Behind the visor

My Buckmore memories

The recent statement from Buckmore Park regarding its uncertain future wasn’t hugely surprising but it was deeply disappointing. The kart circuit has been a huge part of grassroots motorsport in the UK for over 50 years and in that time it’s been a launching pad for some legendary drivers. Johnny Herbert, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton all raced at Buckmore in their formative years and thousands of other drivers (including myself) have begun their journeys in the sport there.

For me Buckmore wasn’t just a kart circuit I raced at, it was the kart circuit I raced at. My kart racing was exclusively in “arrive and drive” races AKA rental karts as opposed to the traditional owner-driver format and as the circuit was 15 minutes from home the vast majority of my racing was at Buckmore. It’s safe to say it holds a fair few memories for me and here are my top 5.

5- My first time: You never forget your first time on circuit do you? For me I was 10 years old, I’d been going to Brands with my Dad from a very young age and naturally I’d always wanted to try it myself. The chance finally came at an “arrive and drive day” that summer.

The kart was limited to 20mph and it struggled to go uphill. In all honesty the kart looked more like something you’d find at Legoland than a proper racing machine but I didn’t care. It was a race track and I was finally the one driving. I fell in love with driving that day and I haven’t looked back since.

4- Elite series: One of the challenges or problems with rental karts is that although all of the karts are equal in theory, some tend to be more equal than others. The karts live a tough life, being used and abused by a wide variety of drivers and abilities. As time goes on some karts will inevitably lose some of their performance but of course as a driver you have to make do with whatever you’re given.

Buckmore’s solution for this was the Elite series, a permit only championship for the circuit’s best drivers which used Club 100’s immaculately prepared 2-stroke karts instead of the circuit’s usual fleet. The result was the most competitive racing I’ve ever done, and probably ever will. The karts were as close to identical as physically possible and all of the drivers not only knew the circuit like the back of our race gloves but we’d also all won races at Buckmore in order to qualify for the championship. To give you an example of how competitive it was I remember one race where I just about out-qualified Jack Aitken (who’s since gone on to race in F1 for Williams) by a couple of thousandths of a second. I was about 3 tenths off of pole but from memory that meant we were something like 18th and 19th on the grid!

Did I tell you that story just to brag about the one time I out-qualified a future F1 driver? Maybe, but the point still stands. The two podiums I achieved in the series were amongst the toughest I’ve ever achieved.

3- the Junior Kart Club: Following my taste of driving on track described above we had a bit of a dilemma. I’d loved the experience and I wanted to do more but at the time the only option as a next step was to go to a race school to get your licence, buy a kart and go racing. We didn’t have the money to do that though so it looked like my racing ‘career’ would be over before it ever started.

But along came Buckmore’s Junior Kart Club with perfect timing. JKC was a rental kart championship for kids aged 8-12 and 12-16, and it meant that I could go racing for around £50 per race meeting as opposed to the hundreds/thousands that owner-driver racing would’ve cost. These days most circuits have a junior championship like this but from what I recall Buckmore was one of the first to do this.

The championship was immensely competitive, JKC drivers have since gone on to win titles in championships like Porsche Carrera Cup, the European Le Mans Series… oh and the MINI CHALLENGE of course! I managed a few wins in heats and B-finals, but I think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t quite a front runner. My weight was a factor (being light is a real advantage in small, low powered karts and I was 11/12 racing against 8 year olds) but I also wasn’t the same competitor I am now. What I remember most about my time in the JKC was the off track fun. I made a few friends in that championship and I’m still in touch with a couple of them now. It was just a bunch of kids with a passion for motorsport learning the ropes, good times.

2- Team AGM: My year with AGM was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had in the sport. I met Grant (the “G” in AGM) late in 2016 when we raced against each other at Buckmore, we got talking before the race and within a month we found ourselves back (along with Max- the name must make sense by now?) at the circuit doing a 6 hour race with our new team!

In 2017 we did all of the 3 hour and 6 hour team enduros at Buckmore and I think we only finished off the podium once. We never quite got a win sadly but our efforts were still good enough to qualify for the 2018 Sodi World Series finals, a 12 hour endurance race in Italy running from 10pm to 10am featuring the best Sodi (the manufacture of the karts used at Buckmore)from around the world. I absolutely loved endurance racing, with the rhythm you can build in a longer run and the added challenges of racing through traffic and strategy. I tend to be a fairly smart driver on circuit, and I found endurance racing really suited me for that reason. But as with the JKC what I remember most was the fun off circuit, especially when we had radios you could use to wind up whoever was in thekart at the time! Sadly the team only lasted a year, I moved on to the Minis the year after while Grant and Max are still racing (and winning) in endurance races with another team.

1- Racing with my Dad: One of the most special things you can do as a racing driver is compete with your Dad and I got the chance to do exactly that at Buckmore. When I first moved up to senior karting we did a few short team enduro races together and we did them well, in fact we won all bar one of them and even then we came 2nd! To be honest the races themselves weren’t much of a challenge, despite my age I was probably more experienced than the majority of the drivers in those races and of course I was lighter too. But that wasn’t really the point, as I’m sure you can understand it was just a great experience to race (and win) with my Dad. By this point he’d already been supporting my racing for about 5 years and of course I’d also spent countless days at places like Brands and Silverstone with him so to share some wins together was very special.

We can only hope the future holds more memories at the circuit, both for me and generations to come.

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My pre-race ritual

As in all sports the build up to “game time” is incredibly intense and nervy. The race is the moment you train for of course, it’s the moment that you’ve worked for and it’s the moment that truly matters. This is the time to win, to show the world your talents on TV and deliver your best performance to help you in your quest for a championship. On the other hand it’s also the point in the weekend where your mistakes carry the biggest consequences. An error in the race will cost you positions, points and possibly a bit of embarrassment too. This is your time, but only if you take it.

Although most drivers look pretty cool and calm in the moment, they’re fully aware of all of that and everyone will have at least some butterflies pre-race. As drivers we all have our own ways of managing our nerves and emotions in the build up to the race and in this blog I’ll talk you through mine.

The common theme you might notice with my pre-race ritual is it’s about doing as little as possible in as big a time window as I can. I hate rushing around and the last thing I want to do is cause myself any unnecessary stress before the race. By the time my ritual begins I’ll have already done all of my preparation for the race. As part of my debrief from qualifying/ the previous race, I’ll have thought about how I expect the race to play out and I will have a plan on how to achieve the best result I can. There can be some factors that have to be looked at in the immediate build up to the race E.G. the weather, but the fact that I’ve already covered everything else means I can look at those factors while still feeling organised and relaxed. It’s a bit like when you did your exams at school, the guy who’d done all of their revision well in advance was usually confident and ready to go, whereas the people still reading textbooks in the que to get into the hall (usually me) were already on the back foot before the exam had started. My pre-race build-up has almost nothing to do with the technicalities of the race and is almost entirely focussed on putting myself in the right mindset to perform at my best.

Step 1- the music: 1 hour– 30 minutes before race start.

My pre-race routine begins an hour before the start of the race when I’ll go off to a quiet part of the team truck, plug my headphones in and get away from the world for a bit. If I need to get my race kit on this is also the time where I’ll do that.

The music I listen to at this point comes from a variety of genres (and eras) but it’s probably best described as fight music. They’re the kind of songs you’d want to walk into a boxing ring to, or maybe the kind of tunes you’d hear in an action movie. You can find the playlist on Spotify, just search for “raceday” and you should find it (account name alexnevill-gb). I’m at my best when I’m excited and ready to attack a race, so music like this that makes you walk with your head high and your chest out really helps me get into the best version of myself before the lights go out.

Step 2- the warm up: 30 minutes- 20 minutes before race start.

As you would in any other sport, I like to do a warm up before I get in the car. For this I use a system called RAMP.

Raise – heart rate, muscle temperature, neural activation

Activate – Engage the muscles to get ready for the session

Mobilise – movement patterns that you’ll use in the session

Potentiate – Slowly increase the stress on the body to get ready for the session

For me this involves running on the spot, a series of stretches and throwing a tennis ball to get my coordination warmed up. I started experimenting with it at the start of the 2020 season and I’ve found I’ve felt a lot sharper at the start of the race as a result. Once my warm up is complete it’s time for one last loo break, I don’t think anything else needs to be said there!

Step 3- Assembly: 20 minutes before race start

After the crucial wee break it’s time to get into the car and head off to assembly. Before getting in to the car I always make sure my girlfriend gets a quick kiss or a text if she isn’t at the track (we don’t like to think about it but obviously there are dangers in a race, so I at least like to send a message before getting in the car “just in case,”) and David Graves (one of the team managers) gets a little slap on the bum. It’s a weird little tradition that started before race 3 at Thruxton, but we had a great race so it stuck!

Then it’s into the car to head off to assembly, which as the name suggests is literally where we assemble pre-race. It’s usually a fenced off square where the marshals will sort us into grid order, and from here we go to the grid once the previous race has finished.

This is the nerviest part of the build up for us, and it kind of works in the same way as the tunnel leading out to the pitch in Football as you stand there amongst your rivals waiting for game time. Some drivers will get their helmet etc on before they go to assembly and sit in the car for the full 20ish minutes, but my preference is usually to get ready in assembly. Unless it’s wet, then I’ll stay in the car. Speaking from experience wet boots slipping off of brake pedals isn’t a lot of fun! I usually try to keep things as fun as possible at this point and I’ll chat away to the team, marshals, other drivers, basically anyone who’s there. It’s also the last chance to go over any details for the race with the team should I want to, although usually I don’t talk about the race at all at this point.

Once I’m in the car I’ll usually have someone from the team around the door/window to have a chat with but if I’m alone I find the best thing to do is to focus on breathing and stare directly ahead. The nerves are gone the moment we pull away from assembly, and from there it’s show time!

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6 things no one tells you about being a racing driver

So you want to be a racing driver, and so you should. It’s awesome. But like a lot of things in life there’s a lot more to it than the glamorous perception a lot of people have of the sport. It’s full of hard work and sacrifice, as well as constant reality checks and setbacks. So here’s 6 things that no one tells you about being a racing driver.

Before I kick off just a quick disclaimer that these points are based on my own experiences in the sport and won’t necessarily apply to everyone. What’s more I bring a lot of this on my self by A) choosing to race in the first place and B) trying to make a career out of it. So this is by no means a cry for sympathy or help, because I’ve got no doubt that I’m very fortunate to be living the life I have. But hopefully this gives you an insight into the challenges of being a racing driver.

1) The most important work you do is away from the track: Motorsport doesn’t work like many other sports. In our sport it’s not only down to the competitor to bring their A-game, it’s also down to them to bring the funding to make the whole thing happen in the first place. Whether it be the pinnacles of the sport in F1, Le Mans, BTCC or the junior championships building up to them the majority of drivers are in the same situation, they have to pay in order to play.

It’s pretty well known how expensive the sport is of course, and that means that generating the funding to go racing is no mean feat. There’s a variety of ways to do it, with the holy grail being sponsorship but other drivers will fund their careers through business ventures, crowd funding or maybe product sponsorship that can bring the teams costs down. Whatever their strategy each driver has to spend a lot of time working on the business side of their lives in order to get on track.

For me personally I’m trying to network as much as I can to generate sponsorship opportunities for myself. Whilst also trying to set up my own business and establish myself as an instructor and driver coach in the hope that it’ll can help me to create opportunities in pro-am parts of the sport such as GT racing. In all I’d say that for every hour I spend on track I probably spend 30-40 hours off it just working for that opportunity in the first place. That’s before I’ve spent any time thinking about my performance on it too, as well as my fitness etc.

2) Say goodbye to your social life…: Given the amount of time you have to put into it (and of course that work is on top of anything you’re doing to pay the bills whether that’s a full time job or instruction work in my case) it’s pretty hard to maintain a good social life outside of the sport. It’s tough to make the time to go out and even if you have the time you might find all of your money has gone on racing and there’s nothing left over for a cheeky Nandos or a night out with your mates. Hobbies may go out the window for the same reasons too or it might be because it’s safer to avoid them. I used to play 5 a side football (I was average at best) with my friends for example, but I stopped when I moved into car racing on the basis that it would only take one “studs up” tackle to impact my racing season or stop me from instructing for a while. Not everybody gives up hobbies like that of course, but at the elite levels of the sport (F1, Le Mans etc) it’s commonplace for professional contracts to forbid them.

In that sense racing has meant that I’m not as close to some friends as I used to be, and it’s also cost me a relationship. But these are the sacrifices you need to be prepared to make if you’re going to chase a career as a driver.

3)… But say hello to your new social life: Let’s interrupt the negativity with a positive point shall we?

Ok so nightclubs and restaurants may no longer be your scene if you pursue motorsport, but race paddocks will be and in them you meet some fantastic people.

In case you haven’t picked up on it yet motorsport is an absolute bastard of a sport and the challenges of it create a strong sense of community and camaraderie within the paddock across drivers, mechanics, team owners and officials alike. Although it’s intensely competitive, trust and respect are key ingredients when you’re racing at 100mph+ and as a result I’d say I’ve formed friendships with the majority of the drivers I’ve raced against. That doesn’t mean I like every driver I’ve raced with though!

The most obvious example of the social life within the sport is your relationship with your team. If the team truck/awning/garage is your home away from home then the team themselves are your family away from home. Together your new found brothers/sisters and yourself celebrate your joint achievements, console each other in times of disappointment and spend the majority of the time taking the piss out of each other. That’s the way it works in the teams I’ve been in anyway, but maybe that’s just me? Either way one of my absolute favourite parts of the sport is the people within it.

4) Get used to being on the road: Test days, race days, and instructing/coaching work mean I’m usually going up and down the country constantly. It’s a life of motorways (and the frustrations that go with them- traffic, driving standards, ‘smart motorways’ etc,) as well as motorway services and hotels that all start to look and feel exactly the same after a while. Oh and anyone who thinks that motorsport is all about travelling to glamorous places has never been to Croft?! You get used to it of course and after a while you think nothing of a 200-300 mile drive.

5) It’s a selfish and occasionally lonely existence: Racing isn’t just tough on the participants, it’s just as tough on their family and loved ones. Some will worry about the safety side of the sport while others will just wish you’re more available. As a racing driver you’re normally dedicated to finding and spending large amounts of money to drive in circles and you’re obsessed with finding ways to do it slightly better than everyone else. It’s hard to balance the pursuit of lap records and podiums with being there for the people you love, not to mention the families out there who sacrifice so much time, money and effort just to help and support their loved one as best they can. I’m very fortunate to have a family and a girlfriend who share and support my passion for the sport, and they’re very much on the journey with me. I’m humbled by everything they’ve done to help me keep racing, and I’m not sure how I can ever repay them either figuratively or literally!

Yet despite all of that it can still feel very lonely at times. This probably applies more to chasing after any kind of dream rather than racing specifically, but it’s difficult for a lot of people to understand or really relate to the emotions you go through when you’re really trying to pursue your dream. What’s more you have to come to terms with the fact that motorsport doesn’t care about you, your ambitions or your talents. It only cares about your business value. Racing teams aren’t charities – they’re businesses and although the people who run them are usually good people who will of course care about you, they still need you to pay the bills. At times all of that can make it feel like the world is against you, even though that isn’t the case and there’s probably more people than you realise who are rooting for you.

6) You’ll spend a lot of time wondering if it’s worth it: Everything listed above can take its toll and it’s only natural that you start to consider whether or not racing is really worth it. Funding is usually the number 1 cause of stress, and the only thing harder than getting into motorsport is staying in it. Every year as we prepare for the final round I’m always fully aware that it could be my last race full stop, unless I’m able to find the funding to continue for another year. That’s a feeling that wears thin rapidly, and I’ve always said that if anything was to make me give up it would probably be the stresses of the off season as opposed to anything that happens within the season.

It’s a lifestyle full of rejection, setbacks and big challenges. And that’s before you even get on the track and experience the typical highs and lows of racing, mechanical failures, crashes etc. There’s nothing quite like a 250 mile drive home after being taken out of the race on lap 2 to make you wonder why you bother putting the effort in to go racing.

But it is totally worth it, and whether I get to race for 4 more years or 40 more I’ll always cherish the opportunities I get in this sport. There’s nothing else like it. From the arrival first thing in the morning with a sense of anticipation in the air, to the pre-race butterfly’s and the various emotions you feel as you’re sat in the assembly area when 30 race cars (including your own) roar into life and burble on tick-over expectantly. Nothing compares to the intensity of a duel on track, and when you see that chequered flag on your day of days… it’s the best feeling in the world.

Motorsport is by no means easy, but nothing worth doing in life ever is. This sport is the bane of my life, but I can safely say there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

 

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5 things I’ve learnt in 2020

As I documented in last months blog it’s been a challenging year on track for me in 2020, and of course away from the track it’s been a tough year for us all. The situations that challenge us are also the ones that we learn the most from though and with that in mind here’s 5 things I’ve learnt this year.

1- Hard work doesn’t guarantee results, that’s why it’s hard work: With respect to the rest of the paddock, I don’t think anyone worked harder than me or the Graves team this year. We were meticulous with our preparations for each round, spending hours on end working out what was key to extracting the best out of each circuit and each session. Overall our efforts meant we were always a front runner in terms of pace, but with the various issues we had I wouldn’t say we deserved more because I hate the sense of entitlement with that phrase. But I think it’s fair to say that things could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, played out a bit better in our favour.

As we packed up at D onington I felt a little dejected. As I spoke to the guys I said to a few of them that the results didn’t reflect the work we put into this year and they all responded in the same way. They let out a slight shrug and said “they never do.” And they were absolutely right.

Championship wins aren’t just down to the talent you have and the work you put in. You also need to be in the right place at the right time, and you need some luck too. Without those first two factors the last two will never come but either way they aren’t guaranteed. That’s what makes it hard of course, if winning championships was as simple as doing your homework we could all do it!

2- Teamwork makes the dreamwork: 2020 was my first season in racing where I’ve had teammates, which is something I’ve wanted for quite a while. In motorsport there’s an old saying that “the first person you need to beat is your teammate” and though as racing drivers we’re all naturally incredibly competitive I’ve learnt that that isn’t the right way to look at the relationship.

This year I’ve had great teammates in Bradley Gravett and Alfie Glenie, as well as Lee Pearce for the last two rounds and Matt Swaffer for the last race weekend. From the moment we started testing together we’ve all worked together to move the whole team forwards, instead of looking over our shoulders and trying to beat each other. We’ve debriefed together, shared our onboard footage with one another to help each other improve and did everything we could to make sure each driver was as far up the grid as they could be.

As the only driver with a year of experience in what had previously been known as the pro class, I think it’s fair to say I had a bit more knowledge to pass on to the other drivers. But equally I learnt a lot more about myself as a driver from trying to pass that experience on to them and explaining how I drove the car. Naturally there were also points through the year where I struggled for pace or with setup, and they were a great help to me in those times.

Aside from the technical stuff, it also meant I had a couple of mates to share the experience with. I was definitely lucky to have great teammates, but I also found they’re the kind of relationships where you get what you give.

3- Performance > results: At the start of the season I wrote a blog about how this year I wouldn’t be focussing on winning races, but instead on delivering the best performances I could. I think that change made the biggest difference to me as a competitor this year compared to the driver I was in 2019.

My theory was that I couldn’t control a result, but I could control a performance so I needed to focus on delivering the best performances I could and from there the results would sort themselves out. This allowed me to analyse my own performances more constructively, without worrying about factors I couldn’t control such as mechanical issues etc.

In a 30 car grid this became even more important. In race 2 at Oulton Park for example I finished 10th which was actually my worst ever finish at the time in the MINI CHALLENGE, as we’d usually only had 8-10 cars in a class. However once you factor in that I started 25th after a clutch failure the day before, the performance was great!

This change of perception kept me focussed on maximising the factors I could control, instead of getting frustrated about the issues I couldn’t control. This helped me to deliver consistently strong performances which was key in such a big grid where bad days would be costly. With the things that happened that were out of our control I don’t think our season could’ve been much better. But if I hadn’t kept focussed on maximising whatever opportunities I had to perform it certainly could’ve been a lot worse.

4- Racing isn’t important: In “the moment” racing means everything to me, and it has to at this level. But with everything that’s happened in 2020 it’s never been clearer what’s really important in life.

With hindsight I’d probably been guilty of taking racing for granted a bit in 2019. It’s important to stay focussed of course, and if you’re spending all your time thinking about how lucky you are just to be there then you aren’t making the most of the opportunity in front of you. But in a year where so many people struggled with the basic things in life such as health and employment, I still had the opportunity to drive race cars. It’s a privilege to be a part of a sport like this, and to have the chance to chase your dreams. In the year of suffering that 2020 has been that’s never been more obvious.

Aside from injuries, any problems involving a racecar be it mechanical, performance, or simply not having the money to race it are amongst the most elite of first world problems. The perspective that this year has given me off track allowed me to put any issues we had on track in a better context. It helped me handle disappointment, and also encouraged me to make sure I enjoyed my racing. After all, there’s a fair few people out there who’d love the chance to do this, so I owe it to them to make sure I enjoy the opportunities I have.

5- I can do this: Though most of us aren’t prepared to admit it, I think we all have days where we doubt our abilities. Particularly when we’re chasing after a goal or an ambition. For the most part I’m aware of my abilities and what I’m capable of, but I think it’s human nature to occasionally have moments of self doubt.

At the start of the year my confidence probably wasn’t as high as it should’ve been after a tough 2019. The step up to being a BTCC support championship also meant that the championship was going to be much tougher than before. I don’t mind admitting that there were a few times at the start of the year where I worried whether my performances would be good enough on a grid this big.

If you read last months blog then you’ll already know that performances were good enough, but the track wasn’t the only place where I’ve shown myself what I’m capable of. Despite not being able to go to a gym for a lot of the year I’ve been able to improve my fitness and my understanding of the sport from a business perspective has grown hugely too.

I’ve still got a lot to learn of course, but it’s never been clearer to me that I am actually capable of achieving my dreams within this sport. It’s not easy and it never will be either, but I can totally do this.

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5 Things I’m proud of from our 2020 season

As I write this in mid November our 2020 season isn’t over. That’s quite unusual in our sport, and what’s even more unusual is that it may never end. At least not in the true sense of a proper title decider.

As 2020 has been a year of constant setbacks for us all, it seemed only fitting that a second lockdown would be initiated across England just two days before our final round at Donington Park was due to start. The organisers of the MINI CHALLENGE Cooper Trophy (who’ve been fantastic throughout this pandemic) have managed to re-schedule the race meeting to the 5th December, but whether or not that’ll be allowed to take place is completely out of their hands.

The postponement of the meeting has had a big impact on my championship chances. The initial race weekend was set to feature 3 races over 2 days, which would’ve meant 174 points would’ve been up for grabs. I’m 51 points away from the lead, and with Donington being my absolute favourite circuit I was relishing the challenge that laid ahead. But if it goes ahead the meeting will now be 2 races over 1 day, which reduces the points available to 118. The championship remains a mathematical possibility, but it’s little more than that. I’m not being defeatist, I’ll still give it my all like I always do. But in reality my only focus that weekend should be on putting in the best performances I can, and what will be will be.

It’s been a funny year for us on track, it is 2020 after all I suppose. We’ve been fast at every circuit, and always in contention. But mechanical issues including clutches, sensors, electrical problems etc have held us back from delivering the results our pace showed we were capable of. If we had points for the positions we were in whenever problems hit us we’d currently be leading the championship by 8 points after drop scores with 2 wins, instead we’re in 6th place with just one podium to show for our work. None of this is said with any disrespect to the drivers in front of me in the championship. They’ve all been fantastic and they deserve to be in the positions they’re in, and I’m sure they all have some hard luck stories too. But it shows that we were capable of winning the championship this year.

That said with still achieved a lot this year and here’s 5 things that I’m proud of from this season.

1- We rose to the challenge: This season has seen a huge change in the Cooper class of the MINI CHALLENGE. Last year in the pro class we had a competitive grid of 10 cars, this year that has tippled to nearly 30 cars!

With an increase in numbers also came an increase in the depth of talent on the grid. A lot of us returned from the pro class last year and we’ve been joined by some quick guys from the am class too as the two classes merged for this season. Throw in a load of rookies with good CVs from karting and various junior car championships, and there’s probably 15-20 drivers on the grid who are capable of winning races. In years gone by a 2nd year driver returning to what was then the Cooper Pro grid could probably expect to be in championship contention, or at least be a regular podium visitor. Not this year though, and there’ve been a few good drivers who’ve struggled to make an impression consistently this year.

In comparison we’ve been the fastest car in at least one session at almost every circuit this year, (we just missed out on the fastest lap in race 2 at Oulton Park by one thousandth of a second) and with the exception of the race where we got a puncture we’ve been in the top 10 in every competitive session we’ve started this year. In a grid as competitive as this, they’re reasonable achievements.

2- The team: Graves Motorsport were new to the championship for 2020 but that wasn’t a problem. They took the time to understand the car and the championship pre-season and that meant we were right on the pace as soon as the season started. It was pretty clear to me straight away why they’d won so many championships, they have such a strong eye for detail and an intensely competitive desire to be at the front that you don’t always see in race teams.

As I said in the last blog post I’ve been able to get in the car for every session this year knowing that the car they’ve given me is quick enough to be at the front and we’ve always had a plan together to get there. That combined with the fact that they’ve been fun to hang out with off track has made me a confident and happy driver all year. And a happy and confident driver is usually a fast one. A couple of the guys on the team were also with me at Supatune Motorsport in 2018 when we won the Cooper Am championship (which has certainly helped me this year,) and one of them told me after Thruxton that he hadn’t seen me as confident as I’d been before race 3 there since 2018. He’s right, and it’s all thanks to this team. I’m proud to be a part of this team and I hope to be for years to come.

3- We’ve improved in every area, particularly the ones I struggled with in 2019: When I joined Graves at the start of this year I handed Karl (the team boss) a table that listed everything that had gone wrong for me in 2019. Driver errors, set up struggles, wrong tyre calls, it had it all. It was my way of showing both him and myself where the improvements needed to come from for me to be a championship contender this year. Of all the things listed on there two things really stood out to me, we struggled in qualifying and we struggled in the wet. Fast forward 12 months and I’d say both of these areas were amongst our strengths in 2020.

In 2019 our average qualifying position was 7th on a 10 car grid. This year 7th is our worst qualifying position on a 30 car grid and our average is 4.2, which includes our first pole position at the most recent round at Croft. Overall that makes us the second best qualifier of the year (so far,) beaten only by the championship leader. The improvement didn’t just come from outright pace, although that is a big factor of course. Overall we just executed the sessions better, understood what we needed to do and put a plan in place to achieve it. At Thruxton for example I worked really closely with Brad to slipstream each other around the circuit and the result was 3rd for me and 4th for him.

Last year wet sessions were a real problem for me. Usually I’m good in the wet and I enjoy the challenge of it. But in 2019 I never felt happy with the setup we had in the wet and we always struggled for pace and results when it rained. This year the Graves guys have given me a great setup in the wet and it’s worked wonders for us. When it rained at Oulton Park in race 2, we made 15 positions in 15 minutes to finish 10th after a clutch issue in race 1 had put us 25th on the grid – we made 8 places in lap 1 alone! At Snetterton we could’ve had a double win for sure if it hadn’t been for our electrical issues causing the car to cut out in both races, and in the one wet session we had at Croft only 2 drivers were within a second of my best lap time. The work the guys have put in to our wet weather set up has given me my confidence back in those conditions. I once again look forward to any wet weather running and that’s key to a good performance in the wet.

4- The way we’ve handled adversity: There’s been so many hurdles for us this year, from all of the delays and headaches that the pandemic has caused to the various issues I’ve mentioned once we got on track. But we’ve taken everything in our stride, learnt from each issue and moved on. We’ve never given up and we’ve never stopped working. We’ve always sought to maximise whatever opportunity we had to perform, and although the opportunities to succeed have been smaller than we would’ve liked we’ve usually made the most of them. Of everything we’ve done this year, the way we’ve handled disappointment and bounced back from it is probably what I’m proudest of this year.

5- I’ve grown: Every issue we’ve faced this year has challenged me, taught me a lesson and made me stronger. Yes it’s been tough and it’s a real shame that the season hasn’t gone the way it could’ve. But I’ve learnt and grown more in defeat than I ever would’ve in victory. Whatever happens with Donington, I leave this season a better driver and competitor than the one I entered it as. At the end of the day, you can’t ask for more than that can you?

 

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Team Me

Motorsport is sometimes viewed as a solo activity, as it’s just the driver out on circuit. But that perception couldn’t be further from the truth, in fact it’s just as much of a team sport as Football or Rugby etc. Without the team my car wouldn’t be ready for each weekend and each session of course, but the team isn’t just limited to the people who work on my car. My team is also the family and loved ones who come to the races and support me through good times and bad. On the Motorsport UK Academy they refer to this as “team you,” the support network around you that helps you deal with the pressures of racing. Ahead of the final round of the 2020 MINI CHALLENGE Cooper Trophy next weekend I wanted to shine the spotlight on the people behind the scenes who not only help me get on circuit, but also help me to get the best out of myself on track.

The race team: Of the support I receive on a race weekend the race team are probably the most obvious element. They’re responsible for the preparation and maintenance of the car before, after and during race weekends as well as making set up changes and adjustments to increase our performance. As a driver it’s down to me to go out there and get the best results I can but the team make sure I have the best opportunity to do exactly that. I’ve worked with a few teams over the last few seasons and I have great memories with all of them. But the Graves Motorsport guys I’ve been with this year have been absolutely fantastic. They have a strong eye for detail (which is key in a sport where a tenth of a second can make a big difference) and they want to win as badly as I do. Every time I get in the car I know that A) they’re giving me the best chance they can to succeed and B) they believe in me to get the job done. As a driver, you can’t ask for any more than that.

The family: My family don’t come from a huge amount of money (otherwise I’d be racing one of those fancy formula cars) but what is lacked in finance is more than made up for in support. They’ve always supported me as much as they could in my dream and are always cheering me on either track side or via the live timing/TV. The moral support always means a lot to me.

My Dad in particular has always been a great support and, over 16 years of racing, has only missed a handful of my races. A racing Dad is one of the most important figures in any drivers career. They’re usually the first sponsor, the first driver coach and the first fan. They’re there on the journey with you from the very start and go through the whole experience with you. One of the best things about my Dad is that he was never your stereotypical “Karting Dad.” He never forced me to go racing, nor did he ever criticise when the results were bad. He’d offer advice and help where he could but the only pressure on me to compete and succeed came from myself. This allowed me to learn from my own mistakes (instead of making excuses to defend myself) and to develop my own passion for the sport which is why I’ve kept racing for so long now. His approach to my racing is probably a big factor in making me into the type of person and competitor I am today.

The girlfriend: Lee-Anne has a pretty unenviable role on race weekends as she’s the one I lean on for emotional support over race weekends. Over the last year and a bit she’s been there for good results and proud moments, but with Motorsport being the cruel mistress it is more often then not she’s been there for the bad times. Disappointment, dejection, anger, frustration and heartbreak are just some of the many emotions she’s helped me through on race weekends. In the times when I’m beyond words she still finds something to say to pick me back up and get me re-set for the next session. My job on a race weekend is definitely easier than hers!

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How do I learn a new circuit?

One of the biggest variables in our sport is the circuits we race on. Unless you’re racing in a regional/local championship usually you only race at the same circuit once or maybe twice in a season, and in comparison to a sport like Football or Rugby that means we have a completely different field of play each weekend. With a different circuit comes a different style or technique to get the best out of it too. Some circuits are fast and require bravery, whereas a slow circuit will require a more technical approach. With the circuit itself being such a strong variable it can therefore be a slightly daunting prospect when you go into a race weekend having never driven at the venue. Which is exactly what I’ll face this weekend when I drive and race at Thruxton for the first time.

So how do I take on this challenge? Personally I have a three step approach; relax, research and plan.

Relax: This is probably the most important of the three steps I take. The thought of driving on a new circuit can be quite daunting, particularly when it’s Thruxton (the fastest circuit in the UK) and I know that several of my competitors have already driven there in tests or races previously. But I can’t control any of that, so any energy wasted on worrying about it would be better spent focussing on learning the circuit quickly so that I’m up to speed by the time we get to qualifying on Saturday. I also like to remind myself that although the corners are new to me, chances are they’ll each have at least some similarity to a corner from another circuit that I’ve driven before. My surroundings will be new to me, but the techniques I’ll use this weekend won’t be and that’s important to remember. If nothing else, sometimes I remind myself that “it’s just straights and corners” and when you break it down like that it doesn’t seem so scary!

Research: Prior to the race weekend I’ll always try to do as much research as I can, even if it’s a circuit I know well but especially for a weekend like this. I mainly use YouTube to watch track guides and on board footage from other drivers, which gives me an idea of the lines, braking points, gear selection etc. I’ll also watch race footage so that I can get a feel for how a race usually plays out at the circuit, as well as the best overtaking points etc. When doing this I’ll always make sure that the footage I’m watching is from someone I either know or at least know of, so that I can trust the lines they’re using are actually correct.

I’ll also sometimes use video games, not so much to practice the technique but more to familiarise myself with the circuit visually. This isn’t an option for Thruxton this weekend though as it isn’t on many games. But as long as the circuit has been replicated properly (you can normally tell by comparing it to real life footage) it can be a great way to build track knowledge. I used Project Cars 2 to brush up on Oulton Park before we went there as an example.

On arrival at the circuit I’ll usually try to do a track walk. This means that my first time seeing the place isn’t at speed in a race car, and it also gives me a chance to look at the finer details of the circuit. Any cambers, surface changes, the size of the kerbs etc. They’ll all be crucial to finding the last few tenths in qualifying.

Plan: If you were going to climb a mountain, you’d plan your route to the summit wouldn’t you? If you’re a Football team, you plan your formation for the game don’t you? I approach driving on circuit in exactly the same way, and always make sure I have a plan for the lap. I do this by setting myself a “keyword” for each corner that reminds me of what I need to do to get the most out of this part of the circuit. So If it’s a slow corner that leads on to a long straight for example my keyword will probably be “exit.” Which reminds me that I need a strong exit from the turn in order to be fast down the straight. It’s quite simple, but it allows me to build my rhythm, and start setting fast and consistent laps quickly.

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My 10 best races

The 2020 season will be my 16th year of racing, how old does that make me sound! I’ve been lucky to be able to spend over half my life competing in a sport I love, and as you can imagine in that time I’ve been through a huge range of emotions and experiences. Some days have made me feel like I’m on top of the world, whilst others have featured crushing heartbreak and disappointment. As we’re about to begin another season in the MINI CHALLENGE, I thought it would be a good time to list what I consider to be my 10 best races/performances so far. Though the best race is always the next one!

10- Oulton Park 2018

A slightly odd one to include in many ways, as race 1 at this event was the first car race I ever lost! With work commitments keeping me from taking part in the Friday test day, and the budget being too tight for us to go to the circuit prior to the event it was down to me to learn the circuit in qualifying. Oulton Park is one of the trickiest circuits in the UK. It’s dauntingly fast, famously unforgiving and highly technical with a huge number of camber & elevation changes and other minor details that are key to a good lap time. As circuits go, it’s definitely not the kind of place where you want to go into qualifying without any previous track knowledge or experience.

Despite all of this we were able to qualify 3rd (though I did manage a rather large spin on the exit of turn 1) before finishing 2nd in race 1 and winning race 2. At the time I was pretty grumpy to have lost my winning streak (by then it had been 7 in a row) in race 1. But on reflection to have been able to get onto a competitive pace so soon at such a difficult circuit was a good achievement, and very important in our championship campaign.

9- Buckmore Park 2006

You never forget your first! In Karting you generally have a heats and a final format, similar to athletics. The heats have a random grid order applied to them and in round 1 of that years Junior Kart club I started one of my heats from pole. From there I took a lights to flag win, the race itself was pretty boring but it was my first win! Do I really need to say any more?

The win also meant that I qualified for the A-final that day for the first time. That was a proud moment for me, especially after usually featuring in the C or D finals the year before in my first year of racing.

8- Silverstone 2018

Silverstone National is one of the most boring circuits you’ll ever drive, but that also makes it one of the best tracks to race on. It’s so simple and short that in a one make championship as competitive as the MINI CHALLENGE it’s very difficult to actually have a pace advantage over your rivals.

I qualified on pole by 0.065 of a second from my title rival Andy Godfrey. And though I won both races that day, if you combine the winning margin from the two races it’s come out at 0.625 of a second! Andy was relentless that day, and it took everything I had to keep him behind me.

As we haven’t raced there since, it also means I’m undefeated at Silverstone. Not even Lewis Hamilton can say that!

7- Daytona Milton Keynes 24 hours 2017

My first 24 hour race. At the time I was racing as part of team AGM in the endurance events at Buckmore Park, though for this event we joined forces with the team we kept finishing 2nd to at Buckmore to help them gain more points in the Sodi World Series. Literally the definition of “if you can’t beat them, join them!”

Naturally hopes were high going into the race, even more so after we qualified on pole. Unfortunately a couple of setbacks a few hours into the race put us on the back foot, though we did eventually finish 3rd.

As I had less experience of the circuit compared to my teammates, I offered to do a lot of the driving overnight so that we could keep our fastest drivers rested for the run to the finish. That meant that whilst they were asleep, myself and one other driver did “the graveyard shift” between us. After having a stint early in the race I got into the kart for my second stint at 1am and stayed in until 3am. I was then back in at 5am until 7:15am. I should’ve pitted at 7 but the next driver was still in his motorhome resting, and honestly can you blame him?

It was gruelling work, but oddly very enjoyable. I remember coming out of turn 1 about ¾ of the way through my final stint and out of nowhere the sun had finally risen. I felt a slight lump in my throat seeing that dawn. If I ever get to do a 24 hour race again, I’ll quite happily grab the graveyard stint purely to experience the feeling of sunrise.

6- Cadwell Park 2018

Cadwell followed on from the Brands Hatch Mini Festival, which was one of the worst weekends of my career. My first time racing on home soil meant I probably wanted to win too badly, and I probably hyped myself up too much. The weekend was a disaster. There were points where I was pushed, but there were also moments where I jumped. I learnt a lot about myself that weekend, though Brands still remains unfinished business for me.

It was therefore crucial that I was back on form at Cadwell, to recover my confidence but also because it was the penultimate round of the 2018season. Another round like Brands and I’d lose the championship lead. Failure wasn’t an option, but the line between hero and zero at Cadwell Park is very fine and lined by grass and tyre walls.

Pole, a win in race 1 and 2nd in race 2 was exactly what I needed. And it kept me in control of the championship going into the decider at Rockingham.

5- Snetterton 2018

Snetterton was the second round of the 2018 championship, and though you’d be forgiven for expecting a repeat of the double win at Donington Park in round one I wasn’t so sure. Snetterton is the local circuit for most of the MINI CHALLENGE paddock, so I knew the other drivers would have more experience of it than I did. It’s also a much more technical circuit than Donington, so success was not guaranteed.

I was able to qualify on pole, but rain arrived in the build up to the first race which lead to one of the most common questions in motorsport; dry tyres or wets? Our awning was located right next to the assembly area, which gave us a great chance to see what everyone else had chosen before we made our decision. They chose dry tyres, so we did the same. Our thinking was that at least if it was the wrong decision we’d all be in the same boat.

The rain intensified throughout the race, at which point the hardest place to be is the leader. You set the marker for everyone behind, you’re the guinea pig who’s finding out how much grip there is in each corner. Each lap is an exercise in improvisation, too fast and you’ll crash out of the lead. Too slow and you’ll lose it anyway. The chequered flag couldn’t come soon enough, and we won in a photo finish by 0.122 of a second. We won the other two races that weekend too, but it’s race one that puts this event on the list.

4- British Schools Karting Championship final Whilton Mill 2013

The BSKC is a championship where each team represents their school. You have 3 drivers to a team and each driver takes part in 2 heats where the grid has been set randomly. The team with the most points at the end of the heats are British champions.

In 2013 (my final year competing in the championship before I left school) I won my 2nd heat. That in itself was a good achievement in a national final, but that weekend was a turning point for me. It was the first time I felt I was in control of my own destiny, the first time I’d ever raced with real confidence. Prior to that I’d almost won races by a happy accident, sometimes I’d win and sometimes I’d lose. But there was never any confidence from me or understanding of how to perform at my best. But that weekend felt different, mainly because I was prepared. We’d had the chance to practice the day before, and though we were meant to practice for 30 minutes the marshalls must’ve forgotten about me because they left me out there for 2 and a half hours! In that time the circuit started dry, then it rained, then it dried, and then it rained again, and then it dried. By this point the rest of my team had gone back to the hotel!

Going into race day I knew I was prepared for anything the circuit could throw at me, and I felt so strong as a result. I walked onto the grid grinning under my helmet like a madman, I’d won the race before it even started. In the end we came 2nd overall in the event, but I could go home satisfied that I’d put in my best performance.

3- Donington Park 2019

This one wasn’t a victory, but it is one of the performances I’m proudest of. 2019 wasn’t the best year for me but I had the Donington weekend circled as a point where the season could turn around. It’s a circuit I love, and I knew from 2018 that I go well there.

The weekend didn’t get off to the best start though, with a roll down the Craner Curves at the end of the test day. Thankfully the damage wasn’t too bad and we were able to get out the next day, where we qualified 2nd and finished there too. Robbie Dalgleish beat us to the win, but if you’re going to lose to anyone you might as well make it that years champion right?

It was a huge relief to finally get back to the podium, but all the sweeter for all we’d been through just getting to the grid that weekend.

2- Donington Park 2018

I’ll spare the long insights on this one, as if you scroll down you’ll find a whole post about it! But to come away from my first car race weekend with a pole and 2 wins felt very special.

1- Rockingham 2018

It couldn’t really be anything else could it? The weekend we won the championship.

What I remember most was just feeling really composed the entire weekend. I’d had a frustrating last session on the test day with a few spins, but once it was on to race day I always felt in control. Even when the car broke down in qualifying before I could set a time. I just always felt calm and focussed on what I needed to do to seal the deal. To win it in style with a race win was the icing on the cake, and the emotions of that day are something I’ll never forget. One of the best days of my life.

It’ll take something pretty special to knock Rockingham off the top of this list, but who knows what the future holds? Maybe I’ll revisit this post in a few years, hopefully with a few more to add!

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Why winning is my goal, but not my focus in 2020

Nobody wants to be last, do they?

That’s not unique to Motorsport, or indeed sport in general. We don’t go to job interviews without wanting to get the job. We don’t set up businesses that we want to do “ok”. We want to create the best business in the sector. Nobody wants to lose the board game after Christmas dinner.

Though some of us are more intense than others, we’re all competitive creatures. There are points in life where we have to win but more often than not we just really want to. It’s who we are. The trouble is, our want to win will sometimes hold us back from achieving it.

In 2019 I arrived in the Cooper Pro class of the MINI CHALLENGE fresh from a championship winning year in 2018. Not only did we win more than half of the races, there was only one race I finished where I wasn’t on the podium. It’s great when you can have a year like that, but it also meant that by the time I got to 2019 I’d forgotten how to lose. That sounds bizarre, but with the hindsight provided by thinking time during lockdown, I’ve come to realise that it was actually a factor in some of the difficulties I had at times last year.

When you’ve become used to winning it’s easy to view any result that wasn’t a win as a failure. It’s technically true of course, if you didn’t win than you lost. But if you only look at your performances through a win/lose perspective then you’ll sell yourself short. My obsession with winning meant that I always saw my performances in 2019 in a negative light. Which stopped me from seeing the positives, the improvements I was making and stopped me from growing the confidence I needed to put me back on the top step of the podium as I could’ve achieved. There were other factors too of course, there always are. But this is the one I’ve spent most of the lockdown period thinking about.

I started looking back on my years of racing and realised that some of my best performances have come when I went into an event without expectations of the result. Think back to my last blog on my first race at Donington in 2018 and you might remember that my only expectations of the weekend were that “I might not embarrass myself.” Yet it turned out to be one of my best performances of the season, for the race weekend I had the least preparation for! It’s easy to look at that and say it’s a pressure thing, but it isn’t. There’s always pressure to perform from myself, and there always should be. It was because instead of going into the event with any pre-conceived ideas about what a success or failure would look like (and then constantly measuring myself against that throughout the day) all of my was focus was on putting in the best performance I could in that moment, without much thought to what the end result might be. As competitors, as people, I think we perform best when we’re focussing on the moment instead of the outcome. After all we have more control over the moment than we do the outcome.

So what does that mean for me in 2020? I still want to win races, of course I do. My goal remains to be the champion come the end of the season, anything else would be a disservice to my team and sponsors. But my focus is on me. This year will be all about me, I don’t care what my rivals do because my only focus will be on performing to the best of my abilities. I know I’m good enough to win but I also know my opponents are too, and as I can’t control them I’m not going to worry about them. There will be days where we can win, and by focussing on my performance instead of the result the odds ought to increase. But there will also be days where we can only “lose,” and on those days I’ll focus on my performance to make sure I’m the best loser I can be. My only focus in 2020 is on being the best I can, and being better each day than I was the day before. If I can do that right, I should be a lot closer to my goal than I was in 2019.

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My first race

Let’s begin this by going back to the very start, why did I even want to race?

It’s my Dad’s fault really. He’s always been a Motorsport fan himself, and he took me along with him as a kid. My earliest childhood memories are of trips to Brands Hatch and Silverstone for Touring Cars, GT’s etc. From that point on I was obsessed with the sport, it was the noise and the spectacle of it that really sucked me in, there was nothing cooler. There still isn’t! 

 

Where it all started- Brands Hatch in the 90’s

Naturally as soon as I was old enough I wanted to try Karting. I was 10 when I started racing, and I haven’t really looked back since. I spent over a decade racing mostly at Buckmore Park, some years were good, some were bad, but most were indifferent. I showed some real ability at times, and there were points where I was held back by my weight perhaps, but it’s also fair to say that there were drivers who did a better job than I did at the time. I knew I had something though, even if I hadn’t consistently showed it yet. The dream was to race cars, and work towards a professional career. I came close a couple of times with scholarships, but when your only chances to drive a race car are under “exam conditions” it’s difficult to put in a strong performance without mistakes. As far as I was concerned that was the only way racing a car was ever going to happen for me, as otherwise the costs of doing it were just too high.

Early days of racing at Buckmore Park

In late 2017/2018 my attitude to it changed. It went from something that was probably not going to happen because of a variety of excuses, to something that had to happen. Sure, it was just as expensive to do it as in previous years, But that just meant I had to learn the business of Motorsport, learn how to sell sponsorship, or at least learn how to create the right opportunities for me to get on the grid. To do that though I was going to need to invest in myself first, after all how could I possibly expect anyone else to put anything into my dream unless I was putting everything into it myself? I’d read of how Nikki Lauda and Damon Hill had borrowed money to help them get started, so I took out a bank loan (I don’t recommend this but neither do I regret it,) to buy a race car.

After looking around and investigating various options I settled on the Cooper Am class of the MINI CHALLENGE. Ideally I would’ve raced in the Pro class (which I went on to do in 2019) but at the time I was only entered for 4 race weekends, so it was important that I gave myself the best opportunity to be competitive. In early March (the season was due to start in mid April) I agreed to buy a race winning car from a team called Hybrid Tune, who’d won the Am class the year before. Sounds simple enough right?

Wrong! Prior to me agreeing to buy the car the team had agreed to hire the car out for a private event at Rockingham in mid March, where of course it was crashed into the concrete wall at turn 1. There was quite a lot of damage to the car, which the Hybrid Tune guys did an excellent job of repairing. However this did mean that delivery of the car didn’t take place until the Tuesday in the week of the first race!

As if that wasn’t last minute enough, when we took delivery of the car at Brands Hatch it was also the first time I met the team who would be running it for me! The initial plan had been for me to run with Hybrid Tune, but they decided to stop running cars in the Cooper classes. This left me in a bit of a predicament, but I was fortunate enough to be working at Brands Hatch at the time. A colleague there, Stuart, knew someone who could run the car for me and went to call him. But as he went to do that he received a call from Colin Tester, who runs Supatune Motorsport. Colin was calling about something completely different, but by the end of the call he found himself running a MINI for the year.

Taking delivery of the car at Brands, fresh from it’s repairs

Having taken delivery of the car on the Tuesday evening the Wednesday was to be a day of testing at Brands Hatch, my only chance to get to know the car before race day at Donington Park on the Saturday. Of course to keep the trend of things not going to plan for most of the morning it was too foggy for us to run on circuit, so we lost nearly half the day. The time that we did get to spend on track was great though. The two things I really took from it were that A) The car was fantastic and B) so was the team. I remember somebody asking me at the end of the day how it had gone, and my response was that “maybe we’re not going to embarrass ourselves this weekend.” Honestly that was the height of my ambitions going into the event.

My next time in the car was to be qualifying at Donington. There was a test day on the Friday at the circuit but work commitments meant I couldn’t attend, which was a common theme throughout the rest of the year. I’d at least driven at Donington the year before in a Ginetta, so I was familiar with the circuit but it still wasn’t ideal. The goal for the weekend was to enjoy it and bring the car home, as you’ve already read we were starting on the back foot and I’d had to beg and borrow a lot of stuff last minute. My tyres were second hand ones I’d bought with the car, I’d had to borrow my onboard cameras from a couple of work mates and so on. Even my race kit only arrived on the Thursday! It’s probably the only time I’ve ever gone into a race meeting without any kind of expectations.

I arrived bright and early at the circuit on race day and met Frank, who would be running my MINI for the season. Our qualifying session was the first one of the day at 9am, so within two hours we’d gone from meeting for the first time to him running my car in qualifying! This isn’t the norm, but Frank’s easy enough to get on with so there wasn’t going to be any drama there.

9am arrived and I found myself pulling out of pit lane with 35 other MINI’s to start the qualifying session. It was a sunny morning but there had been an awful lot of rain the day before and into the night, this meant the circuit was dry but slippery. A lot of people came unstuck in these conditions, but I just tried to keep my head down and do as many laps as I could. Naturally you’re trying to work out how you’re performing relative to others around you, but it’s difficult when you don’t know who anyone is. To complicate that further, this session had both the Cooper and Cooper S cars in it, whereas usually the Cooper S championship had their own qualifying and races. I knew the Pro cars had wings on the back, which we didn’t in Am, but I had no idea which ones the Cooper S’s were. At one point a car flew past me on the front straight, it had no wing so I assumed it was an Am and I was doing a terrible job. But it turned out it was a Cooper S with about 100 more horsepower than I had!

Heading back into the pits after qualifying, but where did we come?

The chequered flag came out and I spent the cool down lap wondering where I may have finished in the session. For whatever reason we weren’t using a pit board, and neither did I have any form of timing in the car. Not that it would’ve mattered, I wouldn’t have known what a good time was anyway! I just knew that I’d passed a fair few cars, so surely I wasn’t last? As I drove down pit lane to make my way into parc ferme I saw Frank and he held up one finger at me, not that finger, his index finger. We were on the pole! Turns out I’d set a time half a second faster than the next Am, And also out qualified 5 of the Pros (who ran with slick racing tyres and 30kgs less weight) and 2 of the Cooper S’s. Needless to say, I was a little surprised!

This did present me with a new problem though. It meant that my first ever standing start in a race car was going to be from the front row in front of a pack of cars, I couldn’t afford to get it wrong but I’d never practiced it before either! Luckily I had my Dad there for support in the build up to the race, but also a friend of mine from my Karting days, Sam. He’d since raced Formula Fords so his experience was helpful and we worked out a plan for the start. Tip; if you ever go racing make sure you have some friends or family around to support you on your first weekend. Even if they know nothing about the sport having a familiar face there is a huge help.

A couple of hours passed by painfully slowly until it was time to head to the assembly area. I don’t remember the exact reason (problem with the car I think?) but we had to rush to assembly a little. I hate rushing around at the best of times, never mind before my first car race! We got there on time though and the nerves built further until the start of the warm up lap, from there I could let my instincts from karting kick in and focus on the job in hand.

After the story I’ve told so far you might be expecting to hear about an incredibly difficult race, and I’m sorry to disappoint but that wasn’t what happened. I got a great start and started to build a lead over 2nd place, after a lap or two I’d gotten into a rhythm and started to slip into “autopilot,” where I could drive the car without having to actively think about what I was doing. This is often referred to as “the zone,” but honestly how cheesy does that sound?

I remember a moment about half way through the race, I’d just shifted gear from 3rd to 4th and I was heading down to the Craner Curves, where I suddenly felt a real lump in my throat. In that moment it really dawned on me what I was about to achieve, I was going to win my first car race! That kind of thinking isn’t helpful when you’re in the moment, especially when it makes you feel emotional too. I snapped out of it quickly and I’ve never had a thought like that in car since. It’s a moment I’ll never forget though.

Leading the pack

The only real difficulty I had in the race was when I caught up to the last of the Pros (they had a 10 second head start on us,) I didn’t want to get caught up in anything stupid so I sat behind him and managed the gap, by this point I had a 9 second lead on p2 (which is a decade in Mini racing, most of my other wins were by less than a second) so I just had to bring it home.

And when I finally did, and I saw that chequered flag, it was one of the best moments of my life. I’d been working towards this moment for 13 years by that point, I’d say that I’d dreamt of that moment for all that time too but I’d never dared to dream that I might be able to win my very first car race. The ambition when I moved up to cars was always to win races, but to do it first time out after all we’d been through just to get there? That was more special than I’ll ever be able to put into words. As I crossed the line I screamed and I shouted as you’d expect, and I don’t mind admitting that I had a couple of tears too. I went absolutely crazy in there for about 10 seconds, until the car broke down.

Yes you read that right, straight after the chequered flag the car broke down! The throttle body gave up as I went into turn 1 on the cool down lap. The circuit drops down hill from there so I let it roll through that part of the circuit before coming to a stop down at the bottom. With a bit more experience I now know that all I needed to do was turn it off and on again, but at the time I didn’t have a clue. Eventually I noticed that on the dash the “limp home mode” light was on, so I could drive it back from where I was stopped, which was just after the old hairpin. The marshals had walked over to the car to see what the problem was and arrived just in time for me to drive away, sorry guys!

After a slow drive back to the pits at 20kph I finally got back to the pits to celebrate, and that’s where this story ends. From there we won race 2 a few hours later, and a further 9 races over the course of the year to win the championship, but that first win will always be one of the highlights of the season, and my life in Motorsport.

Not a bad day!