C1 24 HOURS
DISPELLING THE NOTION THAT MOTORSPORT IS ALL GLAMOUR, RACING ROOKIE STEFAN MACKLEY TRAVELLED TO ROCKINGHAM TO GET HIS FIRST TASTE BEHIND THE WHEEL IN THE CITROEN C1 24 HOURS
Grassroots endurance racing may not be glamorous, but it’s no less rewarding for it
Everybody thinks they’re a good driver. Whether presiding over driving standards on public roads or sitting in an armchair shouting at Formula 1 on the TV, they certainly believe they can do it better than the next person. I was no different, and earlier this year got my racing licence to test that theory.
The laboratory, as it were, would be the Citroen C1 24 Hours at Rockingham with the Citroen C1 Racing Club. An affordable, competitive one-make enduro event, this is practically a template for the ideal first step into motor racing. That was handy, because I’d never raced a car before, much less competed in an endurance contest.
Aside from arrive-and-drive karting events and a handful of trackdays – the most notable aboard a Ginetta G40 at Goodwood – I was starting from zero. I’d never driven at Rockingham, aside from on a Playstation 2 game more than a decade earlier (experience that didn’t help) and would be competing against seasoned racers, from British Touring Car Championship race winner Rob Austin to Castle Combe Formula Ford 1600 champions Bob and Adam Higgins, among others. To say that I’d been thrown in at the deep end would be an understatement.
Preparation for the event had hardly been ideal either. Whereas F1 drivers spend hours in the simulator, learning the nuances of every corner in intricate detail and poring over streams of data, I had been logging the miles on the M40, M6 and M54, incorporating visits to Silverstone and Wrexham to collect my racing equipment, before travelling to Rockingham. In total that exceeded 350 miles – which, incidentally, is more than I would manage all weekend aboard the C1.
Arriving at the circuit for testing on Friday morning, I was introduced to my crew chief Stephen Brown, a former technical advisor to the BMW Compact Championship, who put me at ease by answering my many questions and making sure I was comfortable in the car.
I would be sharing the C1 with brothers Ian and Andrew Burgess, and Andrew’s son Will. Between
them they had very little racing experience, and knowing that I wouldn’t have the pressure of team-mates expecting to battle for outright victory (only to be appalled when I rock up in my squeaky clean new overalls) put me considerably more at ease. They wouldn’t arrive until later that afternoon, which afforded me some valuable extra seat time once my equipment had been approved by the scrutineers.
A wave of excitement and dread washed over me as I ventured onto the track for the first time, but that was quickly buried by my need to focus on acclimatising to both track and car, while not getting in the way of quicker drivers behind or damaging anything.
By the end of the morning session, my best time was a 2m28.66s according to the onboard display. The afternoon running consisted mainly of three-lap stints scrubbing in the Nankang AS1 tyres we would use for the race, which was a frustrating but necessary task. Despite being told that I was being easy on the tyres and bedding them in well, I wanted to tackle more consecutive laps to get into my stride.
What was also frustrating was my apparent lack of pace. Learning the racing lines, notably hitting the apexes later to square off the corners, and finding reference points for my braking wasn’t a problem. But accelerating out of the Tarzan and Gretton hairpins in particular, I was losing vast amounts of time compared with other cars.
With no official timing during testing and no data samples from my team-mates to compare myself against, I had no reference other than what I’d been told: “2m25s is a good time for a novice” had been Brown’s message. By the end of testing I’d whittled down to a 2m26.02s, but I knew there was room for improvement. Exactly where soon became apparent.
“Don’t use fifth,” said Philip Wyatt, principal of the Citroen C1 series, who was checking on my progress before qualifying. Wyatt proceeded to explain that I’d been a gear too high in most of the turns and that my attempts to take the hairpins in third gear as opposed to second, as well as using fifth along the start/finish straight, was costing me time.
Armed with this knowledge, I felt considerably more confident ahead of qualifying, which was to be held across one day and one night session. Although the best time from any driver in either session would set our grid position, it was mandatory for every driver to complete at least three laps in the night session.
Endurance racing is like team pursuits in track cycling, where you are only as good as your slowest colleague, so I was keen to give my newly arrived team-mates as much track time as I possibly could.
Feeling certain that they would be quicker than me anyway, I came in after only three timed laps – in the last two of which I was held up by another car – and hoped I’d at least improved my PB. I was shocked to discover
I had gone more than five seconds quicker than in testing, lapping in 2m20.682s.
But as quickly as motor racing can put you on the crest of a wave, it can quickly bring you crashing back down again.
Since our garage was at the end of the pitlane, I found myself almost at the very front of the queue for the night session. The moment we left the pits I was under attack, trying to create new reference points in the murky gloom but being dazzled by dozens of headlights. It was a daunting experience for my first night running.
On my second lap, I thought I had a car on my inside through the series of left-handers that is Pif-paf and Gracelands, described to me as a ‘big balls corner’. I drifted further and further from the racing line until the asphalt beneath my wheels was replaced by undulating grass. After completing my third lap I headed to the pits, dreading the thought of racing in the dark.
“It was a daunting experience for my first night running”
My team-mates clocked respectable times but by the end of the process my earlier time was the quickest we had managed, putting us 26th on the 36-car grid. Naturally this was a pleasant boost, but I went to bed still worried about how I would cope come the night stint. The last thing I needed when I returned the next morning was the added pressure of being asked to do the start…
The beginning of the race is where things can, and usually do, go wrong. Having gone off the circuit the last time I’d been in the car, I wasn’t feeling overly confident, a matter not helped by a start time of 5pm, which left the majority of the day for my nerves to build up. Trying to get some sleep proved almost impossible, but talking race tactics with Brown – stint length, how long the tyres and fuel would last – as well as practicing driver changes helped pass the time.
It wasn’t going to trouble the professional crews of the FIA World Endurance Championship, but after much practice I could jump in, move the seat forward (a curse of having short legs) and do my belts up by feel alone in under 35 seconds. This would prove especially helpful in the dark. Final advice from Brown: “Hold your line and try and get to the inside.”
The track layout would bypass the treacherous Turn 1 banking in favour of the high-speed chicane to the inside of it, but this was deemed too dangerous to use at the start with cars approaching in a two-by-two formation, so it was through the banking we went as the green flag finally waved.
Brown’s words ringing in my ears, I found myself on the outside line among the ‘marbles’, drifting uncomfortably close to the wall. Deciding that crashing on the first corner of a 24-hour race wouldn’t go down too well, I lifted out of the throttle and lost a few places, but then tried to settle into a rhythm, slowly pulling away from the remaining cars behind and eventually gaining back a few of the lost positions.
It wasn’t without its drama though. Heading into the Deene hairpin, I was left no room on the inside while overtaking the driver in front, who shut the door when I was alongside. We touched, but fortunately the damage was minimal and I eventually chipped away to a 2m19.747s, almost a second faster than I’d managed in qualifying.
I was starting to enjoy myself but with 10 minutes remaining in my two-hour stint, reality once again sneaked up behind me with a length of lead piping. This time I bent a front-left wheel rim by hitting the kerbs at the first chicane just a little bit too hard. It could have been much worse – Katherine Legge managed to backflip a Formula 3 car there in 2003 – but I felt pretty miffed at undoing all my hard work.
I dragged the car back to the pits at a cost of 15 seconds and jumped out as new wheels were bolted on, fuel pumped in and Will strapped himself inside. Still, there was 22 hours left to make up for lost time…
“You okay to get back in?”
It was 11.30pm and Brown had just woken me from a one-and-a-half-hour power nap in the back of my rental car. Anyone who says motor racing is glamorous has never done a national endurance race before.
The moment I’d been dreading had arrived. My night stint. In fact, it turned out to be the part I most enjoyed. While my pace didn’t improve
massively – my fastest lap across the two-hour stint was a 2m19.560s – other competitors’ lap times seemed to drop off as tiredness took hold, and I found myself passing far more often than being passed.
Save for a moment at Gracelands – again – where a spinning car sent two others into the gravel and I was lucky to make it through unscathed, the racing was clean. By the time my stint ended at 2.20am, we were back up to 20th. More than a little relieved nothing had gone wrong (aside from triggering the alarm on my rental car) I returned to the comfort of sleep.
Another lesson to take away from the event is that endurance racing is reactive and unpredictable. True to form, my final stint came sooner than expected owing to a safety car – I’d only just returned from a toilet break when I had to throw my helmet on and jump in just before 9am.
At Le Mans, the morning hours when the sun rises and track temperatures follow suit are often known as ‘happy hour’, where the fastest times are set. But of my three stints, this one felt the longest as a lack of cars to battle set my mind wandering. Lapses in concentration weren’t helped by the increasing heat inside the car, or by the fact that I had barely drunk or eaten anything of substance since the end of my first stint 14 hours earlier.
It was also during this stint that I noticed the Nankang tyres starting to give up grip for the first time, especially through Pif-paf and Gracelands. In part it was due to the heat, but also because I was driving harder and faster than I had before.
My final 10 laps were some of my best of the weekend, and the final lap just before a safety car and subsequent pitstop was my fastest of all – a 2m19.534s, which was within four seconds of the fastest lap of the race.
As I got out of the car for the last time, having pitted from 16th, I was simply relieved to have had another trouble-free stint without crashing or incurring anyone’s wrath.
I’d like to say that everything ended on a happy note, but with less than three hours to go, and while running in 14th, Andrew rolled at the chicane. Thankfully he was unhurt, but the car had seen better days and it wasn’t until the final 20 minutes that we returned to the track, minus the shattered windscreen.
Battered and bruised, we duly crossed the line 29th of the 35 classified finishers. My sense of pride at making it to the end was mixed with the tangible disappointment of knowing that a spot just outside the top 10 had slipped through our fingers.
From feeling out of my depth and that I was getting in the way, to confidently overtaking and not being afraid to battle, my first experience of motorsport was a journey in every sense of the word. Being passed by other drivers who then disappeared into the distance did hammer home that I and almost everyone else aren’t as good as we think. But the great thing I learned about motor racing is there is always room for improvement and there’s no better way to go about that than by racing against better people.
But be warned, once you are bitten by the racing bug you won’t want to stop. There really is nothing like it.
Mackley learned a huge amount from rookie experience
Looking pensive before the race start
Mackley presses on in his first stint in the C1
Brown shares tips with Mackley
Damaged rim caused early stop Mackley looks on as scrutineers inspect post-roll
Still smiling after 24 bruising hours