This year’s is the 62nd running of the Birkett Handicap, a 6 hour team endurance race held at Silverstone. For the last two years I’ve taken part with our team, the RGB Pups, so called as we were the RGB new boys when we first did it. This year we thought we’d outgrown the ‘Pups’ moniker so called ourselves Rabid RGB.
I’d booked testing on Friday so had a session in the morning and 2 sessions in the afternoon. This time we were actually testing on the Historic Grand Prix circuit in identical format to the following day’s race. The weather forecast was good and it was indeed a lovely sunny day on Friday although it had been atrociously wet the day and night before so the track was pretty damp for the first session.
I’d cheated slightly and had fitted a set of Toyo T1R Proxes to my spare set of wheels hoping these would be better in the wet than the Yoko AO48s. I discovered it wasn’t such a cunning plan when I had a spin just exiting pit lane! Hoping it was just the release agent on the tyres I got going again and tried to get them scrubbed in a bit. It was difficult however, I’ve never driven in such low grip conditions. Once I realised after 3 laps or so that it clearly wasn’t going to get any better I decided to just get on with it and try to get used to the car sliding about a bit. I managed to avoid any more spins and did actually quite enjoy drifting the car a bit. Sadly the video camera wouldn’t work so no footage.
Back in the paddock it seems it wasn’t down to the Toyos, everyone said it was very slippery – Tim Hoverd had spun twice on the first lap! So I stuck the proper set of wheels back on in readiness for the second session. This was at 1pm and by then it was warm and sunny and the track was completely dry. Having at least familiarised myself with the circuit in the first session the second session went well and I got more confident on what is a pretty high speed circuit. It’s lovely to drive, it really flows and there’s nowhere really that unsettles the car. My only issue was my gear indicator not working properly showing 5th when I was in 6th, apart from that the car was great and my gearing worked out pretty perfectly with me just needing 6th gear at the end of the Hangar Straight. I managed a 2:27 although I was confident I could comfortably gain a few more seconds with more track time. Austen had managed 2:23 so I was quite a lot closer to him than I’d expected.
Sadly the third session ended in disaster. We were red flagged after 3 laps and after what seemed ages waiting in pit lane we went out again. I tried to work the tyres on the first lap so I could press on again but on the second lap after the restart as I came onto the brakes for Maggotts (a fast 5th gear approach) the car became very unstable. I got off the brakes, let it settle then tried again but it just spat me round in a spin into the gravel. The engine had stalled but started fine although I was going nowhere being fairly deeply buried in the gravel. One of the marshals commented that I looked like I’d been coming into the corner very fast but I was fairly confident I wasn’t going quicker than usual and was a bit puzzled. My front tow loop got a good test as they towed me out but the rear undertray had ripped off its front mountings and was bent backwards out behind the car accompanied by a rather tatty looking rear valance. The offside mirror lens had also smashed. I decided driving it back to the pits would almost certainly do more damage so asked them to recover the car on the truck.
When I got back to the paddock Austen and Ken Greenway told me they’d been watching from the grandstand and said the undertray had detached as I was approaching the braking area. This actually reassured me quite a lot, clearly the sudden shift in the aero balance of the car had destabilised it causing the spin rather than pure ham-fistedness on my part.
Apart from the mangled aluminium undertray and broken rear valance the car was full of gravel everywhere. So while I got the undertray bashed straight Austen scrounged some polyester resin and set about fixing the valance and David got going clearing up the gravel. With the valance gaffer taped together Austen got it patched with the resin and some chopped strand mat ably assisted by Dan Bromilow who has had plenty of practice at this sort of thing! I’d been hoping to get scrutineered on Friday afternoon/evening but it wasn’t to be as the resin took ages to go off and the valance houses my rear lights which are required for our formula. The cause of the problem seemed to be that the row of rivets holding the middle of the undertray to its aluminium bracket had all pulled out. The tray had then sucked down onto the tarmac and then the front of it had ripped off its retaining bolts. I reinforced these mounts with some 3mm aluminium angle and re-riveted the tray to its bracket having enlarged the holes from 3mm to 4mm to take some slightly beefier rivets. With the undertray reattached to the car it was beer o’clock and time for our barbecue.
With scrutineering from 7.30am and my practice slot at 8.50 I was out in the dark just after 6.30 getting the surplus GRP trimmed off the valance and getting it’s mounting bolts etc. sorted. I could then refit it and connect up the lights. It was ready at 7.30 so I drove round to the scrutineering bay and got my ticket without any issues. Fortunately he hadn’t spotted the mirror, probably because the housing was fine, it was just that the lens was missing.
I couldn’t find a replacement lens so had to go out for the practice session without a mirror. There had been some light rain overnight and the track was damp in places but it was dry on the line through all the corners. I’d reprogrammed the gear indicator which was actually worse now showing 4th instead of 6th so obviously I’d adjusted it the wrong way! It was very busy out on track with almost 60 cars out so I had to be pretty careful, leaving a car’s width between me and the apex at every right hander. Apart from the lack of mirror the car was great though and I quite enjoyed myself.
Austen’s Dad arrived about 10.30 with a mirror lens he’d got on the way in so I taped that onto the housing – it was far from perfect as it wasn’t convex but it was a vast improvement on no mirror at all! Austen was starting the race this year and I was doing the second session so once 11:15 came round and the cars were all on the grid I had to be in the car with helmet and harnesses on etc. ready to go out. I heard all the cars head off on their green flag lap then again at the actual start but it seems a car near the front had stalled and there had been a significant multi-car pile up. Someone overheard the marshals saying they needed 5 cars lifting off the track so as it would clearly be some time before they could restart it I got out of the car again.
The restart was at about 11:40 and seemed to go better. We were planning on 30 minute stints and from the car I could see the minutes they were showing Austen on the pit board and got the engine running as they showed him the ‘In’ board. My session was actually pretty uneventful, you’re either passing or being passed by cars almost the whole time so I suspect my times were well down, I haven’t had a look yet. To maintain your lap times you need to be very confident not backing off as you overtake cars into corners or as you let a quicker car through and confidence hasn’t been a surplus commodity for me this season. The car was working well and the gear indicator was now spot on which makes a surprising difference. I was having trouble spotting the pit board and apparently missed the ‘In’ board a couple of times so actually did 35 minutes.
The only issue with the car was that the oil temp display disappeared as I pulled into the pits, the terminal had come off the end of the wire so that was easily fixed. With more fuel in she was ready to go again. The last couple of years the Birkett was wet and we were very uncompetitive, to add to this we were running short sessions (a deliberate choice due to our lack of experience) and you lose time each changeover, so we were used to running near the back. We’d also previously had issues with cars (mine mostly!) breaking down on track and even got penalised for having two cars out at once. This year in the dry we were running half hour stints, were well organised and were doing rather better. Austen started the race in 15th place and was running 18th at the end of his first stint, at that stage RGB East with Derek on track were 6th as Derek was flying. By the end of my session we were 20th and just one lap behind RGB East.
At just over an hour into the race RGB East came a bit unstuck when Doug Carter’s Radical PR6 had a problem and stopped out on track. Team Rabid breezed ahead and climbed up to 17th place after 1.5 hours and 16th after 2 hours. What was more interesting was that we were the leading Class A team – for roadgoing cars up to 1600cc or bike engines up to 1000cc. RGB East were in Class B due to Doug’s Radical. The second placed Class A team, the Six Signatures was behind us but on the same lap.
While Austen was out on his second session I was sitting in the car ready to go when the team were telling me it was starting to rain. The forecast had been dry and I couldn’t really see any rain from where I was sitting in the pit garage so I initially wasn’t too worried. They then said Austen’s times were down by about 10 seconds a lap. But as the session went on it clearly got wetter, everyone in pit lane was putting up hoods and the guys told me lap times were down by 25 seconds. And there I was sitting in a car with dry tyre pressures and damper settings There wasn’t enough time to change anything so when Austen came in I just headed out and tippy toed round. The first lap or two were the worst while I was on cold tyres and unsure of grip levels with the faster cars buzzing past me all the time, the track was definitely damp but nowhere near like the first session on Friday. As the session went on it dried out a bit and I started to go a bit quicker but I was still pretty slow. I managed to follow the pit board OK this time and knew I was coming in after 18 minutes to compensate for my longer first stint.
With just an hour to go we were in 21st place with the Six Signatures, a team of Caterhams, just one lap behind us in 22nd. Austen was out of fuel so I was to be the one belted up in the car waiting in the garage during the last session. Dave Watson had had to replace a bent wishbone on his car and Ben Butler had gone out before him. As Dave went out with about 30 minutes to go the pit marshal came looking for Tim, our team manager, to go to see the Clerk of the Course. It turned out Ben had overtaken someone under waved yellow flags and we were handed a stop and go penalty. At this stage the Six Signatures, team 17, were on the same lap as us 1 minute 44 seconds behind. Tim then had to work out how to communicate to Dave that he had to come in for the stop and go and was frantically waving our red ‘In’ board at him. Dave said afterwards that he saw the marshal’s black flag with the number 15 (which was our team’s number) but knew it wasn’t him as he was number 75 … doh! He eventually twigged and came in, when he went out car 17 was 10 seconds ahead of him. With 5 minutes to go I could see our team celebrating on the pit wall as they’d just seen Dave overtake car 17 on the way into Copse. At the finish he was 6 seconds ahead and we’d won Class A.
Once we’d got our cars loaded onto trailers and tools etc. packed we all trooped round to the BRDC clubhouse for the presentation. We were delighted to find that we were each to receive a rather nice trophy presented to us by Chris Norman the 750 Motor Club Race Secretary and Ginny Birkett, daughter of Holly Birkett the club chairman from the 1940′s who had founded the 6 hour relay race. On Sunday I got the car unloaded and gave her a wash, it had been raining all the way home so she was looking a bit sorry for herself covered in road grime and leaves etc. But here she is with the trophy
And here’s a close up shot of the rather nice trophy. We certainly didn’t win the trophy because of my stellar driving, that’s for sure. But at least I completed my sessions without either mechanical incident or any spins, as did the rest of the team. OK, so Ben made it a bit exciting by getting his penalty but it’s really difficult being aware of everything when you’re racing with 59 other cars on the circuit. It’s a nice end to the season, the car needs a bit of cosmetic TLC after Friday’s gravel excursion but that isn’t too major. I can then get her prepped for IVA.