Britcar and Marcos Mantis GT3 Class 2 driver, Neil Huggins, tells us what it’s like up to head up the campaign to win the Britcar GT Championship from the 3rd round at Croft.
Lets face it, Croft circuit is long way for just about everyone in the Britcar fraternity. Anywhere past Scotch Corner on the A1 normally has me fishing out my passport for boarder control – it’s the change of climate and the local dialect that does it for me every time.
Not my first visit to Croft Circuit in North Yorkshire, having raced various machinery here in the past, it was my first trip as a Top Cats driver, and I’ll admit to a certain amount of trepidation at the thought. Surrounded by beautiful picturesque countryside, Croft really is a pretty little circuit. However, I wish that there just a little more of the “picturesque countryside” between the tarmac of the race track and the surrounding crash barriers – there is little room for error on the twisty layout that has tight hairpins, wide sweeping bends and some fast straights – so plenty for everyone. Hassling the hugely powerful Marcos around croft was going to be a very different experience to launching a front wheel drive saloon off the kerbs as was the case last time I was here.
With running time limited at the circuit due to the noise restrictions, we only had 2 hours on Saturday morning to try and shake down the car and find a set-up before the afternoon Qualifying session. The team had been flat out in the workshop the previous week rebuilding the engine following the failure at Snetterton, and so first order of the day was a systems check and tobed in the engine – and this job fell to me. With sufficient coffee in my system considering the 9:30am start, I was strapped in and sent out to start work.
An hour later and I am out of the car. All systems are good and some tyres have been bedded in. I have had one spin, a trip down one of the escape roads trying to find my braking points and broken a front splitter (although I am sure it was like that when I started). This was going to be an interesting weekend. Raphael took over driving duties and with all systems checked out, was free to find his way around the track and set the car for some times.
An hour later and Raphael had made some changes to the car and tyres and set a good pace. Session over, the team set about spannering the car ready for qualifying. The weather was at least staying dry, and although a local track official tried to convince me that when the sun comes out at Croft, it gets really hot, I feel that my southern definition of “really hot” is considerably different from his, and I am grateful for the new TopCats wool hats that we have all been provided with.
Having attended drivers briefing, eaten, discussed the plan for qualifying and generally killed time, qualifying arrives and Raphael goes out first to give him a chance to get a feel for cold tyres since he will be starting the race. Times set are good and after 15 mins he is back in and I am strapped in and sent out. With Raphael and myself still learning about each other and what we both need from a fast race car, my qualifying session was an education in just how different our styles are. 3 spins and only one real decent lap later I return to the pits and get out of the car and in true diva racing driver style, display my displeasure at the set-up that has been put on the car since my first early morning session.
Team manager Warren and race engineer Geoff are quickly on the case once qualifying finished, and although Raphael was not totally happy with the car either, he was at least able to get some speed from it and keep it pointing in the right direction, and put us 3rd on the Grid. However, with a 2 ½ hour race on Sunday, we both needed to be happier with the car and get it to the finish in one piece !
The mechanics set to work on the car while the in car footage of qualifying was reviewed and opinions expressed – some more helpful than others. I went off to scratch my head, find a decent cup of coffee and contemplate why I had spun the car more in the last 10 minutes than I had over the last season and a half.
Endurance racing requires a different approach to sprint racing, and a different mindset. Sure, you need to be quick in the car, but you also need to be consistent and smooth. The car was obviously quick in Raphaels hands, but it sure wasn’t in mine, nor was it consistent. Was I trying to over drive the car ? Was I trying too hard in a car that was just not suited to my style as a result of my team mates input and faster times.
Coffee consumed and head scratched, I returned the team garage to discuss further with the team. In my absence they had already started to solve the puzzle. The differential was in the process of being removed with a failed bearing, and the brake pads consigned to the bin having glazed like never before – so perhaps it was not all me after all ! Further discussions with my team mate and boss Warren around the subject of set-up and driving styles were had before it was time, for the drivers anyway, to call it a day and retire to the hotel for the evening. I always feel guilty leaving the circuit while the mechanics are still obviously hard at work, but despite the obvious problems, the mood was light, and having watched Geoff emerge from under the car with the faulty differential, and then bounce it on the garage floor, it was obvious there was nothing to be gained from staying and getting in their way.
Motor racing at this level requires team work to succeed, and the team spirit within TopCats is the best I have ever experienced during my years as a driver. Given the tough day that we had, everyone is in fine form as the team all settle down to dinner later that evening at the hotel and discuss a wide range of light hearted topics, none of which can be repeated here I am afraid.
Leaving the rest of the team to it, Raphael and myself retire for the evening. With no racing allowed until Midday on Sunday, a lay in was going to be very welcome.
Sunday – Race day – Rain !! Of course it is raining, we are “Up North !”. Why was I even surprised. Rain during a race is great leveller and separates those that can from those who think they can.
By the time I arrive at the track, the car is almost finished – a new differential in place, brakes changed and some subtle set-up changes made. My son Lloyd has almost been adopted by the TopCats race team, certainly over race weekends, and with his 14th birthday a few days away, they decided that it should be acknowledged, hence the corner of the garage was suitably decorated with Happy Birthday banners, groups of balloons in predictable shapes (men just never really grow up) and a birthday cake. The car had also gained some extra graphics over night and now proudly announced Happy Birthday Lloyd across the bonnet and roof – now that is what makes racing with TopCats just that much more fun. The bad news however was that the Ferrari 430 that had broken during qualifying was now in rude good health as a result of fresh parts being sent up over night, and although not in our class, this was going to be the car to beat for overall honours in the race.
The rain had stopped by the time we arrived at the track and everything was drying quickly, so back to plan A and a dry setup, and more discussions on the subject of tyres. Soft was going to give us the faster car, and certainly a better car for Raphael at the start, but how long would they last was the question. Decisions made, race strategy planned out by Darren and some decent coffee sourced, it was suddenly only 10 minutse to race start. It was Raphael’s turn to start the race and so I had no need to rush around. It is amazing how lonely the team garage is when the car leaves for the grid. Everyone is focused on the car and driver. Equipment is prepared and everyone is getting on with their jobs . As 2nd driver, you are not needed at this point, and no one even notices if you are there or not – the calm before the storm, only you, the TV monitors and your nerves for company – broken only by the sudden urge to visit the toilet before the race gets underway.
With the Ferrari suffering mechanical issues during qualifying, the pace had been set by the Ultima which sat on pole. 2nd was an indecently fast BMW from the class below us, the twisty nature of Croft suiting the car obviously. Raphael lined up 3rd with our nearest class competition in the shape of a TVR Sagaris right next to him in 4th. The first corner is a tight single file affair at Croft and as the lights changed and the field thundered into the first turn, steady nerves were required to keep watching, let alone actually be in the car! The inevitable happened and a huge cloud of dust was kicked into the air, the pole sitting Ultima emerging from it at right angles to the track, pointing the wrong way. The rest of the field streamed though in single file, the BMW emerged from the dust leading, with the Topcats Marcos hot on his tail. Watching your team mate from the pits at the start of the race is enough to test the strongest nerves, but is followed by euphoria when he emerges unscathed, pointing the right way and with the hammer down. Great start !
Raphael was under strict instructions to keep a steady pace, and tempting though it must have been for him to chase down the BMW, Darren calmly chatted to him on the radio letting him know that we had a plan, and ruining the tyres in the first half an hour was not part of it. And so Raphael settled into his groove, and with the production cars mixed in with the GT’s for this round, was soon having to concentrate as he started lapping the slower cars halfway through his stint. The BMW remained in front, but the gap was steady and Raphael was reporting that the car was good – I love it when a plan comes together! The Ultima had recovered to the pits, but its off track excursion had done damage and a lengthy pit stop for repairs put it out of contention. The Ferrari that had started from the back was slowly picking up its pace as the race approached the halfway point and was obviously going to be in contention as the race progressed.
With 20 minutes until our scheduled pit stop for driver change, I am ready with crash helmet on and pacing around the garage looking at the timing screen and talking to the race mechanics, desperate to know what Raphael was saying about the condition of the car and the tyres. I did not want a repeat of qualifying, nor did I much fancy starting my stint on cold hard compound rubber if the softs had proved not up to the job. Now I wanted the toilet again, but it was too late. Anything could happen and Raphael might need to pit early and so I could not leave the garage.
Watching the car come down the pit lane, everyone is in place ready to go to work the moment it stops. With fuel required, Raphael is dragged out as soon as he releases his belts, the door shut. The team go to work yet it seems to take for ever to get 50 litres of fuel into the tank. With no one allowed to touch the car until fueling is complete, you can feel every team member willing the fuel into the car. Job done and car is up on jacks and fresh tyres fitted to the rear. Belts loosened and I jump in and press the brakes as the wheels are done up. Windscreen is being cleaned as hands reach into the car and tighten belts, plug in the radio and the water system. The car drops off the jacks while this is still happening and I press the starter as the door is shut, eager to get under way. Darren comes over the radio for a coms check and sends me on my way – reminding me of the pit speed limit. Changing tyres at the stop was always the plan and so I have to be careful for the first couple of laps until I can get some heat into them and I can start to push. Raphael has reported that the car feels good, and Darren confirms that the tyres that came off are in good condition and so I can push on knowing that the tyres will stay the distance.
At this point, I have no idea what position we are in, and so having got a feel for the car, made an adjustment to the brakes and tested the driver water system, I am on the radio to the team asking for an update as I quickly start to catch the BMW previously leading. It takes about 5 laps before I line him up to pass – I have the better straight line speed and so down the front straight into the first turn is the best plan, and ensuring I position the car right in the middle of the turn to thwart any possibility of him trying to cut back under me, I execute a text book pass. Leaving the BMW behind, back markers are my next issue, and I am soon catching traffic. Darren comes on the radio confirming a good pace but the Ferrari is catching. We knew that all things being equal, today we were not going to beat the Ferrari, and since it is in the class above ours, there was nothing to be gained by fighting it – we have a bigger picture in mind. Although I don’t make it easy for him, I eventually allow him through.
Darren starts to count down the remaining race time. Our pace is good, and we have a good gap to the 3rd place car behind. With 20 minutes remaining I start to feel something different with the car. Am I being paranoid or does something just not feel as it should with the front left hand tyre. Reporting my thoughts over that radio, Darren reassures me that the gap is good, and that I can drop the pace. With 10 minutes remaining, it is obvious that the left front tyre is not in good shape and the vibration through the car is now cause for concern and I have no choice but to slow the pace further, no need to force the car – “Just bring it home” are the instructions over the radio.
The chequered flag finally falls after an agonising final lap nearly 10 seconds slower than our normal race pace, but we take 2nd overall, but more important is the class victory and the extra point for fastest lap, keeping our championship aspirations bang on course.
Returning to the pits and smiles all round, a job well done by all concerned. Raphael and I might be the ones driving the car, but it is a team effort and everyone rightly shares in the spoils of the result.
It has been a long weekend, everyone is tired but happy. The truck is quickly packed away and the car loaded. A long drive home still lays ahead for all concerned, but with a good result in the bag, the miles will seem to pass quicker than normal …..