Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Holly Birkett Six Hour Relay Race

As promised, here's something about the race last weekend.

For those who don't know, "The Birkett" as it is known is a different kind of event to those I normally race in. As the name suggests the race runs for six hours but unlike other endurance events such as Britcar or Le Mans where the same car is raced by different drivers, at the Birkett teams enter between four and six cars and each driver drives their own car in turn.

Since the race is open to all types of cars there is a handicap system to make it a fairer competition. The idea is to complete the highest number of laps within the six hours. Obviously a team of slower cars (like our team of Triumphs!) would be at a disadvantage to a team of fast cars such as the many Caterham and Radical full race cars that take part. To even things up, before the race begins each team is allocated a number of "credit laps" which are added to the actual number of laps completed during the race.

Still following all this?

Within a team, the cars can go out in any order and for any length of time so it's up to the team manager to devise a strategy that will allow for the most laps to be completed. Of course breakdowns are common in a race of this length and sometimes people spin or come off into the gravel traps on the circuit too so the strategy has to be constantly modified during the event. The rules stipulate that if two cars from the same team end up on the circuit at the same time then neither of them scores any laps until one leaves the track. That means some care has to be exercised not to send the next car out too soon if the one currently racing doesn't appear exactly when expected.

Fortunately I only had to drive the car and not worry too much about the strategy!

The grid is predetermined based on the handicaps so practice is just that rather than a qualifying session. Each car in the team is allocated to a practice session during the morning. I joined my session in the assembly area and waited to be let out on the track. I was a little more nervous than usual as it was exactly a year since I had last driven the racecar "in anger" on a circuit so I was feeling a little out of practice. At least the weather was fine, clear and dry which wasn't what yesterday's forecast had suggested.

Once we were released onto the track a number of much faster cars that had ended up behind me in the queue came past and then it was down to the business of getting used to the car and the track again. I quickly discovered that the misfire problem I'd had earlier in the year was definitely solved as the engine was revving quite freely. I also discovered that I was having trouble getting the car to go round corners neatly. I initially put that down to my being out of practice but later I realised that not only was the lack of a misfire allowing me to arrive at corners rather quicker than I'd been used to in the past but also my new much larger fuel tank full of petrol had added about 30kg behind the rear axle. In any case I got used to it and was just starting to enjoy myself after about five laps when the chequered flag came out for the end of the session.

So back to the garage and give the car a quick check over. Nothing leaking or hanging off so both me and the car are ready to race. No need to refuel before the race as practice had used less than five litres of petrol.

The race always seems to come around quickly at this event as it follows almost immediately after the last practice session. John, our team manager gave us a quick briefing on the pit signals we'd be using and Les with the first car was off to form up on the grid. I was due to be third car out and we had all planned a forty minute first session so I had some time to wait...

...except that a few minutes later the pit wall crew were waving for Simon in the second car to set off. Evidently Les had some kind of problem on the circuit. Simon set off and suddenly I was in my car and getting ready. It's always a good idea to have the next driver ready to go in case the current car has a problem. Helmet on, gloves on, belts done up, start the car and warm it up and then switch it off and try to relax for a while as Simon was running well and I had forty minutes to wait. In the meantime Les made it back to the garage with the news that he'd simply spun off with no harm done.

Simon completed his forty minutes without incident and the pit board went out to signal him to come in on the next lap. Time to fire up my car and get the engine warm before setting off. Wait, wait, wait for Simon coming down the pit lane and as he passes the garage, I'm being waved out.

Joining a race from the pit lane part way through is very different to starting on the grid with everyone else. You're joining the track with cold tyres and cold brakes and other cars that have been out for some time are at full racing speed. I'm aware of how much earlier than normal I need to brake into the first corner but everyone is giving plenty of room to each other. It takes a while to get everything up to temperature but as the tyres start to grip and the brakes bite better confidence starts to grow.

In this event I suspect I probably had the least powerful and slowest car (and driver for that matter!) on the track. I certainly spent probably as much time looking in my mirrors as I did watching where I was going but after a few laps you get used to the traffic and I was enjoying myself. Remember to watch for signals from the pit lane. I'm not used to luxuries like a pit crew with a board but each time around there's either a thumbs up signal or a "hurry up, you can go faster than that!" board out for me. Frequently there are faster cars coming past in the corners and using the bit of track that I want but we all get around lap after lap until eventually the pit board shows "come in" and it's all over. Next time round, into the pit lane. Remember to slow down. The pit lane speed limit is 25mph but my speedometer doesn't work properly so I have to guess. Past the garage and into the paddock as John in the next car sets off to start his session behind me.

A quick discussion with the team back in the garage and I discover that I've taken five seconds off my previous best lap time on this circuit. Excellent, that's a big improvement. The car really is running better, and I like to think that just maybe I am driving a little better too!

Check the car over again and discover that the first session has used around fifteen litres of fuel. Still plenty left for another session so nothing to do at the car again.

Now it's a matter of getting something to eat and trying to keep warm until my next session. Silverstone is always a cold draughty place at the best of times and in late October it's particularly so.

By the time my second session comes around, it has started to rain just a little and we're hearing reports of cars starting to slide off the track. The teams using slick racing tyres all start to change them for wets. No such problem for me as I only have the one set of "all conditions" tyres!

It doesn't seem long before I'm waiting in the car again, helmet on. This is scheduled to be a 20 minute session but as I'm waiting Andy comes to enquire whether I have enough fuel for thirty minutes instead. I have no problem with that so a thirty minute session is confirmed.

Waiting, waiting, waiting again and then away down the pit lane and onto the circuit.

There's just enough rain to make the track slippery now without there being enough to affect visibility. Things are particularly slippery on cold tyres and it takes longer to warm up in the wet too but eventually I start to figure out how to get around the circuit in the changed conditions.

By the end of the session the track was starting to dry out in places but was still slippery in others. It didn't seem very long however before the "come in" board was being displayed and I was back down the pit lane and into the garage again.

I wasn't scheduled for another session but I was back in the car towards the end of the event, waiting again just in case the last car out had a problem. They didn't, the chequered flag comes out and I can undo the belts and go celebrate with the others. On handicap we came 20th out of 56 teams which we all agreed is pretty good going and certainly the best result that's been achieved by a Triumph team recently.

All in all a great day and thoroughly enjoyable. The car performed perfectly all day. The new fuel tank seems to hold enough fuel for about an hour and a half of racing so far more than I'm likely to need in the near future. The ignition system no longer misfires and the car revs easily to 6500 revs (and occasionally beyond!) with gear changes at 6000 revs which is about as much as I can expect from a Triumph 1500 engine that's essentially standard.

A great start to my race season for this year! Unfortunately also the last event for this year so also the end of my season.

There are photographs of the event at Kevin's pages
also here
and here

So when do next year's entries open then?

Monday, 27 October 2008


Well I said I hoped the weekend would be worth all the effort and in the end it was... and then some!

I spent Thursday evening fitting the curtains to the van by the light from a gas powered camping lamp (the job I started ages ago and didn't complete) and shopping for supplies (food) for the weekend. Thank goodness for late night supermarkets!

I'd arranged a hire trailer earlier in the day and picked it up on Friday morning, came home, loaded up and set off for Silverstone. The van ran faultlessly all weekend and hardly even noticed the tons of stuff I had loaded in it and on the trailer. That big V8 is great for this task. The fuel bills are less pleasing though - I think I got about 10mpg with the full load on board and I've done well over 400 miles over the course of the weekend. I'll let you do the maths - I daren't!

Anyway, I arrived at Silverstone after battling with traffic most of the way and got unloaded, signed on and scrutineered before they closed everything up for Friday. For the first time in ages it felt like I was getting ahead of the game. By that time the rest of the team had arrived and some of us went off in search of beer and food (we recommend the Chinese takeaway in Towcester by the way!). Then off to get some sleep.

Saturday dawned bright and clear (and very cold!) but things improved once I worked out how to get the Silverstone showers to produce hot water and then got some breakfast. After that it was practice and then many hours of racing. The Birkett 6-hour relay race is an almost unique event and requires a completely different approach to the normal races I do. I'll write about the race itself later but for now, suffice it to say that I had the most fun I've had for ages!

The misfire on the race car is definitely cured. It now revs easily to 6500rpm and pulls strongly right through the range but particularly between 4000 and 6000 revs which is exactly what it was always supposed to do. I'm very happy with that. I think a rolling road session would be a good plan before next season now just to make sure that everything is tuned correctly with the extra revs but other than that, there's nothing I need to do except to fix the oil pressure warning light which seems to have stopped working. Hardly a major issue and probably just another sensor failed. I seem to need a new one every year for some reason.

After the race was over and everything was cleared up and loaded back in the van, I headed back up the M1. Traffic was much better late on a Saturday night and driving the van home was easy again. I discovered one of the biggest advantages to the van too. I got tired whilst driving home so just pulled into a service area, climbed into one of the reclining seats in the back and slept for a while. Very comfortable and about fifteen seconds from pulling up to sleeping. Excellent! No way could I have done that when I had the old Ford Transit car transporter.

So, after a couple of pretty lousy weeks, this weekend has more than made up for things. Now I just need to compile a list of things to do at the van over the winter and then get on with completing some of them.


Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Are we having fun yet?

I eventually stopped feeling sorry for myself yesterday and got on with trying to come up with some answers! In the end I re-plumbed part of the fuel system into a "jerry" can and took 20 litres out of the van's tank. I've had the van on the road again today and it doesn't appear to be spilling fuel any more so I think that's an improvement although I'm not entirely happy driving around with a known fuel tank problem.

I managed to get the tracking done too although it took over an hour in the end as the local tyre place still weren't organised at the right time. Whilst I was getting that done, the brake and ABS warning lights came on. I suspect a faulty sensor but it is yet another thing to investigate. The van only has ABS on the rear axle anyway and all the brakes still seem to work (well, apart from the parking brake which has always been pretty useless!)

My new trailer is definitely not going to be ready this week as some vital components still haven't been delivered to the manufacturer. I'm not one for giving up but I have given serious thought to pulling out of this weekend's race and cutting my losses. I think it is more sensible to investigate a hired trailer tomorrow and attempt to make the best of it now I at least have a usable van. I've never been this unprepared for a race weekend before! It doesn't help that I'm having the busiest week at work that I've had for some time.

This weekend had better be worth all this effort...

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

One thing after another

Another setback today. Every time there's a problem to be solved, there's always a best case easy way to fix it, a worst case terrible way and various possibilities in between. Why is it that every single job on this van turns out to be the worst case scenario?

Feeling positive after getting the van back from the body shop yesterday I went to fit the new curtains today. That's when I discovered the back doors are leaking again in at least three seperate places and there's a pool of water on the floor again! I've had four attempts to fix this already and I don't know what to try now. Until I sort the problem I can't fit the electrical equipment and most of the trim in the back though.

So I gave up on that job and took the van off to the local tyre place to try and get the tracking set up. They were short staffed and couldn't do the job immediately so I said I'd try again tomorrow when they were expecting to have more people available.

Instead I went off to fill up with petrol ready for the mileage I need to do at the weekend to collect the trailer (hopefully) and get me to and from Silverstone for the Birkett meeting. I put almost 100 litres of fuel in the van for the first time in several years. That hurts the wallet somewhat but at least petrol is slightly cheaper this week than it has been recently. Unfortunately when I got home again I discovered a familiar smell and a stain on the road behind the van. Yes, now it's leaking petrol out!

I've suspected a perished breather hose for a while as there has been an occasional smell of petrol near the van but it never lost any so I guessed it was a breather rather than a live fuel line. Since the entire 130-odd litre tank has to come out to even be able to see the plumbing connected to it, I was leaving that job until I take the van off the road next month over the winter. I now suspect that a breather has come off altogether and fuel is slopping out of the hole as I drive the van. Fortunately it only seems to leak when I'm driving the van, not whilst it's parked so at least my £100 worth of fuel is hopefully safe for now.

Since I have to work on the van outside and it's dark by the time I finish the day job, there's no way I can fix this problem in the next two days. I wouldn't even be able to get an appointment at a garage and pay someone to fix it at that short notice either. I've no idea what I'm going to do about this weekend now.

Rather fed up at the moment.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Not going to plan

Delays, delays... Got the van back from the body shop today. It should have been done on Friday but there was a problem with the paint oven apparently. Anyway, it's now dent-free and an almost perfect colour match. That paint colour was always going to be very difficult to match.

The new trailer is also delayed as some of the parts hadn't been delivered on time. I'm still hoping it will be ready in time for Friday but I'll need to find out in the next couple of days and look at hiring one for the weekend if mine isn't done by then.

Incessant rain over the weekend made it difficult to get the race car out to work on too however after spending some time tripping over stuff in the garage whilst trying to check the oil and coolant levels (really must tidy up in there!) the rain finally abated long enough for me to roll the car out and try to start it. It was completely dead of course. Flat battery. Then whilst connecting the battery charger I managed to short something and melted one of the crocodile clips in a rather spectacular show of sparks, flames and smoke!

Fortunately the battery charger clip was the only casualty and I eventually got the car started with the aid of a jump start pack. Having run it for a while, it hopefully has enough charge in the battery now to start on its own next time.

Next jobs are an oil change on the van (it still has the running in oil in it), getting the tracking set up properly on the van since I'm pretty sure my efforts with a tape measure after rebuilding the steering last week are less than accurate and then replacing some of the interior trim I took out for the wiring and left out for the body shop.

It's going to be a busy week!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Positive thinking

It seems like a long time since I posted anything here. Probably because there hasn't been much tangible progress to report on any of the projects.

I've laid in a lot of the wiring in the van now and drawn up diagrams for the two new fuse/relay boxes that have to be fitted. All the clever mains supply kit arrived this week too so I'm currently finalising the plans for how that will all fit in. Once it's fitted, I will be able to carry a couple of large leisure batteries in the back of the van which will not only supply all the 12 volt equipment but will also feed an inverter that will provide mains power too. With an external feed connected the inverter runs "in reverse" and charges the batteries instead. All very clever but getting the wiring right (and finding somewhere to install all the equipment!) will take some planning. I'm just compiling a last order of electrical components so I can have a complete kit of parts ready to fit.

I was getting rather depressed with the whole van project earlier this week as I seemed to be spending a whole lot of money and not making much progress. I've spent several hours during the week and the whole of today stripping out the worn steering linkages and replacing all the joints however. It's all back together again now and it feels like I've made some real progress so I'm thinking rather more positively about it all now. I also replaced the sway bar (anti-roll bar) linkages too. I think the ones that came off may have been the original 28 year old ones. They were made entirely from rust anyway! A quick test drive just around the houses here and it does seem to feel a lot nicer but that may just be my imagination, I need a longer run really. Hopefully that's the end of assorted rattling and clonking noises from the front end though.

Next job on the van is to take it to the body shop on Monday to have its dent repaired. A replacement for the broken door mirror was delivered last week but it was damaged so had to be returned. I'll have to wait for another one to be sent before I can fix that.

All progress on the white Spitfire has come to a halt at the moment as Karl was involved in a serious road accident and is still recovering. I'm not in a hurry for it at the moment though so I'll catch up with that project later. I did take part in the Club Triumph Round Britain Reliability Run in the end despite having to withdraw my own entry due to the Spitfire not being ready. Instead I went as co-driver in a Triumph Acclaim (yeah, I know it's made from Honda parts but it has a Triumph badge on it!). The run was hard work as usual but I'm glad I got the opportunity to take part. Thanks Caroline for inviting me to join your team.

The race car is still in the garage gathering dust. It's due out for its only competitive event of this year on the 25th October at the Birkett relay race. I'm looking forward to being able to get on the track again. I have now ordered a new trailer to transport the race car. It's a proper enclosed box trailer and should be pretty good. The trailer is currently being built (yes, I actually bought something new that doesn't need fixing as soon as I get it home!) and should be ready in time for me to use it for the Birkett weekend if there are no delays. The timings will be tight though as I'm hoping to collect the trailer on the Friday, bring it home, load the car and then go directly to Silverstone! The back up plan is to hire a trailer for that weekend from one of two local companies I've found but I'd rather avoid that expense if at all possible.