning of the stop, car starting to rotate, having to release some pressure and rely on the grippy section to lose enough speed. Both times I was able to turn into Paddock without drama and I knew that I could leave the braking a little later until I passed the slippy section. But that was a mental barrier I just couldn't cross and decided to brake a little earlier instead so I had the weight transfer complete before I went over the slippy section.
Surtees and McLaren, although the most scary, were also the most fun part of the track. I found that I was often entering Surtees with a small amount of oversteer, just a twitch really but if I chose not to correct it then it would move the other way a little when it found grip and rotate the car to the right for the entry to McLaren. Towards the end of the day I got quite good at flicking the car through there.
As the chequered flag fell on the first session I was quite pleased with my performance and had forgotten all about the fog. The next two groups ran almost trouble-free sessions and we then went to an open-pit format. I was straight back out, expecting the track to be drying a little but there was no evidence of that. I had a good stint, driving smoother that before and not locking brakes. I found myself behind a new Noble M12 GTO which had outrageous grunt down the straights but I was able to stay in touch by braking later and carrying a little more speed through the corners.
After my second session I decide to redeem my Easytrack training voucher, won at the SELOC Christmas quiz, even though I wasn't there! One of the instructors takes me on and I go to fetch the car which has barely had a rest. After a quick introduction, he asks how I think I'm doing and I must have sounded like a right arrogant twat when I said I was keeping up with the Noble. I suggest that I just drive like I have been and we'll take it from there. What followed was the worst four laps I managed all day...
Back to my old habit of overdriving when I have a passenger, I had the car twitching on every single corner and was frequently correcting oversteer. I even managed to lock the brakes on the approach to Paddock again. "You're trying to drive too fast", he shouted more than once. And if that wasn't bad enough I turned into Paddock a bit too fast and got a big dose of oversteer just past the apex. No problem but as I corrected the steering it snapped out further and the instructor made a gasp/groan type noise as if he was expecting us to go off. Another armful of steering and I collected everything up and headed up to Druids without so much as a hint of a fishtail. I expected some sort of comment, even congratulations but nothing... I was in trouble. He pulled me straight into the pits and proceeded to talk loudly at me for a few minutes, "You're twitching on every single corner, if you carry on like that you're going off". All very true of course and probably exactly what I needed. I was a bit bummed that I didn't show him a more representative few laps but was happy to take his advice and try it his way. The only thing I took exception to was his complaint that I was "standing the car on it's nose" under braking. What the hell is wrong with that?! It's not like I'm turning in with my foot on the brake.
We headed back out on to the circuit with the target of not letting the car twitch at all and we would concentrate on lines before speed. Fair enough. I was actually quite surprised that I managed to do it. On the 6-7 laps we did I only got one twitch, exiting Druids too fast. But something else strange happened - people were passing me. It pained me to let Nat past but I'm sure he could tell I had an instructor on board! And then I got caught out not checking my mirrors. As I passed the marshal's post at Clearways I noticed the blue flag and it must be for me. Then in my mirror, Simon is right on my arse! In the confusion I must have lifted because the next thing I'm correcting oversteer (sorry Mr Instructor). As Simon blats past on the main straight he gives me a big thumbs up for the show.
Another mildly annoying thing about the instruction is the differing advice on lines around Brands. Last time I got some help from Andrew Walsh (1st Lotus) on lines and since then I had examined some other driver's lines and decided that I would try a different approach to Druids. Johnny Mowlem turns in very early and hugs the kerb whereas I had been turning in later at what felt like the natural line. I felt that the early turn-in would be advantageous in the wet and would also help me if I out-braked myself on the way in. Having only done two sessions I hadn't yet made my mind up about it but this was the exact opposite line that the instructor wanted me to take. I had to turn in uncomfortably late which was way off the lines used by anyone else and as a result was really quite slippy. Later on I pulled the turn in point back a bit and it worked really well. The suggested line through Clearways also felt very strange, making me take a very wide arc when I had sufficient grip so as not to need all of the track. In a car with more power I can see the advantage but it was a little disappointing to get the textbook treatment rather than what would help me on the day. My own fault I suppose for getting off to a bad start.
On reflection, the instruction was very useful. It was probably just what I needed to have someone shout at me and tell me I'm crap. Later on in the day I took 5% off my desired speed rather than 20% and things worked out pretty well.
I was two-up for the rest of the day and gave several passenger rides. Even though the track did start to dry out towards the end of the day my tyres were well past their best and oversteer was available on any corner, especially the flick through Surtees and McLaren - Kev got the best example of that as we entered Surtees too fast and off line after passing traffic on the Cooper Straight. I really enjoyed the last session of the day where I was chasing Mark Donald in his racing Exige. It really helped to have a similarly paced car ahead of me and encouraging that our lines were very similar although I was turning into Clearways a little earlier. We ran together for about 10 laps and that really finished the day on a high for me.
After my last session I left the car idling to cool down and was standing nearby chatting to Kev and others. Just as I turned round to turn the engine off the car spluttered, coughed and the engine stopped all on its own. Oh-oh! My first thought was that I had just ran out of fuel but I had only done about 100 miles and the gauge said 17 litres left. I turned the key but only got more sputtering. After spending 15 minutes considering the problem and letting the car cool down properly I grabbed Rob Stevens for his expert advice. We listened for the fuel pump which primed as normal and as I turned the key the engine started. Eh? Just as I had convinced myself that it was a one-off the engine died again. After a few more minutes it restarted again and I decided to see if it would drive. It got 100 metres into the paddock and stopped again. I hoped that it was just crap fuel and borrowed a 20 litre jerry can to at least rule out the empty tank option. After pouring 18 litres into the car and 2 litres down the side, it started and didn't cut out again. The fuel gauge now read 32 litres so it must have been crap fuel.
After that excitement, darkness was falling and we made our way to the pub for the usual tales of heroic driving and generally talking bollocks about cars. Finished off the day with a couple of mates, curry, beer and wine. Another fantastic day which wouldn't have been possible without SELOC and Easytrack.