Racing is never dull. For evidence, see the exploits of car number 21 in the Radical SR1 Cup last weekend at Oulton Park.
The weekend started with huge strides being made in practice, which you can read about here, before a disastrous wet qualifying outing, an exhilarating sixth-place finish in race one (having been as high as fourth going into the last corner) and then a 'did not finish' in race two. Some DNF it was, too, but more on that later.
The Cheshire circuit was round two of the SR1 Cup, which I'm contesting this year as my first taste of competitive motor sport. The morning’s 20-minute qualifying session was the first experience for most of the grid (including myself) of driving the car in the wet.
There was a lot to cram into the 20 minutes: working out just how much grip there was in the car in the wet, where said grip was on the circuit, if there was any standing water, where the wet-weather braking and turn-in points were, racing lines… and that’s before we'd set about trying to set two fast laps to decide grid positions for races one and two.
In the end, there was far more grip out there than I believed, and a far too cautious approach - coupled with the learning period being reduced by a safety car period mid-session - resulted in 10th place on the grid for both races. The timing sheets gave even more away: most drivers were improving their times by two to three seconds a lap, so those who pushed harder earlier were rewarded with the faster times towards the end of the session.
A few hours later, when we headed out on the formation lap for race one, the circuit was practically dry again. There had been no more rain, and the combination of humid conditions and plenty of track action in the meantime allowed the Oulton Park surface to return to something approaching its Friday best. Game on.
The grid places on the start line at Oulton Park are closely packed together, unlike the greater distance between cars at Silverstone a fortnight earlier. This should have provided ample opportunity for overtaking on the start line, providing the start is not made a mess of. This is something I promptly did, reacting slowly to the lights and dumping the clutch too quickly.
Nevertheless, a couple of places were made up on the first lap, and a few laps later I became locked in a tight tussle for sixth with Peter Tyler and Lewis Gee. It was my first experience for some real wheel-to-wheel racing on a tight track after a somewhat lonely time on the wide open spaces of the full Silverstone Grand Prix circuit.
A fine experience it was too to finally race alongside others, and it was amazing how quickly the confidence builds to really run close to people, and the trust and understanding you can have with others to be both firm and fair.
The battle with Gee and Tyler was one I had looked to have emerged from on top until, heading into the last corner of the last lap, I promptly locked the brakes under no pressure and spun, dropping back down from fourth to sixth. You should always push in racing, but there’s a lesson in there somewhere about knowing when to accept your lot…
Still, it was a confidence-boosting result ahead of race two, although in that race another sluggish start ended hopes of any real first corner progress. Places were also harder to come by for the first lap, and I found myself in an early battle for eighth.
A chance to overtake presented itself as we came out of the second chicane and Knickerbrook. It started off well: I got a good corner exit, picked up a slipstream, pulled out to the right, got past; all good so far. But suddenly I had two wheels on the grass as a kink to the left suddenly tightened on me ahead of the entrance to fast right-hander at Druids, and my Radical fired across the track straight into the barriers at 120mph.
This was not fun. It happened very quickly. It hurt. And in truth, it’s a tricky one to recall exactly. I have a few images of the crash and what I can recall, but there are gaps. I remember the pass, not knowing where the car was subsequently, going on the grass, the moment of impact, and the final resting point. You don’t really have time to react once you known you’ve lost control. It might sound a cliché, but it really does happen very quickly.
What a testament to the safety of the Radical SR1 that I could unclip my safety belts and get out of what was left of the car to the safety of the marshal post. I’d never recommend a high-speed crash, but if you must do it, do it in one of these.
I didn’t dare look behind at the now written-off SR1 behind me as the quick-reacting marshals guided me into the ambulance for a check over from two incredibly friendly, helpful and knowledgeable chaps from the St John’s Ambulance.
The safety car was out at this point while the wreck was cleared, and at the end of the race I was handed over to Oulton Park’s medical team of chief medical officer Sam Whitehouse and doctors Sumit Mitra and James White, completing the lap in the back of a BMW X5 and straight into the medical centre for observation and some tests.
Despite the impact, I’d escaped with only a concussion. The strength of the car had saved me from any broken bones and, impressively and scarily, I was informed the HANS (Head and Neck Safety) device I’d been wearing had most likely saved my life, such was the force of the impact. A sobering thought, one heightened by seeing the pile of bits from my car piled up in Parc Ferme as I walked out of the medical centre.
Still, the concussion will heal, as will the damaged pride, so it’s onto Snetterton in mid-July for round three of the championship. Bring it on.
The last word here though must go to all the marshals, St John’s Ambulance, and medical staff at Oulton Park, and the staff at Radical. All wonderfully expert and supportive folk to whom, it’s fair to say, I owe a big one.
Read more Radical race diary entries