One of the earliest memories I have of watching live motorsport is of a British Touring Car Championship race at Brands Hatch in the mid-1990s.
Alain Menu (I think) led the field into the Paddock Hill Bend for the first corner of the last race of the season, but halfway down the hill managed a perfect pirouette that caused what is to this day the biggest pile up I’ve ever seen.
Cold tyres were to blame, the formation lap of the short Indy circuit not being sufficient to get them up to temperature. Last time I saw a BTCC race at Brands Indy they were still doing two formation laps as a result of Menu’s spin.
The prospect of driving around Paddock, particularly at the start of a race, has excited and terrified me in equal measure ever since. I’d driven around it in a Ford Fiesta ST on a wet December track day a couple of years ago, but never in a racing car. Until this weekend that is, because Brands was the location for the last round of the Radical SR1 Cup race series.
My last attempt of the weekend at Paddock on the first lap of the last race of the season ended in a mini-Menu-style pile-up. Those who’ve followed my progress this season will not be surprised at my ability to find trouble and keep the fibreglass makers at Radical busy, but for once at least it wasn’t my fault, honest. More on that later.
One of many things to like about the SR1 Cup is the quality of the circuits it has visited this year. We’ve had the full, most challenging layouts at Silverstone, Oulton Park and Snetterton, and Brands was no different as the full Grand Prix circuit was in use.
An epic track it is, too, one that dare I say it is even Nurburgring-esque with the gradient and camber changes, kerbs you can attack, and the sheer speed in which you can tackle corners like Hawthorns and feel that lovely downforce of the SR1 at work. Throw in Paddock, a fairground ride you want to keep buying a ticket to, and you’ve got surely the UK’s most exciting race track.
Slow starts have been the norm for me this season in learning the tracks but not so in the morning practice session, a thorough video session with coach Roger Bromiley the night before, and the perfect set-up being found from the outset (a disconnection of the rear anti-roll bar allowing for more rear-end grip), allowing me to be on the pace straight away.
I ended up in fourth place behind the three outstanding drivers this season in Dave Morgan, Rob Watkins and Mark Richards. Might a challenge for a podium place be on?
Erm, no. One norm of the season that was repeated was my ability to balls up qualifying and never get a clear lap in, a combination of safety car, yellow flags, and slower cars being encountered on flying laps the trio of excuses I’m using for only managing ninth on the grid for both races. My best time was 1.1sec slower than my best in practice that morning, a time which if repeated would have put me fourth on the grid for the race.
Another norm that was repeated was a terrible start in race one. It’s tricky to get off the line at Brands, the brake needing to be covered to stop you rolling down the hill. The red lights also seemed to stay on for an age, and when they came off my reactions were slow and I emerged from Paddock in 10th. At least everyone made it round.
What followed next was the most enjoyable battle of the season. I was fifth in a group of six cars vying for fifth place. One by one I managed to pick off four of my rivals, every single move happening up the inside of Surtees heading out onto the back of the circuit. Then came the move for fifth at the same place, but my move up the inside blindsided my opponent as he cut towards the apex at the last minute. We banged wheels, I spun and was back down to 10th again.
Still, the clean air allowed me to put in lap times that were over a second quicker than those in the group I’d just been in and was now chasing again, proof that perhaps if I’d have been a bit more patient I’d the chance to pass would have arisen again and a fifth place, what would have been the best finish of the season for me, would have followed.
Ninth was the result though at the end and no prizes for guessing where the pass for that position on the last lap was made. Five out of six at Surtees wasn’t bad, I guess, and by the end the group were tantalisingly within sight again despite me having been facing the wrong way a few minutes earlier. Just one more lap…
To race two, then, the last of the season and a first corner which ended up having a bit of a non-school uniform day at the end-of-term feel to it. The car in front of me on the grid had a terrible start, and I got boxed in and was near the back of the field heading in Paddock.
I held the inside line, but the car to my outside got a bit of an Alain Menu-style wobble on with cold tyres (I know the feeling also, from my very first corner of the season at Silverstone), and crashed into my side.
This pitched me to the other side of the track where I was ploughed into from behind. I managed to limp away from the scene but was stuck in fourth gear, and the weird noises coming from the car and its reluctance to drive in a straight line convinced me to park up on the grass and switch off the ignition for the last time that season.
Still, at least my vantage point on the marshal post on the entrance to Druids allowed me the perfect vantage point to watch an incredible six-way battle for the lead and within that a two-way fight for the title between my teammate Morgan and the chasing Watkins.
The lead changed hands several times, and there were plenty more spins and offs within that, but Morgan (whose car had a nice green tinge to the front of it at the end after some impromptu lawn mowing) eventually got a third place behind race winner Watkins to take the title.
And that was that. Season over, but what fun it’s been. We set out in the SR1 Cup at a first test day back in April at Snetterton to tell you just what it’s like to go racing and find out if anyone can do it, have fun while doing so, and see if you can get bitten by the bug en route.
So what is it like to go racing? It’s addictive first and foremost, at all times fast, challenging, exciting, and competitive, it’s sometimes terrifying, occasionally hurts, frequently frustrating, but crucially always rewarding. And, yes, anyone can do it, and get up to speed pretty quickly at the same time; I was pleased to have not stalled it the first time I got in the car...
The progress in driving from round to round was clear to see, as clearly that bug had got under everyone's skin as well as mine.
The SR1 Cup is simply a great way to start your racing career. There is no faster rookie championship in the UK, nor one that offers such an all-encompassing package of racing and support for the cost. And on a human level, you’ll meet some great people along the way who race hard but fair, and will always shake your hand and have a laugh in parc ferme.
If Radical’s foolish enough to let me back on the grid next year, hopefully, I’ll see you there.
Read the Radical race diary entries