I’d thought a lot about this weekend whilst building the car. I’d wanted to go racing for years and I was finally going to do it. I was fairly realistic when it came to my expectations. I’d not set myself any particular targets, having never done anything like this before I just wanted to finish each session with the car in one piece, learn as much as I could and enjoy myself.
In the weeks leading up to the weekend I'd spent a lot of time watching on-board videos from previous races on YouTube and reading various track guides on the internet. I eventually got to a point where I was happy enough that I'd done as much revision as I could and hoped I’d be able to put it all into practice when I got onto the track. Before I could do that I had one last thing to sort out. I needed a timing transponder so that my lap times would register on the system in race control. Looking online there seemed to be a few options. The transponders could either be wired into the car’s electrics or powered via a rechargeable battery, and you could either buy one outright or hire one for the year.
If you’ve already read about me building the car then you will know I know nothing about car electrics so I wasn’t about to start trying to wire a transponder in! I opted for the battery-powered version and decided to hire one instead of buying it outright (this decision was based purely on the money I had available at the time!).
Finally the weekend arrived. Friday brought with it the familiar trip to collect the car transporter. Mighty Mini no. 20 was sat at home loaded up with tools and ready for the trip to Donington the next morning.
The day had been spent packing for the weekend, making sure that the transponder and video cameras were fully charged and then checking and double checking that nothing had been forgotten.
I’d been looking forward to this day for so long. There was a mixture of excitement and nerves but on top of that I couldn't help but feel that despite all my checking and rechecking I'd forgotten something.
The traffic was very light on the way down and we arrived at the circuit in good time. We weren't due to sign on until 1000 but I wanted to get there as early as possible so I had plenty of time and wouldn't be rushing around. We found a space in the paddock and unloaded the car. It was very windy. There were a couple of gazebos that had been left up overnight which were now just twisted piles of metal, luckily it was dry so we decided not to bother putting ours up.
I've been to Donington a few times in the past but Meg had never been so we went for a wander about. We bumped into the championship coordinator in the paddock who suggested signing-on early so we could get the car to the scrutineers as early as possible with it being its first outing. Getting through scrutineering had been playing on my mind since starting the build. Imagine how awful it would be to turn up at the circuit all excited and ready to go only to be not allowed to race for having missed something or not getting something quite right.
I got my licence and headed off to the race control building to sign on. Whilst there I found out what it was I'd forgotten. I hadn’t attached a photograph to my upgrade card. Without it I wouldn't be able to get the first of the six signatures I needed so I could officially lose the 'novice' tag and upgrade my licence. It wasn't the end of the world, I could still race I’d have to just be a novice for a little bit longer. I could live with that I was just annoyed with myself.
Next we went to see the scrutineers. I loaded my helmet, boots, overalls and gloves into the car and with my fingers and toes crossed went to have the car checked. The scrutineers seemed friendly enough, they checked my overalls, helmet etc were all ok, and then moved onto the car. Everything was going smoothly. The last check was to make sure that the cut off switch worked. I’d installed a pull cable that was mounted externally just underneath the windscreen, the cable ran into the car and connected to the cut off switch so that in the event of an accident, if I was unable to operate the switch then a marshal would be able to switch everything off from the outside. I started the car. The scrutineer went to pull the cable. Nothing. The handle wouldn’t budge. The switch worked fine from the inside but that’s not good enough. I presumed that the handle was just a bit stiff so I tried to pull it, still nothing. I tried a bit harder. Disaster! The handle came clean off in my hand! I didn’t have a spare, I was mortified. It was still fairly early though so I had time to try and fix it before qualifying started. I went back to the paddock, I figured if I could free up the cable and reattach the handle somehow I should be ok. I managed to get the cable to start moving a bit using a pair of pliers as the handle, but despite my best efforts it wouldn’t work with the actual handle which by this time was pretty knackered. Next thing I knew, three spare pull cables landed at my feet, courtesy of Neil Fearnley who competes in the Super Mighty Minis, what a star! I replaced the cable, returned to the scrutineers and was given the all clear to race!!
The qualifying session was 20 minutes long. You have to complete a minimum of three laps to be allowed to race. I didn't want to risk binning it before doing that so my plan was just to start off steady, get three laps in the bag, try to build up my speed gradually and try and learn as much as I could following what I’d learnt from the track guide and videos.
My other consideration was that I was on circuit with a lot of other cars who'd spent the season fighting for championship points. I knew things were close at the top and that this was the last meeting of the year. I didn't want to get in people's way and potentially ruin their quick laps so I hoped to be able to let everyone else go out first and follow behind them.
Qualifying started at 11:15 I didn't want to risk being late so headed to the assembly area in good time. The cars assembled on the Melbourne Hairpin section of track which wasn't being used today. Unfortunately for me turning up in 'good time' meant I was sat towards the front of the queue to go out! Not a massive problem. I'd just try to let as many cars get past me as quickly as possible. Whilst we were sat waiting I sat trying to visualise the track remembering what the guide said, which kerbs to aim for, remembering the YouTube videos, which gear for which corners etc. eventually the marshals waved us onto the circuit.
There were a couple of hours to go until the race. Assuming the battery was just flat I plugged the battery into the car charger I'd brought and hoped it would have enough power for the first race, I could charge it properly overnight at the hotel.
Whilst it was charging we went and got the results from qualifying, I wasn’t surprised to see that I was last, but I wasn’t worried about it either. The main thing for me was that (apart from a 2 lap glitch) I got progressively faster with each lap the fastest lap being my last lap. We went and had some lunch and then I got a phone call from the championship coordinator asking me to go and line up with the other cars in the pit lane. Mighty Mini races are televised and broadcast on Motors TV. They wanted to get some shots of all the cars lined up together for the TV programme.
Follow the link, http://www.digitexvideo.co.uk/webtv/index.php/video/170/mighty-minis-2014-program-6-donington-park/# and if you’re quick my Mini is lined up 1.05 (ish) into the programme!!
Before long we were being called to the assembly area for the first race.
We were lined up in our grid positions ready to go out for the green flag lap (one lap to warm up tyres etc before lining up on the grid ready for the start). It felt like an age sitting there waiting. I was absolutely bricking it too. I'd lost track of time so had no idea how long we had left to wait and not wanting to be caught out and rushing I was strapped in ready to go early. The camera had a bar of battery. I hoped that'd be enough. I tried to calm myself down and just go through the track in my head. Brake here. Change down here. Aim for this bit of the kerb. The sun had made an appearance and it was warming up inside the car. After adjusting my mirrors and using the door to try to waft some cooler air in the marshals waved us on our way. Warm up lap done, the marshals lined us up on the grid. I checked my belts and pulled them tighter.
The lights went on....the revs rose....lights out and we were off!!
I spun the wheels so didn't get away too well. Even so, I was struggling to match the acceleration of any of the other cars, coming into the first corner and Laura Harris in car 30 must have had a spin because her car was now coming back onto the track backwards! I stuck to the right hand side to give her room. I counted that as my first overtake. It didn't last long. I think it was the same point on the next lap that she was back past me!!
It was becoming very clear, very quickly that I was way down on power compared to the other cars. I lasted until about lap eight I think before being lapped by the leaders. I remember them coming past and it feeling like I was stood still! From then on I was just trying to keep out of people's way as they lapped me one by one. I tried to make the most of it as cars came past watching where they were braking and turning in etc. By the time the last lap board came out all but five cars had lapped me. Two more came past on the last lap! I was gutted. The plan was always to just finish the race, learn as much as I could and not worry about the result to much but still, I wasn’t happy. The car ran well enough, there were no obvious faults. It just seemed to have no power compared to the other cars. It also made an awful noise going through some of the corners. Oh and the camera was dead too!
After packing the tools into the van for the night and a quick drivers' meeting we set off back to the hotel. We'd just got back in the room and sat down when I realised I was missing something, the camera. It was still sat in the car! I set off back to the circuit to pick it up so I could leave it charging overnight. We'd been invited to a friends wedding that night in Darlington and we'd come with all our posh clothes ready to drive up there after the race on Saturday but by the time I got back to the hotel the second time it was so late it would have meant having to set off back before we’d even arrived so instead we found somewhere nearby to get some tea and went to bed.
I woke up at about 0330 and couldn't get back to sleep. I kept replaying things over and over again. Neil's advice to try a different gear in turn 1 had got me thinking. I felt like I'd followed the track guide and videos pretty well, perhaps too well. I'd pretty much religiously stuck to them. Brake here. Use this gear here. Don't deviate from the 'plan' when what I should’ve been doing was using all the homework as a guide and concentrated more on what my car was actually doing. I was definitely a lot slower in a straight line so I must also have been carrying less speed into corners, yet I was still trying to copy other cars that had passed me, trying to brake exactly where they did etc. I must have been braking way before I needed to into the corners. I started coming up with a plan to do things very differently for the next race.
Lying there thinking about it all (instead of sleeping) I also realised I’d been so busy stressing about everything that I’d forgotten to relax and actually enjoy myself in the car! Hindsight is a wonderful thing!! I think I finally drifted off at about half six but was up again shortly after to get ready to go back to the track.
There was still plenty of time to kill. My sister and nephew arrived so we had a bit of a wander around the paddock and then I helped him with his homework (homework on a weekend away, can you tell his mother is a teacher?!!). The nerves were starting to build. I kept thinking about yesterday and what I'd learnt/realised in the early hours of the morning! I wanted to try to stay as relaxed as possible and whatever happened I wanted to make sure I enjoyed the day.
We went to watch the Super Mighty Minis race, we'd be called to the assembly area just after they finished so I came back before the end to warm the car up and give it a final check over. Sure enough a few minutes later the call came and I headed to the assembly area. I was still nervous as we waited to go out onto the track but I felt a bit more relaxed about everything this time around. The sun was out again so I waited outside the car and chatted to some of the other drivers rather than cooking myself strapped inside! The marshals gave us a heads up before it was time to go and I put my helmet on, switched on the fully charged camera and strapped myself in.
One green flag lap later and the marshals positioned us on the grid again and we were off! I spun the wheels up again but it could've been worse! I struggled to match the pace of the cars in front again and was lagging behind by the time we got to turn 1. A couple of laps into the race and I was starting to relax. I was losing sight of the rest of the field but I felt so much better than in race 1. I was braking later into some corners not bothering braking at all into others, playing around with different gears and generally having a ball! I was having so much fun I had no idea how long we'd been racing, I started checking the mirrors looking for the leaders coming to lap me. No sign of them. A few more corners went by, still no sign. A couple of laps later, still no sign. Then as I came down the back straight I could see them in the distance. As I came around onto the start/finish straight I could see the officials preparing the ‘last lap’ board. I presumed the leaders would be shown it as they crossed the line. And I'd get it the next time I came around. If I could just make it round this lap without getting lapped I could potentially finish on the same lap as everyone else!! After being lapped so early yesterday, I couldn't believe it!!
As I came down the back straight again I checked the mirrors. The leaders were a lot closer this time around, came onto the start/finish straight expecting to the chequered flag being prepared for the leaders behind me. Unfortunately I could just see the back of the last lap board again. It hadn't been shown to anyone it was still in the marshal’s hand. That meant the leaders would get shown it this time around, and I'd have to try and survive another lap!!
I was desperate to try and make it around, the lead cars were getting closer and closer. As we came to the penultimate corner the leader was right behind me, it was inevitable. I was going to be lapped, I came out of the last corner and tried to stay out of the way and he came past. As we approached the chicane for the last time the next five cars followed him through and we took the chequered flag. I had almost made it. I was so close, just a couple of corners away from finishing the race without being lapped. It didn't matter. I was still over the moon!! It had been so much fun! I felt so much more relaxed in the car and had lasted much longer than in race 1 before they came past. I tried to take it all in as we came back around to the pits. I'd spent so many years dreaming about going racing and I'd finally done it! Not only that I'd done it in a car that I built!! The camera had lasted the entire race too!!
I set out with the aim of finishing races and learning, and I did exactly that. I learnt a lot and got faster with each session. My best time in qualifying was 1.49.812. My best lap in race one was 1.48.355 and with a different approach in race two I took another 4 seconds off that with a best time of 1.44.690 so although there's a long way to go to catch up to the rest of the field things are definitely moving in the right direction.
I know it might seem odd to have got so excited about finishing last. People who go racing generally want more than to just not get lapped, they want to win. I'm no different. I have ambitions to finish a lot higher up the order than I did do but everyone has to start somewhere. I’ve still got some work to do on the car to get it nearer to the rest of the field and I’ve got a hell of a lot to learn!!
I'm finishing typing this on my break at work. I'm very tired but even now I still get a little shiver down my spine when I think about crossing the line that Sunday. Looking back on that weekend now I can honestly say that even after a bit of a shaky start it was easily one of the best things I've ever done!! It’s just a shame it has taken so long to actually get out and do it! I would urge anybody who's sat reading this contemplating going racing, to stop thinking about it and find a way to do it!! I use the phrase 'living the dream' a lot, probably too much in fact, mostly when I’m at work and almost exclusively sarcastically, but at Donington I got to actually live my dream. Regardless of where I finished on the day I built and raced a Mighty Mini and to me that is pretty amazing!!