So that's it, my first year of MINI Challenge JCW racing is complete, and wow, has it been an exciting season for the trio that's Gravett, Coates and Graves.
So Brands Hatch GP, yep, it's incredible, and there's nothing more to say... okay, maybe there's a bit more, but I just thought that right off the bat, I'd start by saying it's an absolutely brilliant circuit and a real privilege and honour to have finally raced the famous long GP loop.
Visiting any new circuit is always challenging, especially when you're up against many other drivers who have lapped that circuit, in some cases, thousands of times. Although, to be totally honest, it is something that I have had to get used to all year, albeit I've driven many of the circuits last year in the underpowered, over-gripped Cooper Class, the switch to the heavily overpowered and under-gripped JCW class certainly changes the dynamic of many circuits I already knew and has meant I have had to re-learn many of the tracks again this year. However, what's different about Brands Hatch GP is that half of it I know very well, and the other half I don't, and, to add to that complication, two of the corners, Surtees onto the GP loop and Clearways off of the GP loop, are the same but very different.
We arrived at the track early Friday morning to what was actually a very bright and sunny Brands Hatch, a huge positive as I definitely did not want to be learning the GP loop in the wet. FP1 was at 11:15 am, so we had plenty of time to run through everything with the team regarding setup and, of course, track positioning on the GP loop. Confident in my plan for FP1, which was to learn the track, I readied myself up, strapped myself in and went out for the first session. Wow, that first lap was an eyeopener; having driven a ton of laps on the simulator, I didn't realise how unaware I was of just how many undulations the GP loop has. The decline down the back straight into Hawthorn Bend is like the height of a six-story building, and the bumps in the braking zone into Sheene Curve, the fast, blind right-hander is like a halfpipe ramp in a skate park.
Despite the above, we spent the entire session on track to give me the best opportunity to familiarise myself with the GP loop. And, by about mid-session, I was pretty au fait with my track positioning, which in turn grew my confidence and allowed me to push a little harder as the session went on. So, despite my lap times not being a priority for FP1, I was getting faster and faster throughout the session. I did, however, find that I struggled in the slow to mid-speed corners with a lack of rear-end grip, which we made a suspension adjustment for to rectify for FP2 later that afternoon.
FP2 was a little later that afternoon, and thankfully, the weather stayed dry, which was great for continuity in learning the track under consistent dry conditions. Feeling immediately more confident in the chassis due to the setup change we'd made at the end of FP1 to rectify the oversteer issue in the slow to mid-speed corners, I was able to start, even on colder tyres, pushing right off the bat. As the laps counted up and the tyre temperatures became warmer and warmer, my lap times very quickly decreased, and by lap 7, I was running in the top 10. However, the session was halted early under a red flag as another car heavily went off at high speed into the barrier on the outback section of the circuit. During this red flag, we were sat stationary in the pit lane for about 25 minutes while the damaged car was recovered and the barriers repaired.
After FP2 restarted, we only had about 5 minutes left of the session, and sadly, I couldn't go any quicker as I did not have enough time to get temperatures backing into my tyres and therefore ended up finishing FP2 in p17, which wasn't bad considering the minimal amount of track time I'd had on the GP loop. However, what was unfortunate was that I didn't get a little more track time in testing. Still, it was the same for everybody and actually, overall, as I say, considering my lack of track time on the GP loop, I was delighted and confident with my performance going into qualifying the following day.
Qualifying Saturday morning was at 9 am, and, as I have said many times before, I never like being the first session out, especially on a cold and crisp October morning as it's up to you and the other drivers to dry any moisture that may have settled overnight. However, it was actually a lovely and very sunny morning, and by 9 am, it wasn't that cold, which certainly helped get the temperatures into the tyres, especially the rears.
Although as the ambient was a little cooler, I did take an extra lap or two to get the temperatures into the new tyres, and, on around lap four, I started to push for positions. This was the first time I'd driven the GP loop on brand new slick tyres, and the car felt brilliant. After about lap seven, I was in p12; I then went for a final flying lap in the first half of qualifying but noticed that the tyres were becoming a tad hot and actually losing grip, so I backed off and came into the pits at the end of that lap to have my tyre pressures adjusted, and to allow my temperatures to cool slightly.
By this point, we'd usually put another two new front tyres on to get as much grip as possible for the second half of qualifying. However, I thought there was more time to be found in my driving as my confidence was still building on the GP loop, and instead of wearing out another two new front tyres, I'd opted to save them for race one. Unfortunately, this was the wrong call as the front tyres I had on the car were actually past their best which I realised a couple of laps into the second half of qualifying. But, with the clock ticking down, we didn't have enough time to come back in to switch over to the new fronts, and I, unfortunately, couldn't go any quicker and ended up finishing qualifying in p21. Yep, all the other drivers set their fastest times right at the end of qualifying, which is where I lost all my positions, but I did have a new set of tyres in my arsenal for race one later that afternoon which was a bonus.
With brand new front tyres, I knew that I'd have an advantage for race one. And, starting in 21st wasn't actually such a bad thing in the end, as my grid slot was right on the crest of the hill on the start/finish straight, which meant all I needed to do was get a half-decent start, and, being immediately downhill from my grid slot I should get a better run into turn one as compared to any other driver, and, that's precisely what happened. I started race one very well, and by the first corner, I'd passed a handful of cars, followed by a couple more into turn two, and a couple more into turn three, then, halfway through the first lap, the safety car was deployed for several laps to clear away a first lap incident.
After the safety car came into the pits, I managed to hold my position for two laps, when a second safety car was deployed to clear away another spun car stuck in the gravel on the exit of the final turn. Once that was all cleared away, and we got back racing, we had just three laps remaining, I again managed to hold my position until the final lap, where I was able to pass another car down the back straight and finish in p12.
This was an absolutely brilliant result, to make up nine places in such a competitive series on a circuit I have driven only a handful of laps on, in my eyes, was a solid result. Moreover, while keeping up with the lead pack in the race, I also managed to secure the fastest sector in sector two, which was my first fastest sector all season. So I was delighted with this result for my first race on the GP loop; it meant I'd be starting in p12 for race two the following day, not a bad starting position at all.
Race two Sunday morning, the last race day of 2021; starting P12, I was very excited, I could smell that top 10 finish I'd been eager to get all season. We spent most of the morning deciding on the best tyre strategy and any possible setup changes we'd like to make on the car to give me the best chance in the race. Once we'd finalised the above, we headed to the grid at 10:15, ready for our race at 10:40. My mechanic, Sam, was waiting for me at my grid slot, as usual, to guide me into position, just like we've done at every round. Once in place, Sam then stuck a piece of blue tape on the tyre barrier on the left side of the track, which gets lined up with my left interior door handle screw, which I can see. By doing this, when this screw on the interior door handle lines up with the piece of blue tape on the barrier, I know I'm perfectly in my grid slot after my green flag lap; bear with me, this does go somewhere shortly.
So, the green flag went out, and we started our warm-up lap; weaving around like an absolute maniac, I was working incredibly hard to get the temperature into the rear tyres. Then, finally, I got back to my grid slot lined up and was ready to go, and I was ready to pounce on the cars ahead in the first couple of corners, I had my eyes on the lights, which seemed to take an absolute age to light up. I then checked my rearview mirror to see that the car behind me had his door open and was waving his hand; he obviously had an issue that would delay the start of the race. Race control confirmed on our radios that there would be a delay to the start while they moved his car away, then another green flag lap to re-warm our tyres, followed by a reduced race time.
It was all a palaver for the marshals to remove his car from the grid; they had a flatbed truck at the ready, a tractor on the circuit, and about ten people on the grid, all to remove a single car. Eventually, they decided to push it out of the way and park it on the grass, right up to the tyre barrier on the left, but way off the circuit.
Once this was sorted, we completed the second green flag lap and re-lined up in our grid slots. Again, I did what I always do, I looked left and lined my interior door handle screw perfectly up with my blue tape marker. Little did I know that during the process of moving the broken car out the way, the marshals had moved the tyre barrier plastic covering forward slightly, causing my marker to be further forward and me to be about a meter ahead of my grid slot.
This wasn't ideal as it landed me a hefty, and I think a very unfair 10-second time penalty. I have never before been out of my grid slot, but unfortunately, it's a black and white pictured evidence offence; you're either in or out, and I was out, and it's something you cannot protest with the officials. At the time, I just thought I'd made a genuine mistake and held my hands up, however, it kept playing on my mind, so a couple of days later, I pulled up the footage and checked all three grid lineups; the first time my mechanic squared me into my box and set my marker, after the first green flag lap, then after the second green flag lap (when I was out of position), and, it was clear that my reference points had moved on the third grid lineup from everything I could see on the camera on the left-hand side of the shot. Unfortunately, I can't change the outcome, and it is what it is, but at least in the future, I can be aware that this can happen.
Anyway, the actual race started well; of course it did, I was a meter ahead of my grid slot; I'd paid the price for my penalty, so I thought I'd get the head start in the race... No, I'm being facetious, but actually, my start wasn't too bad, and I managed to make up a couple of positions in the opening laps.
However, as the race continued, I noticed that I was struggling to slow the car down and was starting to lock the front wheels under braking. This was a tad odd, as I haven't locked the front wheels up under braking all year. But, to be fair, I didn't think much more of it during the race, so I put it down to the front tyres going 'off' and wound the brake bias to the rear to try to prevent the front tyres from locking, although it didn't really make that much of a difference. However, due to several lockups, I ended up losing a handful of places in the latter stages of the race to finish in p17, which then got demoted to p20 after the race for being out of my grid slot at the start; this really wasn't my best result of the year, I must say.
Frustratingly, when we got the car back to the awning after the race, the mechanics found that the right rear brake disk had completely failed; the actual disk had totally snapped away from its hub carrier. This meant that when the right rear brake was engaged, the wheel was still completely free to spin, which was why I struggled to slow the car down and was locking the front tyres, as the fronts were having to work much harder to slow the car. And, by winding the brake bias to the rear, what you'd usually do if you found yourself locking the front wheels, I was actually making it even harder to slow the car down as the issue wasn't that the front tyres were going 'off', and brake pressure needed taking away from them, it was the fact I only had a single working rear brake.
Of course, for the final race of the year, race three, the team strapped two brand new brake discs to the rear of the car. Because of the issues in race two, I was unfortunately not starting in the best of positions, but I could only go one way, and that was forward. And, with another decent first half of the race, I managed to pass several cars to get myself up and into p16. As I was pushing ahead and catching the cars in front, three laps from the end of the race, I turned the car into Graham Hill Bend, and the car clipped the curb on the inside. Not a great deal different to how I'd been driving that corner all weekend, to be totally honest; but this time, as the car hit the curb, it went up and into the air, and, as it landed, it unfortunately snapped the left side drive shaft clean in two at the CV joint on the wheel side. The torque of the sudden slowing of the wheel as it came back into contact with the tarmac was just enough to over-torque the metal and break the shaft, and it was sadly a DNF for the final race of the year.
I think, in all honesty, it was a combination of a slightly deteriorated shaft and asking a little too much of it from a driving and stress load point of view. However, that aside, one should be able to use the curbs with no problem in this car. With that being said, perhaps next year, we need to consider the drive shafts as consumable items, put a lifespan on them, and change them after x number of hours of use, whether they visually need it or not, to prevent this from happening again in the future.
Despite the final two races of the year not being the sunset finish to the season I'd have hoped for; overall, it's been an incredible year and season. I finished 3rd in the rookie cup, which I am delighted about and 16th in the overall championship, just behind all the other front-running drivers; an excellent achievement for my first year in such a tough, highly competitive championship.
With a busy winter testing programme planned, matched with all the experience I have gathered this year, it bodes very well for moving into the graduate cup next year for second-season returning JCW drivers.
We plan to start our winter testing programme for next year in the early months of 2022; watch this space.