A race weekend in the life of Topcats Race Engineer, Paul Steffens.

Posted by | Posted in Upfront | Posted on 11-06-2010

Paul Steffens seated 'upfront'.

It’s not all champagne, trophies and grid girls for the crew at Topcats Racing! Some hard work and long hours are required, but team spirit makes us a winning team. Paul Steffens, our  race engineer and strategist gives us a very eloquent account….

I hope you have all read a day in the life of a racing driver by Neil Huggins on this website.  Now I hope to provide an insight into being a crew member for Topcats Racing.

Well, believe it or not it starts way back in January when the race meeting dates are released, a few phone calls to Warren asking what cars are running this year and what championships/races are the team entered for, As usual Warren can give me no idea as to what is running and where but in his usual enthusiastic self “we will get drivers and the cars will be racing”.

As I work full time as a CAD design engineer for Jaguar Land Rover I need to book holidays for the race weekends, That’s the easy bit the hard bit is telling the wife I have no holiday left to take her and the kids away! Depending of where the races are and the type of races I will book off between 2 and 5 days holiday for each race weekend as you can see this racing lark is pretty time consuming.

A typical race weekend Brands hatch GT Trophy 21st May 2010.

For me it starts the week before with a few phone calls to Warren to confirm drivers, cars running and any extra test days. The next person I call is Geoff who is “number 1 engineer” on one of the Marcos and also happens to drive the truck (more on that later) as Geoff lives close to me it make sense to lift share as it helps to keep costs down.

Thursday morning 5.10am I get up and take my dogs for a walk come home have my breakfast of porridge oats, shreddies and coco pops all washed down with a cup of tea, off for a shower and put the last few things in my travel bag, its 7.10am I kiss the wife and kids goodbye and were off…to Geoff’s house.

5 mins later I pick Geoff up and we are on our way to the Topcats technology centre it’s a 40 min drive and we get there about 8.00am. “Hello Brian”, “hello Mr Paul” is the standard response the other one is “where’s Tom?”  First thing get the kettle on and have a cup of tea then down to work, as Geoff sets about spannering up the orange car I set to work on the Mosler nothing too exciting, just replacing the drivers door mirror, cleaning, polishing and getting the car ready for new race stickers, then its onto the green car. Nnot much to do just a clean and polish as the mechanical stuff had been done by Brian and Tom in the previous days.

It’s late morning now and all talk is about what time we will be leaving Topcats and hitting the road to Brands Hatch. We aim to leave at 4.00pm but it can be anytime between then and midnight!!

The afternoon has gone well, the truck is loaded and its 4.00pm and that’s a first for a Brands Hatch race!! No late night tonight then which is good news.

Were off at last, Geoff does a great job of manoeuvring the truck out of Westcott Venture Park. The cab of the truck is a great place to be looking down on other motorists waving at kids who wave at the (impressive) Topcats truck winding its way through Aylesbury town centre. Subtle use of the horn to let young ladies (and some not so young) that we are looking out for them.

A big surprise is we fly around the M25 with no holdups and arrive at Brands Hatch at about 6.30pm. We are also joined by Brian and Tom who came down in Brian’s van.

As there is a track day still going on and we cannot get into the paddock until 8.30pm this gives us a hard choice to make, curry house or pub?……..Curry it is then.

Its 9.00pm and we are back at the circuit Geoff works his magic and positions the truck behind  garage 26 not bad going as we are in garage 27! We are met by Warren and small Paul who are drinking beer! We unload the cars first as the small paddock at Brands means after using the tail lift more shunting about with the truck is required to get it into its final position. With that done we get the rest of the gear out of the truck and set up in the garages ready to use in the morning. It’s about 12.30am now Warren has left us to find his hotel and the rest of us make our way to bed. Geoff in the truck cab, Brian in his van and the rest of us in the bunk beds in the trailer.

Friday morning 7.00am Up I get to go to toilet as this is Brands Hatch the toilet is the other end of the pits but surprisingly its warm and sunny so the walk is a pleasant one.

Back into the garage turn the urn up ready to make a cuppa.

We are out at 10.00am for our first of three test sessions using the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, I am working on the Mosler this weekend, my main duty is radio communications. Richard Fores is out first warming up the car & tyres and just getting a feel for the car again then Andrew Beaumont (Runnymede Homes and the car owner) is out, session over and both drivers are reporting bounce with the car. Brian tweaks the suspension, a clean and the car is ready for the next session.

Mosler having some setup changes

The next session is like the first the car still has bounce so more work is required. The final sessions comes and so do some new Pirelli tyres this will be the first time the team, drivers and cars has run on Pirelli tyres.

Session over, test day over. Time to spanner, clean, polish and any other prep work that needs to be done to get the car ready for race day. Its 6.30pm and it’s off for a shower and get ready for the Topcats big night out. This is where all the mechanics, team assistants,volunteers and drivers get together for something to eat and a few beers. This is what makes the Team a special place to be. All the days stresses can be laughed away through the night, some of the Topcats social events are legendary but I will let Jon and hairy Rob write there own blog on that!

It’s 12.30 ish back at the circuit and its time for bed.

Saturday race day, I am up at 6.00am not because I want to be but small Paul snores like a drunken asthmatic Elephant . I go for my usual walk to the loo it’s a fresh foggy morning but the forecast is set for hot and sunny. I open up the garage doors and turn the urn up to make a cuppa. I sit in the garage and wait for the rest of the world to wake up. There is a test session this morning on the full Grand Prix circuit, both drivers are keen to get out and run on this famous and much loved track. The test session goes by without any dramas but the drivers are still not happy with bounce in the car.

A short break just time to clean and check the car over ready for qualifying. This session is split in two, each driver does one 18 minute session the best time from both drivers gives the grid slot, Richard set a good time to give us second on the grid.

This is where it gets confusing they take both drivers time in qualifying to work out a pit stop handicap. All cars have to stop twice and these are a minimum of 120 seconds plus your handicap. We receive the timing sheets and the good news is we haven’t been given any extra time handicap for the pit stop…or so we thought. About half an hour before the race we received an updated time sheet giving us an extra 25 seconds for each pit stop. This did not change our race strategy, the plan was for Richard to start and do a 40 min stint then pit for fuel and hand the car over to Andrew. Andrew will then do a 40 min stint then pit for fuel, tyres and driver change back to Richard to do the last 40 min. But as you know things rarely go to plan!

Its 2.50pm and the cars are assembling in the pit lane ready to go out on track I walk down with the car have a chat with Richard just to pass the time waiting for the green light to allow the cars out on the circuit to form the grid. The green light comes on and the car leaves to do a formation lap I go out onto the gird and  meet the car do a final check, wish Richard good luck and walk back to the garage.

It’s a rolling start, these are nervous times for driver and crew. The good things about Brands Hatch is that the viewing is good, it allows me to see what’s going on around the first part of the lap. Good news is all cars make it around the “Indy” part of the circuit and disappear into the woods. Yellow flags and the safety car is deployed I get on the radio to Richard “Are you ok? Do you know what’s happened?” Richard replies “I am ok I think there’s a car on fire” as the safety car came out on the first lap a few teams including our own Marcos took the opportunity to pit and get one of there two mandatory stops out of the way. This is when quick thinking is needed can we bring the thirsty Mosler in this early and get away with one more pit stop!!! I kept asking Richard on the progress on how long the safety car would be out for “about 3 more laps” was the reply. “Pit this lap, pit this lap”. I gave the instruction and in came Richard. We squeezed as much fuel in as we could, waited for the full 145 seconds and away we went. We timed the stop to perfection as we caught the pack up as they were crossing the start line as the green flag was waved. We were one lap down on the leaders and dead last but with one pit stop out of the way. Richard drove for the next 65 mins passing everyone and taking the lead.

“Pit this lap pit this lap” I give the call over the radio to call Richard in his time is up the car comes into the pit lane and I start the stop watch. Richard gets out, the door is shut and the refuelling begins. 50 litres of fuel takes about 20 seconds, “ all clear” is the shout. Time to get Andrew in the car, get the car in the air and change all 4 wheels/tyres. There is a slight delay to one of the wheels this costs us about 12 seconds.” Go, go, go!” is the call to Andrew to get the car going and leave the pits.

Pit stop over time to check the timing screens, we are in P2 with a 20 second lead over our fast charging Marcos. I give Andrew time difference’s over the next few laps as the Marcos is catching fast. There are 30 minutes to go and the cars are line astern, Andrew is making the Mosler even wider defending his position. Lap after lap go by there is no way past for the Marcos . 10 minutes to go as the cars come out of the wooded part of the circuit there goes the Marcos but no Mosler! “Andrew is everything OK?” silence from the driver “Andrew is everything OK” I repeat I get two clicks over the radio to confirm he is OK. A paddle shift failed causing the car to spin, good news there is no damage to driver or car. Andrew gets the car going again and back in the race. Second place has gone to the Marcos and third place is safe as we have a 2 lap lead over the fast Corvette.

The chequered flag 2nd and 3rd for the team a great result. I meet Andrew in parc ferme and give him a well earned drink. The whole team make their way down to the podium but when we get there we are told the presentations will be in the GT Trophy hospitality tent so another trek back up the pit lane. Presentations over with now its time for the worst job of packing all the gear/tools/cars/stuff into the truck and van by this time everyone is knackered and just want to go home but we can get all the gear packed away in under 2 hours. We start packing the gear away, it all goes well and we get it done in one and a half hours during this time a few people slip away. Drivers, team assistant (no names…… Hairy Rob). Finally the garage’s are empty of tools/cars and people. I say good bye to the rest of the team and climb aboard the truck ready for the off.

We leave Brands at 8.00pm and the journey home has started. We get a very good run back around the M25 and A41 to Westcott, infact a new truck record of 1h48m . As Geoff parks the truck I jump out to start my car and shine my headlights on the rear of the trailer to help Geoff see what he’s doing as he backs it up against the workshop. With that done I unload mine and Geoff’s stuff into my car ready for the final drive home. Nearly home as I drive through Chipping Norton. The lure of Chipping Norton’s Best Kebabs is too strong and as I haven’t eaten since lunchtime I was starving!!

With Kebab purchased I drop Geoff off and drive the final few miles home.

It’s about 10.00pm home at last, now where’s my kebab!

Big Paul.

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