Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - Get­ting started in mo­tor­sport

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

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