I'd missed the first round of the year at Oulton Park because we were away on holiday. We've had a fair amount on so far this year with most of our time and energy taken up by packing, moving house, unpacking and then decorating so it was nice to get away and relax.
After finishing the decorating, (or stopping the decorating because we were both fed up of it), I finally got around to sorting out the garage. Everything felt fairly last minute and with my first race weekend of the year looming the weeks leading up to it saw me frantically working through a list of things to buy and jobs to do to get the Mini ready. I didn't get as far through the shopping list as I would have liked but there's time yet.
We'd arranged to stay with some friends who live near the circuit so didn't have to worry about finding a hotel or breaking out the tents and it also meant Meg wouldn't have to suffer alone at the circuit! I arrived obscenely early and Meg came down a few hours later. I've never been to Rockingham before so I arrived early so I'd have a few hours to have a look around before having to sign on.
The marshals came and asked us to head towards the assembly area ready for qualifying. I got into the car and pulled out of the garage. I'd only got as far as the end of the pit lane when I felt something wasn't quite right. The brake pedal felt different. There was a lot of travel and it felt very spongey. On the way down to the assembly area I tried it again and again and it was still the same. Sat in the queue waiting to be noise tested, I tried pumping the pedal to try to build up some pressure in the system but it didn't help. I sat for a few seconds thinking. I didn't much fancy the idea of coming off the banking and trying to slow for the hairpin with these brakes. We'd only bled the brakes the day before leaving for the circuit so I was happy there shouldn't have been any air in the system. I got out of the car and checked for puddles of fluid underneath, nothing. I turned the car around and drove back towards my garage, whipped the bonnet up and checked the fluid level. It was fine. No obvious leaks that I could see. I was running out of time. The brakes worked but all the effort seemed to come right at the end of the pedal. I thought I'd try one lap and see if they felt any better on track.
I went back and joined the queue again after quick noise test to make sure I was under 105dbs. I was in the pit lane waiting to go out. Luckily, I was at the back of the queue. I drove out steadily, headed towards the hairpin and pressed the pedal. I slowed. The pedal didn't feel 'normal' but at least the brakes were making an effort. Turning into the hairpin I was surprised to feel the back end of the car start to slide, onto the next corner I turned in fairly slowly and the back end felt very loose, I'd read about the track being notoriously slippy whilst doing my 'homework' but hadn't expected it to be this slippy!
I eventually came back around onto the banking and decided to give the brakes another couple of laps. As the session went on I started to get used to them a bit more. I still wasn't convinced they were right but they worked. I stayed out and worked on trying to learn the track for the rest of the session. Before I knew it the chequered flag was out and qualifying was over. I got out and trying to ignore the smoke coming from the engine bay (courtesy of some oil spilt down the back on the engine block the week before) I noticed a small line of fluid on top of the wing. I wiped it with my finger and sniffed it, it wasn't water or oil. It smelt more like brake fluid. That was a worry. I wiped it off as best as I could before it ruined the paint and waited to be released from Park ferme so I could check the brakes again.
The scrutineer came over to the car and did some extra checks. He identified a problem with my bonnet, it didn't sit flush at the back, I was told to rectify that before the first race. He also informed me that I'd be having my ride height checked with a number of other cars so I'd need to wait around. There are specific heights in the championship regulations that the car needs to sit at front and back. This is measured with the driver seated in the car. Even though we'd checked and double checked the ride height at home before setting off there was still a part of me that worried that I'd fail the check!!
The bonnet would be easy enough to fix, it would just need gently 'persuading' to sit down properly when we got back to the garage. Whilst waiting to be checked I was interviewed by Jake Sanson from Downforce Radio. They were broadcasting from the circuit for the weekend. I'd been avoiding the roving microphone all morning but was cornered now. It was a bit of a blur, I've no idea what I was asked or what I said. I'm pretty sure I didn't swear though!
Thankfully the only issue with the ride height check was getting my car to fit on the ramps. Back at the garage, with the bonnet off and gently bent for a better fit I had another look around the brakes. There was a small amount of fluid on the underside of the bonnet and around the top of the reservoir. The top wasn't as tight as it should have been so I figured some had escaped as I was driving around the circuit. There was no sign of any leaks from any of the pipes or connections that I could see. With the fluid cleaned up and the bonnet back on I started to think about the race and waited for the results from qualifying. When they came in they were as I expected. I was last, a couple of seconds off the car in front. I wasn't worried, my targets for the race weekend were going to be the same at Rockingham as they are rest of the season - to improve my time over the sessions, learn as much as possible and bring the car back in one piece!
Race one wasn't until 1530 so there was a fair amount of time to kill. We had a wander around the paddock, watched some of the other races and had some lunch. Back in the garage I checked the wheel nuts, oil, brake fluid etc and filled up with petrol. We lined up in the assembly area waiting to go out. It was so hot sat in the car. I was trying to use the door as a sort of fan to encourage some cooler air in with limited success.
I always seem to end up strapping to myself in the car too early and sit there melting for fear of being caught out and having to rush to get my belts done up and helmet on last minute. I need to work on timing that better In future!
We were sent out onto the grid by the marshals. As we set off on the green flag lap I was surprised at how slippery the track felt. I'd presumed it'd get less slippery as the day went on but it seemed exactly the same as the morning's session. The back end of the car felt very loose even on the out lap when I was weaving around warming the tyres. I was starting to worry that maybe it was my car and not the track that was the problem! We came back around and took up our positions on the grid. The lights went out and we were off. Straight away I noticed a massive difference from my race at Donington last year. I was still down on power compared to the other cars but this time it was much more in line with my expectations of a tired old road engine.
I took it steady for the first few corners. I didn't want to come across any first corner incidents without having plenty room to avoid them. As far as I could see everyone got through the hairpin without any issues. I concentrated on trying to build my speed and trying to keep the car in front in sight. I managed it quite well for the first few laps. But I started making a few mistakes and the car in front was gradually getting smaller and smaller until I lost sight of it all together. I started checking my mirrors for the rest of the race but couldn't see anyone coming from that direction either so at least I wasn't being lapped this time!
My times started to improve over the second half of the race as I started to get used to the track, my last lap being my fastest. All in all I was quite content. I'd not been lapped and the car was still in one piece. The brakes felt a bit better too. We came back into the paddock and I parked the car up and went to watch some of the other races.
Meg and I arrived at the circuit on Sunday morning with about an hour to kill before the second race. I did my pre-race checks oil, water, nuts, bolts etc. whilst Meg was watching some of the earlier races. The camera battery was on its last legs and I couldn't find the cable to charge it up. I'd have to switch it on at the very last minute and just hope it'd have enough power left to capture the second race.
We were called to the assembly area by the marshals and then headed out onto the grid. One green flag lap later I was lined up in my grid slot tightening my already tight belts. I had the same plan as yesterday to take it steady into the first hairpin in case of carnage ahead. The track didn't feel that slippery today and I was excited for the race.
The lights went out and we headed off on the banking towards the first hairpin. I started trying to improve my times again and to my amazement I was managing to stay within two or three seconds of the car in front. The rest of the cars were gradually edging away from us so I presume the car in front wasn't as happy as it was yesterday. I made a couple more mistakes on laps four and five and the gap to the car in front increased to around 6 seconds. I figured I was probably trying too hard and I made a conscious effort to try and calm myself and settle down and by the end of the race, the gap was back down to 2 seconds.
As I've said before I'm quite happy as long as I improve over the course of a weekend, bring the car home in one piece, learn as much as I can and enjoy myself. My car is still running the same road engine that it left the factory with. It's 83,000 miles old and although, touch wood, it's not let me down its not nearly at the standard of the other cars! I will look at doing some smaller jobs on it during the course of the year and some more in depth work over the winter to try to refresh it but for now while I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing I'm not too worried about it.
One of the reasons I originally chose Mighty Minis over other championships was the cost. Obviously there are cheaper hobbies out there but relatively speaking this genuinely is one of the cheaper championships. However, even with my most careful man-maths sometimes it can still be a struggle to fund and unfortunately I have had to make the difficult decision to miss the next round at Brands Hatch. It's not a decision I've taken lightly, it's something I've thought long and hard about. Brands Hatch is an iconic circuit and I'd love to race there especially as the race is part of the Mini Festival. It's particularly hard because due to work commitments I am already missing the Castle Combe round in July so that means I won't be out on track again now until August but I need to be able to afford to eat!
I'm going to use the time to hopefully make some improvements to the handling of the car ready for my next round at Silverstone and make small cheap dents in the shopping list too so I should still have stuff to bore you with between now and then!