Rockingham, 1/2 October 2005

We were invited by the BRSCC to enter a pair of non-championship Open Saloon races up at Rockingham. We were thinking that going out for a test this weekend might be a good idea, the pricing of the weekend and the fact we are due to return to Rockingham next weekend made it a no-brainer.

But first, the latest update. Mark at Owen Developments ran the kappa up on the rollers to confirm all was well after her latest work. A very conservative map gave only 395bhp, but boost levels are only running just over 1 bar. The idea was to give the kappa the best possible chance of finishing a race, and to do so in good health, something it hasn't done since May. But even then the kappa bit back, with a front tyre blowing out at 161mph on the rollers - better there than on the banking at Rockingham!

So an early Saturday arrival up at Rockingham, nice to see a few familiar faces with LMA Euro Saloons drivers Julian Brown, Richard Buckley, Jason Holmes, Joss Ronchetti and Tony Soper all present and correct, sneaking in some early practice for next weekend. Also present on the entry list were a number of Porsche 924s, an MG Maestro, Escort Cosworth and even an SCSA car (NASCAR racer to the likes of you and me).

Qualifying (Saturday):
We ventured out in bright sunshine, in my case with some trepidation. Watching the DVD of the 2003 BTCC race at Rockingham I figured I knew pretty well which way the circuit went, but that didn't show the gradients. And being somewhat featureless, its hard to work out where you are - for the first 3 or 4 laps of qualifying I even braked for the chicane at Turn 1 thinking it was the hairpin at Turn 2 - but by end of session I was feeling reasonably confident as to where the track went, even if not all my lines were perfect.

Early on in the session I came up behind Richard Buckley. I knew he had raced here before so decided to follow him around and see where the lines and braking points were - and surprisingly seemed to be able to stay with him more easily than I expected. The track was damp in places and he was having trouble getting heat into the Integra's rear tyres - mindful of the banked section I had set the kappa rear spoiler to full downforce setting and it seemed to be working as the rear stayed well planted. Richard moved over at one point to let me through but I stayed behind to learn as much as I could from him - it paid off. I qualified down in 8th place, just ahead of Richard and Jason Holmes, there was less than 3/10ths between us. The session ended early with a red flag, as I came up to the chicane I saw Mark Harrison's (from Owen Developments) Honda Civic upside-down, thankfully Mark was standing outside the car unhurt bar some big bruising. Going infield I came across the MG Maestro lying on its side - I'm told it went into the gravel trap, slowed and then dug in at around 5mph, gently laying on its side. There was so little damage to the MG I thought there must have been two in the paddock, and the driver even drove it home after Sunday's race.

Race (Saturday):
I was a little unsure how I would get on with a standing start, nigh on 400bhp and fwd is not a great mixture. But it went OK - lots of scrabbling in 1st, a little more in second, but by the time I hit third gear I was up and running well - and more importantly Richard and Jason were still behind me, with Jason having got the better start. Unlike this morning, it was now dull and overcast, with rain having threatened regularly since lunchtime.

Two laps in and Richard got past Jason and started to close up on me - and then it started to rain! Only lightly, but enough to lay on the screen and enough to make the track just a little more slippery. I've not raced the kappa in the wet this year, and I couldn't find the wiper switch - its down in the centre console area but behind the seat so not visible from the driver's seat. Rockingham was so twisty there was no time to look away from the track - except in the mirrors to check Buckley ever closer! And running round the banking wasn't the place either, seemed like an eternity before I "found" the wiper switch and could see properly again.

Richard's pressure paid off - coming uphill from the hairpin he came up the inside to have a look and I forgot to change down for the corner, bogged down on exit and he was past. But his glory was short-lived as I chased after him. Rounding the hairpin before the infield pit entrance the tail of the Integra snapped out and by the time Richard had the car straight, I was alongside and able to power ahead with the inside line for the next corner. I pulled slowly away, I was taking big chunks out of Richard on the banked sections, the rear downforce paying off well. But as the rain stopped and the track dried out, so Richard suddenly appeared large in my mirrors again. On what turned out to be my last lap, I put in a flyer, a full two seconds faster than anything I'd done all day, and enough to cross the line half a second clear - in 5th place - with Jason 5 seconds further back in 7th.

Up front, Joss Ronchetti had been swapping places with Bob Ross in the Escort Cosworth WRC car until Bob spun out leaving Joss to take the win. And for the first time ever, I finished a race on the same lap as the winner!

Sunday was a lot brighter with no danger of any rain to help me. Tony Soper had replaced the ailing Alfa GTV with the Harrier and a couple more 924s appeared for today.

Qualifying (Sunday):
A very lonely qualifying session, Jason and Richard got out on track a lot earlier than I did, and after bullying a few 924s, I found myself on a seemingly empty track. In fact at one point I was worried I'd missed the chequered flag as I didn't see a car anywhere for a good 30 seconds! It was hard to get any idea of performance with no-one around, I was worried that I wasn't getting in a clear lap anywhere without someone spinning in front of me - the Clio Cup car did it twice on successive laps. But I knew I was slow when Richard Buckley appeared behind, headlamps ablaze to rub it in, and went past smiling. He had improved by a further 4 seconds from his race time yesterday, a full 8 seconds better than he had qualified. Conversely I had gone backwards, a second slower than yesterday's practice and 5 seconds slower than my race lap, finding myself back in 10th on the grid, slower even than one of the 924s!

Race (Sunday):
Richard's pace was too much to contemplate, but Jason was only a second faster than I had gone yesterday, but 6 seconds clear of me today. I was hoping for a good start so I could latch on to him and be dragged up to speed but it didn't go to plan. I made an OK start - usual wheelspin, but I came into the banking at turn 1, the 924 alongside me on the grid went below the line in an attempt to pass. With cool tyres I was wary of giving it too much too early, but once through the turn I nailed the throttle, left the 924 behind and was able to take a defensive line into the hairpin while all the front runners stayed out wide. I didn't gain anything on them, but protecting my newly gained place was more important. It took about half a lap before the 924 was finally dispatched and no longer worth looking for in the mirrors, but already Jason and the Fiesta ST150 between us were edging away at a couple of seconds a lap. Nothing I could do would change that - if anything I was overdriving in an attempt to keep up, the tortured howl of my front wheels spinning almost anywhere they weren't pointing straight ahead.

I had noticed in qualifying that oil pressure was disappearing on the slow corners, this was worrying me a bit, but the engine seemed healthy enough on the straights. Finally I caught a few of the 924s at the back, and was just coming up on the Maestro as the lead cars - the Cosworth Escort and the SCSA car came up through Turn 4. I was busy watching them and working out where to be to let them through so missed the chequered flag being waved from the gantry, was just about to overtake the Maestro into the chicane when I realised the leaders had slowed and were waving to the crowd.

So, not as successful as yesterday, but the kappa finished the race in 9th for its second finish of the weekend.

So now I know my way round Rockingham - its a shame that next week's race in the LMA Euro Saloons series seems to be on a different layout!

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