So, you want to be a race car driver: check and double check

By Miles Downard

Round three of a shortened Lotus Challenge season saw us visit Zwartkops raceway for the first time this year. It’s a circuit I know well, having spent a number of years attending Sunday track days at the circuit in my road car. I’ve also been lucky enough to visit the circuit for various driver training programs and vehicle launches over the years, so I’ve driven countless laps of the circuit in as many as twelve different vehicles.

Safe to say I arrived brimming with confidence. Perhaps this would be my breakthrough race where I could fight with the more established drivers, I thought to myself. After Friday practice that confidence only grew as I’d set the second quickest time of the day. The car felt pretty solid and I wasn’t struggling nearly as much with understeer as I had last time out at Red Star Raceway.

Come Saturday morning we geared up for practice, then qualifying before a bit of a wait until race 1 which was scheduled for a little later in the day. Disaster. I was slow in practice. Almost a second slower in fact, while everyone else was getting faster. “What on earth has changed?” I wondered.

With no time to pull out the laptop and start to dig through data logs I just had to go out in qualifying and try harder. I had at least spent Friday evening pawing over telemetry from the car to understand how I’d managed to set such a blistering time in practice, so I had a vague idea that turn 1 and turn 4 needed a good dose of bravery in order for me to set a good time. 

But alas, fourth was all I could muster, still significantly slower than my time from Friday. Yes I was ahead of two rivals, however one had suffered problems in qualifying so that hardly counts.

It counts even less when you completely bodge the start and before turn 1 even arrives you’re at the back of the pack. What ensued was a proper lesson from a seasoned campaigner in race craft. I was quite obviously quicker over a lap than the chap in fifth but I couldn’t make any of my overtaking manoeuvres stick. I’d dive up the inside under braking into turn 5 only to lose the position almost immediately out of the corner. Round the outside in turn 1 didn’t stick either, although the inside proved equally unsuccessful. We changed positions multiple times over the 10 lap race however I finished last.

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I’d had a great time out on track, don’t get me wrong, however I was still thoroughly dejected by my inability to overtake. 

That dejection was nothing by comparison to what I felt on the warm up lap of race 2, however. The details of what caused my issue is still something of a mystery but I just had no brakes. I knew it almost immediately but once you’re on track there isn’t much one can do about a repair. So I lined up on the start line with absolutely no confidence in my ability to slow the car down for turn 1, or any other turn on the circuit for that matter. I thought to myself I may as well coast around in the hope that maybe another competitor fails to finish in which case I might pick up a few additional championship points. So that’s what I did. Coast around for 10 laps, including a few excursions in the gravel traps for good measure. I came last, again.

Arriving back in the pits I threw my kit in the back of my car and proceeded to pull the bonnet off the Locost to try see what was at fault. There was remarkably little brake fluid in the bottles. No fluid was leaking from underneath so it couldn’t be a failed brake caliper or a damaged brake pipe. So where had it all gone? 

Well, the hypothesis we arrived at is that the fluid was probably low before race 1 already and as you use up the brake pads the fluid level drops as more resides inside the pipe work. Somehow I’d managed to complete race 1 at just the moment where air started to be sucked into the brake lines. Had I done proper pre race checks, either before race 1 or race 2, I’d have noticed the problem. No point crying over spilt milk, I guess, but racing had taught me another valuable lesson. Check and double check. 

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