On the 6th December, I took part in the Johnny Herbert Karting Challenge to raise money for KartForce, but of course, this plays a part of my preparations for the BRKC and also trying things that I’ve not done before in motorsport. Racing against ex-F1, touring car and professional drivers head-to-head, I hoped would only enhance my skills on the track.
I was placed in a team of six (the team was named by the organiser as the “Speedy Sailors”). None of us had never met before, so we had no idea of each others experience, style or anything else about each other! In order to get to Capital Karts in London, the venue for the JHKC, I had to set off at 5.30am to travel the 120 miles from my home to the track – so a very early start for me. As I posted on my Facebook page at the time, motorsport isn’t always the glamorous lifestyle that a lot of people imagine it to be; sitting in your car in the rain, staring at a brick wall at the venue, eating two Slimming World cereal bars with no phone battery left because you used it as a GPS on the trip up.
I was one of the first arrivals at the track and, as such, none of my new teammates had signed in at that time. I went into the venue and got changed into my racing attire (including my new gaskinracing.com visor decal!), but from that point onwards, the day passed by very quickly; I found a teammate, and we went on the track walk together (along with some of his friends who were excellent at giving advice). Then it was the driver briefing, followed by official photographs and the demonstration of the crazy kart (I have to say they look fantastic fun but I don’t think my wife would have been happy with me buying one and sticking it in the boot on the way home!).
Now time for the racing! With five members of our team present for qualifying, we each set ourselves about 10 minutes on track, including driver changes, for us to get used to the circuit and to try and set our best time to cement our grid position in the race starting just a few minutes later.
One of our drivers, Jamie Chadwick, was a revelation; she was absolutely fantastic and whilst going out first, managed to set the best time of the session. Taking nothing away from any of the rest of the team (I thought we had a brilliant team given our experience), but Jamie was the stand-out driver against some really tough competition.
It was only whilst I was talking team tactics in the pit lane that I realised how inspiring the KartForce drivers were. I don’t want to dwell on their disabilities, because when it came to the racing, they were anything but. I cannot imagine how I would be able to continue racing if I had experienced some of the injuries that these drivers had suffered. It just highlighted to me how important the KartForce charity is and all of the behind the scenes work that they must do.
I requested to go towards the end of the qualifying session, in order to try and optimise the kart temperature and the spacing out on track. Clear air was at a premium; whilst this is a really long circuit (the longest in the UK) with 24 karts on track, the action was chaotic.
I don’t think I performed too badly, as you can see the footage below, I was frustrated by one of the slower drivers in front of me, but that’s always going to happen this kind of the event.
After qualifying, we finished in tenth, which we all thought was punching above our weight, especially as a couple of all-pro teams qualified lower down the order. We realised that qualifying was only one good lap and we would have to complete 3 hours worth of these lap times to compete with the leaders, but we were positive and hoping for a podium position (maybe that was a little bit optimistic given the competition we were up against).
After a short break, Jamie made her way to the grid where there was the slight delay caused by Johnny Herbert himself being accosted by a fan and signing autographs. The start wasn’t too bad for our team; Jamie managed to make her way up into 7th before dropping down the order after a coming together with Johnny at the end of her stint.
I had asked to go in second after Jamie, just so I could get my first stint out of the way quickly and hopefully build on the work she had done, meaning I could then really help the team with the pit board, the timings and the order in which the drivers were going to race.
When Jamie came in, I jumped into the seat and raring to go, I left the pits without adjusting the pedal heights. There’s quite a big height difference between myself and Jamie and maybe this was not thought out as well as it could have been. I raced for a few laps with the pedals on their closest position, before doing a change out on track (by slipping my feet underneath the adjustable pedals – don’t try this at home!). Once I found my flow, I was quite happy, but yet again I seemed to attract the slower drivers in front of me on a circuit that seemed to be very difficult to overtake on.
I found this very frustrating; I tried to make some clean manoeuvres but everytime I tried to make the move the door was shut. In making these attempts, I was being overtaken by some of the faster drivers behind (some for position, but most already putting a lap on our team).
When I did eventually manage to get past the other driver, it wasn’t as clean as I had hoped. I was furious after the incident, thinking that the other driver had cut across me and deliberately steered into me, but now looking at the video I’ll admit that it was a bit of a lunge on my part. After a few laps of clear air and much faster lap times, I saw our pit board being held out for a scheduled driver change and one lap later that was my first stint over.
I quickly grabbed some lunch and a drink of water before heading straight back out to the pit lane and saw that we had fallen from our starting position of 10th, to 15th place, but we were still feeling positive that we could finish in the top half of the field.
The next few drivers made no impact on 14th place and eventually we slipped down into 17th place at the halfway stage before it was my turn to jump in again for my second stint.
Our driver change wasn’t slow, but the other team pitting at the same time were quicker. Our pit lane position was directly in front of the exit and so I just stuck my foot down and went, despite the kart to the left of me being slightly in front at that point (I wasn’t going to lose another position at that stop!). I was determined to push to the limit on my final stint, and I was feeling pretty smooth, until I came across some more traffic which held me up. I had also noticed that the drivers around me were getting slightly rougher and that moves that wouldn’t have been attempted in the first half of the race were being forced through in the second – I felt a fair few of these, but there was nothing too violent whilst I was on track (as time went on and the race went into the final hour more of the 50/50 and in some cases 25/75 moves were being attempted).
I finished my stint and the next part was actually what I found the hardest; not being in control of the team’s finishing position and just watching the other team members go out on track, nervously waiting and watching the timings board to see whether we were going to lose any other positions or even gain some!
One lap from the end there was one final twist. Carl was bringing our kart home and was doing an excellent job of holding everyone up! The drivers were forming a train behind him as he went into the first corner of the final lap. Past the hairpin at the pit exit, he still had 6 drivers behind him, but as he ran slightly wide on the exit, he left a gap for one of the drivers to squeeze alongside and attempt to complete the move at the next corner. This manoeuvre opened the door others to go through the same gap, but two corners later at full throttle, Carl was trying to maintain his line, but he got squeezed against, and then up the barriers, and for a moment our hearts were in our mouths when all 4 wheels came off the ground and the kart was launched into the air. Fortunately, nobody was injured and it did create a great talking point at the end of the race.
I’m not quite sure where the Speedy Sailors ended, but in all fairness it doesn’t really matter; it was a fantastic experience and I think everyone really enjoyed the opportunity to race, no matter what their abilities. Despite only meeting at 10 o’clock in the morning, by the end of the race, it was like we had known each other for longer and had a great camaraderie within our team.
Surprisingly, I think the thing that will stick with me most from the event is not racing the professionals, but being motivated by the KartForce drivers and their achievements in the face of adversity.
Below, is the commentary of the whole event (200 minutes long!) if you would like to listen to it, and relive the event!
Featured image taken by Helen Hooker and more from the event can be found at: http://www.photoblog.com/girafferacing/2015/12/06/the-johnny-herbert-karting-challenge.html.