So, Knockhill; yep, I can confirm it's a very, very long way away, but I have to say, it's definitely worth the trip. Knockhill Racing Circuit is about 30 minutes north of Edinburgh city. Edinburgh is a place I've never visited before, but it's a place full of culture and character, and somewhere I'd definitely recommend for a long weekend, and somewhere I'll definitely be going back to in the future.
We flew into Edinburgh late Thursday afternoon to be there, settled and ready for testing early Friday morning. All week I'd been keeping my eye on my weather app, and the forecast was for a very wet weekend, something I was looking forward to due to how quick I was at Knockhill in the wet on the Monday test. So we arrived at the circuit around 8 am Friday morning, and as per my weather app, it was raining heavily. However, around 9 am, the rain had stopped, and by the time we were ready for our first test session, FP1, at 9:45 am, there was a semi-dry line.
FP1 was a bit of a disappointment due to the conditions of the circuit; for the first 20 minutes of the 45-minute session, the circuit was definitely wet, despite a visible dry line on parts of the track. Then, by about 30 minutes into the session, the circuit was dry enough for slick tyres, but there were still puddles off line. So the team decided to pull both cars from the session because if we'd stayed out on wets; we'd have destroyed a set of tyres, and if we'd switched to slicks, there was a high possibility that we'd have damaged the cars if a wheel had crept off line onto the water. So FP1, due to the weather, you could argue, was a waste of time; and would be the last time all weekend the car would see a set of wet tyres, not ideal as Monday testing was fully wet.
FP2 later Friday afternoon also wasn't much better. By this time, the circuit was definitely dry, so we went out on a completely dry slick tyre setup. Being the first time I'd driven Knockhill in the dry, and being on very old, worn-out testing tyres, I was cautious not to overdrive the car in the first part of FP2. So off the bat, I struggled for grip; I initially thought the issue was because I was underdriving the car and therefore not getting the tyres up to temperature. However, the problem was that I was in a horrible catch twenty-two position where I had no grip to push the car, but I had to push the car to get the tyre temperature up, to get the grip, standard procedures for a slick tyre that I usually don't have a problem with.
After several red flags throughout FP2, I didn't really get the opportunity to get a hold of the car and push to try and set a time; throughout this session, I was fighting with a horribly unstable car that I believed was due to old tyres. I am sure the old tyres played a part in that; however, as we found out on Saturday morning in qualifying, the issue wasn't the tyres; it was actually the wrong suspension setup that was very much hindering my confidence in the car; I'll touch on this a little later on.
So qualifying, Saturday morning, yep, this was probably the most interesting qualifying I've had all season. It was during this session I found out that the issues I had on Friday were suspension related and not tyre related.
So, with new tyres bolted to each corner of the car, I assumed that all the confidence issues I had on Friday would be gone with all the grip I'd be getting from new tyres; I was wrong. Once again, as the ambient temperature was relatively low, I was cautious not to push too early on cold tyres and took my time to get my tyre temperatures up. Finally, after about lap five, I decided to start to go quickly to try and set a good lap or a couple of good laps. I noticed that the car was horrendous through the high speed, bumpy parts of the circuit with monumental, snappy, hard to catch oversteer moments.
After a red flag about 10 minutes into qualifying, I still hadn't sat a decent lap; I struggled to keep the car on the black stuff. I came in when the red flag was out and told the team my issues, but, as it was qualifying, there wasn't a great deal they could do. So after the red flag finished, I went back out, and on lap one, I went into the Clark chicane, smashed over the left curb as you do; the car took off like a pogo stick, landed sideways and ripped the rear left tyre off the rim. Hmm, this was not at all ideal, I managed to get the car back into the pits for two new rears to go again, and every lap, I just struggled with the same thing; the car was bouncing everywhere. It was so bad the lap on lap, I struggled to carry any speed anywhere due to the snappy oversteer, which was at its worst at Duffas Dip, and the Clark Chicane, two extremely high commitment corners.
Through the Clark Chicane, lap on lap, the car was like a pogo stick, and the entire rear of the car was taking off on entry, throwing the car into massive oversteer on exit every lap. So, I decided to slow everything down because I still hadn't set a good lap, and I only had about ten minutes left. Fortunately, I managed to set a half-decent lap, with it being two seconds faster than any other of my laps in qualifying, which ended up only good enough for 22nd. Unfortunately, the lap following this one was one to forget; I once again came through the Clarke chicane, the car bounced off the left curb, put it into massive oversteer, and I had a slight touch with the barrier. The damage was cosmetic, but it ended my qualifying there.
Race one Saturday afternoon; with all the troubles I'd had in testing and qualifying, we definitely needed to make some changes to the car; primarily, we softened the suspension off to make the car more compliant through the bumpy high commitment corners of the circuit, vital for my confidence. By softening off the suspension, it meant that the car would ride the curbs better rather than bounce off them. Despite the change being essential, I didn't know what it would do without testing it, although my teammate Max assured me that it would heavily improve the car, which is precisely what it did. I knew the car was better over the curbs within one lap, and I immediately had my confidence back to use them.
For the most part, race one actually went really well, and over the first couple of laps, I managed to make a fair chunk of places back. However, around mid-race, I turned the car into the first corner, the suspension compressed mid-corner on the front axle, and the car snatched into a huge spin on exit. To be fair, I did everything as I should have, but the team had softened the front dampers off a little too much, causing the front of the car to dive mid-corner, flicking the car into the spin. I am usually pretty good at dealing with this kind of thing, and I did everything to catch it, but it was just far too quick and aggressive for me to do so. Unfortunately, I then got hit in the left rear corner by another car that unfortunately did enough damage to end race one for me right there.
With my unfortunate DNF in race one, we started race two Sunday morning from the back row; the silver lining was we could only go forward. This race once again started very well, and to be honest, I was much faster than most of the other cars around me. I managed to get quite a way through a fair chunk of the pack on the first couple of laps and a few later in the race. There were a couple of safety cars throughout this race, but I'd managed to make ten places by the time the chequered flag was out, and for myself, it was a clean race. I finished in P18, not too bad, I didn't think.
Race three Sunday afternoon. Starting 18th, my aim was for a top 10 finish; that would have been a brilliant end to a tough weekend. The race started exceptionally well, and after the first corner, I managed to get the car into 14th, pretty mega, to be honest. Unfortunately, an incident on the first lap brought a safety car out for about three laps; this wasn't a problem as I was still confident I could finish in the top ten. However, after the safety car came in, I was racing against another car for about two laps, this car, into the last corner, the tight hairpin, out braked themselves and overshot the corner, so I went for an overtake. However, despite being fully alongside and almost past that car, they didn't see me and tried to make a switchback type line from their overshoot, which sadly, on exit, ended up in my front left wheel and unfortunately pushed the tyre off the rim. I managed to get back round into the pits for a new tyre to finish the race, but sadly, I finished it four laps down.
This was a really unfortunate end to the weekend, as I was making such significant progress in that final race; I genuinely believe I'd have finished in the top ten had I not had this contact on the final corner.
Despite not having the best of weekends in the MINI, as a team, we've learned even more about this little car. I've learned just how crucial it is to get the suspension setup correct; close isn't good enough, especially if one needs to use the curbs as one does at Knockhill. So, moving forward, we're going to put a slightly better set of tyres on the car for Friday's testing so we can all better understand whether the car is set up correctly or not, and if it's not, we'll make changes accordingly. Not only will this improve the car, but it will also give me confidence and belief in the car for qualifying and the races.