Guest Blog: On Track for the Academy with Rob Oldland #9

Guest Blog: On Track for the Academy with Rob Oldland #9

It isn't long until the end of our 2020 Academy Season, and our resident man with a plan - Rob Oldland - has been reporting from start to finish.  Welcome to blog number 9 of Rob's Academy accounts, this time reflecting on his best result of the season at one of the UK's fastest circuits.... 


The Saturday before the Thruxton meeting, Derek and I had booked a track day at Lydden Hill. While just 30 miles from home, located between Dover and Canterbury, I had never been to Lydden before, even to watch the racing.  This will be something I will address next year.  Lydden Hill is a very short circuit, positioned at the foot of a hill.  This allows spectators a view across all of the track and for me, this makes it the sort of circuit (like Brands Hatch Indy) where I most enjoy spectating.  Lydden Hill also has a Rally Cross circuit and as I have never watched Rally Cross, going to Lydden next year will tick two boxes. It may be just one mile long and with only four corners, but it’s great fun, especially because of the significant gradient changes and the permission to overtake on either side on a track day.  For this reason, I’m not sure it’s a venue I would recommend for a first ever track day experience, although that said, the day was sessioned based on ability and it all went without incident. Derek and I certainly enjoyed a lovely day out.


Following Lydden I needed to prepare the car for the race weekend at Thruxton. It had to be ready for Derek to take on Thursday in preparation for a 05:00 start on Friday to travel down to the circuit for testing. I thought this would provide a great opportunity to film the schedule of checks I go through for a ‘how to’ video for other owners, whether it's for racers, track day warriors or blatters,  they cna make sure that their car is serviced and safe. The video has already received many views and kind comments, so I know it’s helpful — do take a look! 


Garry picked me up at 05:00 on Friday and we rendezvoused with Derek at Clacket Lane services on the M25, before grabbing a coffee and heading off to Thruxton. It was my birthday, what a great way to spend the day! We arrived at the circuit around 08:00 which allowed plenty of time to set up the gazebo, collect my wristband and prepare both the car and myself for the track.


It was very windy — gusts in excess of 45mph and with rain likely, particularly throughout the morning.  For this reason I had already changed my anti-roll bar to the softer ‘orange’ bar which provides more feel in the wet.  However, the first session was completely dry and with the soft bar, the car was wallowing all over the place.  I have never driven Thruxton before and like Oulton Park and Cadwell previously, I have used a simulator to familiarise myself with the layout.  Again, this proved to work and I was able to achieve times which were right on the pace after just a couple of laps.  This point is important if, like me, you are considering racing on a budget.  Testing on track is expensive and is a burden on time.  My simulator has provided an inexpensive option which has allowed me to compete without attending many track days, often with a driver coach in tow.  By the end of the day, I had reached my target lap time and was joined by my wife and daughter ahead of an evening meal and celebrations for my birthday.  Unusually, Saturday was a rest day as the Academy qualifying and racing wasn’t scheduled until Sunday, so I could enjoy a beer or four as I was not driving the next day — perfect!


Soon it was race day.  As Thruxton is closer to my home, my friends and my family, I was joined by many supporters including owners’ club members from Kent who organised a blat. Thank you everyone who made the journey to come and watch!   Ready for qualifying, we were waiting in the assembly area around 15 minutes before our session.  During this time, I watched the clouds get greyer and the sky darker. A spot of rain on the windscreen, and then more… No panic, I had driven Oulton Park in the wet and coped fairly well, so suck it up and go for it!  In fact, after the first few laps I was second quickest, but by this point the rain had all but stopped and the track was drying.

At the end of the 15 minute session I’d qualified 12th, my best so far.

I now had a four hour wait until my race. Sadly, during this time I was unable to meet up with all of the people who had come to support me as due to social distancing, the paddock and general admission were kept separate.  Following lunch we watched the Academy White group race. Due to an accident at the final chicane, the race was unfortunately stopped and was completed at the end of the day.  While all the drivers were OK, some of their cars were not, and two in particular suffered chassis damage.  I was watching from the pit wall, just feet away from the impact and 20 minutes later I was in the car, in grid order in the assembly area, ready for my race.  Not much keeps me quiet, but this did. 


I was thinking about who I had around me.  Some drivers, I am completely confident to go wheel-to-wheel with, knowing that we will give each other the space we need.  Other drivers not so much.  I was thinking that trying to gain places at Thruxton is less important than at some circuits as you can benefit from a huge tow, so being in front can actually be a disadvantage.  We headed out of the assembly area on the green flag lap and placed our cars in grid position. 

Lights out, I made a great initial launch, but then spun up the wheels too much.  Not so much that I lost places, but unlike my first two races, I didn’t gain any off the lights either... By the end of the second lap, I had moved up to tenth, again! For the next few laps I was in ‘no man’s land’ — no threat from behind, but no one close enough in front to provide that all-important tow.  Lesson learnt from Oulton Park during this phase was to keep my concentration and keep putting in the best possible laps. If you back off one tenth, the drivers behind will catch you in no time at all.


Then, I spotted a car stranded on the outside of Church, one of the fastest corners on the circuit. As the car and driver were on the outside of the circuit in a very vulnerable position, there was no option but to deploy the safety car with less than five minutes to race.  Finding the back of the crocodile, I counted back to confirm my tenth place. Watching the clock tick to zero, I thought we would finish behind the safety car, until down the back straight, I spotted its lights being switched off — we would be racing again, a one lap sprint to the flag!  I made an OK restart and dropped the car behind me; by the first complex, I was on the tail of the cars in front. I was quick through Church and was much quicker than the two cars in front, with a double-tow, I should be able to make an easy pass. As I pulled out to overtake, I could see debris in the track and yellow flags being waved, I had to hold station and make sure I didn’t get involved in someone else’s accident. With two cars off the track, I moved up into eighth position. All I needed to do now was defend my position and make sure I didn’t make an error into the final chicane, which I did. Eighth position and my best result so far. I was thrilled, what a birthday present!