Rachel's Diary: Radical Racing
Last Updated: 30/07/16 4:58pm
Sky Sports' Rachel Brookes swaps reporting duties for racing as she makes her motorsport debut at Oulton Park.
I am writing this with the equivalent of post-holiday blues - only In my case, I guess you would call it post-racing blues!
Since the start of the year, one date has been stuck in my mind: July 16.
It all began in November last year when my oldest brother, Peter, suggested I go along to a track day he was doing at Brands Hatch and try his Radical SR1. It was cold and damp but having watched my brothers race in the series before, I thought I could do that.
Peter had taken his SR1 car and my other brother Matt, who won the 2014 SR1 Cup, was trying out an SR3, the big brother of the SR1. I went out in the SR3 first and loved it, although my instructor was on dual controls.
Then I tried the SR1, still with an instructor but no dual controls this time. After being shown what it could do, it was my turn for a few laps to see if I liked it. I loved it, especially as it was quicker than almost every other car there so I got to overtake a lot of people.
On track days, you have to move aside for a quicker car and let them pass so I can't really claim them as overtakes! I got out of the car and was asked if I would do a race in it. I said I would but only if they thought I wouldn't be pootling around at the back. They assured me they had seen enough to think I could have a good battle with others in the class but I would need lots of seat time.
That is how on a wet Friday morning I arrived at the Oulton Park paddock to sign on for the race weekend.
Practice day was divided up and everyone got two twenty-minute sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon.
My first run was on a slowly drying track and I enjoyed the challenge of finding where the grip was, looking for the dry line and spotting where you could still hit the apex. It was a decent session but I was praying it would fully dry out so I could find the limits of the car. Five minutes before my second session, it started raining again. The first few laps were cautious but once I found a safe line, I felt happier.
Then the heavens opened. What had been fine rain got heavier and standing water began to appear on the track. One of my favourite bits of the circuit had always been the straight along the back to the chicane before Knickerbrook and the right-hander that followed as I found I was able to go flat from the previous chicane up to the 100-metre brake board, get on the brakes hard and throw the car through the chicane. For some reason that part of the circuit held no fear for me.
Once out of that section, you have to go flat out, climb Clay Hill and head along to Druids under the trees where the track stays wet and slippy for longer than anywhere else. It was almost the end of the session and as I came up the hill my foot was still down when I hit a patch of water. Unfortunately, I was a couple of degrees off straight with my steering wheel and as we hit the water it sent us into a spin and off the track.
We seemed to slide across the grass for an age and all I was thinking was "put the clutch down, save the starter motor". I found the clutch just in time and after losing a barge board on the grass we were eventually halted by the tyre barrier. It was only a small rear impact but enough to need a new rear wing and get some dents bashed out of the bodywork.
It was only when we looked at the onboard footage afterwards that we noticed I was doing 149kph when I hit the water and my instructor Andy said it was the biggest off he has had as a passenger ever! I didn't think the crash had affected me other than embarrassment but my pace through that section for the rest of the weekend told me otherwise.
The two afternoon sessions were tough and I ended the day fearing I would be languishing at the back despite my best efforts. I had done three practice starts in all my time in the car and none had been perfect. On Friday night, I was honestly wishing myself 24 hours ahead when it would all be over.
I wasn't expecting to sleep much on Friday night but a pep talk from my brothers helped as well as Roger Green from Radical and my amazing instructor Andy. It is easy to watch from home and say you could do it, but until you have been out there, stepped out of your comfort zone and gone a few hundred miles further than that, you really have no idea what it is like.
I had not done a qualifying session before so I had no idea what to do but had discussed with Andy the best place for me to be on track. With 15 cars in the field, I would let at least 10 cars go out ahead of me and let them battle and stay out of trouble further back but with space ahead for my quick lap. I got to the assembly area at just the right time to take up my spot in the queue but unfortunately when I got out onto the track I took my out lap too easily and a couple of cars behind me went past.
By the end of my out lap as I built up the speed to cross the line, I noticed I was catching the car in front. I assumed it would be okay and he would pull away and I would have someone to chase. Unfortunately, I ended up catching up with him at every corner while he opened a small gap on the straights.
Slow corners have always been something I have managed to do reasonably well. For some reason, I can take a lot of speed into them and get on the power early out of them, they hold no fear for me.
By the end of my first flying lap, I was frustrated at not only the car in front but at the conditions too. The wet track was slowly drying but not quickly enough. I dropped back for my second quick lap to let the car ahead get away but again by the hairpin I had caught up with him and my lap was ruined.
I tried to get past but he always had a little bit more on the straights, so I dropped back even further for the next lap but not so far that the lap wouldn't be a safe banker lap.
Again, I caught up with him within half a lap but couldn't find a way past so I dropped back a massive amount, now conscious that those that went out first could soon appear in my mirrors. Luckily, I finally managed to drop back enough to get a clear run and sure enough that was my fastest lap of the session.
They take your two fastest laps for the grids for the two races so I had to go again straightaway but it wasn't as fast next time around. Then the chequered flag fell and it was over already. I drove into Parc Ferme and looked around for anyone with a timesheet. I lifted my visor and my instructor Andy said "well done, 13th!" I was delighted! I knew I had to be quicker than the guy I kept catching but to find out there was someone else behind as well was fantastic news.
As I climbed out of the car, Johnny Herbert was walking towards me. He had said he would try to come and I was thrilled he made it given it was the Sky F1's team only weekend off in July. It was brilliant to see him and with good news too! Ex drivers are a hard bunch to please! Damon Hill then messaged to ask how I got on and Johnny replied telling him I had a lot of work to do! See what I mean?!
By race time, it was raining again.
I had obviously watched what happens before a race but suddenly I was trying to remember all the things I had to do. Sat on the grid for the formation lap was my first chance to do another practice start. With it now being a wet track, I had to find out where to hold the revs as it would now be maybe 2000 less than for a dry start.
Unfortunately, the guy in front of me stalled. I waited for him to get away but by then it wasn't a practice start at all, more a roll off the line. We then lined up for real and the five-second board came out.
Lights on......lights off ...and he stalled again.
The grid was staggered and I was in the box as far left as you can get so when he stalled, the guy next to me went through a gap to the right. I had nowhere to go but two wheels on the grass to get past, which I did and got away.
Having watched the guy in front take it easier than me through the hairpin, I realised that would be my best opportunity.
So the next lap, I set myself up to get on the power early out of the chicane that followed the hairpin and overtook as we exited. I was really enjoying it but then the yellow flags came out. There was a car pulled off at the side of the track. "One down," I thought. Then the flags appeared for a slippery surface at, yes you guessed it, Clay Hill! One of the cars was dropping oil. As I got to Druids I saw a car off in the gravel. "Excellent, another one out!...Oh no, it's Peter."
My brother had been the first to get to the oil and spun off into the gravel. I slowed down to see if he was ok before the racer in me kicked in. I put my foot down and went for it. Then the safety car came out.
I had never been out for a safety car before so lifted off enough to show I was lifting and tried to catch the rest of the field but it turns out I lifted off too much. It allowed the guys behind me to get a lot closer in the closing stages and now it was raining harder too. I was being chased down but felt in control and able to keep ahead until the last corner, Lodge. I could see him in my mirrors and stupidly decided to take a different line out of the corner.
I went wide and kept tighter on the exit as he had had a look up the inside and I wanted to defend that position. However, as any racer will tell you, stick to the racing line if it's wet, or the driest line, as you will force him off the racing line. Instead, I was the one on the wet stuff and as I put my foot down the car spun 360 degrees. I was facing the right way at least and had got the clutch down so I restarted the car and set off only to see the chequered flag.
He had overtaken me just metres from the line. I was gutted. I hadn't known it was the last lap as I hadn't once looked at my pit board. If I had I would have seen some interesting communications from Johnny! He even put up P1 at one stage but got told off!
I got back to Parc Ferme and was still cross with myself but it was a good lesson to learn. The race included spins, oil spills, safety cars and rain but I had finished and but for the last spin would have been 11th.
Race Two was trickier - and it was raining again.
For this race we lined up with our second best time from qualifying but the grid looked pretty much the same and I had the same guy in front of me. The rain had been heavier and if I pulled away and put two wheels on the grass again my race would be over before turn one. So as we lined up after the formation lap I pointed it to the middle - the only option if he stalled again.
I had a car to my right going for exactly the same gap so had to have the better start. It wasn't bad, but neither was anyone else's. I was fighting for position with the car that had been to my right but as we got closer and closer into Turn One, I lifted off and backed out.
I hadn't had contact with another car before and had no idea what to expect. I should have held my line but there was no way both of us were getting through that gap. The conditions were awful and in the SR3 race previously one driver had even pulled into the pits and got out of his car because he didn't want to drive in it. The conditions had improved for us but it was still difficult.
All the dry lines you had tried to master had changed I had to go wider at the hairpin, I couldn't hit the apex at the fast left hander because a pool of water had now collected there. All lap you are searching for any signs of a dry line or any very wets parts to avoid. You have to short shift instead of going to 9000 revs before changing gear. So much to remember.
I was dropping back and I knew it. Yellow flags were out at Clay Hill - a car had done exactly what I had on Friday, only he had had made contact with the Armco and his race was over. The safety car came out while his car was retrieved. This time, I didn't lift off as much and quickly caught the pack until I was breathing down the guy in front.
It was the same as qualifying, I would catch him at the corners and look for a way past but then he would get away on the straight. After a lap and half of chasing, I tried to go around the outside at the hairpin and we went through side by side. On the exit he got into the chicane first but I had carried more speed in and with that momentum was able to overtake him on the straight. I was buzzing.
Straights sound simple and they are. Just get your foot down and leave it there until the very last minute, brake hard and throw the car into the corner. But it was my weak point. I could almost hear Andy saying "Yes, finally!"
I pulled away and got through the chicane up to Knickerbrook and began to climb Clay Hill when I suddenly started losing power. I assumed I was in too high a gear so dropped down but still I was losing power. I tried everything but on the final straight it died again and I limped around to the pits.
As I pulled into the pitlane, my heart sank as I could see the chequered flag ahead. I crossed the beam so I was classified but as I limped into the pits the guy I had overtaken had snatched back the position. Gutted! I had found the racer in me but too little too late.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would do it again in a heartbeat. It was an incredibly steep learning curve. When I agreed to do it I had done nothing in motorsport. I had watched it on TV, I had been to a paddock and watched my brother race and of course I have worked in F1, but I had never driven a vehicle on track. Some assumed that I had raced before. Others thought the fact that I was doing it meant that I was good and would surely get on the podium.
When I sat in the car waiting for the race, I wasn't scared of what might happen, or of crashing or of being hit. I was scared of not being any good, of being slow and disappointing those who had put so much effort into getting me there.
I was doing it because if you offered that opportunity to anyone working in motorsport who doesn't already drive you would not find a single person who would say no. I learned an incredible amount, and not just about racing. I had mechanical issues, crashes, moments where I caught the car when I was sure I was going off, and I have pleasantly surprised myself too. I wish it had been a dry weekend and the conditions had been better. Maybe next time!
One thing really sticks out for me that I will definitely bear in mind in future. When you get out of the car and it hasn't been great, the last thing you want to do is an interview. So I will be much nicer to the drivers in future...Well in Hungary at least ;-)
PS: Thanks to everyone at Radical, everyone who came on the day or sent messages of support, to Johnny for showing up, and especially Andy who put up with me for the last six months! See you soon!