Coming of age

This was our biggest race weekend of the year; the time to see how close we had gotten to the pace after our April front-running and a final year exam enforced break in May. I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. Friday practice had been frustrating with Junior driving around largely alone and 4/10ths off the pace. I had booked overnight accommodation for the Saturday night without having really considered that scrutineering was taking place on Saturday and not Sunday morning so it was an early start as we headed to Wales.

With the awning already up, I got the kart built and had the relative luxury of an hours break before first practice. The morning was up and down; we were pretty close to the pace with the benefit of being able to chase one of Junior’s two friends who were clearly going to be setting the pace for the weekend but, when we were on our own and without a fast kart to follow, we were 3/10ths down. Junior was much too hot into a couple of the corners. Qualifying was always going to be interesting. The two pace setters were good friends of ours and have given us an awful lot of help over the months/years. One of the dads was the person who had ‘fixed’ our brakes and to whom I owe a life debt, the other had been helping me pretty much since Day 1! They knew that we’d be looking for a tow and you could sense a ‘cat and mouse’ type situation arising. We hung about waiting to see how the karts were forming on the grid. One of our potential suitors went to the very head of the grid, the other to the back. We stayed at the back and followed them out. I had briefed Junior that it was very likely they’d back off and let us pass; I told him to do likewise if that happened – at some point they’d both need to get their heads down since they only had 5 mins to put in a lap! As it turned out, our guide backed off and Junior just carried on. He was caught and passed and then the two of them started racing! It was one of those ‘WTF?’ moments that I was to have several of over the weekend. They diced and caught a pack of four drivers. Instead of backing off they just carried on!?! In qualifying it really did beggar belief.

Fortunately for them both, the timing sheets put them on the front row for Heat #1 with the my brake saviour’s lad in third. I felt awful! Although it would be rude not to acknowledge the benefit of the coaching we’d received in February, pretty much our entire karting turnaround was down them and Junior had just qualified ahead of them. Worse, I picked up the timing sheets from the office for the three of us (one of us or the kids  always does) but didn’t know what to say when I handed over the sheet. I couldn’t have looked more sheepish had you covered me in cotton wool and put me out to graze!!!

P2 is not a good place to be at Llandow, particularly since the start was switched from Hangar Straight to the finish line. In TKM especially, the karts bog down as they have to take a very tight hairpin and second can find themselves having to back off to allow the pole man to get alongside just as the pole man is thinking of going. Starting third is a much better place to be. That proved to be the case here and the race became something of a procession: junior dropped to third into the first corner and the three of them worked together, staying single file and finding themselves increasing their lead by half a second a lap. Junior was third but never challenged; to be honest we were really happy to finish there (matching our best ever finish but this time it was on merit and not reliant upon DNFs) and just wanted to continue in that vein. The rest of the field were nowhere near them. Perhaps it was a chassis thing, perhaps it was a track familiarity/setup thing for those visiting with the TKM Southern Championship (the field was missing a couple of very quick locals but those that were there were no slouches) or perhaps it was three very strong engines. I wasn’t bothered to be honest 😉

It was a great feeling to see Junior going so well. Saturday evening at the restaurant was a happy place even if my buddies stood me up and left Junior and I dining alone!

Considering we stayed over and didn’t have to scrutineer early, Sunday morning somehow became a mad rush. The kart was just about assembled for the 3-lap warm up although the fuel hose and tank were not cable-tied. I quickly sorted that out after the warm-up and soon focused on the strategic game that had become qualifying. This was to be probably the highlight of my weekend; on the Saturday we were clearly hanging on and trying to use our friends to tow us around. We took our kart to the back of the grid, alongside the friends with whom we’d qualified on the front row the day before and tentative discussions began over our plans. It was a little bit cagey as I didn’t want to be seen to asking for his help but it was clear that we’d been mutually beneficial to one another in Q1. We agreed to do something similar for Q2. We were joined by the other dad with whom we had formed the lead trio the day before. I think there was probably a point at which we were all wondering what each other was really thinking but we agreed to hang back, let the pack go and then we’d each do a stint at the front of our own group of three and just see how qualifying unfolded. The thing that struck me most was that we’d been accepted as equals, not as some leech to shake off 😀 Qualifying went really well and they were clearly going very quickly. The on-kart data loggers had Junior at the front and, pleasingly, it wa a lap he’d set when at the head of the group. Unfortunately, the circuit timers had him in second by 0.007s.

Heat #2 didn’t quite go according to plan: Junior had another poor start in second and lost two places but quickly worked his way back to third and had almost caught the leaders by the end, setting the fastest time in the process. Things were looking good.

The Pre-Final was the low point. The three drivers had been in a league of their own up until this point and, although things were starting to get a bit more serious, the plan remained unchanged: get clear without fighting, pull a gap then fight for the final grid positions. Unfortunately, Junior suffered a brain fade: he took the lead on lap #2 and initiated the kind of scrap the spectators enjoy seeing in JTKM (and that had been notable by it’s absence thus far) but that left the dads slamming their heads into walls. The pole-sitter fought back and was followed by third. I didn’t see any of this since I had stayed at the pit bend to act as a pusher if anybody span off (it’s funny how the closest post and the furthest post are largely unmanned with most pushers mid-track where the views are best!) but I think that Junior got miffed at some part of this process and the race mist descended. It ended with Junior losing momentum and position. He was third again by the final lap but defended the final corner poorly and was done on the line. I couldn’t believe it. ‘WTF’ doesn’t come near to describing my feelings. You could see it in the faces of the dads and their kids: “What was he thinking?” Junior couldn’t answer that one. I know that racers will race but there are times when you need to use your head and this one had cost us.

I’d have bitten your hand off if you had offered me P4 for the final at the start of the weekend and, although it was not disastrous, it was a huge setback. After a poor start to the weekend, P3 had made some serious inroads into what had been a comfortable advantage over the rest of the field and was now well in the mix. The start would be massive; Junior was going to have to take some chances in order to keep with the front row. Junior still looked a bit downhearted on the dummy grid and it was really nice that the person we’d had coach us in February left his own driver and spent a few minutes sat with Junior and gave him some encouragement 🙂 He made a good start, going around the outside of The Hook to maintain fourth and took third with a move down the inside in Surtees that continued to the entry to MacWhirters as P3 tried to hold it around the outside. There was contact and P3 touched the grass as Junior cut across into the corner. I couldn’t really see the incident properly from my pushing post at Chandler’s (do I sound like Arsene Wenger???) but P3 may have had reason to feel aggrieved with Junior cutting him up. As the race unfolded and the front four pulled clear Junior couldn’t shake off fourth, who was all over Junior up Hangar Straight. It was clear to me at this point we’d probably be ousted from the podium. Junior lost his place with three or four laps remaining, again into Surtees and again there was contact as it was Junior this time who tried to hold it around the outside, lost out and crucially lost momentum. It looked ok to me, just two drivers battling hard for the final podium place. He was angry when he came in but I think it was one of those very one-sided driver opinions; he’d given at least as good as he got over the course of the race. Our two other friends had duked it out on the last lap to take the ‘C’ Plate, with it going to our official Brake Advisors 😉 on the final corner.

It was a tough result to take and neither of us could help but feel a little gutted at coming home empty handed having been in the podium places most of the weekend. I was glad that we were third at one point in the final so that the Pre-Final nonsense was not the sole cause of our downfall. We held third and it was there for us if we were good enough. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Junior and I had an unusually long chat on the way home and he’s a little chirpier now that he realises what he has accomplished. From the back to the front in two race weekends. From not being able to put in a hot lap without following somebody to leading his homeboys and putting in some stunning times through the day, even without a tow and fastest in three of the final day’s four races including the final! At his cost he’s learnt how he needs to defend the final corner properly and that it is really important to know when to work together for mutual benefit. He has come a long way in a very short space of time. Being the quickest gets you nothing without good race craft and that’s something that will only come with experience of battling it out at the front. We never really looked like winning any of the heats all weekend.The hard work will start now as Junior seeks to rectify this but this felt like the meeting where we came of age. Hopefully we’re here now boys so watch your backs… 😉

Thanks to Llandow Kart Club for a very well-run weekend 🙂

Cost of race weekend: Entry fee £100, petrol (car) £12, fuel (kart) £6, accommodation £48, food £40, new fuel tank, chain lube, exhaust springs, £32

Total spent this year: £2,570