Spa 24 Hours
My first 24 hour race was a fantastic experience, but ultimately didn’t go as planned - however, I learned a lot. The race week started on Wednesday with a parade of the cars through Spa town, autograph sessions and a drivers' briefing in the town centre theatre. My only previous experience of the track was in the wet at the test day, so I was looking forward to some dry laps before the race. In the first session, I was due in the car last, but because of a minor issue, I didn’t get a run until the pre-qualifying session later that evening. In qualifying, I got in the car fourth, and did my mandatory three flying laps as the sun went down. I had another run in night qualifying (my first experience of night driving), which I really enjoyed. The biggest difference with driving at night are the flashes from the cameras, especially around La Source and the run down to Eau Rouge, blinding me for fractions of a second at a time. I went into the race with just ten laps under my belt in the dry. Unfortunately we qualified a long way down in 50th overall (24th in class) - one place behind the sister number 23 car. We were struggling with setup and lack of grip and would need to make changes for the race.
Race day was hot, sunny and humid and by the start of the race it was 30 degrees which would make it very hot in the cars. Matt Bell started the car and had a great opening stint, picking his way through the chaos up to 25th overall and 10th in class at the hour mark. He came in early at the end of the double stint with a brake issue and after a delay I was in the car for my first race laps since Oulton Park at the end of March! I settled down but soon realised that there was still an issue with the brakes, with the pedal pressure variable. I also had a problem with the cool air that is pumped into my helmet; due to the unusually high temperatures in the car the pipe fell off after a couple of laps, so I resorted to picking up the pipe and blowing the air on my face on the straights, which wasn't ideal! Mid way through the second part of my double stint, with the brake issue not getting any better, I saw smoke in the cockpit. Assuming it was some sort of brake fire, I got the car back to the pits and found out that a piece of plastic had melted onto the exhaust and caused a small fire on the sill (that's how hot it was in the car!). The fire was quickly out but the car would stay in the pits for some time while the brake issue was addressed, and it was clear we would need to manage it for the rest of the race. Humaid Al Masaood went back out and the car was running well, albeit out of contention for a good result - the aim was to get to the end of the race. The car had another couple of issues around midnight, but nothing major, and we cycled through the drivers and were running in 41st place when I got back into the car at about 3.30am, after getting a couple of hours sleep. I settled down quickly, and with the temperature in the car lower, was enjoying my first experience of night racing. I did a double stint and set the fastest lap for the car which was running well. I really enjoyed just driving around this fantastic track, sometimes wrestling with traffic, sometimes completely by myself, in the pitch black, not being able to see any spectators or anything except the small piece of tarmac lit up in front of me. It felt like I was all on my own! I brought the car back in at about 5.30, as the sun was coming up, to hand over to Humaid. About half an hour into his stint, the car stopped out on track with no drive, and in spite of trying hard, he was unable to get the car back, which meant retirement for the number 230 car with drivetrain issues. The guys at JRM had worked extremely hard to keep the car running, so it was a great disappointment to end the race early. The sister PRO car stopped with 20 minutes of the race to run which was very cruel, so a character building weekend for the JRM guys.
I learned a lot and the experience will stand me in good stead. I know my way around Spa now, have experienced night driving, dealing with traffic and all the things that are a part of endurance racing, so will hopefully be back for another go next year! I'd really like to thank everyone at JRM for giving me the opportunity and for working so hard all week and over the weekend.