Now I know how an actor feels on the opening night of a play. An actor who doesn’t enter the stage until the performance is several acts old forcing him to watch his fellow players perform faultlessly from the wings. The actor now has unenviable task; if he does a good job he’ll become part of the collective but if he makes a mistake the whole production and everyone’s individual performances will count for nothing.
This is the plight of the endurance sportscar driver, the one whose first stint doesn’t begin until midnight and in the 2008 edition of the Britcar Silverstone 24 hour race that man was me. If these thoughts weren’t enough to completely fray my nerves then the fact that this also the first time I’d raced at night and I’d only had three nocturnal qualifying laps finished the job. In just a few minutes the car will arrive outside our pit, I’d be bundled into the driving seat and sent out into the darkness and left out there until 2am.
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The car’s owner, Steve Jones had been planning our assault on this race since the start of the year, but it had taken the crack GTS squad longer than we’d anticipated to ready our BMW E46 GTR for such a grueling race. They’d spent a whole month preparing the car – everything has to be perfect for such a test of stamina – so we’d had no time to drive it before qualifying. However we did have a huge amount of 24 hour experience in the driving line up, between us we’d competed in 42 round-the-clock races, including twenty runs at Le Mans (one outright win, two class wins) and twenty-one at Daytona races (three outright wins). It was just that all that experience was bundled up in one man, Andy Wallace, the rest of us – me, SJ, club racer Karl Morris and rising star, Ross Kaiser – had never raced past bedtime.
Some of the team in the garage are starting to look tired, but this should come as no surprise, they we up all of last night. Yesterday had started well, in the daytime we’d all qualified well, despite the need for everyone to scrub in a new set of tyres and then get a feel for the car we had landed ourselves with an eighteenth place grid slot. We knew times faster than the 2:05.3 were possible, but optimising the car for one lap is pointless for a race that runs twice around the clock. In the dark session, despite there only being time for three laps each, things had also started well, so well in fact we had time to send our least experienced man, Karl, out for another run. And then just as the chequered flag was waved everything changed, our 360bhp CSL engine blew up in the biggest way possible.
GTS boss, Tom Shepeherd had planned for every eventuality, except this. We had a spare for everything except the engine, so I guess we should have been ready for Sod’s Law to spring into action. There aren’t many places where you can buy an M3 engine at 10pm on a Friday, but it’s surprising what you can do when the chips are down. Several phone calls later we had one, it may have been 20bhp down the original, but it was producing 340 horses more than that lump was capable of now. So while the drivers went home to bed, the rest of the team pulled down the garage shutters and got on with an engine change. They got to bed at 6am, early enough to allow them the luxury of a three hour kip.
Last night then had been more eventful than anticipated and raceday had brought more drama. Our original plan had been to skip the half-hour warmup, now though that session would be vital to system check the new motor and ready it for the start of the race. Ross would drive, while the rest of us stood around the timing for a first clue as to how much slower our new power plant would be. Well, that was what we were expecting and it explained the cheer that went around the garage when 2:02.8 appeared alongside car number 31. That was three seconds faster than we’d achieved in qualifying and put us second quickest in the session. Over the radio Ross reported the engine had felt a little slower but he’d had a clear lap and that the handling, brakes and gearbox had performed brilliantly. We were back in the race.
The affable Andy Wallace took the start had to employ all his skill and experience to avoid a startline shunt that wrecked a TVR Sagaris and a Ginetta G50 and caused the first hour of the race to be run behind the safety car as the drivers were extracated and the track cleared. Just before it resumed AW refueled the BMW allowing him to run for a further two hours and for us to climb through the field as other teams called in for juice. At this stage we were looking very strong but just before the end of Andy’s stint the rear diffuser broke lose and completely fell off two laps later, probably as a result of running over debris at the start. This would make the handling a little loose at the rear, but it wouldn’t be a major problem and it certainly wasn’t worth wasting time fitting it back on.
Karl went next just after the sun had set and for half an hour everything ran well, until that is, without warning the diff seized. It transpired that as the diffuser came away it ripped off an oil hose and without lubrication the diff was toast. After the car had been recovered already knackered crew set about replacing it and almost exactly an hour after had literally come to a grinding halt, Karl was away once more. Of course we had now fallen well down the field, but there was a long way to go and we were back in this race of attrition.
Karl finished his stint with now further issues at around 10pm and as he debriefed the engineers I disappeared into the truck to change into my suit and get ready, it may have been another two hours before I’d be in the car, but I needed to be prepared just in case there any further glitches. The mid-September air was cold now but thankfully there was no sign of the night-time fog that had blighted previous races and once suited and booted these was little to do but pace around the garage and try to keep warm as the tension began to build inside me. Out there in the blackness Ross was turning in some impressive laptimes, in the daylight AW had scored a best of 2:06.1 and now Ross was hovering around the same mark in the darkness. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that he is going so well, afterall he has a couple of national championships under his belt, but like me this was his first nightshift.
Last night in those three qualifying laps, Silverstone had seemed weird. All the usual reference points had gone and the only clue as to where the track went came in the form of marker posts, as they reflected back your headlights. The pit straight was floodlit but as soon as you arrived at Copse it immediately descended into the blackest gloom I’ve ever experienced, the contrast couldn’t have been bigger. Unlike night-time driving on the road there are no trees or hedges to be illuminated by your lights, here thanks to the extensive run-off areas there is nothing for your lights to work with, you can’t see the approaching corners and in some cases you can’t even see the edge of the track. All I learnt in that short run was that Silverstone was a scary place at night and now as the ten minute call comes from the pit wall I’m not sure I want to be going out there again.
Radio ear plugs in, balaclava and helmet and gloves on I get my final instructions from Tom. These mainly include keeping off the kerbs, not taking risks and remembering to enjoy myself out there. Yeah, right. Ross is at the refueling pumps now. This is carried out away from the pit garages for safety and once the tank is full he’ll get back in the car, drive a few hundred yards down the pit lane and get out again. Here he comes, this is it then, and despite the air being cold enough for my breath to be visible my mouth feels as dry it would on a hot summer’s day. Ross hops out like he’s driven no further than the local shops, while I clumsily clamber through the roll cage. The team belt me in, pull down on the shoulder straps and as the door slams closed I’m given the ‘all clear’ to flick the ignition back on, thumb he starter, pull back on the sequential gearlever to select first and head off into the murk.
Luck is with me as I enter the track right behind a pair of factory N24 Astons, perfect for dialing myself in, all I have to do is follow them, brake when they do and use their lights to illuminate the way. For two laps this works perfectly but I soon realize that although we are pretty evenly matched on the straights these guys are holding me up through the corners, the M3’s handling proved to be fairly neutral straight out of the box and the efficiency of the wings gives me a massive grip advantage over this pair. As comfortable as it is to sit behind them, I‘ve got to start getting on with the job in hand so I ease past both on the run to Abbey.
Instantly everything changes. From being able to see the turns and having a guided run around the circuit I now have nothing, the track has disappeared and rather like a kid who has had the staballisers removed from his pushbike for the first time I feel alone and a little unsteady. I wobble through Bridge corner, trying to make sense of it all, guessing at where to place the car. I’ve done thousands of laps around this place, but it all feels very alien now. After scrabbling around the complex I’m onto the floodlight main straight, which after the inky gloom forces you to blink through Woodcote, and just as you eyes start to accustom themselves to the brightness it stops at the end of the pit wall and you’re plunged back into darkness just as you turn into Copse. This requires total concentration.
The blinding headlights from other cars provide further distraction, their full-beam brightness fools you into thinking they are right up behind you when in fact they’re several hundred yards behind. And yet despite all this you slowly start to make some sense of it all and find a rhythm. Working out your braking point for each corner is far more critical at night as it is just about the only reference point you can work with. Take Stowe for example, its approach is the long and fast Hanger straight and the only thing you can see is the corner marker board just to the left of the track. To begin with I began my braking as I pass it, but as you cannot see the corner when you reach it, you turn in when you feel you’ve slowed to the correct speed and by the time I’d got to the exit I realized that I’d turned in ten yards too early. To solve the problem I simply braked later next time around and it all fell into place.
For each bend the same basic technique began to unravel it all, I even had the confidence to take Bridge flat out and against expectation I was starting to enjoy myself. Of course when you can’t see the track, you can’t see the state of it and after some eight hours of racing it was covered with oil, marbles and mud and gravel dragged onto the circuit by drivers who had lost their way. You drive as though the surface is perfect and you just have to deal with anything that’s thrown your way. The M3’s perfect balance and poise gave us an advantage here, when it slides it does so gently and progressively. Mind you, when it does go sideways you really can’t see a thing, it’s like drifting with your eyes closed, the messages coming through our backside is your only clue as to what is going on. It was common for this to happen when you went off-line to overtake, something that the M3 was doing quite a lot. Less than an hour into my stint I was also lapping in the low 2:06 bracket and I’d lapped those Astons I’d originally started following.
As well as never having raced at night before, I’d never raced for more than a one-hour stint before either, so I had worried about keeping the same intense level of concentration going for this long. Each driver had a water bottle complete with tube to feed under the helmet, but I’d not had time to feed it through during the pit stop and now that I was feeling thirsty I had to fumble about on the straights trying to find it. During the day a quick glance down would have located it, but with no lights inside the car that was impossible. It took me five laps to find it and get a drink and I really needed it by then.
With fifteen minutes of my session, I was starting to feel tired by my focus was now drawn to the front left tyre, which had picked up a vibration and it was steadily getting worse. I radioed the pits to ask if I should come in early, but they wanted to ensure we stayed on our fuel programme, forcing me to drop the pace by a couple of seconds a lap and count off the time before being called in for fuel. It was really quite bad by the time the call came, so even though I’d learnt how to have fun out there I was happy to be coming in.
The drama wasn’t over though. As I come to a stop and depressed the clutch the pedal lost its resistance and fell to the floor under my foot. The refueling regulations stipulate that you have get out of the car and stand next to it as the team pour another 85-litres of petrol in the tank and as I did so I shouted to the guys that I’d need a push to get going again and that they’d need to let the team know the clutch had gone. Standing there with my sweaty suit being chilled by the cold air, a sinking feeling set in. The car’s owner, Steve, hadn’t driven a stint yet and now he probably wouldn’t have a clutch to play with.
I got back in and the combination of a push and a generous stab of throttle as I fired the engine got us going, and as I gingerly rolled down the pitlane to our garage the guys were ready to get the bonnet up and take a look. I saw more fluid being added as I scrambled out the way after belting Steve into the hot (and sweat-soaked) seat. It looked like a seal had gone and although filling it was enough to get Steve away the fluid would have escaped before he’d reached the track. Although bad it was possible that it wouldn’t be the end of our race, as the gearbox had a flat-shift system on the way up and as long as he gave it a decent blip on the way down he’d be able to keep going.
After fifteen minutes or so, things seemed ok, so I left the team went and had a shower and crawled into my sleeping bag in the back of the truck for a restless kip. I awoke a couple of hours to the sound of the team packing up and let me tell you there can be no worse wake up call. We were out. Driving clutchlessly had taken its toll on the driveshafts and after the two new ones that had been fitted also failed we had to admit defeat. It was devastating blow that hit me right in the pit of your stomach, after all the work that had been put in by everybody in the team we had absolutely nothing to show for it. It became all the more galling later in the day to find that the Astons we had been lapping had finished the race in second and third places. It was a fantastic event though, day/night races are definitely where it’s at and this is now unfinished business. We will be back and you can bet we’ll be stronger and faster.