English Sea Poop - dyslexia for Pea Soup

United Autosports kicked off the testing season in March at Oulton Park and Silverstone. The first offered arctic weather, while the second required a 100% computer controlled landing at Heathrow on the second redeye in under a week.  Even after touchdown it was difficult to make out the runway - never seen the famous British fog so dense in all the trips I've been here over the decades, but it certainly helps explain why the Germans lost WW II - who in their right mind would want to claim this eerie, soggy, boggy, foggy damp and drizzly sliver of ancient soil as Der Vaderland?

Normally I wouldn't bother to ruin your evening this early in the year, especially with a read about race car testing, but this note has some urgency to it as a friend of more than 50 years is facing, like we all will, his departure, but not under enviable or timely circumstances. His charming and brave wife has asked that I "keep the racing blogs coming as John really enjoys those". To ease his pain she reads these emails to him at his bedside to take him to a happier place. About a week ago I already wrote him a farewell note, a tearful note, for why wait to say all the important things when he can't really hear them? So this is for you John.

Matt Bell, my trusty 23 year old British Pro driver (maybe he's 24 now), shared the Audi R8 at Oulton. Found him and Richard Dean in the hotel breakfast room as our redeye has somehow picked up a ferocious tailwind, landing us in Manchester a full hour early. Hertz rented me some pocket rocket AMG Mercedes with WW II Panzer tank seats that caused all circulation from the butt down to cease entirely within 15 minutes of leaving the airport. The rocket was fun to drive, but stepping from the car at the hotel and collapsing to the ground on the cobbled driveway was a bit embarrassing
- almost like an arm that goes numb after sleeping on it too long. Either that or German engineers' demographic for this kind of car wasn't meant to be grandparents with no ass left at 62 years old.

It's hard not to feel sorry for the landed gentry in England who forgot what it means to actually earn a living. This hotel was once a stately estate (you can tell, they have Wellies in the lobby as loaners for the guests), generation after generation, who ultimately woke to find that no one had been filling the bucket over the decades, avoiding that demeaning distraction called work.  Now, like many, it's converted into an almost elegant hotel that barely makes enough money to maintain some semblance of architectural dignity  and charm: Nunsmere Hall. I took a nap in the baron's bedroom and could have played squash in the bathroom, while Matt set off to break the car in and get some good laps in before I showed up around midday, met our new engineer for 2014 and as far as I recall, that may have been the last set up change we made both days. Oulton was open for multiple classes of car, including the team's two new British Touring Cars plus a Ginetta they're running.

It's always a wake up call to run the first few laps on any track, but especially one you know well, as it seems impossible that the track was this rough, this uneven, this impossible to attack and about 4 laps later you've got your kamikaze band properly adjusted and are flying around like they may never let you use this car again. They built Oulton Park when race tracks were designed to ensure that not all competitors made it home after the weekend. To lower the kill rate a bit, they've introduced 2 chicanes, but it's still a fantastically challenging course that keeps pit crews busy re-assembling cars.  Matt had a conflict on Day Two so I got lots of seat time and managed to hack 2.2 seconds of my best dry lap times last year. At this stage in racing cars, maybe 16-17 years since first sitting in a hundred mile per hour Skip Barber Formula Dodge car for the first time, there isn't much hacking done at all. Mostly the team managers, mechanics and co-drivers are sympathetic and encouraging, realizing the challenges of grandparents imitating race drivers, but for some reason this year, of all years, has produced more fear or blindfolds, not sure which, but the times are a'tumblin' down. At Bathurst, after watching Winkelhock's incar video,
4+ seconds disappeared and now Oulton left me very close to some of the
4+ pro
driver times.

If a little bit of Oulton traffic was a trifle frustrating, because so many fast laps get written off due to slower traffic, Silverstone, though a much longer track, was worse. It was an open track day and everyone but Noddy and the Bobby were there in Sunbeams to 1970s Ferraris and Minis and GT3 cars.
Quite dangerous actually, given the massive closing speed differentials, but despite lots of red flag conditions for oil spills and a few crashes, we managed to avoid all contact. Matt was otherwise occupied in one of the world's great 12 Hour endurance races called Sebring, his first. It was just a one day test, so I'd come in on another redeye and interviewed some hedge fund managers at a hotel near Hyde Park before heading out to Silverstone.

Told Richard, tough little bugger who despite going through some treatments of his own, is just weeks later up and at 'em managing the team at full blast again, that I'd meet him at the track. "Know how to get there?" was his parting comment as he left early with the crew. Yes, yes, done it many times. So I took the M-something South towards London instead of North (Silverstone is south of Northampton, but on English roads you go counter-intuitively and the car just figures out how to get you there).  The first exit from the motorway was halfway to London so I'd converted a simple
20 minute drive into a scenic moment of British countryside exploration, having to email Deano about the late arrival. I was hoping to do better on the track. Due to conflicting schedules our brand spanking new engineer was nowhere to be found, so just like Day Two at Oulton, my engineer was once again the incomparable Richard Dean.  Stunningly, through lack of knowledge or just plain nailing the set up out of the garage, we never made a single adjustment again and the car was on fire, balanced, happy on old or new tires, scaring me constantly, but most importantly, lap times came down, came down, came down. On very old tires we'd already beaten last year's lap times (we put them in the Avon museum after 400 Kms), so Deano had promised a fresh set of tires after lunch. Have you ever lunched at the Silverstone diner? Everything is battered this and battered that, fried this and dunked that. Having picked up a smidge of old mens' diabetes a few months ago, there was almost nothing available that was dripping fat, frying oils, potatoes of all varieties, so I ate 2 heavily worn sausages that saw me through the afternoon.

The pea soup had obviously burned off early in the day when a robust sun came to warm the track, but a new tire run was going to be a blast.
Unfortunately one did just that under the big braking zone down into Stowe.
Richard had been coaching me on various elective suicide moves into Maggots and Becketts, plus very late braking ideas into Stowe and Vale. All seemed to work quite well until some debris got lodged in the front left on just Lap 3, blowing out the tire under heavy braking, which is always a new race suit moment.

Always upbeat and able to convince you his plan makes sense, Deano revisited the Avon Tire Museum and retrieved my 400 Km left front tire and set go out there and have a ball. Says more about a combination of blind faith and Avon engineering than anything else, but we crushed the previous best laps, in total scraping the barrel for 3.7 or 3.8 second improvement. Deano's only remark after these results was: "Engineering's overrated".

So the British GT field is fast filling up with GT3 and GT4 cars (8 of the latter), so we expect a full field at the April opener and an even larger field at the Silverstone 3 Hour, given their garage capacity is so much larger. There is hope that our reliable  Audi will help us find the piddly number of points by which we lost the championship, but one never knows till the circulation starts working in your bum again.

As if the trip to Australia (business and Bathurst) wasn't enough, the 2 day trip to comply with the Mexican rules for a Temporary Resident card, the St.
Moritz ski trip with our firm's strategic investor group, then a 2 day golf trip to Bermuda's Mid Ocean Club with friends who have done this for over 35 years now, why not 2 trips to England in a week? And then a 3 day trip to Navarra, near Pamplona, for my first ever GTE test. Another redeye, Never driven a GT2 or GTE car before. I signed up, given this may well be my last year in racing, with RAM Racing's Pro-Am Ferrari 458 team after being ambushed and coerced by Johnny Mowlem, an English driver I'd met while racing an LMP1 car in the US with the Dyson family. Elena and I were watching the Abu Dhabi grand prix, wandering back from the track when Johnny called to suggest I try to do a full season of World Endurance Championship events on top of British GT racing. These kind of deviations from common sense are completely normal for people infested with racing drugs.

After lots of haggling and trying to lose his email address, I did end up signing for 3 of the 6 Hour races with Johnny and Ben Collins, plus the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Car # 53. RAM will also field a 2 Pro driver Ferrari, # 52, for the entire season. While the air was cold and winds above normal, the Navarra test was an exclusive one, so unrealistically calm and open, no traffic at all - the WEC field has 4 classes (LMP1, LMP2, GT Pro, GT Am) and to really identify who the low IQ drivers are, they're the ones who willingly signed up for the only class of car without ABS brakes - GT Am. So we'll never run unfettered laps like this in competition, but it felt great to have no distractions while the team rookie got to overcome all kinds of insecurities and eventually clocked some OK lap times.

Our 2 GT Pro car drivers are the incomparable pairing of Alvaro Parente (who I knew from the United Autosports McLaren days) and midget Matt Griffin , who I only passed once in my life, when he ran out of fuel at Bathurst a year ago. Being able to lean on all four of these highly experienced and largely uncritical race drivers was a real gas. The cars are shod with Michelin tires, so we tried every combination of softs, mediums and hards, even mixing them up front and back, to find the best combination of speed, reliability and endurance. Matt and Alvaro pushed the GT Pro car to the edge of credibility and the slightly slower GT Am car seemed to hold it's own just fine. Only one driver spun the entire 2 days and that person's identity will remain a state secret. At the end of the sessions, under roughly comparable driving and tire conditions, the 53 car drivers were all peddling around within a second of each other, over and over, so not a lot of disappointed crew members, managers or drivers.

Dan Shufflebottom (I'm not twisting words like I've often been accused of
doing) manages a first rate team with competent engineers, data men, mechanics and tire men. This was a good decision right up to the point that Dan and Johnny pinned me to the trailer floor and demanded I consider adding
3 more races, all in November (Fuji, Shanghai and Bahrain) or else.
Unconscionable so soon after stepping out of the car. The full season is impossible - I have to miss WEC's Spa race due to a conflict with British GT, but now the wheels are spinning and the second mortgage applications are being filed to see if November 2014 wants to become a racing month as well.

We're landing at JFK at 1 PM or so and the memories of a string of very good test days still linger in the air. I wish I was even more irresponsible, like say Zak Brown, and just spent all my hard earned pennies on racing.
Surely that makes sense?

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