This was a step into the unknown. We really should have been out for a 2018 shakedown weeks earlier. With this very much on my mind, I decided we’d get our running-in done on the Friday so that we could get a feel for the Mitas tyre during Saturday practice. It was nice to arrive to some pleasant weather; there is nothing worse than needing four blokes to hold the awning down whilst you scramble to hammer the pegs into the awning legs. The problems started when the newly rebuilt engine didn’t start. Another problem was that I was in between handheld starters! My trusty starter’s battery had gone beyond the point where it was capable of starting the engine and I was missing the connectors to pair my new, larger starter with my new, more powerful battery. What was left in the old battery was good enough to confirm that we had a spark but I was wary of losing any time with rain due to hit us later in the afternoon and so bolted on the race engine so that Junior could set about evaluating the tyre. We had a decent afternoon on a cold but dry track although we had to take off a few teeth to get the revs down a bit. A few of the NKC drivers turned up later in the afternoon and it was hard not to be struck by the presence of a rather nice motorhome with one of the new 2018 Birrel-Jade chassis stood outside the awning – I wasn’t expecting this at NKC!!!
We stayed at a Travelodge overnight, arousing little interest from the reception staff as we moved in along with clothes, engines, tools and anything else of value! I was able to get the new starter sorted in the evening so Saturday was all about running in the practice motor. It was largely uneventful save for our trailer leaking (again), the Alfano battery dying as we set out for the first session (and Junior having to gauge his revs by his track position relative to someone else who was also running-in) and also some notable pace from a number of our rivals. One of my concerns about joining NKC was how much competition we would face and I had been considering racing on the practice engine but it was clear that we wouldn’t be having this luxury: we’d be rocking the full race trim on the Sunday!
Sunday was a strange day. Timed qualifying saw us a whole second off the pace at one point, eventually finishing third and 0.5s adrift of the pole-sitter. Heat #1 was much more like it: we sat third for most of the race and took the lead in the final minute, finishing with a little in hand over the chasing group. There were five drivers who really stood out in terms of pace and it looked, as they approached the final two minutes, as if it might become a five-way battle for the win. It was a really good race to watch.
Heat #2 (aka the pre-final) was the one where things seemed to become a little bit familiar; we had made a few changes to get on top of our high revs and apparent overheating in the tyre but from the start we looked off of the pace. Junior was struggling to hold onto second; he’d maintained position on the previous lap by holding it around the outside of Ashby but, when his rival made the same mood the next time around, he wasn’t quite so generous in his affording us of some space and Junior was shown onto the grass and into the biggest puddle on the circuit. Fortunately for Junior, the cameras only caught the end of it! It was one of those things really; when you try to maintain your position by going around the outside of the corner, you’re always going to need a compliant rival to leave you the space. Either that or you’re going to have to get your elbows out to ensure you’re given the room. Or you head off the track. Part of me was glad that Junior hadn’t turned it into a bashing match and he was unlucky to find himself in a bog that stopped him in his tracks. We weren’t going to complain – I think that we’d both have made the same move against a slower kart who was becoming problematic! Of course we wouldn’t want to be seen to be a soft touch so we’ll note it and move on😉 The marshals got Junior going again and he came home a distant 13th.
Having brought our gearing down through the day I was still baffled by our high revs; we’d been shedding teeth all over the place. It was only in conversation with a good buddy who was racing at Kimbolton that the penny dropped. In fact it dropped more like bomb: the race engine still had the 9-front sprocket on from Buckmore Park in December!!! I felt like an absolute pillock. Everyone makes the odd mistake, me perhaps more than most but this was a real clanger. In my defence, I’d left a note on the motor to warn me that the sprocket needed changing. I’d had the builder leave the sprocket off of the practice motor when it was rebuilt to ensure that it was replaced but, in my rush on Friday to switch the motors over and get Junior out on track for some testing, the note had either slipped off or maybe was back in the engine box at home. With so much other stuff on my mind, the moment was gone. It felt like I should have had plenty of time to change the front sprocket but, with the side pod off and the sprocket spanner in hand, we were called to the dummy grid for the final! I had to just put on the smallest rear sprocket that I had, which turned out to be a 72-tooth. We’d probably still be several teeth over what you might consider optimal but it would have to do…
The first lap of the final was depressingly familiar: As Junior headed into Ashby, the kart in front span of his own accord and rolled backwards down the slope, collecting Junior and pretty much stopping us in our tracks. It was only the huge punt we received from the kart behind us that gave us a glimmer of hope: Junior was able to pinch the fuel pipe to clear the engine and was able to continue although any hopes of catching the leaders had gone. To his credit, Junior drove like a man possessed but it was another of the recovery drives that I have come to admire him for. By the finish he had brought a 15s gap to the leader down to 9s, set the four fastest laps and the only lap of the weekend below 50s but still trailed in 9th. The only small consolation was that we were able to start packing up immediately in a bid to avoid the rain that was clearly on its way.
The way things ended took the gloss off of what had otherwise been a really enjoyable weekend. There had been some great competition at the front and, if we can have five karts contesting the podium every round, it’s going to be a thrill to watch. Although I already knew a couple of the drivers, both Junior and I had made new friends with Junior getting on particularly well with a couple of the MSA drivers that we’d been battling over the course of the day. The day had had a very different, almost chilled feeling to what I had become used to on the MSA tour, it felt as if people were just there to enjoy themselves (even if there had been some hard racing at the front at times) and there had really only been minimal contact throughout the day. The tyre was nowhere near as bad as we (and many of the other MSA dads) had feared; it was a tyre that you could really attack on. The scrutineering was as thorough as anything I had encountered, including at the TKM Festival. The NKC organiser had performed an admirable job considering the stress of running a fledgling series whilst also trying to enjoy his own race weekend and I’d been really impressed with the BKC officials and their handling of us (as a new and very mixed ability grid).
Junior was a bit disappointed in the car on the way home. To him, we’d had issues and finished down the pack just like so many other times on our MSA travels. In some ways I shared those feelings. Our gearing issue was a bad mistake and it will be interesting to see how we fare at Hooton in a few weeks with what will hopefully be a more optimal setup. I still believe that the harder tyre is the way to go for the budget class and that this is right thing for us to be doing at this time. Feel free to join us 🙂
Onwards and upwards?