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?

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