Qualifying started with a very tricky decision. The track was still wet but with two sessions before my own, we believed the track would be dry enough for slicks on the front and wets on the rear (the common tyre choice used for such intermediate conditions). With only a short session, and a two-and-a-half-minute lap in wet conditions, the time lost from making the wrong choice on tyres would be detrimental. We made the call, and headed out with slicks on the front, ready to give it everything!
Two laps into the session, having already set a ‘banker lap’, I knew the grip wasn’t there. The track was too cold and wet for the slick tyres to get up to anywhere near their working temperature. I dived into the pits, made the change, and headed out with just five minutes to go. Others were making this choice too so I knew the times would be getting quicker. As I started my first flying lap, I noticed two AM-class cars about two corners ahead of me fighting for track position. I made a mental note, and continued pushing. However, as I entered the infield section the two cars spun just fifty metres or so in front of me. Unfortunately, I had already committed to the corner and was left with nowhere to go as I made heavy impact with one of the now stationary cars. Unfortunately, the front end of the car was caved in and the engine had been forced backwards into the chassis on impact. The car was a write off.
After some thorough medical checks, I was cleared and headed back to the team. With Race 1 in just a couple of hours, there was no way the car was going to be repaired in time. Luckily, the circuit was located near the team’s Headquarters, and with some quick thinking, it was decided that our only chance was to use a spare car which the team had in the workshop. I had never driven this car before, nor had it been raced in over a year, however, if it allowed me to race, sign me up!
Using this spare car in the race required all of my competitors to sign a form, agreeing to let me change cars. If all of the competitors didn’t sign, I would be sent home and my weekend would be over. One of the things I have always loved about the Mini Challenge Cooper Class is the respect between drivers. No matter how heated things get on track, it stays on track. This was clearly shown as one-by-one all competitors (including my championship rival) signed the form to allow me to race.
Despite qualifying in 5th with my ‘banker lap’, a change of car meant that I started last on the grid for Race 1. However, as we entered the second lap I had managed to work my way up to P5. I was shocked at just how different the car felt, and it took me some laps to get used to the new handling characteristics. However, as my confidence grew, I climbed my way up the grid and found myself battling for first place with just a lap to go. Once again it was great racing and, after losing momentum from a late braking move, I crossed the finish line to take P3! A great result given our earlier misfortune and I was looking forward to seeing what we could do in Race 2 – starting from 4th with the reverse grid.
The dark clouds closed in as the five lights went out to start the final race of the year. It was door to door and about 4 cars wide as we entered turn one. I committed to my line. However, after the pack concertinaed up, I lost momentum on the exit of the corner and dropped back to P7 once again. Luckily, I was much more acclimatised to the car this time, and was able to wrestle my way back up the grid with a cocktail of late braking and switch-back manoeuvres. Yet again, I was in the fight for the lead as we entered the last lap of the race. Then the rain came. The field bunched back up and, with just one corner to go, first to fifth was separated by just a couple of seconds. I went defensive, attempting to protect my inside. However, with the reduced grip, offline was far too greasy and more than a handful of wheelspin on the exit of the last corner killed my run heading into the final straight. I dropped back to P5. Slightly disappointing, however it just goes to show how quickly things can turn against your favour in the heat of battle.
Looking back, we made the best use of the situation and getting on the podium while using a spare car, which I had never even sat in before, and fighting for the lead in both races, feels like some achievement. On a whole this year has been filled with ups and downs and to end the season P2 in the championship against drivers with close to a decade more experience than myself, is definitely an achievement to be thoroughly proud of. A huge thanks to everyone at Excelr8Motorsport for the non-stop work you guys have put in all year to supply me with the best set of wheels, to Credo Asset Finance for their support and to the organisers and competitors at Mini Challenge for such an enjoyable yet brutally, fiercely, gruellingly, awesomely competitive championship!