Transition to Motorsport (5): First Race Weekends

Race weekends take at least three days, or maybe four days if you have to travel more than 100 miles to the track and do the Friday practice. No matter what you wish for when starting in this game, race success in motor racing is dependent on time and money. The more time you put in, the better you’ll be, and that takes money: track days, test days, practice days, time off work, tuition, set-up, and repairs if you take more risk while getting faster.

Over the first couple of race weekends, you’ll see some drivers improve, others lose interest and others balance expectations. We all do racing for different reasons, and those don’t become clear until you really start the competitions. The fast drivers are just the fast drivers up front, and they’ve probably been carting for years or just have no fear. The ones that improve significantly from track day to first and second race weekends have decided to put more time into practice and tuition, as the lust for not getting overtaken kicks in. Some drivers are perplexed at the level of commitment and money required when everyone else starts to increase the level of seriousness, and they may withdraw from some races. Other drivers become philosophical and realise that they can’t increase commitment significantly but will keep trying and be content with the lower end of the results table.

Being at the front takes talent and a no-fear constitution. Being near the front takes time and money commitment. All the rest is a compromise and balance of what you want to get out of motor racing. If you’re in it for the kudos, put in more money and time to get higher up. If you’re in it for the experience and the thrill, set yourself a budget and concentrate on tactics at the race weekend.

Commitment and race weekend format

I don’t participate in the Friday practice, due to budget. It costs twice what a track day does and will be run in sessions for the different classes of race car, so you’ll typically get two hours of track time over the day.

To be quick at a race weekend, you probably need the Friday practice however, to tune into the track and conditions, including other drivers, and to find your level of commitment to risk (i.e. how you’re feeling and whether you need to change that). If your head is not in the right place for taking risk and being assertive, you won’t be as quick as the other drivers. Friday practice will help with this. But it’s not essential… I think you can learn to get your head in the right place during Saturday qualifying, although it’s a challenge.

On my first race weekend, I had done a track day on the circuit two weeks before, and my first time on race weekend track was qualifying, I got 11th fastest of 18. On my second race weekend, some drivers had improved significantly through tuition, my mood was “beach” not “race track”, and I qualified 14th of 17. I can’t stress enough the need for commitment, concentration, mood and focus when competing. It’s the same in any sport, but particularly the ones where decisions of micro-seconds make a big difference.

Qualifying is normally on the Saturday, with a race or two following later in the day, and another race or two on the Sunday.

Races and tactics

Starts can gain or lose you two or three places compared to qualifying. If you lose places, you’ll be chasing slightly slower cars and trying to overtake. This is where things can go wrong for new racers, as you don’t know where to make the moves and you try them in the wrong places. In my second race, I lost four places through a spin while overtaking around the outside. It was close to coming off, but in a Ginetta G40, there’s a fine line between maintaining speed and grip, and a spin.

Find out from the pros where the overtaking points are on the circuit. They will mostly be obvious, like at the end of a straight, and not into a hairpin after a short straight. Wait until you are at these points, and keep harrying the car in front, to put on pressure. There’s a lot more to this than I know about, so I won’t write more.

What I can comment on is some basic tactics for novice racers. If you’re not feeling the speed (i.e. grip and momentum) you can adopt a no-spin tactic of early braking and turn-in, avoiding the risk of spins but compromising your speed further. In other words, don’t chase the speed if you’re not feeling it. With novice racing in particular, others will spin in front of you or while trying to overtake, and by keeping them behind you as long as possible, you will gain places. This is not particularly rewarding though, so I would recommend finding the speed and having more fun next time!

Just a little more on starts: it’s important to practice how to get off the line and to think about where to position yourself on the first two corners. I’m not accustomed to dropping the clutch, having driven mostly road cars, but it’s the only way to get off the line quickly and not burn the clutch. As for position on the first two corners, I stuck to my plan of “inside line if possible”, but found that in a bunch of jostling cars, it is possible for others to overtake you around the outside. So, if you do decide to go for the outside, it does work, as speeds are lower at the start generally. There is also a consideration of how much contact you are prepared to risk. If you avoid contact in your mind, as instinct will dictate after years of road driving, you will lose places to others who have a different attitude.

Ending the weekend

Don’t forget to get your race licence Upgrade Card signed at race control! The Upgrade Card is in your MSA Blue Book as a rip-out card, and before going to the event, you’ll need to stick a passport photo on it and take it along. The organising club will sign your card after a race, so that you can apply for the next level of licence (National A). You can also remove your novice cross after six signatures.

The journey home is slow if you’re pulling a trailer and gives you plenty of time to reflect. It’s good to think about what you did right, what you did wrong, and most importantly, evaluating why you’re doing this, and does it align with why you started in the first place? Are you having fun, and if not, why not?!

My results after two race weekends, and four races:

  • Rockingham Quali = P11 of 18
  • Rockingham Race 1 = P12 of 18
  • Rockingham Race 2 = P14 of 18
  • Snetterton Quali = P14 of 17
  • Snetterton Race 1 = P11 of 17
  • Snetterton Race 2 = P9 of 17
  • “Championship” = P13 of 20

I’m happy with that. It equates to where I think I should be, considering my input and speed.

Transition to Motorsport (3): Learning the Ropes

There’s a lot to learn, starting with the driving, then onto the maintenance and set-up, and even the media and thinking about sponsorship.

Learning to Drive

Learning to drive fast is best done in a low-powered car with no electronics to cover mistakes. This is just what Ginetta aims at with the G40 and the GRDC championship. So what do electronic controls do? Stop you spinning, primarily, which I found out as soon as I got into a Ginetta on a damp day at Silverstone. I’d only ever spun a car once before, but on the day at Silverstone I must have spun four times at least. My mistakes were either applying power too much and too early, or holding the lock too hard on the exit of a corner. In my 911 and even in my C230 daily driver, the stability management system controls excessive power inputs to the driving wheels so that it’s actually difficult to spin.

After six track days in the G40, I’m slowly finding the speed. Taking the racing line and hitting the apexes is not a problem, but maintaining momentum through the corner is my challenge. On a wet day, that’s even more difficult, until you learn the limit of grip in your car and your set-up. Even then, there are spins, but you have to show a certain amount of aggression (or assertiveness, as instructors like to call it), so spins and track excursions will happen now and again.

Primarily however, I remember four cornering principles when going around, plus the mantra the MSA teaches you when taking an ARDS race licence: speed is a combination of smoothness, accuracy and consistency.

Set-up

On a car like the G40, you can adjust many parameters that will affect handling. The easy settings are tyre pressures, damper return / bounce, and anti-roll bar stiffness. The latter will have a big effect on your understeer or oversteer and the first two will also affect steer and levels of grip and feel. It’s not at all simple, and I have adopted a beginner’s approach to to fix the anti-roll bars to soft at back and medium front, then just make one setting change per day on the dampers, depending on how slippy the track is. If the track is dry, I’ll stiffen the dampers. As for tyre pressures, I’ll measure them as soon as I come off track and keep them level all round at the recommended pressure when hot (which is around 28-30 PSI in the G40).

Other settings are best left to the experts, and for that you’ll need to pay a team to do some set-up work on your car. I chose Ginetta specialists Fox Motorsports, and they will check through your car and set up the ride height (and corner weighting), cambers, toe-in, and show you how to do spanner checks for faults that develop in the harsh environment of a race track.

Corner weighting and ride height are the first things I would ask a specialist to set up on my car.

Maintenance

Driving a car on the race track will put big demands on all components. I always spend half a day checking over the car after a track day. As well as the spanner check, this also includes washing off any of the track debris and grime from under the car and in the engine bay. There’s a lot to write about maintaining the G40, and I have a separate manual for that.

I also keep a record of the set-up changes that I make during track or post-track maintenance.

Media and Sponsorship

This is not everyone’s bag, and I would only recommend taking it seriously if you’re intending to make a career out of race-car driving. As an amateur newbie, you won’t get sponsorship, except for help and possibly some small financial support from family or friends, or your own business. It won’t cover a racing season at all, so you need to fund the car and the track days, plus race entries yourself. In the right championship, you can do this for a reasonable amount, affordable to your budget, such as the GRDC, Caterham Academy or 750 MC’s Locost and Trophy series.