So as you know, we've just completed the second round of the MINI Challenge JCW series on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, and I have to say, this definitely was the most colourful outing so far.
Having had such a brilliant weekend at Snetterton just a couple of weeks ago despite having a non-working differential, we assumed that it would give us free time once it was fixed. As theoretically, with an active differential, we'd be able to better drive the car in, round and out of the corners; unfortunately, we were wrong.
To be totally transparent, a fully working differential should do all the above and more; however it just didn't. Instead, it just gave me buckets and buckets of mid-corner understeer, so much so that I could barely get the car into the apex. So the only variable that changed between Snetterton and Brands Hatch was that the differential was now working, which means that we should have been close to the pace with the setup we had from Snetterton; sadly, that just wasn't the case.
When I got in the car Friday morning for free practice one, the weather wasn't playing ball, as the track was definitely dry, but we were getting a light dusting of rain throughout the session, so it was hard to know if the circuit was actually dry or wet. However, I assumed it was primarily wet, as I struggled with understeer, which transitioned into oversteer mid-corner in the high-speed bends, all the characteristics of being on slick tyres in the wet.
After FP1, we looked through the data and couldn't really see any issues with my driving, and put the lack of pace down to the fact that our tyres had seen better days. It's pretty frustrating as in the MINI Challenge, we're not allowed new tyres for Friday testing and have to use pre-registered race tyres. It's not ideal, because we can't use our new race tyres as this puts us at a disadvantage and our old tyres are worn out. I mean, it's the same for all the drivers, but it just makes the Friday testing pointless because you don't actually have a mean with the tyres, and you can't make accurate setup changes, as issues with the car could well be caused by the fact that the tyres are old.
So in FP2, we decided not to make any setup changes to the car because we didn't have a mean on the tyres. FP2 was definitely dry, and there was no sign of rain; however, after about ten laps, I was having all the same issues I did in FP1. So as far as I was concerned, there was no point in running and wearing the car out if it was as simple as we just needed new tyres. So I came into the pits and told the team I still had these issues. We decided that it was a good idea to sacrifice a hand full of laps on a new set of our front race tyres to see what happened, but it wasn't. I went out the pits, did two warm-up laps and on the third lap, I turned into Paddock Hill bend and because we had a whole ton of grip on the front with new tyres and much, much less on the rear with old tyres, the back end of the car snatched mid-corner sending me left and parking me in the gravel at the bottom of Paddock Hill bend, and that was the end of FP2 and Friday testing.
Saturday, we had qualifying in the morning and race one in the afternoon. As it was qualifying, I decided I wanted four brand new tyres to eradicate all the issues we had on Friday. So we put the fronts I went off on in FP2 on Friday on the rear and put a brand new set of non-scrubbed tyres on the front. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I could only qualify the car 22nd on the grid, and as much as this sounds horrendous, it was only eight-tenths of a second off pole. But, I just knew there was something not right with the car; I didn't feel happy, nor did I confident with it, as it just wasn't the same car I knew. To be honest, I should have been firmer with my engineers, but I was told that these are the sorts of issues one gets with an active differential. Of course, I disagreed but having not driven the car with a fully functional differential, I couldn't argue because I don't know; however, I do know that it should make the car better and quicker, and it didn't.
Race one started well to be honest, and I was hanging onto the back of some very quick drivers, who also seemed to have been struggling throughout the weekend as they also didn't qualify well. However, about mid-race, as the tyres started to overheat, I just couldn't get the car into the apex of the corners; it just became impossible. And, because I wasn't hitting my apexes, I wasn't getting out the corners at all well and was getting chewed up down the straights and into the next corners, frustratingly by drivers that I know I am miles faster than.
It seemed to me that it felt like the rear of the car was pushing the front and not allowing the front of the car to move; what I mean by this is that it felt there was way too much grip on the rear, and the consequences were that it was pushing the front mid-corner. I asked the team to make some changes to the car for race two Sunday morning to rectify these issues, and they did. However, they found a tracking issue on the front right tyre; it was bent, toeing in, quite a lot, which would cause colossal understeer, precisely what I had. After straightening the front tracking, we still decided to make the additional changes to help the car turn for the next race.
Race two Sunday morning, yeah, this didn't go well at all. However, I was incredibly excited to get going as I believed our changes would dramatically help the car. I was starting close to the back because of my poor result in race one, so we got the car on the grid, completed the warm-up lap, placed the car on the start line and waited for the lights to go out. Despite not actually being able to see the starting lights because of where I was and having to guess when they would go out by when the others moved, my start wasn't too bad, however, when I pulled second gear, the left driveshaft snapped, and the right shaft half snapped and that was that for race two, so I coasted and pulled off into the pit lane exit for the marshals to recover me.
When we got the car back to the awning, we realised just how much damage it had done. My mechanics had to drop the entire gearbox and differential out of the car. What had happened was the left shaft had snapped inside the differential, and the right-hand, half-snapped shaft had 'load welded' itself to the differential housing, destroying the housing in the process. Fortunately, the team had a fully built, ready to go differential on hand; once the gearbox was out, it was quite a straightforward job, one new differential and two new shafts in; thank you very much. The mechanics did a brilliant job getting the car ready with just ten minutes to spare before race three.
Because of my DNF in race two, I was staring right at the back for race three, which meant one thing, I could only go forward. So, with another front runner right in front of me, who also had issues in race two, I planned to tag onto the back of him and follow him through. However, at this point, I hadn't actually had the chance to test the setup changes we made after race one, right in at the deep end. Fortunately, however, the changes we made worked a treat, and I had all my grip and confidence back in the car. However, what was interesting is that I could feel the differential working beneath me, something I couldn't before. Because they put a new differential in the car after race two, my thinking is that there could have been an issue with the one that was already in the car, albeit that it registered the correct torque rating throughout the weekend.
Anyhow, race three went tremendously well, as I managed to get the car up eight places throughout the race and made some pretty solid overtakes. I also managed to keep the winner of race two behind me; he was at the back as he was disqualified from race two for a naughty overtake and had to start from the pitlane in race three. The thing is, when I have a car that works and is set up correctly, I can be as fast as, and keep current JCW race winners behind me, albeit we're fighting for 21st position, the fact remains that if we were fighting for first or second, I'd have won.
Fortunately, in race three, I also managed to bag myself a fair bit of TV time, turns out the commentators love the livery, and the car is now known as the LIQUI MOLO MINI; sounds catchy to me!
We knew this already, but I must qualify right up the front if I want a stab at winning some races. I know that if I've got a car beneath me that will do it, I can do it.
The next round is at Oulton Park, on the 1st of August weekend, I know Oulton well, but we're going to try to test there before to once again give me the best possible chance.