Severe rain storms and lightening over JFK delayed Elena and my Thursday evening departure more than an hour and we landed in only mild drizzle at Heathrow, grabbed a KIA courtesy of Hertz and headed out immediately on the M25 for the 45 minute drive to Dartford an irrelevant little village in Kent southeast of London that houses one of the ancient gems of English racing: Brands Hatch, tucked into acres and acres of high elevation changing wooden countryside that once belonged to the Brand family. I believe the original name was Brand Snatch but Mrs. Brand objected. Took us a good 2+ hours to make the journey based on the M25 pretending it's an artery while it's nothing more than a varicose vein, clogging traffic for miles in every direction. These old English race tracks are renowned for 3 things: (a) requiring lots of laps to gain some sort of technical command over these wicked designs and your own sense of panic, (b) no run off areas compared to contemporary race tracks, and (c) killing English drivers. This is a wonderfully scary little 2+ mile track with fast laps in the area of 1 minute 25 seconds, so it's quick and requires a lot of commitment. The owners used to host Formula 1 races here in the '60s and '70s, but the paddock can barely accommodate a GT 3 weekend these days.
Friday afternoon Elena and I were joined by Matt Bell, my pro partner in the Audi R8 # 25 entry, and Zak Brown for a track walk to glue these blind corner images into our minds and to get us comfortable that slow times for first time visitors had some good reasons attached to them. Unlike many tracks, this one was jam packed with drivers and engineers, all trying to goad courage from the recesses of their fearful drivers' hearts. The walk felt nearly as good as surmounting the peaks of Machu Pichu, except we were surrounded by people who spoke English. There is absolutely nowhere on this track to rest and there are only 9 corners in total, so why so hard to be quick here? I was to find out.
Zak's now a full time London-based UK temporary resident and commented immediately on how nice people were here, something that has mysteriously seemed to pass him by during his previous 483 trips to England for business of racing. Loves their home in London that has no air conditioning and is almost half the size of their Indianapolis house. I know there's a reason they moved here, but haven't figured it out yet.
Saturday would see an 8 AM Drivers' Briefing, a 9:30 first Free Practice session, a 1:30 PM 2nd Free Practice session followed by a 5:30 Qualifying run in advance of Sunday's 2 hour race. There will be one driver change, fresh tires and a new tank of fuel for the 2nd stint drivers, but while all drivers have to comply with a minimum 3 lap qualifying stint, the Pro-Am drivers' times meant nothing....tomorrow's grid was being set by the Pro drivers. At 9:30 Matt cranked out some 1 minute 27 second laps and was in P3 when he handed the car to me for my virgin voyage across the Dartford valleys. Team-owner Richard Dean had tried to placate me that being 5 or more seconds off the pace was completely normal for first time drivers like Zak and me. The first few laps in heavy traffic were as disturbing as any I've ever driven and taught me nothing about the flowing nature of this track, so I back off and found some space to really start attacking these corners. This produced 5 of the last 7 laps in the 1:29s including one at 29 flat on new tires, which felt doubly good when I saw Zak had been peddling around in the McLaren in the low 1:30s. Lots of video analysis and data sorting with our engineers Erik and Ben, really helped build a reservoir of ideas for how to close the impossible gap to Matt. My 1:29 flat was among the fastest Pro-Am driver times, but not adjusted for the fear per square inch of intolerably tight corners us rookies had to suffer through. Glynn Geddie and Jody Firth were further back and in a bit of a funk over the performance of the 2nd McLaren. Turns out they'd end the day with Glynn qualifying one spot in front of the Jones Twins, the very same nitwits who dive-bombed Glynn at the end of Lap 1 at the Spa 24 La Source turn, ruining our race.
At the 2nd Free Practice I was given a full tank of fuel on older tires to go out first. All OK and the flowing serpent made a little more sense lap after lap. Hit a bunch of 29s including another 29 flat, which felt fine, again among the leading Gentlemen drivers. Matt tried an improved set up but got crimped by traffic congestion time and again. By 5:30 we were raring to go, but too many red flags made for a delayed Qualifying stint. Matt had us initially in the top 7 or 8, switched over to let me do my minimum 3 laps (never broke below 1:30 a lap) and then went back out on clean rubber, but we were down in P18 with 10 minutes to go. He found low traffic gaps and pounded out 3 memorable laps that each edged us up closer to the front of the grid (30 entrants). At the checkered flag we were up to P12 and we, along with the next four fastest drivers ahead shared a measley 0.25 of a second. So incredibly close, so tomorrow's pro race will be a zinger on this twisty chord or narrow rope where passing comes at a premium.
The day ended at Randhani's for dinner, the local Indian restaurant where the food was good and the service stank. Vindaloo is very hot and spicy and is sure to improve my lap times while being exempt from the Balance of Power handbook. Tomorrow is a big day for Matt and me, sitting half a point off the Championship leaders. Given the speed of the BMWs, Porches and Astons up front occupying most of the top 10 spots, our work will definitely be cut out for us.
E N D O F R A C E R E P O R T # 1