Oulton Park, 15 May 2004

After the scheduled meet for 3 May at Silverstone was cancelled, finally time for the debut of the Lancia kappa race car, surely the only racing kappa in the world?

But it so nearly didn't happen! After the test at Brands Hatch back on 2 May, the kappa was taken back to Auto Integrale for a checkover and few adjustments. Chief of these were to tie down the engine more stiffly, the gearbox mounting broke at Brands Hatch, and to wind off some of the camber on the front suspension in the hope of improving traction. All was sorted so on Wednesday I went over to pick her up to find Keith a little concerned at a small oil leak that was developing. We left the engine running and the leak got worse to the point where Keith called time on my plans - the rear crankshaft seal would have to be changed. The gearbox came out that night, a new seal sourced first thing Thursday morning and we were back in business. Just a nice long drive up the M6 on Friday night and the season would begin for Nyssa Racing.

I awoke to a bright morning, looked like the wets wouldn't be needed at all. Having not raced for 7 months, I had almost forgotten what a rush everything was. We were scheduled to sign on at 7:45, be in scrutineering at 8:00 and also attend a drivers' briefing for all drivers, also at 8:00am. Fair play to the organisation at Oulton, we attended the drivers' briefing - not just because we were running on the full International circuit for the first time ever, but also due to the previous meeting held here recently having a few too many incidents. Then we were given priority in the scrutineering queue - I was a little apprehensive in case we had forgotten or missed something in the regs, but we got a clean bill of health. One small confusion was over the use of the on-board video camera - the leaflet we got from Oulton Park stated this was OK so long as non-commercial, but the scrutineers wanted to see permission from the Clerk of the Course. A quick trek over to his office, and he said the permission had to come from the Circuit office. Permission duly obtained, it was back to the scrutineering bay for the all-important video sticker. And all just in time for the call to the assembly area.

A chance to survey the entry, which up to now had been strewn around the paddock. As most had thought likely, and indeed as we very much suggested after the low turnout at Mallory last month, the two series being run under the umbrella of Le Mans Motorsport were combined. Mallory had shown that the Road Saloon series were more than a match for those of us not at the sharp end of the Euro Saloon series - the likelihood of closer competition was increased. The initial combined entry looked only 10 strong, but some chasing up of competitors by the organisers increased this number to 16. Even so, the International circuit is almost 2.7 miles in length, so there was a good chance of cars getting strewn out. Looking around the pits, the Arrowpak team had brought out both Nissan Primeras (ex BTCC Supertouring cars), Tony Soper had made a last minute substitution of his Harrier LR9 as the Alfa Romeo GTV's engine had expired earlier in the week. There was a welcome return to the series from Chris Brogden in the Uno he and Alan should have raced last year, save for a testing accident. And very smart it looked too. There wasn't really much time to acquaint with the Road Saloon guys, but there seemed a lot of Golf Gtis and a Vauxhall Nova with "dalmatian" paintwork caught the eye. There was more time than expected to look around from the confines of my own cockpit - after being given the one minute signal, we were still sat there for at least another 15 minutes. You guessed it - the session before was for Formula Fords! When will they learn, when will organisers hold them off until the later sessions so their incessant shenanigans don't delay everyone else. Why is it seemingly compulsory for FF races and practice sessions to be littered with crashes and red flags - and in this case, a lengthy mopping up exercise while the stray cars were picked up.

Enough ranting - finally we were out. We had been reminded in the drivers' briefing that we would complete almost a complete lap before reaching the startline, and that we would not be timed until that point. Just as well - the circuit was unfamiliar to most, if not all of us. I followed Tony Soper out onto the track figuring I could watch his lines and see what I could learn from them. Maybe I was watching too closely, running up towards Knickerbrook chicane I suddenly realised the cars in front were all but stationery. The entry to the chicane is both blind and confused by the Fosters circuit joining back in to the International circuit at the same point. The cars in front had missed the chicane, I think Tony was about to turn into it when I guess he saw me in his mirrors all locked up, he elected to go through the coned off run-off area as did everyone else. Needless to say I followed him through! Heavy penalties could have been the order of the day if this had been during the timed session, or the race.

Towards the end of the lap, Tony started to accelerate away and passed Julian Brown in the X1/9 leaving Druids. As we came over the start line to start the timed laps, I made to pass Julian but he pulled out and passed Chris Brogden in the Uno. I had to follow down through Old Hall and Cascades but on the run down towards Island I found the kappa able to accelerate past Julian. The first lap was a learning process, trying to remember where the circuit went, trying not to miss Knickerbrook this time - braked far too early instead. By lap 3, I was building up speed and confidence in the kappa, knocking fully 4 seconds off my previous lap. The traction problems that plagued Brands Hatch were all but gone, only being evident through Knickerbrook, but it is so tortuous through there, both left/right and up/down that it was hardly surprising. I was still braking too early, still having problems with how much speed to carry through Druids and Cascades especially. The following lap seemed to be going well until braking for Druids, all was not well. The kappa was hardly slowing, I ran wide, very wide just slowing enough as I reached the outside kerb to get round the corner. I accelerated down towards Lodge but all was not well, so I slowed and pulled into the pit lane where I saw Pete Simpson. I stopped alongside him and he confirmed my fears were correct - the left front tyre was flat. Practice over for me!

But not the drama - to get back to Parc Ferme, I needed to get back to the beginning of the pit lane. After much deliberation and checking, the marshal confirmed I could reverse slowly back through the pits while he walked in front of me with a flag - it was the 1890s all over again. What I didn't pay attention to during this was the engine temperature, and as I turned into Parc Ferme, I noticed that the temperature reading was 120 and steam was coming from under the bonnet - I shut down the engine, got out and saw a puddle of coolant under my car. I managed to attract the attention of Dave Lambourn who raced his Delta HF here last October, here today as a spectator. He brought over a posse so we could push the kappa back to the paddock. But on the way we had to cross the weighbridge. Now I'm not saying the kappa is a big car, but it took 3 goes of pushing back and forth to get all four wheels completely within the confines of the weighbridge platform. Moment of truth time - she clocked in at 1237kgs! TWELVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY SEVEN - somewhat over target weight. Maybe the thirty seven could be accounted for by having all but a full tank (70 litres capacity) of fuel. I had run from a full tank at Brands and had brimmed her again to gauge fuel consumption - about 6mpg. This car needs a serious diet, although where we are going to lose much without vast expense is not obvious.

Back in the paddock, the good news was that the water had come from the overflow on the header tank, refilling and circulating the water suggested no problems there. Not so good news on the tyre front - the tyre was shredded on the inside. Hard to tell what caused this, a stone or maybe touching the suspension platform - although on the face of this, it seemed unlikely as we were now running less camber than at Brands Hatch. Either way, the tyre was useless and we had no spare slicks. The only sensible decision was to run the wets on the rear, and space the fronts out a further 10mm just in case. A shame, the qualifying times showed that I had only beaten Julian and Chris, but was only 2 seconds away from being 6 places further up the standings, with a time set on only my second lap. I am sure that if the tyre had survived all the session, I would have at least been inside those 6 places, hopefully near the front of them.

I wasn't alone with having problems - both Primeras had failed the noise test, and the Arrowpak crew were frantically seen stuffing loft insulation into the silencer cans. Julian had been waiting on new wheels all week to match his new tyres but couldn't get them paired until after qualifying, and a piece of wood used as a prop was still in the boot leaving him wondering just what was rattling! Tony's Harrier had cut out, indeed on my second flying lap I repassed him crawling along the straight towards Lodge, only to restart again so he could set fourth fastest time. Roger Donnan's Stratos replica either had no brakes or locking ones, a problem that resulted in some threepenny bit shaped front tyres by the end of the day.

After lunch, we were second race on, after the FF cars, this time there seemed to be less of a delay and we were out forming up. I was near the back on the grid with just Julian and Chris behind me, a gaggle of Road Saloons immediately in front. I was hoping that my greater experience of rolling starts would pay dividends, but I got too close to the Nova in front who braked as we came over Dear Leap towards the start line, when the lights went out we were off. I out accelerated the Golf which had been alongside me and moved over to protect the inside line through Old Hall, inadvertedly blocking off Julian's path. A quick run down to Cascades and the Golf came flying through on my inside on three wheels - and then he was gone off into the distance. The "dalmatian" Nova was in front, but of more concern was Julian right behind. Through Cascades he was plainly faster than me, but I had better speed down the straight. We ran in concertina fashion for 4 laps, maybe I spent too much time concentrating on behind rather than in front as the cars in front pulled away from me. Approaching Knickerbrook on lap 5, I could see the Primera of Peter Challis coming in fast, so I ran right to the edge of the escape road before turning in to let him pass thinking Julian might get through too. After this, by the time Tony Soper caught and lapped me down the start-finish straight, Julian had fallen back, presumably losing time letting Tony through. Finally I could concentrate on the battle forwards, all of a sudden I could see the Golf of Paul McIntyre a little in front, guess he got slowed being lapped too. I started to eat into the gap but he was still a good 3 seconds in front. I had been a bit pensive at first with running the wets on the back, but the kappa had behaved really well. Around lap 5 I started to feel the rear of the car move around a little, but amazingly my lap times remained pretty consistent bar the lap I got lapped by the first Primera (lost 2.5 seconds) and lap 8 where I blitzed in a lap fully a second faster than my qualifying time. I didn't see that I was making much of a challenge to the Golf - only after the race did I realise I had been gaining .3 - .5 second each lap, my 9th lap was back to my normal pace. As I ended that lap I could see the last lap board being held out, and in my mirror could see the leading Primera in the distance about to take the chequered flag. I backed right off, no point in binning the car or breaking it now the race was over, but I still had to complete the lap to be classified. In the end, I finished twelfth from sixteen starters - the race result showing that Julian did get caught by the winning Primera before he ended the 9th lap, and that there were 3 non-finishers. Unfortunately Chris's Uno was one of those having expired with head gasket failure. Hopefully Alan will bring the repaired car down to Silverstone in two weeks time.

So, debut over, and an opening finish to boot. The kappa had acquitted itself well, handling being top notch, even with a pair of well worn wets on the back. Braking is supremely stable so long as I get off the brakes before turning in, and she rode the kerbs through Foulstons chicane like they were there. Going up that hill from the hairpin and through Foulstons was the place I put most distance between myself and Julian, despite giving away 450kgs! Now I just need to learn the car, and gain the confidence to drive it on the edge like I did with the old Sud. Two weeks time its Silverstone - a circuit with one fast corner where I'm not bad, and two slow bits where I'm usually very good. The kappa is exhibiting good low down torque for a normally aspirated engine and we are hoping for another 20bhp to add to the current 213 if the larger intake pipes arrive in time.

Numbers are still down, lets hope the lure of Silverstone will pull a few more cars out on track, and then these guys stick around to jazz up the series.

Visit the Le Mans Autoparts site for details of the Le Mans Euro Saloons championship and standings so far.

Check out the current points standing.

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