Scotcars on track at Silverstoneposted in MSPOR30 | 09 | 2010

    YOU KNOW that horrible feeling when, as a five-year-old, you walked into your new classroom for the first time? Well, you wouldn't expect to feel that as a 52-year-old, would you? Tell, you what; that's exactly how I felt completing my first five laps of Silverstone in the opening practice for this weekend's Britcar 24-Hours race.

    Prior to steering the TeamJota-prepared Mazda MX-5 out of the pitlane exit, my only track experience had been at Knockhill and Croft, both shortish tracks, and definitely narrow strips of tramac. Silverstone? Well that's a whole different kettle of fish altogether. It's huge!

    What perspective I'd had of race circuits disappeared immediately; from the comfortable environment of Knockhill, Silverstone's vast acres of featureless terrain made the racetrack feel like the landing strip of an aircraft carrier.

    That, in turn, made picking up reference points for braking and turning-in to corners a whole new art. Of course, it didn't help that, to be honest, I really didn't know my way round the circuit.

    Don't laugh. Like me, we've all watched races — F1, BTCC and Le Mans Series — at Silverstone on the TV; and we all know the famous corners like Stowe, Club, Abbey and Bridge. But we know them from the advantage of a raised height perspective. Believe me, it's a whole different ball game when your eyeline is just 24ins above the track strapped into the open-topped two-litre MX-5.

    I'll be brutally honest; I felt like a complete dork when I climbed out of the car at the end of my five 'installation laps'. I felt I'd made mess of most corners; couldn't at any stage approaching any corner, picture where I was on the lap; felt painfully slow and, to be honest, completely out of my depth.

    While the pro drivers — Mazda is running two MX-5s, one with pro drivers Mark Ticehurst and Owen Mildenhall, the other, mine, has former BRM F1 veteran Mike Wilds — were discussing subtle differences in braking points, I was struggling to find my way, literally, round the track. After five laps, my best time was a rather embarrassing and pedestrian 2min 39.09; Mark's fastest was 2.16.96.

    Lunchtime — dominated, as you'd expect when 'athletes' are involved, by chicken and pasta — was spent in a mire of self questioning and negativity. Sitting down at the table, Mike casually asked: "How'd you get on?"

    I almost bit his head off: "Crap!"

    I knew I could drive the car; I'd proved that at Croft. But what I didn't know was Silverstone; I needed more time in the car, on the track. Grabbing the bull by the horns, I had a quiet word with TeamJota boss Sam Hignett and asked for more time in the car in Thursday's final session. Thankfully, he too had come to the same conclusion. Result: I'd get 30mins of the one-hour session.

    It's actually quite startling the difference you can feel between one session and another. Unco-ordinated and lost in the first session, unable to piece one corner to the next, I'll admit I wasn't feeling too positive when I was strapped into the car.

    But once out on to the track, there was an instant feeling of familiarty. I'd been here before. I knew how Copse fed into the the Maggotts and Becketts combination allowing me to carry speed through Chapel on to the Hangar Straight. The right-hander at Stowe had a natural braking point and turn-in, and I realised it fed on to a straight down to the tight left-hander at Club.

    The tight left-hander at Abbey too was better taken in second in the Mazda, allowing me to keep the revs high through the right-hand part of the corner before flicking up into third as I dived beneath the overhead walkway before finding fourth as I swept into the right-hander at Bridge. I also had my line and braking point for the entry into the left-handers at Priory and Brooklands which then eased me into the never-ending right-hander at Luffield.

    My times started coming down consistently and by the end of the session I'd lowered my best time to 2min 24.93secs, an improvement of more than 14secs. Mark again was quickest in the session, showing all the consistency of a pro driver to clock 2:16.73. He'd improved by only 0.23s, and he'd done that on a new set of Dunlop tyres.

    So, I'm back in the ballpark with decent times, and well in the mix with the other three 'amateur' drivers in the car. Chris, 'my engineer', greeted me with a beaming smile: "That was better." Then team boss Sam caught me as I was taking my helmet off: "Good job."

    Ok, they didn't necessarily make me feel like a racing driver, but I definitely didn't feel like such a hindrance and deadweight on the team. I felt as though I was contributing. But much as I was determined to improve my new baseline performance, I knew everything would have to begin from scratch on Friday morning; torrential rain is forecast for Friday practice.

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    Jim McGill

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