Well Donington 2015 turned out to be a weekend to remember! Strong performance in the free practice sessions resulted in an impressive top-ten qualifying position of 9th place on the grid for Race 1. The team were really happy with the result but as usual, I felt I could have done better. I was pleased of course but I really wanted to be nearer the top.
Race 1 started well for me, but then the dreaded “soft tyre” syndrome hit me. With the new regulations and the Race 2 grid being decided by fastest laps in Race 1 (rather than Race 1 finishing positions), we chose the soft tyres to gain quick laps early on in the race, which would (hopefully) lead to a favourable grid position in the next race.
People often ask me how this tyre regulation works, so here’s the explanation: during the BTCC season, competitors must use the Dunlop Sport Maxx “soft tyre” for one race at each of the circuits. The exception being Thruxton where the track surface is far too aggressive to allow the safe use of these tyres. Over the season each car must use them three times in Race 1, three times in Race 2 and three times in Race 3. Before Saturday’s qualifying, drivers must nominate the race in which they will use the tyres without the knowledge of other drivers’ strategies.
The soft tyres have a construction that uses a tread compound that is four steps softer than the standard tyres — this compound was developed in prototype endurance racing. The theory behind this is that these tyres will initially provide a minimum of one-second-per-lap performance advantage for the first three or four laps before the performance steadily drops off. This makes tyre management even more important in team strategy as obviously the car must be driven to last the race distance.
Add in the additional pesky little fact that the compound must be up to temperature to perform correctly, and with Donington’s cold conditions on the day, the drop-off in tyre performance came sooner than expected. Initially I had good pace and was lapping faster than the guys in front; I kept pulling back to give myself room for a fast lap (this is a tactic that is necessary now!) but by the time I had achieved a good, fast lap, I had no grip left in the tyres and was effectively a sitting duck. I ended up finishing back in 18th position, but thankfully my fast lap had earned me position 10 on the grid for Race 2.
Now with the normal tyres feeling good I was maintaining my tenth place when I had a minor incident with Andy Priaulx: as we exited the last corner he lost a lot of momentum because of his line through the chicane; this led to me running into the back of him which unsettled his car. But, deep breath and keep charging on. A few laps later, Priaulx still just in front, I was in sixth gear and just entering the first flat out corner of the infamous Craner Curves when his BMW locked up the inside, making me instinctively pull back to give us both more room. Then as we were going round the right handers he tagged the rear of my car and steered me around, flipping me off the track.
After a few seconds as a rallycross driver now on grass rather than tarmac, I had dropped back from tenth to 18th position! Determination got me back up to 16th position over the last few laps of the race but when it finished I must confess I was not a happy bunny!
So I started Race 3 at position 16 on the grid, and with the mood I was in, I felt I had nothing to lose. As I sat there on the grid waiting for the green light I was feeling that the weekend had turned out badly after such a promising Saturday, so I just gave it my all. I knew I could make up places and my aim was to get into the top ten. A question I often get asked is do I plan each race out beforehand? But you cannot really achieve this; all you can do is drive as fast as you can and capitalise on the opportunities you are given. So the mindset was to concentrate, to focus, get as good a start as possible and attack the guys in front!
What I did know, and could use to my advantage, was that for this last race there was a lot of cars on the soft tyres. So I had to push hard right up to the final flag, as these cars would eventually start to struggle.
My mindset paid off! It was like one of these slow motion sequences in an action movie — and looking back at the race on TV the next day, it was certainly action packed! But I kept my nerve, I kept my determination, and worked my way from 16th position through the hard charging field, One down, now on to the next one. Two down, who’s next? I was still accelerating through the chequered flag! Finished in fifth position, achieved the fastest lap of the race and picked up the Independent’s Trophy! Was I happy? Yep!
As a driver it’s great to get on the podium but it means so much more to the team. We are a family run team — everyone who works with us are friends. All they care about is me and the team, and seeing how much this great race result meant to them was a moment always to be remembered. It was a great reward for all the hard work everyone puts in and for how supportive my sponsors are.
But it’s early days yet for the 2015 season. As I look forward to Thruxton in three week’s time I am fully aware that it will be a difficult circuit for us — it is fast, and our biggest issue is straight line speed, although the Mercedes-Benz has had considerable aero-work to the front and rear ends this year and should thus be faster than 2014. However it is good through the bendy bits, so we will see what happens and you can be assured I will be giving it my all.
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