Transition to Motorsport (9): A Team-supported Race Weekend

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In Transition 7 I talked about the value of team support. In the first race of GRDC 2017, more than half the competitors were racing as individuals. By the second race weekend, two-thirds were running with teams, even though this is not officially permitted by Ginetta. What actually happens is that the team is not allowed to touch the car when it’s in the Ginetta park area, which is most of the race weekend. However, before racing, at track and test days, the team can support the driver and get the car tuned in.

There’s no doubt that getting team support improved the performance of drivers significantly for subsequent races. A whole group of people that you were on a level with, or quicker than, suddenly jumped in front of you on lap times. I put this down to tuition, car maintenance and getting the driver comfortable with the car by adjusting the settings that are not controlled by the championship. That’s motor racing, so you just have to step up to the plate and get on with it.

One of the race winners for G40 Cup 2019, Dan Morris, commented on the podium at Snetterton that, in GRDC with no team support he was not even challenging for a podium, sitting in the middle to rear of the pack. Then, with his first team support at the Donington 2018 round, where GRDC can join G40 Cup, he was challenging for a podium, and is now winning races in 2019.

Plans and reality for my second season

For my second season, I had planned to contend three of the six rounds in Ginetta G40 Cup (formerly GRDC+). This also supports the British GT Championship but you have semi-slick tyres, improved shocks and three races plus qualifying per weekend. It’s faster and much more competitive, as everyone is running with a team, and now more experienced in race craft and driving ability. Around the Snetterton 300 track, lap times would drop from 2:22 for a race-winning pace in GRDC to 2:18 in G40 Cup. In 2019, the series moved further into pro sports, with adoption of slick tyres, and the lap times are now down to the 2:14 region.

Contrary to plan, what actually happened in my second season was that I spent to budget, about £10k, but I had to withdraw from all but one of the race weekends (I did Brands Hatch only, missing the planned Snetterton and Spa rounds). I realised after the first testing day with a race team, in February 2018, that I would need to take them along to almost every track day (see below for why), and that was not sustainable. Ginetta were very good about refunding some of my race fees, when I explained that this was looking far more expensive than anticipated, although I did find out after Brands Hatch that they don’t award championship points if you only do one round. Frustrating, to say the least, as that’s a big motivation for racing drivers.

The reason why you need a team at every track day is, aside from delivery of the car to track, if you can even afford that, they need to get you comfortable with the car. Every driver is different, but in general you want to prevent the car sliding or spinning in the corners, so that you can push to the limit of grip with confidence. This means adjustments to brakes, roll bars, shocks, camber, tyre pressure, and so on. Even if a team knows a type of car, they can’t give you a standard set-up per track without you providing feedback as a driver. As they say to you, every driver wants things set up slightly differently. As a developing driver, you get more comfortable with oversteer and can take away some of the understeer that you may have requested, for example (see this from Scott Mansell on the same subject). For beginners, the whole process of getting comfortable with the car takes at least the pre-season testing and one or two race weekends, and that means maybe five or six team-supported trackdays and race-weekend tweaks. And then – more track days during the season, at £2k each, and then – more race weekends, at £3k each. As you can see, it gets expensive if you do it this way, and that’s without breakdowns or damage. I previously mentioned a figure of £50-70k per season.

What did I achieve at my team-supported race weekend?

My sole 2018 race weekend was a lot of fun, being part of the British GT package and enjoying one of the best race circuits in the world, in the heat of summer. But it was also frustrating to still not be dialed into the car, and paying for on-call mechanics to do rudimentary tasks like refuelling and tyre pressures. Mainly, I got peace of mind about a workshop-home in the paddock and about fixing potential breakdowns and damage, plus some team mates to joke with. The team was running six cars in the same weekend, and there was no point trying to do setup work with my car at this stage, which I fully understand.

I did all the preparation and setup for this race weekend myself, and as I’ve found out now, my setup was very basic and possibly back to front on shocks. I’d been working on this at a few track days and didn’t know how to approach it, mainly altering ride height and keeping on top of the maintenance and brakes, but nothing that added up to helping me feel more comfortable with the car.

Nevertheless, I managed to qualify 17th of 23 around the Brands Hatch GP circuit. This was ahead of several drivers who were doing the full season, and just back from the race week at Spa. In the races I struggled a lot at Surtees bend in particular, slowing way too much because I didn’t feel confident with the grip there, and losing places on that long straight down into Hawthorns. However, my race starts and ability to gain and keep positions on the first corners, were much improved. I felt much more comfortable with the bumping and barging that you get in Ginetta racing, and even enjoyed it, only sustaining cosmetic damage.

By the way, my advice on a race start at Brands Hatch: stay on the right at Paddock Hill, even if it costs you a place, as you’ll gain or defend well at Druids when you have the run down the inside, not the outside.

If I do G40 Cup again, I’ll probably hire an awning and make my on space in the paddock. It would be basic, but with a willing engineer to help, it’s better for me, and a lot cheaper. The alternative is an overall cheaper championship where paddock real estate is also easier to come by. But, you still need that engineer to help you, which is the subject of the next journal entry, Transition 10.

Transition to Motorsport (8): Money, the Uncomfortable Truth

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The last time I wrote, at the start of the 2018 season, I made the point that you really need team support and tuition to get the most out of motor racing. Well, at the end of the 2018 season, I can say that’s still true – but what I didn’t realise was how much all this costs.

You can’t just take occasional support from a team, you have to commit to a season and basically, let them know how much you’ll be spending with them. If you’re not spending much, you won’t get the setup advice and general support you need for practice and competition..

For example, a race team will know the setups for your type of car at each circuit for the different conditions you’ll meet: dry, hot, cold, wet, etc. They won’t give you those settings unless you take the team along to the race track with you, as this is their intellectual property, and other drivers are paying more for it. That’s all fair enough, but it does leave the lower-budget racer with a problem. You’re either fully committed and spending money to take a least one mechanic to every track day, or you’re not with a team.

The only solution I can see to this is to find a race mechanic who will do the setup work with you between track days, and come to the occasional day with you. Or, you can learn the setup yourself and put in a lot of hard work to change the settings during a track day, but that really is hard work after you’ve trailered the car to track and still need to drive the lap times and do the spanner work, and then trailer the car home again, unpack, clean up and prepare for the next track day.

Some smaller teams will sell you just awning space and advice at race weekends, but I see that as an essential minimum if you’ve already arranged all the driving practice and learning about setups with your friendly race mechanic.

So what does it really cost?

For a season in Ginetta G40 Cup, I believe that most front-runners spend around £50-70k. That gets you storage and preparation of your car, delivery to track days with a mechanic and delivery and support through six race weekends. It also gets you in the region of 10 to 15 track days and tuition, plus consumable parts like tyres and brakes. With that investment in money and time, bearing in mind that most track days are midweek and require a day off work, you’ll get in the top ten at race weekends. If you get involved in crashes, which is highly likely, your repair bill may be another £5-10k on top.

Of course, that’s just Ginetta G40 Cup racing. There are cheaper championships to enter, which is the subject of my next post.