Excited.  No, nervous. Nervously excited?

Ahead of my first ever race, it’s fair to say I’m both excited and nervous in equal measures.  What will it be like to be sat on the grid waiting for the lights to go out? What will it like to go wheel to wheel with another Caterham at 100mph? Where will I finish… Will I finish?

What I can say is that I have prepared as well as possible within my ability and budget. Since lockdown, and before the first race, I have been out on track four times — two evenings at Brands Hatch, a day at Bedford Autodrome and, of course, the Caterham test day at Castle Combe.

The whole Caterham Academy package started back in December of last year with the seminar day at Caterham South, followed by the ARDS day at Castle Combe in January, followed by the handling day at Donington Park in March and finally the test day at Castle Combe in June.  All of this really does help prepare you and your car to go racing.

Growing up in Bristol, Castle Combe was my local circuit. As a youngster I loved going to ‘Combe’ to watch the racing and really enjoyed watching the cars from on top of the mound at Quarry corner. Why Quarry? Because that’s where all the crashes happen! Other than a few laps around the Castle Combe circuit in the race school’s Fiesta ST for my ARDS test back in January, I have never driven the track. That, combined with the fact that we are not racing here during the season meant that what I wanted to get from the day was seat time in the car on track, not a track record or to get involved with any unofficial races or lap time comparisons. Castle Combe is a fabulous traditional circuit — a fast circuit — but it can bite back if you make a mistake as there’s very little run off in many places as unfortunately a handful of my Academy colleagues found out the hard way. Without exception, I think all the accidents were at Quarry Corner. For those unfamiliar with Castle Combe, it’s the approach to Quarry which can lead to problems. At the end of the very fast start/finish straight is a shallow left hander, Avon Rise. As the name suggests, this corner is situated on a slight brow. Not massive, but enough for the car to go light as you pass over the rise. If you are braking, or worse, braking and turning as the car compresses on the other side of the rise, this can lead to losing control of the car and often spinning, which usually results in a quick journey to the tyre barrier at Quarry. That said, during the first three morning sessions I’d seen my lap times dropping nicely as I learnt the track and gained confidence. However, during the afternoon sessions my lap times were static. This is a lesson learnt for the rest of the season. As said, I didn’t want to take unnecessary risks, but in retrospect after watching back GoPro footage and reviewing the VBOX data there were definitely areas where I could have improved my driving style and safely improved my lap times.

During the day, the Caterham Motorsport team completed a final mock scrutineering on our cars and race gear. I’m pleased to say that I passed! Above everything, what I most enjoyed from the day was to experience a bit of normality. The Caterham Motorsport team were back at work after returning from furlough and did a great job of keeping us all on track and shepherding us to the right place at the right time.  Even the cafe was open to provide us with hot food and drink throughout the day.

I was able to squeeze in one more session of track time before my first race. I had a fantastic evening at Brands Hatch and was joined by my driver coach Jamie Unwin. Brands Hatch is my local circuit and I have completed hundreds of laps. However, after a few short sessions with Jamie, he was able to find me a significant amount of time, resulting in my best ever lap times around the Indy circuit and with techniques I hope to be able to apply throughout the season.

With nothing more that I could do on track to prepare, I turned my attention to the simulator. Chris Hutchinson’s was on for another season of virtual racing.  This season will follow the Caterham Motorsport calendar with the virtual Academy race a week before the real thing. As I have never driven Oulton Park, I decided to complete 50 laps of practice each day on the simulator as this would be my best opportunity to learn the fabulous 2.69 mile International circuit. While I qualified in the top 18 to make it onto the live broadcast server, I was completely outclassed and finished last in both races on the night. I could only hope that the wasn’t a sign for the real world race!

So with me and the car prepared, Derek’s van loaded with everything you could need to run a race car and the Academy Seven strapped onto the trailer, Thursday evening saw us heading off on the five hour trip to the ‘no expense spent’ Premier Inn at Runcorn, in readiness for Friday’s testing.

We arrived at the circuit around 07:30 next morning.  The sun was shining and it was feeling warm already — it was going to be a lovely sunny summer’s day, yet I found myself wishing for rain. Why? Well, with Saturday’s forecast guaranteeing rain throughout the day and having never driven Oulton Park circuit before, I would have preferred to complete the test sessions in the same track conditions as qualifying and racing, but that was not to be.

I had a fantastic test day of four sessions, each of 25 minutes, specifically for Caterham Academy cars of both Green and White groups together. All four sessions went without a single red flag and allowed for good progress in learning the track and finding improvements in lap times between each session. The time I’d spent on the simulator proved to have been a good investment as the track immediately felt familiar, and knowing the flow of the circuit I was quickly up to speed in my first couple of laps of session one. I was keen to deploy the lessons learnt from the Combe test day and dropped my tyre pressures on the rear by a couple of psi for session two which proved to be a good decision. At lunch, I took time to review my data and GoPro footage, from which I was able to identify where I could brake later and carry more speed through corners, information that resulted in improvements to my lap times for sessions three and four. At the end of the day, I was 18th quickest out of 40 cars. What a fabulous circuit Oulton Park is!

After a great night’s sleep just as Lenny Henry promises, it was race day. A year of preparation and planning was over, as were the delays due to COVID-19 and now it was time. I can honestly say I felt so privileged and thankful to be taking part. For so many years I have attended race events as a spectator, and whenever possible at events I like to walk through the paddock to see the race cars getting prepared. But today it was my turn —  it really was a dream come true. Today I was going racing. Derek and I were now joined by Garry and daughter Kayleigh, owner and members Will Todd and Paul Richards as well as a colleague from work, I certainly had support.

As expected it was raining, really raining. Garry and Derek helped to set the car up for the wet conditions which included changing the anti-roll bar for the softer ‘orange’ bar, swapping the wheels for a set with brand new tyres and increasing the pressures to 34psi all round (how high is that for a Caterham!) Straight from the book of race driver excuses, here’s my next one. I have never driven on a wet track other than 20 minutes of drizzle at Bedford and now I was going to be qualifying and racing in the rain. I had a strategy though. To qualify to race, you must complete three laps within the qualifying session. It would be very easy to push too hard too soon and crash in a spectacular way during these first three laps. For this reason I decided to use these three laps as ‘banker laps’ and explore the circuit and my car to find out where I could find the best grip. The lines I had used the day before in the dry were unlikely to work well today as the rubber laid on the track becomes like ice in the wet. I would need to brake off-line and take the wider wet or karting lines through many of the corners in order to find more grip. The plan would then be to have a couple of faster laps. The first part of the plan worked brilliantly and I got my three laps in the bank; I was feeling confident about where the grip could be found and my confidence in driving the car in the wet was building too. However, the 15 minute qualifying session only allowed for one additional lap, which was compromised with traffic. Even though I qualified 18th out of 22, I was feeling happy that I had good race pace and knew that I could go much faster.

Caterham really do look after you well during the event, and while they were unable to provide the usual spectacular buffet from the Caterham Motorsport marquee due to the COVID restrictions, they did provide drinks throughout the day and a hot takeaway lunch which was well received.

Shortly after lunch I needed to get ready to race. It can take a considerable time to get in the car due to the six point harness, arm restraints and FHR device. You then head to the assembly area where you are arranged in an arc in grid order. During this time, the Caterham Motorsport team are looking over all of the cars to check for any obvious issues such as engine catches not latched, that our rain lights were on and to make sure we had correctly secured our harnesses. Graham Macdonald was with us throughout the day and took this time to speak with each driver to make sure we were OK and to give the good advice of taking care to get through the first corner.

As soon as the previous race had finished, we left the pit lane in single file and grid order for our green flag lap which on this occasion was led by pole-sitter Chris Skillicorn. On approach to the grid, marshals signal to each driver their grid position. Soon the lights came on, not too many revs and lights out. Smoothly off the clutch, a ‘granny start’ gave me a great start off the line and I was able to make my way through the two cars in front of me and by the first corner I had made up three places. With Graham’s final advice in my mind and cars all around me, I found my place through the first corner and I was away. The rain had stopped and even a dry line was starting to appear although it was still very slippery.

I found I had good pace through the second corner — Cascades, and was able to get a good drive out and onto the long straight up to Island Bend.  With the benefits of the powerful tow that comes from the aerodynamics of a Caterham, this proved to be a great overtaking spot for me and worked on three occasions. Even though the track was wet, I was still confident through Island Bend and able to get the car stopped well on the brakes for the Shell Oils Hairpin each time and made the overtake stick. While I continued to make places, I did also find myself loosing a few too. While it was only a 20 minute race, at times I lost concentration and this is certainly something I need to work on for the next race. At the front, Chris Skillicorn and Tom Cockerill had an excellent race to take first and second. If you have not done so already, do watch race broadcast which is available on YouTube. This battle was ultimately won by Tom with Chris only just behind. There was then a significant gap to Deniz Erkan-Bax who took the last of the podium places who had fought right through the field after a second corner incident and losing a rear wing. Where did I finish? 10th place! For me, a top ten finish was a result I could have only dreamt of. I knew after qualifying that I had good race pace and if anything, the wet worked to my advantage as I was able to benefit from some spinners and overtake some drivers who are quicker in the dry than they were in the wet.

I was buzzing. I have done some adrenaline-pumped activities during my time, but I cannot think of anything that has come close to this. Racing certainly did not disappoint! I’m aware that not every day will go my way, so it’s important to remember days like this.

My first ever race weekend was done, but please join me for next month’s article where I will report from the second round, Cadwell Park.