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

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 (6): Frustrations, Lessons Learned & Consistency

By the time the third of four race weekends came along, I was getting disheartened at my lack of pace compared to the other drivers; who used to be the same pace or slower, but who were now quicker. As I’ve said before, it seems to me that improvement is 80% about time in the car and money available for risking the car in off-track excursions or race incidents. After a ninth and tenth place at the second round at Snetterton, gained by staying out of trouble and not pushing the speed, the third round at Silverstone was a low point. I couldn’t find the speed or enthusiasm.

Not finding the speed, and lessons learned

I found the Silverstone GP circuit difficult to learn, as it’s so long and so wide, with unknown lines to the newbie. I had only been there for a few laps in the early days (my first ever time in a Ginetta in fact, back in November 2016 and in the wet, so lots of spins), and it showed when I turned up for the race weekend, straight into qualifying with no practice day beforehand.

I also realised after the race weekend that I’d been having trouble stopping, especially going into Luffield, where it’s very easy to spin right in front of the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) building! I hadn’t changed my brake fluid since getting the car 3,500 miles ago, and I’d been on eight track days and two race weekends since then. That was a rookie mistake, and I found out the difference in stopping power after I changed the fluid for the next outing at Brands hatch GP. I could lean on the brakes later and know that I would slow enough in time for turn-in.

At the Silverstone event I finished near the back in both races, 14th and 13th. I knew I could do better than that, and I learned two valuable lessons:

  • Make sure you have at least one practice on the circuit if it’s new to you
  • Change the brake fluid regularly and get the car set up by a team at least twice during the season

Set-up is important and unfortunately a bit expensive to drivers on a low budget, but should never be ignored. If you don’t keep on top of it, you’re wasting your time and money for the whole season. The same thing applies to practice at new circuits; you need to spend the money to get time on the circuit, or you’re wasting your season.

Consistency and enjoying the experience

For the final race weekend of our four-weekend, eight-race season, we were going to Brands Hatch GP circuit. This is a rarely opened circuit, and most track days are on the shorter Indy loop of the circuit. Consequently, track days are expensive at the GP, in the region of £500. I was in money saving mode as usual, but my girlfriend told me I was wasting my time if I didn’t make the most of the season and buy the track day that was coming up. Well, that was good advice, and I did the RMA track day. I loved the circuit, particularly with new brake fluid and better stopping power.

For the final race weekend, I also found a track evening at the Indy circuit and used it to get myself finally under the one-minute lap time by working on a couple of corners. I realised that I had learned a lot during the season, as I was quicker than most cars on the circuit, doing consistent lap times (when traffic allowed) and five seconds quicker on a lap.

I was now feeling more positive and looking forward to the final race weekend. It helped that Brands Hatch GP is such a fantastic circuit to drive when you get into the woods at the back. Hawthorns bend is fast and exciting, and Sheene Curve is exhilarating as you decide how little to back off as you go into the blind crest and ride the kerb.

Final race weekend and championship results

We don’t have an official championship in GRDC, and points are not officially counted. However, we all like to count the phantom points and know where we end up, of course.

At the race weekend, I qualified 11th of 15 cars, which is the same result as my first race weekend at Rockingham. The track was wet to start, and drying through the session. Tom Golding, our championship leader was taking three seconds off each lap as the track dried. I was taking one second. I wasn’t sliding and not risking anything. We need to get three timed laps or we can’t race, and we’d already been stopped for a quarter of the 20-minute session by spinners.

In both races, I got mugged at the starts as usual, not because of bad starts this time, but because of poor defending on the technical corners on the first laps. I just let competitors go when they make a lunge, and then I lose momentum. Nevertheless, due to others’ spins and off-circuit excursions, and a couple of nice overtakes, I regained places and finished 10th in both races.

I finally got myself involved in close racing, over the fast parts of the circuit, where you can carry momentum and make overtakes if you like that kind of speedy flow, as opposed to the technical, diving corners. I avoided damage but got a couple of tyre rubs, which seems normal in racing.

Television coverage

All season, we have been supporting the British GT Championship. For our final weekend, we were lucky enough to be selected as one of the four races in the TV coverage, broadcast first on the British GT YouTube Channel, and then on Motorsport TV. It brought great satisfaction to the end of the season to see our race with full coverage and commentary.

All in all, my first season in motor sport was extremely rewarding and I learned a great deal on a steep learning curve. I finished 10th of 19 in the “championship” and I didn’t sustain any major damage or have huge costs for support, track days or tuition. Next year I can concentrate on the tuition to iron out my mistakes and get faster, and do the races I can afford.