Croix-en-Ternois, 29-30 April 2006
Croix-en-Ternois in France. Haven't been back since we came over with the old Auto Italia series back in 2002. Back then it was the 95bhp Alfasud, so I was expecting a more interesting time in the kappa.
An early start on Friday morning saw me arrive at the Eurotunnel terminal at 7:45am, but by the time I reached the front of the queue for the desk, I had just missed the 8:28am train I was booked on. Not to worry, I was literally first vehicle on the 9:06am and still had plenty of time to arrive at Croix in time for testing. A leisurely drive, punctuated only by crashing the trailer into a toll booth, saw me arrive at a sunny Croix just after noon, minutes after Team Pongo (Simon Jackson) arrived. Most of the other drivers, John Hammersley excepted, were already there and had already been out on track in the morning. Dave Roberts had found too much excitement, a small coming together with a Fiesta meant some work to repair his front bumper. A sign of things to come for Dave?
Out in the first afternoon session, there are 31 cars on track. Mostly the not-so-Mighty Minis. The old Sud had polished them off easily enough back in 2002, the kappa was almost a liability such was the speed differential. I could pick off any number down the straight, but other places on the circuit were much tighter and it was a case of picking them off individually between the corners. Down the straight I would be hard on the brakes coming up behind them, passing them before they reached their braking point - but then the kappa was braking from 125-130mph, guess the Minis were doing maybe 90mph?
Wasn't really in the groove in the first session. The brakes felt spongy - Croix is so hard on brakes - and the water temperature was higher than I would have liked at around 102. After 12 minutes or so (of the 20 minute session) I came in. The only guide I had to lap times was the clock over the start-finish line, and I only noticed that at the end of the session. Reckoned I had done a 65s lap, but with an accuracy of plus/minus a second at least. I wasn't too unhappy with that, but afterwards Matt Speakman told me he was running 63.5 seconds (timed properly) in the Clio. On the other hand he had just destroyed his third set of brake pads this weekend and was off to go shopping for more!
By my second session I had my race head back on. I was way down in the queue behind about 20 Minis, at least it seemed that way. So it took three of four laps to get to some clearish track, struggling to do much better than 70 second laps while dealing with the Minis. Once clear I reckoned I was consistently pulling 64-65 second laps (again off the gantry clock), but felt more comfortable with the car and the circuit. Had figured out which corners were 2nd gear (the ones at either end of the main straight, and the 180 before the bridge), the rest bar the left hander after the bridge all being third gear. Traction was at a premium, I had brought along a spare pair of front wheels just in case the rubber levels went low - but they never did. I had also brought along a new set of brake pads, but the kappa seemed to be kinder on its brakes than the Clio, and they were not needed all weekend.
One surprise in testing was the rabbit that ran out across the track just under the bridge. Instinctively I gave it full brakes, but the rabbit froze, darted around in front of me and met a grisly end on the kappa's front splitter - de-kappa-tated. Spoke to one of the Caterham racers who went out in the next session. The rabbit was off line so they were able to straddle it, and he was using it as a braking point marker. All well and good until someone clipped it, it moved and next lap he went off!
Matt had found some road pads, so there was some conjecture on how he might get on, but at least he would be out on Saturday. Not looking so good for Dave Roberts who concluded a test session with what seemed to be driveshaft maladies. The combined efforts of the Dutch/UK Rover Coupe forum who had come along to watch him and Jason were not enough, it was looking terminal.
Saturday morning started bright and sunny, if a little chilly. Pongo was reported to have ice on the roof! John Hammersley had arrived late Friday and the ex-John Cleland Cavalier was sulking at having been left outside. It did not want to start, towing it round the paddock wasn't working either, but finally, after a couple of hours it burst into life. After that, it was a case of keeping it warm all weekend.
By 10:15 qualifying time, the sky had darkened. Black clouds were looking malevolent and it looked prudent to go for an early banker lap. John Hammersley parked the Cavalier up ready in assembly very early, his circuit knowledge limited to walking it in the morning. I smelt the possibility of pole - probably the best chance I will ever get. Made my mind up to go for it hard straight away, use the out lap to warm up the tyres as best as, then nail it before the rain came.
I followed John out onto the track, for someone who'd not been out here before, he was indecently quick on the out lap. More worrying for me was on the first flying lap when I intended to go for pole, he was just that fraction quicker than me. The track didn't feel as grippy as on Friday - presumably too cold - and then came the first of the red flags, the road pads in Matt's Clio not lasting a lap and he was beached in the gravel at the end of the straight.
A short break while Matt was towed out and we went out again, but almost straight away the red flags were out again, before we could complete a flying lap. This time it was Dave. An attempt to see if the Tomcat would run proved hapless and he was parked up on the grass after the first corner. Didn't think it was a dangerous place, but the circuit organisers know best. As we came in, it started to rain! Another short break and we went out again. Cold slicks and rain don't really mix. I reckoned I'd done just the single full lap so far, so even though there was no grip, I went round to complete another full lap, but half way round that I gave up and cruised back to the pits, to see John Hammersley felt the same. The others pounded round further but to no avail. John had got pole on that first flying lap, I was second by less than 2/10ths of a second with a 64.945 lap against John's 64.751. My first front row ever!
Our first race was on Saturday afternoon, the weather had sorted itself out, indeed the only shower all morning had been while we were out. Now the track was dry and there were no excuses. Matt had borrowed a proper set of race pads from Jim Mepham - his Megane uses the same brakes as the Clio - so he would be starting from the back of the grid. No such luck for Dave, his transmission woes were terminal. With Matt at the back of the grid I hoped it would take it some time to get through, I fully expected him to be quicker round Croix than me given the size difference in our cars.
I had thought of playing my joker, but with my first ever front row start, I was a little apprehensive on how it might go. The thought of everyone barrelling into a 30mph hairpin behind me made me question the wisdom - and there was always race 2, wasn't there?
The start went well, John and I controlled the pace nicely and ran side by side to the start line. The lights went out very late and we were off. I got away well and was checking beside me all the way down the straight for where John was. Too close, I was no more than a bonnet length in front at the corner so was forced to concede the inside line while I went round the outside, already he was away. No-one else was anywhere near us, we had pulled out that much of a gap. Should have played that joker!
The layout at Croix, switching back on itself, and then again, means its easy to see the traffic coming down the previous straight as you head up the next. I could see Stuart Jefcoate in 3rd place, so long as it wasn't the Clio, I was happy. Up front, John was ever so slowly pulling away. I gave it everything but he was on average a second a lap faster and there was nothing I could do about it - really needed to make that first corner first if I'd wanted to win, and then be very wide for 20 minutes!
After a few laps, I could see Matt behind Stuart - the green Clio is hard to miss. Finally Matt was in front of Stuart, now I had to knuckle down. One lap Matt would gain a couple of lengths, the next I would get them back. I was feeling comfortable that I could keep the gap constant now, the race was getting lonely as John was the length of the straight in front. With a few laps to go, Simon Jackson's Nova came into view. I was gaining, but it didn't seem to be by that much. Lap by lap I edged closer, with something to chase I had something to concentrate on, but at the same time I was mindful that I was safely clear of third and it would not be clever to bin it chasing Pongo. At the last corner I was right up close, but Simon got out of the corner and made it to the finish line before me. Didn't care, I was a good second, my best result ever. Better still was being guided down the pit lane to the podium after the slowing down lap, to be interviewed by the commentator - as usual the main questions were "what is the kappa"? Matt did hold on to finish 3rd by 6 seconds from Stuart Jefcoate, but little more than a second separated Stuart, Jim Mepham and Jason Holmes, with Jim edging 5th from Jason by about a length.
Happy to see my lap time has come down to 63.5 but almost a second adrift of John's fastest lap.
Sunday morning, its raining. Hard. Track is very slippery, pretty well every race that morning is red flagged at least once with cars falling off everywhere. Thankfully damage seems to be rare, but the gravel traps at Croix are unforgiving, if you fall off, you stay fallen off until the tow truck drags you out. Snetterton style deliberations are being held as to what tyres to use. Thinking hard about taking the chance on slicks, but even Stuart is going with wets. The kappa is sat on two slicks one side, 2 wets the other so I can make a late choice.
We watched the VSR race about two before ours, some of the drivers changed over to slicks in the assembly area just as it started to rain lightly again. It was the wrong choice, the track was still far too slippery. My late decision was all wets, only Jason Holmes differed amongst us all, he ran the Tomcat on slicks at the front, wets at the rear.
I cut it a little fine getting the wheels on, without Graham's help I would have missed the race. I just got going in time to reach the assembly area as the pace car moved off. I literally drove straight to the front and out on track without stopping. To say I was a little flustered didn't come close - I had 2 rolling laps to calm down.
Round we came again as before, John and I at the front waiting for the lights. Another good clean start, same result. Made about a bonnet length in the drag to the first corner, but this was no time for heroic braking, and the track was wickedly slippery, especially on this corner. Once again I went round the outside losing the place to John, but as I came out, Matt (starting in 3rd this time), pulled out better and got in front. Behind me, Stuart spun the Porsche holding everyone up for a few seconds, as we rounded the second corner there was nothing but empty track behind.
I wanted to keep the pressure on Matt. John wasn't having it all his own way either, he seemed unable to pull away convincingly this time round. I could haul Matt in close down the straight but he was adopting a central line making it difficult to make a lunge past. I had a couple of runs down the outside, locked up once right on his bumper and the engine cut - a quick bump start and it was running again. By lap 7 the pressure was paying off. Matt's brake lights had been coming on early for a couple of laps, he was having to pump them. Once I saw that it was just a matter of time, at the end of lap 7 we almost touched we were so close, and that was all I needed to make the pass down the straight and claim the first corner. Matt wasn't giving up, the Clio was almost attached to the kappa's rear bumper all round the next two corners, and too close for comfort all the way to the start of the straight. This time I was able to open up a decent gap and after that the pressure was off.
John was still in front, not that far in front, still visible down the straight, but it was plain he was controlling the gap to me. To speed up and take risks would only have speeded him up and I was sure the Cavalier had more in hand. Although it had stopped raining, and the track seemed to be drying, I still had no traction. I could only use full throttle down the main and next straights, everywhere else was feathering the throttle and short shifting, and still the front wheels were howling. I could see the Clio safely behind and decided to control the gap to Matt rather than risk any silliness.
As the track dried, so Pongo was struggling, this time I was able to lap Simon with a couple of laps to go. Behind me, Matt's woes got worse. Jim Mepham made a daring pass at the bridge on the penultimate lap, with Stuart Jefcoate also catching and passing him just before the end. Jason had struggled in the early stages of the race but now the track was drier, those slicks on the front enabled him to set fastest lap overall. By the time we left the circuit and hour or so later, the sun was out, the track was dry and lap times were back down to those of Saturday!
So, another second place, another visit to the podium, another interview. One could get used to this! Shame Silverstone is next with a bumper touring car entry expected. Even bigger shame that in all the rush, I forgot to play my joker!
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