So, you want to be a race car driver: To finish first…

The saying goes, “To finish first, first you must finish.” That was the moral of the story for the second round of my rookie season in the Lotus Challenge. 

The weekend started with something of a bang. Due to Covid regulations, Friday practice didn’t form part of the usual race weekend, leaving it all down to Saturday with a jam packed schedule involving practice, qualifying and two race heats. 

So it was bright and early that I left Northcliff to arrive at Red Star Raceway out near Delmas. With the usual nut and bolt checks done, we hit the track. 

Red Star is unusual in that the direction of travel switches every six months. First six months of the year they run anti clockwise, then it switches to clockwise for the second half of the year. So it required something of a recalibration to wrap my head around the new layout, as last time we were at the venue was in February (remember the time I had a big crash?).

Turns out that wasn’t the easiest task, as my lap times were fairly off pace. The car’s brakes also didn’t seem to be holding up to the task of what is quite a demanding circuit.

Fortunately the latter could be resolved as it just so happened that one of the things I hadn’t checked in the morning rush was brake pad thickness. Rookie error indeed. A quick pad change sorted that out, though.

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Now it was down to understanding why I was slow. Easier said than done as qualifying was upon us in the blink of an eye. Feeling more confident on the brakes helped somewhat but I soon realised that I was struggling with understeer (a lack of grip on the front tyres). It’s a killer on a track like Red Star which has long sweeping corners. When you’re understeering it means you’re delayed in applying the accelerator in all of those long bends. Needless to say, I qualified in last place for race 1. 

Dejected but hopeful that a battling pack in front of me might hold them up enough to get stuck into the action, I lined up on the grid waiting for the lights to go out. In a flash we were underway and through the first half of the lap I was keeping up, waiting for an opportunity to overtake a few unsuspecting victims. 

That opportunity came when all hell broke loose in front of me. A car spun through a slow speed left hander, which was hit by another competitor, causing a four car pile up. I slipped through unscathed and happy to have avoided disaster. The safety car was deployed while bits of body work and what remained of the four cars were cleared off the track. The rest of the race was a fairly lonely affair, however as I struggled to get to grips with my lack of grip. 

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Two cars of the four car pile up happened to be in my class so it just so happened that I ended the race in third place. A podium finish in only my second official championship race but one I felt I definitely didn’t deserve.

Back at the pits the carnage of the crash started to reveal itself. One car rolled into its box under its own steam however a quick inspection revealed chassis damage at both the front and rear. My fellow teammate’s car was somewhat worse off however, with all manner of bent and broken suspension bits and significant chassis damage. Needless to say, both cars were out of the event.

Race 2 was a fairly similar affair. I started last and finished there having used the heat as a trial and error session. Trying different lines, different corner entry speeds, different anything and everything in an attempt to understand the cars handling. I didn’t get any quicker but I did gather enough data on my car’s lap timing device that I could use to analyse my performance – something I spent the next week poring over.

I left Red Star dejected, the trophy in the boot of the car little consolation for what was an overall poor performance. However in the following days that well used term from Formula One (and racing in general) gently started to lift my spirits. To finish first, first you must finish…

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