Brands Hatch, 2 May 2005

Pictures taken at Brands Hatch (2 May 2005) courtesy of M-Sport UK

With the race at Castle Combe under our belts, it was plain that we needed help with suspension set-up, so the kappa was taken over to Aurok Motorsport, the UK distributors for Ohlins, and the makers of our suspension. The brief was to set up corner weights, suggest geometry settings and tyre pressures - a bonus would be that we would get to see what the kappa weighs with all the changes for 2005. On the plus side (weight lost) we have carbon doors (50kgs lighter than last year), lighter front bumper, composite front wings and boot lid, and Lexan front and rear screens. On the minus side, this year's wheel/tyre combination are 2kgs heavier per wheel, the rear spoiler weighs more than last year's one. The other main change was the substitution of the 20vt engine with all its associated ancillaries (turbocharger, intercooler, Accusump, etc) and 6 speed gearbox to replace last year's Alfa Romeo based V6 - the weight difference of the engines was unknown but thought to favour the 20vt lump.

As a guideline, last year the kappa was weighed 3 times - at Oulton Park it weighed 1237kgs with almost full tank of fuel, at Brands Hatch it was 1201 kgs (presumably running on fumes) where the only changes had been removal of boot floor and air conditioning pump innards. Finally at Snetterton it "weighed" 1114kgs which was clearly wrong. Expectations were something in the low 1100s, so we were pretty shocked to receive a call from Aurok that it weighed 1206kgs! Then we realised we had left 2 wheels in the boot, the air went a strange shade of blue and Aurok got on with the job all over again. This time it weighed it at 1170kgs. On return to Auto Integrale, the excess fuel from Castle Combe was drained - 35 litres of it. So a dry weight of approximately 1145kgs then - a lot higher than expected, guess that 20vt engine is heavier than we thought?

Needless to say, Aurok found all the wheels pointing in different directions, all corners sitting at different heights, etc, so all this was corrected and a best estimate provided for geometry and tyre pressures. So precise was this, that the tyre pressures suggested for each tyre were all different when cold, as was the camber on each wheel. So now I had a car with a decent base-line set up for the first time ever, although I wasn't so sure who the base-line was set up for!

Brands Hatch has proven to be one of my better circuits in the past so I was looking forward to a better relative performance than Castle Combe, although a look at the entry list showed the return of the Primeras, and on arrival at Brands Hatch I found that Rod Birley was joining in with us, which immediately dropped my points expectation even lower.

The other variable was going to be the weather. Sunday had been glorious down south, warmest day of the year so far, but the forecast for Monday was gloomy, with 90% chance of heavy rain across the SE. Driving round the M25, the motorway surface was wet, but the wipers were only needed because of spray from the surface. However, Keith phoned me from the circuit around 7:45am to tell me it was raining hard. Luckily by the time I arrived the rain had ceased although the track was wet - but we had a later qualifying slot by which time the track had completely dried out (or so it seemed). Another bumper entry for the series showed 28 cars, 6 of these in Class A.

Picture taken at Brands Hatch (2 May 2005) courtesy of Doug Woodward

Out into qualifying, and first exercise was to get some warmth into the tyres - not my usual technique, but the turbo engine needs all the traction it can get. Jason Holmes was a few car lengths in front, and it seemed I was doomed to follow him through the whole session, at least that would be a guide to how I was doing as the Tomcats are fairly quick. Most laps in qualifying were slowed by slower cars, specifically the Minis running with us, although slowly my lap times were coming down. I had a near miss with one of the Minis exiting Paddock when I moved over to allow Peter Challis through on the downhill run, then went to follow him only for the Mini to move across right in front of me! Out on the road that would probably have merited a shaking of the fist or something, but I kept my cool and got on with qualifying.

After a few laps the kappa started to understeer quite badly, but only really at Clearways, which caused me to take a few interesting lines round there. Traction was a problem, hardly surprising as the V6 lit up the front wheels out of Clearways last year, but once the wheels stopped spinning, I was accelerating down the straights quite quickly, picking off the slower cars at will. I also noticed that Graham Hill Bend was a problem area for me, in third gear the engine went off boost and there was a moment while waiting for the boost to build up, after which I would rocket down Cooper Straight. Trying 2nd gear just lit the tyres up and appeared to be the slower option, but I was aware that someone might get the drop on me coming out of Graham Hill in the race - mental note to be defensive there!

About 10 laps into qualifying, the water temperature started to rise, and as it got higher, I got more concerned. It reached 103-104 degrees when I found myself closer to Jason than for a while, and seemingly less traffic. This was my best chance to get a decent lap in and so it happened - I knew that I had gained on Jason and the lap felt pretty good to me. By the end of the lap the water temperature was up to 106 so I slowed off and came into the pits. As it turned out, not only had it been my fastest lap, it was also Jason's so I had at least qualified in front of one Tomcat.

After a long wait, the sheet came through. I was disappointed with the time at first (56.4), it was 2 seconds faster than last year and maybe my expectations were too high? But then I realised that I had qualified 9th, right in the middle of a group of 11 cars in the 55s and 56s, so I wasn't doing too badly. As the fastest of the 56s, I expected a lot of early pressure in the race, especially at the first corner, but looked forward to starting further up the grid than normal for me.

As expected, Rod Birley headed the times from the 2 Primeras. Tony Soper's Alfa GTV was clearly not in the best of health and headed the group of 11 cars, 4th on the grid. Alex Schooledge brought his BTCC Vectra out but had failed to run during qualifying, after putting in 3 laps with the Minis he had terminal brake fluid problems which prevented him joining the rear of the grid.

Lined up in ninth meant being on the inside of the track for Paddock, in my view preferable to being on the outside and risking being pushed wide into the gravel. We were bunched up a lot closer than usual as we came round Clearways, and the starter left it right to the line to flick off the red lights and start the race - this meant I didn't get dropped like I did at Castle Combe. In fact I was gaining, pulling ahead of Nigel Ainge who had qualified in 6th, but losing out as Richard Buckley moved over to the inside where I wanted to be, and Phillip Latchford went round the outside of me from 11th in his VW Vento. I chased the Vento up the hill, got close along Cooper Straight, but aside from the front three, we were all too close to make much of a move. I mounted an attack out of Clearways, pulling alongside the Vento into Paddock but he got me back again, and it took to the next lap to make an earlier move from Clearways, this time I was well clear at the far end of the straight and could set about chasing Richard Buckley's Honda Integra. My fastest laps were these next two giving pursuit before a big understeer moment at Clearways allowed Buckley to start pulling away again after I'd gained over a second in 2 laps. Shortly after this we started encountering back markers, often in little groups of 3 or 4 and slowly but surely I lost ground on the leading pack. Behind me, Matt Hale in his newly repaired Vauxhall Vectra seemed to be my nearest chaser, the gap moving between a couple of seconds and maybe 4 or 5 depending on how we were affected by traffic.

By lap 9, Nigel Ainge was on a charge, he had made up ground lost at the start and got past Matt to become my main challenger. He got ever closer but I managed to hold him off for 5 laps, even when the 2 Primeras came by - I did notice that Rod Birley was nowhere to be seen at this point. On lap 14, coming up towards Druids with Nigel all over me, I noticed Tony Soper going down the other side of the hill - plainly the Alfa was sick but I couldn't tell at this point just how sick. I decided to let Nigel go through, he might probably have got through eventually anyway, but the class points were more important to me, I needed to get past Tony without distraction. As it happened, the Alfa was sicker than I thought and it became a temporary distraction. We closed up on Tony round Clearways and went past down the main pit straight, with me gaining fast on Nigel as I went past Tony. But there was not enough room to challenge Nigel going into Paddock. Nigel started to get the better of me as the understeer set in worse and worse round Clearways again. By the time I pulled a quicker lap than him, he was too far away and defending the gap back to Matt became the order of the day. Keith had advised me not to look at water temperature during the race - there were no signs of water loss during qualifying and although not wrecking this engine would be a good thing, we plan to have the new one in for the next race anyway. But of course I looked, and it went up to 106 degrees again, before stabilising back at 104 to the end of the race.

I really am overtaking Rod Birley!

A couple of laps later, I came by Derek Hale in the second Primera going very slowly. As I went past, I thought I had to be in second place in class now, having past Tony (who had since retired) and now Derek who plainly was going nowhere fast, and having not seen Rod Birley so assumed he must have retired. The Birley question was resolved a little later when he came up behind me fast, blue flags being waved at me. I wasn't sure that he was lapping me, but the marshals at Brands are so used to seeing Rod out front, that they probably wave the flags on instinct. It didn't make that much difference, I defended through Graham Hill but he monstered past, only to pull over at the end of the straight, almost in front of me.

Late in the race I came across a new problem - things were going so well that I came up to lap people that normally have finished in front of me. The marshals had lost track by this time so I got little help from them - Lee Scott took over a lap to get past, partly because we met up with a couple of other cars to pass during that lap, and partly because he was defending until the point where power told. I then came up behind Simon Taylor and Daniel Ludlow having their own private battle, and again other traffic being lapped just added to the fun. I think Simon knew he was being lapped as he didn't really put up a fight, but I found myself trying to get past both him and Daniel on opposite sides of the track along Cooper Straight. Daniel defended the position and again it took the length of the main straight to pass him, he had an attempt back up the inside at Druids before he was completely despatched.

As the race drew to an end and I saw the last lap board out, Ian Collins' Proton was some way ahead, gaining on one of the Minis. I was now sure I was in second in class, shame I didn't look at the leader board though as I would have seen I was in 6th overall, and on the leader board for the first time ever. Part of me wanted to tippy-toe round the last lap, but I decided that chasing Ian would keep me focused - a quick charge down the final straight saw the three of us cross the line within a couple of car lengths but I had just failed to put another lap on Ian. Matt Hale was next over the line, some 4 seconds behind me at the end.

So, second in class was confirmed, along with 6th overall - my equal best ever finishes, but last time there were only 9 starters and 6 finishers which doesn't really compare. The day was a success, I finished in front of a lot of cars who were way quicker than me at Castle Combe, let alone last season, even lapped a few that more usually beat me. But the second in class was still a triumph of reliability over outright pace so there is still work to do on that front. To be honest, I couldn't really tell that a lot of effort went into suspension set up, but all tyre pressures came back even and even the rears got some warmth in them for once. Guess as the kappa was fairly vice-less I should consider this a good starting point for set-up.

We will be missing the double header at Pembrey, mostly because the early start time is just un-manageable for us, and partly because Keith identified a rattle coming from the gearbox area that he didn't like - I couldn't hear it, but on track the power steering is screaming and blocks out everything else. That means a long break now until we resume at Cadwell Park - new engine parts have been ordered and if they turn up soon, we hope to have the new engine in place for Cadwell which should address the lack of torque of the current one, even if I will have to learn the car all over (yet) again. We wish our fellow competitors an enjoyable and successful weekend in Wales without us.

Visit the LMA site for details of the LMA Euro Saloons championship and standings so far.

Check out the current points standing.

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