At first light I snuck out of the caravan as quietly as I could for my solo trip across the wide open plains of Lincolnshire to the circuit. This gave me chance to reflect on the last two days. What an amazing journey it has been so far.
The skies are grey, with more than a hint of rain hanging in the clouds over the park… Mini Challenge Race Coordinator Rea is the second lady to impress me this weekend.
Taking me to one side to brief me on the format of a race day, it can be more than a little confusing if you’re the new boy and you’re not used to all the formalities…. I had no worries there – Rea took care of all that, making sure I was in the right place at the right time, leaving me free to focus on thoughts of driving. They even sorted out complimentary tickets for my little army of family and friends due to arrive later in the morning.
They even sorted out complimentary tickets for my little army of family and friends due to arrive later in the morning.
Time passed very quickly and I was soon whisked away to the driver briefings. The Clerk of the Course ran us through all the regular safety procedures plus the details for a potential two lap safety car start. With rain forecast the racing might have to be started in this way…uurgh.
The Director of the Mini Challenge Series- Mr Anthony Williams… (The Bernie Ecclestone character in this story) then gave us all a bit of a pep talk….. Well actually, that’s putting it lightly… Williams read us the Riot Act… it was just like being back home at Rye House with my karting buddies at a ‘Monday Night Madness’ sprint meeting in the corporate Biz karts. Regular bollockings were dished out by Rye Race Director- Steve Cutting – usually for bad driving standards and generally taking the piss with the pushing, shoving, bashing and crashing the House hire fleet…. Sorry – we did misbehave in those days, but it was so much fun!
The Mini Challenge series has built up a bit of a reputation in recent months as a playground for spoilt rich kids to car crash their way into motorsport at the expense of others… Williams was clearly having none of it… The previous race meeting at Oulton Park had resulted in a lot of damage, with hefty repair bills to follow. At least one of the young drivers in the room (whom I won’t mention by name) had already racked up a hand full of penalty points in as many months on his competition licence and was in danger of having it suspended…. Bernie – I mean Anthony – basically told them to ‘Wind their necks-in’…. There was a lot at stake (it was more than just twisted metal that needed mending)… It had just been announced in the Motorsport Press that the Mini Challenge Championship would be stepping up a gear next year to support the much-converted British GT Racing Program. The world of motorsport is watching.
With all that taken on-board, in less than half an hour at 9:30am we were all on track for the twenty minute qualifying session…. For the first laps I steadily warmed up the fresh qualifying rubber and brakes, increasing speed to the third tour…. Exiting the Hairpin at the end of Hall Bends and there is a car-shape hole in the tyre wall ahead, a bright green bumper on the kerb and a damaged Mini dragging its sorry arse around Barn Corner. I push-on regardless having passed the waved yellows and gun it down to Coppice – a big uphill left hand sweeper – taken flat out, real balls’y…. swing over to the left, keeping the power on, combine a dab of left foot braking to load up the front end and pitch it into Charlie’s 1…… the red flags are out before I make it to Charlie’s 2……. Two more cars had gone off and hit the barriers. Had the young guns listened to Uncle Bernie? No… no wonder he thinks racing drivers are idiots – he is right, many are.
A long wait…. Sat stationary on the main straight as damaged cars are towed away and barriers repaired by the orange army. The Clerk of the Course announces in my very uncomfortable ear piece that qualifying will resume in 2 minutes… but reduced to just a 10 minute session. I will have to get back on it straight away. At the green flag I take the opportunity to practice a standing start – it was the best one yet! I had been trying out the clutch starts in and around the Paddock at every opportunity – following a heads-up from Biz 7 Team mate & RHPK regular Piers Prior. He raced this same car at Donnington in the opening rounds of the season – finishing on the podium. The Sodi Kart World Champion is sometimes worth a listen to…
First lap of the restart – I quickly bring the tyres and brakes back-up to temperature… on approach to the last couple of bends, backing-off to widen the line for a faster, smoother exit for the long run down the straight and over the timing strips. Flat out through Coppice…. Charlie’s 1 & 2, nailed them!….. Park Corner – slow (could have been much better on the brakes)… Chris Curve – smashed-it!… Gooseneck – dynamite!….. Mansfield. ?… I didn’t get the chance…. A Mini was skating across the grass after a collision with the barrier…. A solitary tyre from the wall rolling towards the track……red flags… Game Over…. Mini Challenges top penalty points scorer had succeeded in going from hero to zero in less than 60 seconds. He had posted the pole position time on the previous lap and then promptly binned it half a lap later….. “I was on a hot lap…” Knucklehead.
Returning to the assembly area very disappointed, my mechanic Ollie could sense that I had the hump and drove the car back to the Paddock for me and left me to my thoughts. My head was down as I trudged up the hill, turning my back on the disastrous qualifying session. I felt quite lonely.
At the top of the hill, standing there was the smiling, friendly face of Kevin the landlord of my local pub ‘The Catherine Wheel’ in Albury …. My good pal and snooker league team mate had taken the time out to drive up from Hertfordshire for the day. I don’t even think he is all that much interested in motorsport but he made the trip regardless to see if I was OK. What a pal…. My mood improved as we talked and walked up to the Exceler8 HQ. The cloud lifted completely when by surprise I was greeted there by Kim, Charlie, Kiera, Jo and Mal waiting in the hospitality area. Omar had kindly zipped up to the main entrance on the pit scooter to escort the family in for me. Qualifying was forgotten as I enjoyed the warm and comforting embrace of family & friends as we passed the time to my first race of the day.
Lining up in position on the grid it started to spit with rain. The Clerk of the Course announces that the race is to be started behind a safety car for the first two laps, so we at least had a chance to warm-up the slick Dunlop racing rubber. We pulled away in formation at a controlled pace. Near the end of the first lap I dropped back some to gain a bit of space in order to find the grip levels during a faster second tour on the dampening track. Rounding onto the main straight, by surprise the safety car pulls into the pit lane a lap early – obviously the driver is not on the same page as everyone else! I’m caught with my pants down, in the wrong gear and the race is on.
The leading pack disappears into the distance and I’m struggling to make up the lost ground. I wrestle the Mini around on the slippery surface for the first few laps before finding some pace and I begin to draw in on the car ahead. Adrian Norman is a five year Mini Challenge veteran and is quicker out of the slow corners and down the straights, but I’m gaining on him in the fast flowing sections at the top of the circuit and the drop down to the Mountain. I fill his mirrors and get close enough to show my intentions for an over-take, very nearly pulling it off a few times on the narrow Cadwell circuit. Norman’s experience shows and he drives defensively, knowing exactly where to place his car to block my attempts. Lap after lap this duel went on, it was fantastic fun… I had arrived at the track thinking that as long as I got the chance to race wheel to wheel with someone I would be happy… I was very happy…. As the rain got heavier and the track wetter I set up for one big, last ditch attempt – through the tight and twisty Hall Bends on the final lap. Approaching the last hairpin and chasing hard, the back end gets loose in the second right hander and I have a massive tank slapper, swinging 90 degrees one way, then the other – Knucklehead! I came mighty close to planting it in the Armco. Somehow I had managed to gather it up and point us in the right direction to follow Norman across the line for a ninth place finish.
Both the Exceler8 cars had survived the treacherous conditions. Team mate Max had won the race and clinched the Championship – his Dad Nigel was the proudest man in Lincolnshire. The whole team was elated. The Exceler8 camp was a very happy place to be during the lunch time break.
As we moved into the afternoon the rain was relentless, and the circuit was absolutely drenched with standing water in multiple places to contend with. The Open Class Minis were to face dreadful conditions in their next race. I watched with much interest the young Burton Power sponsored lady racer Chloe Hewitt in the zebra stripe Mini tackle the very wet circuit. The third lady to impress me this weekend and a lovely family too with Dad Tony, Brother Freddie and the rest of the gang from Suffolk in support. Great to see you guys again.
2:15 pm – Ollie strapped me back into the Biz 7 Mini in readiness for our second race, wet weather tyres this time thank God and we made our way down to the assembly area for the last time. Still raining heavily, there was a lot of tension in the air. The Radical race cars had just been out, starting their race behind the safety car – within just 100 yards of the safety car pulling into the pit lane, three of the Radicals had aquaplaned into the barriers, and it was carnage. Thankfully no one was hurt, but some very expensive machinery was destroyed. There was talk amongst the officials of cancelling the remaining races…
Time dragged on for nearly an hour, whilst I sat in the car waiting for a decision to be made. Recovery trucks went back and forth, marshals sprang into action, barrier repairs were undertaken. It was all quite surreal, sitting there inert in my bubble inside the car, while this hive of activity played out before me through the windshield. Occasionally I could hear the sultry tones of the redhead Rea in my earpiece, keeping me updated. Biz Kart sponsor Chris Smith (a top flight JCW racer himself) was getting nervous with the situation as were the crew chiefs and team owner Justina… I could see it in their eyes and in their expressions each time they stuck their faces through the window into my bubble. I had to do a Raikkonen on them in the end – “leave me alone, I know what I’m doing”…. They were getting on my tits…. I had to shut the window, as much for the rain as for the negative vibes pouring in… You lot ought to try racing a stock car around the Wimbledon Stadium oval in the snow on Boxing Day I thought… this will be a piece of cake!
The rain eased off very slightly and we got a‘15 minutes to go’ signal from Rea…. I was desperate for a pee and had to quickly decamp… I was glad to stretch my cramping legs and grab a quick fleeting moment with Kim and the kids – plus a subtle reminder “Be careful out there Daddy”. Ollie shoehorned me back into the car, of all of the team Ollie was the one I had worked most closely with. If he had any doubts I couldn’t read them in his face. He gave me a reassuring smile, a nod of confidence and a “You have got this Nick”. “No Pal” I say – “We have got this”.
It was a beautiful clutch start until I changed up to second gear and it bogged down (I hadn’t practiced that far before) – never mind… get on with it. Aquaplaning on the approach to Coppice, the familiar sight of Norman’s yellow Mini is just visible through the spray. Pressing on and attacking, I had several passing attempts during the opening laps, all in the corners. However, I suspect the motor in my Mini was a little tired and lacked a bit of punch at this late stage of the season. With outright power in short supply, I had no chance of overtaking on the straights. There was opportunities in the corners but it was high risk in these conditions… Maybe it’s an age thing; I’ve learnt over time, that you can’t win them all. I was enjoying myself….I was having the time of my life, a real racing driver again after all these years on one of the toughest circuits to master. I’d had a fantastic week, why chance throwing that away with a reckless lunge down the inside? For sure I could lap quicker than the guy ahead, but at what cost? And just for an eighth place… chicken? Perhaps. Sensible? Oh yes. Who’d of thought ‘Wild Card’ Griggs could do sensible! But on this day ‘Mild Card’ was happy to settle in on Norman’s bumper. He is a sound driver and I could trust in his racecraft to follow his lead closely and guide us to the finish line without incident. I savoured every single last yard of that glorious Cadwell Park racing circuit.
The #107 Biz 7 Mini was returned back home to Exceler8 in one piece to fight another day. Ollie was the first to share congratulations with, followed by the rest of the team, owner and sponsor, worry frowns had vanished, replaced with smiles of joy and relief. Also I am very glad to report that the rest of the field had indeed wound their necks in and made it home without too much drama, from what were – without doubt – the most challenging conditions the Cooper Class drivers had faced all season.
Endless gratitude to Mini Challenge, Biz Kart, Team Excelera8 and Cadwell Park for this fabulous experience, also many thanks to Rye House Kart Raceway for creating the opportunity in the first place, all of my fantastic family, friends, supporters and karting buddies at RHPK, Burton Power Performance, ITS Tools, Silverline Property Developments, Jeremias Chimney Systems and The Catherine Wheel – Albury….. Cheers Guys.