Oulton Park; I think we can quite definitely call that another headline-worthy event for the MINI Challenge JCWs.
Having decided once again to travel up early Friday morning, we arrived at the circuit around 9 am; it worked out pretty well as our first session wasn't until around midday, so we had more than enough time to get everything sorted out.
We pretty much picked up from where we left off with setup from our previous Oulton Park test day a couple of weeks back when I liked it most, although we did make an additional damping change to the front right suspension to help with a small amount of understeer I had then. So I went out for FP1, and within about three laps, after warming the tyres up, the car just felt absolutely horrendous. The car was rear steering at high-speed points of the circuit; down into the right-hand kink into Cascades and the left-hand kink up Clay Hill, both very quick parts of the circuit and two places where confidence in the car is vital. So as you can imagine, the feedback I was getting from the car very much installed caution into my driving.
After FP1, I wrote some notes out and studied the data to try and work out what was going on; we just couldn't figure it out as nothing had changed from the previous test day, apart from a front right damper adjustment that wouldn't cause this type of issue. So, left scratching our heads, we made a further adjustment to the front dampers to try and prevent the car from going into oversteer in these two high-speed parts of the circuit to give me confidence for our second test session later in the afternoon on Friday.
Once again, after about three laps into FP2, as much as the front suspension adjustment did improve the rear steering issue, it hadn't stopped it. I did manage to improve on my times compared to FP1; however, I was still slower than I needed to be, and I still had a confidence issue with the rear of the car. So once again, we looked at the data, compared it to my footage and my feedback and made a further change to the car, but to the rear end this time, to once again try and control the high-speed rear steering.
However, when the team were making the changes to the rear end of the car, they looked at the rear tyres and found the problem; the rear tyres were absolutely covered in pickup, which is broken bits of rubber found on the outside of the circuit. Pickup sticks to a hot tyre if one drives offline. And, with it on the rear tyres, it would do precisely the thing I was experiencing.
What made the team look at the rears was something I said, from something I'd experienced in the past; I said to the team, "the car is driving like it's got slicks on the front and wets on the rear". This tyre combination gives the car a horrible misbalance of grip, and this was something we tested and experienced last year at Croft in the Coopers when we had exactly that tyre setup on the car.
So long story short, the issue that I had with the car on Friday testing was down to dirty rear tyres; the lesson, I must make sure to keep the car on-line all the time.
So the next time I'd be driving the car would be qualifying Saturday morning, with two brand new front tyres and two very good rear tyres. Within about two corners, I immediately knew that the car was a thousand times better, not just because we'd put good tyres on the car but also because of the setup changes we'd made to try and combat the issues I'd been having. You could argue we found these by accident, as we were trying to fix a problem with the car that was actually being caused by tyres and not setup.
Qualifying went well; I managed to qualify 18th, which, as much as it doesn't sound fantastic, it was, because if I'd have found three tents of a second, which isn't a lot, I'd have been breathing down the necks of the top ten. And, for a while during qualifying, I was actually in p8, which in itself is a pretty good achievement. Although P18 was not an ideal place to start, I had all the confidence back in the car, and I was very ready to go for race one later that afternoon.
Starting in P18 is just on the edge of the hill on the start-finish straight, so I had to hold the car in place on the hand brake. However, despite being just on the edge of the hill, I had an absolutely brilliant start passing about three cars into the first corner, then another couple in the first four laps, doing some great overtakes along the way and hanging comfortably onto the back of the lead pack.
However, about halfway into the race, somebody tried to overtake me into Cascades, the second corner, overcooked it and drove into the side of my car, cracking my rim and seriously bending my steering. I saw him coming and gave him room, but he just overcooked it; frustrating as I ended up finishing where I started in P18, where I think I'd have ended up being 12th to 14th if that hadn't happened. The stewards were definitely not best pleased with his move and actually quite heavily penalised the other driver by giving him 2 points on his race licence, a fair penalty, in my opinion.
Race two on Sunday, the race you'd have watched on ITV, and the one that everyone's talking about, well, that was an interesting one. Starting in p18 again, where I'd finished in race one, I once again had a fantastic start and managed to pass several cars off the line and into the first corner, then a couple more on the first lap. Then, comfortably in 15th on about lap 5, pushing for position, I came round the first corner and down into Cascades to find a fellow MINI rolling down the barrier on its roof. This, of course, red-flagged the race, and we were held in the cars for about 10 minutes while they repaired the barrier and collected the destroyed MINI. The driver was thankfully perfectly okay, which was excellent considering the velocity of that accident!
So, they re-gridded us to restart race 2 for an eight-minute dash to the line; brilliant, so they gridded us up from our positions in the first half of the race, which for me was 15th. Once again, I had a fantastic start, and by the time we got to the first corner, I'd passed one car and was up into 14 and hustling the cars ahead. Then, as I came out the bottom of Cascades and down the back straight, I noticed a MINI firing off sideways toward the barrier on the outside of the circuit; the next thing I knew, there was a MINI about 25 feet in the air just in front of my car! I literally just missed it by about half a car length; I was so close that a massive chunk of earth came out the bottom of the rolling car, landed on my bonnet, cracked my screen and seriously dented my bonnet; very scary!
Race 2 was again red-flagged and ended, and our positions were called from where we started in the second half of that race, which for me was p15, so I finished 15th in race two. It's frustrating that the race ended sooner than anticipated, as I think I had a top 10 finish in me, but that's motorsport. Despite all of that, both drivers who crashed were perfectly fine and uninjured, A massive testament to the strength of the safety cages of these MINI Challenge race cars.
Despite Sunday's race finishing early and the disappointments of not having the opportunity to get myself into a top ten finish, we really have made some giant steps forward in terms of setup on the car. The changes we've made throughout the weekend have helped stabilise the car, making it predictable to drive, and it's given me a whole ton of confidence, something I will definitely need for the next round at Knockhill in two weeks.
We're planning on testing at Knockhill Monday next week, so I'll keep you updated on how we get on there.