MINI Challenge JCW Post Silverstone Race Report

So Silverstone happened, and wow, what an experience that was! Okay, I've got to get this off my chest first; no, we didn't quite have the weekend of results we'd expected or anticipated to have, which wasn't ideal, and I'll get into that later, but just wow, to how EXCELR8 Motorsport run their team, in four words; "Nothing even comes close!"

Yep, the results, hmm, yes, they were not at all what we'd expected to get. But, ultimately, I was hindered by minor mechanical teething issues that collectively added up, which in any 'normal' season would have been ironed out in pre-season testing. Unfortunately, with the amount of work EXCELR8 had to do with the car, upon receiving it several weeks back, I am not surprised there were a few minor issues that, as I say, collectively delayed my ability to perform. It was no one's fault, it was just how that cookie fell apart for me on the weekend.

Back to the start; as you know, we tested back at Silverstone on the Tuesday before the race weekend for a couple of reasons, one, to shake the car down to check that everything's working and two, to get Silverstone into my head, so come the race weekend, simply put, we're ready to go.

Because we spent all day on Tuesday tweaking setups, we didn't bother bedding in new brake pads, which takes a handful of laps to do, so we were committed to doing this in the first part of FP1 on Friday morning. So on very old tyres, as using a good tyre would be a waste for when bedding in brakes, we spent the first half of the session bedding in the new pads we'd need for the weekend. Once this was complete, I returned to the pits for the old pads to go back in, and I would get about a 5-ish lap run to see what time I could achieve.

In the second half of FP1, after we bedded in our new brake pads and were still on old tyres, the best time I could achieve put me in P14, which was slap in the middle of the field. I've got to be honest, I thought I'd be quicker than this, but at that time, we put the time deficit down to the fact that the 'old' tyre wasn't allowing me to carry speed through and out the corners and down the straights.

Bradley Gravett son of BTCC British Touring Car Champion Robb Gravett in the MINI Challenge JCW Series at Silverstone braking into Maggotts corner Cooper Racing Driver LIQUI MOLY LM Performance Thinking it Better Elite Vehicle Chargers


With Silverstone, it's basically all about corner exit speeds because every corner drives onto a very long straight, and, any small time or speed loss out of any of these corners is always exaggerated by the time one reaches the end of that straight. So, for example, if you are 2 mph slow out of a corner and onto a straight, by the end of that straight, that 2 mph is likely to increase to around 5/6mph, which would cause a considerable loss of time. This is precisely what an older tyre would do, as it simply doesn't have the grip to pull one round and out the corner quickly enough.

From the data from FP1, we could see that my braking, turning and throttle points compared to another front running driver in the team appeared to be very similar, with, in fact, my braking points consistently being much later. The EXCELR8 data team advised me that braking this much later into the corners was actually hurting my exit speeds, as they believed the tyre couldn't handle what I was asking from it. From the data, the corner traces all looked really good, but by the end of the straight, I would seem to lose a lot of top-end speed, which was put down to what I've outlined above.

For FP2, the data team advised me that all my previous issues would be rectified by me braking earlier in the corner. So, by bringing my braking point back in each corner, I would, in essence, be slowing and turning the car earlier in the corner, allowing me a better drive down the straights. This, matched with a better set of tyres, was our plan for FP2; however, upon starting the day's second session, I noticed a powerful vibration from the front axle, so I pitted and informed the team. Initially, I thought it was a front tracking issue, i.e. the wheels were not pointing in the correct place; however, the team wanted to eliminate everything they could. First, they changed my two front tyres so we could rule out an imbalanced rim; this made no difference. The second thing we checked was the gearbox, so we put the car up on jacks and ran through the gears, but this didn't make a difference either. Finally, it turned out that the rims that the front tracking had been measured to were heavily buckled, which were the rims provided by the previous team, meaning that I was right; the front tracking wasn't correct.

Tracking is not something we can check in the pit lane as it takes time, so after we tested everything we could while the session was still running and didn't get a solution trackside, we had to retire the car. Unfortunately, I didn't get the opportunity to set a time in FP2, so we just used the session to scrub in new slick tyres. The silver lining, I suppose, is we saved tyres.

When we discovered the cause of the issues, the buckled rims were binned and replaced with new ones to prevent this from happening again in the future. I have also asked the team if they can always and only ever track the car on the same true and straight set of wheels every time, to which they agreed.

Bradley Gravett son of BTCC British Touring Car Champion Robb Gravett in the MINI Challenge JCW Series at Silverstone standing in pit lane Racing Driver LIQUI MOLY LM Performance Thinking it Better Scalextric Elite Vehicle Chargers


With Friday completed, our focus was now very much on qualifying, which was first thing Saturday morning. Despite a premature end to FP2, which was slightly frustrating, it wasn't the be-all and end-all as we'd already completed plenty of teasing laps earlier in the week, meaning I knew exactly what I needed to do on track for qualifying.

For qualifying, EXCELR8 gave me a very limited run plan that both gave me the very best opportunity to set a decent lap while also minimising running on my new tyres to keep them as fresh as possible for the three races to follow. So without getting into the detail of the run plan, it was, in essence, two six-lap runs, which would give me four tries to set a quick lap, which, if I'm honest, both the team and myself thought would be in the top six, but my qualifying time was only good enough for 18th.

Yeah, I wasn't best pleased in qualifying at all, this kind of start to a weekend is not good, as being this far back hampers one's weekend even before it starts. In terms of qualifying itself, well, simply put, the car would not turn into the corners. So when I realised the front of the car wasn't working with me, I threw the run plan out the window, came into the pits, and asked the team what they could do to the chassis to assist my issues, to which they made a rear suspension adjustment to try help the front of the car turn.

Unfortunately, it didn't make a difference, and as I said above, I could only get the car into p18. I was actually quite confused by this result; I didn't understand, because all week, I'd been driving my car so very well, I was incredibly relaxed, and all the data and video footage would suggest that I was driving as well as, and at times better than other front runners in the team.

Disappointed and confused, I asked the team to inspect everything on the car. Within about an hour, they returned to me with their findings; the front left wheel was toeing out massively, meaning the wheel was pointing left and not where it should be pointing, which was caused by a faulty track rod end. This was the cause of my problem and why I couldn't get the car to turn. With Silverstone very much a right-handed circuit, having my front left tyre point too far left meant every time I tried to turn to the right, which is basically every corner, the front left wheel, the most loaded tyre, was pointing left and not where it should be, hindering my ability to turn the car. So the front left wheel, in essence, was working against me the entire lap; the team, of course, replaced that part for race one.

Bradley Gravett son of BTCC British Touring Car Champion Robb Gravett in the MINI Challenge JCW Series at Silverstone overtaking Harry Nunn Racing Driver LIQUI MOLY LM Performance Thinking it Better Scalextric Elite Vehicle Chargers


Starting in p18 for race one wasn't ideal, as it was right in the mid-pack, which is generally where all carnage is. Getting a decent start off the line, I managed to gain a position into turn one, then in turn two, there was this almighty pileup, with one car spinning round and just clipping my rear left wheel, which in fairness, was quite the relief, as it could have been far worse. The benefit of that incident though, was that I managed to get my car into p11 on lap one, which was a result. However, as the race developed, I simply could not keep up with the cars in front of me; no matter how hard I tried, I kept falling back until others overtook me; I finished in p15 in race one.

When we came in, I once again said to the team that the car just wasn't performing, so as they usually do, they went through the car and found that the contact on the opening lap had bent the rear left tracking slightly, causing a similar issue to the issue we had in qualifying. At the time, we put the lack of pace down to that and looked no further; however, at the end of the weekend, we discovered something else which actually was causing our speed deficit, I think, all weekend, which I'll get onto later.

Starting in p15 for race two Sunday morning wasn't a disaster, I didn't think anyway, I mean, I started in p13 at Donington at the start of the season and almost finished second, and I was only two places back from there. So, once again, it was a good start, and I made two places on the opening laps, to which I held until about mid-race, which was great, but I was very much 'holding' position at this point, I didn't feel I had the pace to move forward. Then at about the mid-way point, my race car completely dropped off, meaning the cars in front of me simply drove away, and the cars behind me caught up. And, I was defending well until a rookie driver decided it would be a great idea to drive into the back of me whilst I was defending into turn one, putting me massively wide and onto the run-off area. It was totally out of order, and lucky I didn't hit the barrier, but off the back of this contact, I lost two places, which is where I would stay until the end of the race and finish where I started, in P15.

Once again, I said to the team that the car wasn't performing, to which they also once again checked over the car to find that a slight rub on the opening lap had once again moved the front left tracking. My speed deficit, just like in race one, in race two, was also concluded to be caused by this tracking issue; frustrating is an understatement.

Race three, the final race of the weekend; the car, once again, was, of course, put straight, and we were ready to roll. Starting again in 15th, with another solid start, I managed to hold my position for the first couple of laps and avoided any contact, keeping everything straight. As I say, for the first eight-ish laps, the race was going very well, and I was keeping up and holding onto the lead pack, then suddenly, my car once again just dropped off, and I simply started falling back and losing places.

Bradley Gravett son of BTCC British Touring Car Champion Robb Gravett in the MINI Challenge JCW Series at Silverstone on the curb braking for Maggots Driver LIQUI MOLY LM Performance Thinking it Better Scalextric Elite Vehicle Chargers


On each straight, I would be losing around 35 plus meters to the cars in front of me, which I'd then regain under braking, by out braking everybody else, then again at the exit of each corner, I'd lose those 35 plus meters to all the cars in front of me. So yeah, it was relentless, but it was clear to me that I had an evident power issue, one that I believe had been present all week, which explains my huge time deficit, which I just can't believe was as big as it was, but a power issue would explain my confusion.

To be fair to me, I was pretty impressed with myself that I could gain almost all the lost time back on the brakes and still make every apex and not overshoot the corners. The trouble is that I was working the tyre to the maximum, meaning they were gradually getting hotter and losing their bite. Which, if you saw on the ITV coverage, was causing me to run wide a lot of the time in turn one, giving me a considerable time penalty at the end of the race. I basically had to pick the throttle up as early as possible in turn one, which was causing me to run wide; the trouble is, if I didn't do that, the cars behind me would simply drive past down the following straight, so I was dammed if I did and dammed if I didn't.

On the track, in race three, I finished 16th, which was okay, and actually, I had quite an enjoyable race, from a 'racing' perspective; however, after my time penalty was applied, on paper, I actually finished in p22, not great, and one of my worst results of the season.

The team has now, however, officially identified a power issue with my race car. I don't know the details at this time, as the team is still resolving the problem, but I know that the engine's fuel pressure at a lower RPM was way below its tolerance. I suppose this would point towards a fuel system issue, but we'll wait for the team's full report. However, I am confident that EXCELR8 will identify and rectify the problem before Brands Hatch this coming weekend.

I personally believe this issue has been present all week, right from our Tuesday test day. I mean, confused is not the word; I was on the limit of both the car and the track at Silverstone, and I simply couldn't understand why I wasn't faster. Even with all the knocked-out-of-position toes in both qualifying, race one and race two, I still didn't honestly believe that that could have impacted my lap time as much as it did, which is why we asked the team to investigate.

With Silverstone now in the past, our focus is heavily on Brands Hatch GP this coming weekend. The Brands GP loop has to be one of the most incredible sets of bends of any circuit, worldwide, and it is a track I always love visiting; let's go do this!

Bradley Gravett son of BTCC British Touring Car Champion Robb Gravett in the MINI Challenge JCW Series at Silverstone sat in car smiling at the camera Driver LIQUI MOLY LM Performance Thinking it Better Scalextric Elite Vehicle Chargers