Smashing success

This Zandvoort, Holland, pre-race report's headline succinctly captures each of our Audi R8 United Autosports test days in Zandvoort and Donington without trying to add a single superfluous comment. One resulted in an immediate cessation of the test day and a visit to the Audi factory in Germany for minor structural reconstruction, the other a week later in Donington produced very respectable laps times for both drivers.  As you well know by now, all serious competitive racing series do limit testing and practice sessions on the racing venue's track to a full week before the race event. The choice of one week was arrived at after an expensive global survey of race drivers of all age groups testing for both IQ and memory capacity. On both scores, a week was deemed more than sufficient to ensure all would be forgotten by the average race car driver in well under a week.


The British GT series has Matt and me squatting down in 4th place with 3 races (2 venues) to go: Zandvoort and Donington. Co-team owner Richard Dean, sensing fame, fortune and the restoration of some level of self-respect, asked Matt and me to show up for 1 day tests at both venues, all in the past 10 days. For Matt that's a 1 to 2 hour drive or a £200 flight to Amsterdam. For me it's a 3 day round trip commitment for each venue, red eye flights and other pleasures like that. In your 60s, a fishing pole, a setting sun on a quiet lake and the grandsons playing with the bait are more normal images for fun and relaxation. Flew into Schiphol at 6:15 AM (in Afrikaans, hol means asshole, so I haven't dared ask any Dutch friends what Schip stand for) and arrived nice and early at the Hotel NH  Zandvoort, just a half mile stroll down into the paddock. Nothing could be more convenient, but nothing could be less like a hotel than the NH Zandvoort. Despite paying in advance for a room the previous night so I could wander in early, grab a shower and head to the track, NH had no rooms. The No Hope Hotel has no service, nor training sessions for its staff. Easily the most abusive check in experience I've ever had, until Flower (Paul Haigh) wandered down to the lobby looking fresh as a daisy at 7:30 AM and instead of checking out, flipped me his room key so I could take a shower in his well-used room. What I found in his room I've been sworn to secrecy, so it will never be known.


Zandvoort, strategically placed where no other track in the world would ever be placed, a thin sliver of tar rolling up and down, bumpy as rowboat in a storm, threading its way through sand dunes a hundred to 200 meters from what Nederlanders call the beach and people in Michigan and Chicago call a lake, cold as a twitch's wit.  Always coated in a dangerously thin layer of wind-borne sand and almost to compensate, an intentionally abrasive track surface, Zandvoort uniquely consumes tires like a hog in midsummer heat, leaving drivers racing in the second half of a stint with virtually no grip at all, something no racer wants on a tight, no run-off twisted corkscrew of a track with high elevation changes where you'd least prefer them to be. 


Checking into the NH again convinced me Harvard Business School and McKenzie are conducting a case study in sub-human hospitality practices. This time at 3 PM there was also no room available, just like there hadn't been for a pre-paid room at 6 AM the last time through at the test, but the front desk lady assured me she was trying her best. Best and effective have almost no correlation where I grew up, but evidently here everyone's happy trying hard despite repeated failures at the extreme. The good news is a room miraculously appeared as she noticed the change in the color of my face and in 36 degree weather (around 100 normal degrees) it was a sheer joy to find room 501 had no air conditioning. As usual, questioning my technical understanding and faculties with sophisticated electronic gadgets, I sweated it out for a while, but eventually had to report it to the front desk who pleasantly assured me a technician would be on his way up to repair it promptly. When I returned to the room after dinner, it was cooler and I could hear the humming of a perfectly functioning AC unit - a portable upright one in the middle of the carpeted floor! Wow, they actually know that many of their rooms have malfunctioning units and instead of repairing or upgrading their infrastructure, NH solves this major problem by simply going down to IKEA and stocking up with a few dozen portable AC units. McKenzie, please note.


Waking late as our first event was a 1 PM drivers briefing, it took me over 10 minutes of stretching to recover from the reject beds NH acquired from the local prison system - harder and harsher a sleeping device would be hard to design. Truly a crippler.  Breakfast with Matt as we planned the day, but during Free Practice 1 nothing mirrored our plans. The car's rear end was rolling over from a too-soft set up, so Matt came in twice for upgrades, one that took some time, but at least we could aim for mediocre lap times. I used his old and used up tires initially and was similarly slow, though got some valuable time under conditions like to those I'll be living with during the last half of Sunday's race. I later took a set of new tires and grabbed 2 seconds off the shelves, but still well off our test day times. We placed poorly in the stack of cars that include fewer GT3s (always happens towards the end of a season, but also because all McLaren entries have withdrawn from British GT without explanation), though a decent turn-out of GT4s plus about 6 Dutch GT cars end up flushing out the field to comfortably north of 30 cars.   More than enough for some major crashes.


We made further changes before the second stint, which followed immediately on the Dutch Supercar qualifying session, where Glynn Geddie punished the field with a P2 and P1 time for each of the weekend's races. About 15 minutes before the 2nd Free Practice, dirty dark Dutch clouds took a medium sized pee all over the track, so I obviously went out  on wets for the first half of the stint, found the line drying, the car far better balanced and us quicker than most in the trickier parts, which was reassuring. The only part I feel lacks trickiness is the pit box and then only when we're up on air jacks.  Matt took the 5 lap old slick tires from the first session and quickly found the set up far more to his liking. In a handful of laps he was up in P6 even on his final lap with 2 big traffic issues that would otherwise have put him on pole. Ficticious pole, of course, as this wasn't qualifying and we don't know who used which tires when. All we know is both drivers are comfortable with the car and we've got a near-perfect set up. Good mental place to be when Qualifying is at 9:30 in the morning, the track slightly cool and in all probability, little wind that early in the day and therefore little sand. Here's hoping for 2 good Qualifying outcomes tomorrow morning for each of these 2 one-hour races on Saturday and Sunday that will help determine the final line-up for our two hour final championship race at Donington in early October. Today only half a dozen cars found their way into the soft sand dunes, but 2 cars, like me during testing, found how close the safety railings are: one Ginetta in Turn 3 in the rain turned himself into a splintered garbage pile, while one of the quick BMWs early in the dry session tried to do what I did during testing at the exit of Turn 13 before the final straight, but met he too met up with an inflexible steel barrier along the way.


Tomorrow my pal Gideon Nieuwoudt (a quid for every Englishman who can pronounce that right) shows up to run back and forth between the two Audi garages, 6 and 18, as he has a pal driving each of the R8s and both should be running near the front, so this should put his true friendship to the test. His real calling is to sift through hedge fund managers and parcel out clients' money to the deserving, almost like a charity.


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