Guest Blog: On Track For The Academy with Rob Oldland #10

Guest Blog: On Track For The Academy with Rob Oldland #10

As the season approaches its crescendo, Rob Oldland tackles a double-header weekend at Brands Hatch.

 

As I live just 40 minutes from Brands Hatch circuit, Derek and I decided to set up in the paddock on Thursday evening, so that everything would be ready for the first test session at 09:30 on Friday. We arrived at the circuit on Friday to find the rain really coming down. There are very few things you can adjust for a wet setup on an Academy car, but one thing you can do is to change the softer “orange” anti-roll bar. We now have this process down to a fine art and can easily complete the job in less than ten minutes. However, even with the softer bar fitted, I couldn’t believe how little grip there was. Even at pedestrian speeds, it was like driving on ice. As the session continued, the rain eased and the track started to improve, and with this, combined with finding better ‘wet lines’ I was able to pick up the pace and take advantage of the valuable wet track experience. The weather improved for the remaining three sessions, and with thanks to other drivers who offered some hints and tips, I was able to improve my lap times and beat my previous personal best.

Knowing I had good pace, I felt pretty confident as I headed to the assembly area ahead of qualifying. Our nine o’clock session was the first track action of the day. While the track was dry, it was cold and I knew the grip would be different to my final session at five o’clock the previous day. My confidence was well placed; I completed the first three ‘banker’ laps required to be allowed to race, during which I was able to understand the level of grip available, then picked up the pace. I was apparently running sixth until the final few minutes when I got knocked down a few places to eventually qualify in ninth, my best ever position.

As this is my local circuit, I was joined by family and by many friends who had come along to offer support. Also, the local ‘Kent Se7ens’ put on a fabulous display of cars across the weekend for the public and hired the “Directors’ Terrace” to watch the racing. The outdoor terrace was limited to just twenty people, operating in groups of no more than six to provide a COVID-safe environment.

In the revised calendar, due to COVID-19, two rounds of the Academy season had been scheduled over the Brands Hatch meeting, meaning that we would race on both the Saturday and the Sunday. We wouldn’t have two qualifying sessions however; the finishing results from Saturday’s race would dictate Sunday’s grid positions.

Saturday’s Academy race was scheduled for immediately after lunch and was the first racing action of the day. It had started to rain lightly during the lunch break, and as I headed to the assembly area I could see that it had been declared a wet race, so headlights and rain light on. As the track conditions had changed since qualifying, we were allowed two green flag formation laps so we could familiarise ourselves with the available grip before we formed up on the grid. As anyone who has spectated at Brands will know, the grid is on a slope, and with no handbrake available, you have to cover the foot brake to prevent yourself from rolling back. I tried something far too fancy and was feathering the throttle with the side of my right foot; when the lights went out, I basically buried the throttle with far too many revs and smoked up the rears — really impressive for the Tesco car park perhaps, but absolutely rubbish as a starting strategy! I lost two places before getting to the first corner, two more heading into Paddock Hill at the beginning of the second lap and further place down the Cooper Straight later the same lap. I had to make sure I didn’t give anything else away. I managed to make back a couple of places into Paddock Hill on separate occasions and due to a driver leaving the black stuff, I was able to claw my way back up the order eventually to finish in 11th place.

The weather on Sunday had improved and the conditions were dry, although now I was starting a row back from where I had been the day before. I had made up my mind to make a more straightforward and gentle start. Even though I got off the line better, so did everyone else and once again, I lost places before the first corner. As we moved down the Cooper Straight and into Surtees, I could see that a car a few places in front had become unbalanced from taking too much kerb and was having a tank-slapper. I eased off in anticipation of an incident, which was enough to let car 56, Micah Lazarus past. Entering Clearways moments later, I saw a wing flying through the air straight at me and cars spinning to the left and right. The car to the left was in the gravel, so I headed through the middle, but could then see that the car was returning to the circuit. I just had time to take evasive action and swerve through the gravel and around the back of him — it was close. A few laps into the race, the safety car was brought out as one car was beached in the gravel at Paddock Hill and another at Clearways. I made a decent restart after the safety car, but lost places at Druids where I was held up on the inside of the corner and cars were able to overtake around the outside.

I had a fantastic battle with Rich Brooks; there are some drivers I feel very comfortable driving closely with, knowing that they are going to drive predictably and that we will give each other the room that’s needed to race safely but competitively — Rich is one of those. I tried a move up the inside of him at Druids, but he held me off.  The battle continued through Graham Hill Bend, along the Cooper Straight and through Clearways. Finally, I was able to use the slipstream along the main straight to get enough of my car alongside Rich into Paddock Hill and was able to make the move stick and hold my line through the corner. Once past Rich, it was a big gap to the next cars. I could see I was catching them, but there were not enough laps left for me to close in sufficiently. I finally finished in 13th place — my lowest result of the season so far, but most probably my best ever race!

So — I head to the final round at Donington Park in 8th place in the Championship.  My Academy experience is almost at an end.

This article originally appeared in Lowflying, the Lotus Seven Club magazine for Caterham and Lotus Seven enthusiasts.  Find out more at: www.lotus7.club