After a disappointing 24H of Barcelona, I was scheduled for my long awaited holiday in Spain. However, my racing bug was still very much alive in me and I knew that the Britcar 24H of Silverstone was only 2 weeks away. I logged onto the driver board area for the race hoping to find a drive for the race. To my amazement, I found an Ultima GTR, one tonne car, 7 litres, 650 BHP car looking for a driver for the race! I sent the team a quick email and negotiations started. Before you know it, I secured myself a seat in the Ultima GTR for the Britcar 24H and more than that, I will be competing in the premier class of the race!
I made lots of last minute bookings and rearranged my flight schedule to delay my return home till a week later. This is the racer in me, finding all sorts of ways to get a drive. I spent a half a day arranging for all the logistics, accommodations, flights from Barcelona to London, changing my flight from Barcelona to departing from London, car rental arrangements etc. The effort was well worth it as when I got to the circuit and saw the car. WOW!
Doesn’t that look like a proper race car? Your butt is literally inches off the ground, downforce aplenty with the aerodynamic kit fitted on the car. What more, it only weighs a tonne and has a 7.0l Corvette LS7 engine powering this little car! To put all that power down, this car was shod with 280mm wide Dunlop full racing slick tires in the front and 310mm at the back! The car also had a sequential 6 speed gearbox with flat up and down the gears. This is a huge step up for me as all this while I have been in touring cars and nothing comes close to the kind of horsepower I will be experiencing in this car.
The usual administration got underway as the drivers met with one another and had our first drivers meeting. Team MacG Racing had a pretty strong driver lineup for the Silverstone 24hr race, which consists of team regulars Jonny MacGregor and Jamie Smyth 2007 British GT Champion, along with Macau GP GT Race Winner Nigel Farmer and myself the 2011 Singapore Touring Car Champion Gerald Tan.
Out for my initial impression and feel of the car, first thing I realised was just how quiet the car was, the distinct V8 rumble was hard to miss but the cockpit feel comfortable almost. I spent a few laps learning the awesomely quick Silverstone GP Circuit, the corners are so fast and flowing that it has to be drivers’ favourite. I was building up speed and confidence in the car that was really quick down the straights and the amount of speed you can carry through the corners is something that I had to get used to! The feel of this car is actually really similar to driving a race kart, but imagine having to drive a race kart for 70minute stints on a high G track. I was in for a good but definitely challenging time.
Practice and Qualifying:
Unfortunately, the practice session was short as we only had half the morning session completed before disaster struck!
1) Broken brand new factory Corvette LS7 engine – catastrophic failure of the internals punching a hole in the block. New factory engine and the drivers were only running it in when it happened. Data shows no driver fault – my team mate is safe 🙂 But bad news for the mechanics as they have to pull an all nighter (another one as I have been told) to replace the engine before race day. The lads stuck at it and the engine was finally in by 4am.
2) Sourced another Corvette LS7 engine, turned out many parts did not fit. Ah! It was a LS3! Some software adjustment and it fired up! Jonny went out to test the car. 🙂
3) I get into the car ready to do qualifying. Only to find out the oil cooler pipe has sheared off clean (another new part that has failed) so out I came again.
4) Oil cooler fixed and found that the pulley belt was broken. Changed that too.
5) Nigel to go out for a night drive. To add to all the drama, just before he goes out, rain! Rain tires on and off he goes!
6) Out lap In lap and problems again! No wiper in the rain, lights fogging up. Time for Rain-X!
7) The boys found that the pulley belts broke again! Guess what? The guy whom sold the team the second engine did not tighten and torque the main pulley! Wow! What drama!!
8) Belts fixed – again. Off I went for my night session. It was extremely dark at Silverstone last night and I found out why as I returned to the pits. I only had 1/3 of the lights working (rest had blown fuses). Add the extremely cold wet night conditions, it was really an hair raising experience. Anyone who has race at night will tell you it was dark, but a wet night in Silverstone, it really was PITCH dark!
Finally after all that initial drama during practice and qualifying, the car was finally ready for the 24H of Silverstone as the car got lined up on the grid. I was proudly flying and posing with my Singapore flag at the packed grid.
I was the only Asian driver and only Singaporean at the race and managed to get some media interest. The interviewer came up to me and asked, ‘So, what is a Singaporean Mr Gerald Tan doing in Silverstone on a Singapore GP weekend?’ I said, ‘Simple. I’d rather be driving than watching!’ He smiled, wished me all the best and went on to interview my team mate and car owner Jonny MacGregor. Apparently I was on LIVE TV as during the race a couple came up to me and said ‘I saw you on TV yesterday, can we get a picture with you?’ Now, that’s a first =)
We put Nigel Farmer in the car first as he needed more time in the day light and with the race starting at 3pm, we did not have much day light to spare. A decision was made on the grid to start off in the pits as we had some last minute adjustments to make.
3pm sharp, the cars on the grid start their rolling lap before the flying start. The grid was led by a factory works Ginetta G55 team followed by another factory backed Aston Martin team and the British Endurance Championship leader’s Mosler. I never understand this but the first few laps of a 24H race always turns out like a sprint race! We drivers need to keep our ego in check as it’s the guy who crossed the line 24H that wins! The race is never won on turn one but many have lost it there.
Our car started last place from the pit but within the first few laps overtook many lower class cars and making our way up the field. Nigel was making good pace and with each lap, his timing was coming down. Unfortunately, trouble came early with him losing 5th and 6th gear as the dogs were damaged from a failed flatshift mechanism. To make things worse, the rear hub was damaged and he had to be towed back to the pits.
Rear hubs changed and I was up for the next stint. I was told to report any unusual feel coming from the rear as they replaced the hubs. Jumped into the car, harness strapped, radio check done and off I went for my evening stint. I took the first few laps to warm up the tires, as the car was light and had such wide tires, it took a few laps to get any decent heat into the tires and brakes. Once the tires were up to temperature, I was finding my rhythm and the circuit started to flow and I was trying to allow my subconscious to take over as I learnt the circuit more and more with each lap. Lap times showed exactly that, with each block of 3 to 5 laps, my lap time will dip as I work out the car’s braking points and turn in, exit throttle points etc.
I was going faster and faster all the way till the end of my stint, it was a near perfect stint without any incidents on track, no safety car incidents and I was catching up, overtaking cars and making my way up the field. I also set the fastest lap for the weekend in the car during my first stint! I knew I was on my game as everything just flowed and the car was coming to me, responding to all my commands and inputs. Racing bliss basically =)
Just after the hour mark as I was ready to make a fuel stop, I felt something weird at the rear and thankfully that took place at the last corner before the pit and I radioed back that I was in the pits as the car was vibrating on right corners. I drove head into the garage for the mechanics to work their magic again. Rear hub failure was the cause again. That was replaced and Nigel was out for his night stint.
Nigel’s stint was good as he was building pace at night but he unfortunately went off at one of the corners as he was blinded by one of the cars from the back. The problem with multiclass racing is that our car is extremely low and we are racing with touring cars that are much higher and their high beams at night reflects off our rear view mirror and pierces your eyes when you drive. Nigel’s momentary blindness caused an off, thankfully he grazed the wall and there was minimal damage.
I was up next again as the team wanted to double stint me in the hope that I can get more seat time and also to help catch up. Off into the darkness I went, with a better track knowledge, I picked up speed at night and hit consistent laps times matching the front runners. At one point I was even tailing the Aston Martin Vantage GT3, using him as my headlight as his headlights were bright as day. I did not have high end speed (loss of 5th and 6th gears) so I had to pull out all the tricks in the bag to keep up with him through the corners. That was a fun stretch of my stint where I radioed to my engineer, ‘the Aston is holding me up in the corners but I am happily using him as my headlights’. That gave the team something to cheer and laugh about. I also managed to secure the team’s fastest night lap during my first night stint.
After completing my 75 minute stint and my second stint in 4 hours I was exhausted! The Ultima was a beast to drive with no power steering and super wide tires in front, the steering was really heavy, exactly like a go kart. I have driven race karts before but never for 75 minutes at a go. My thumb and forearms were beginning to ache. Time to rest, get some food and stretch! It is time for the other drivers to get their time in the car =)
When will the misfortunes end for the team? The night time proved to be a cold and long one with many troubles faced by the team. A summary as follows:
1) The car suffered another hub failure, this time front left (possibly from the impact with the wall from an earlier shunt)
2) Sheared drive shaft – twice and on separate occasions
3) Exhaust was leaking and required some mending work
4) Rear right hub failure (third time, require a trip to the Ultima factory to pick up some spares)
5) Wet last few hours where I drove the car under tricky changing conditions from dry to damp to wet
Finally, after all the drama of mechanical failure, accident and numerous mishaps, Jonny MacGregor took the helm of the Ultima to finish the eventful race 28th overall. All in all, despite the poor results, the journey was an amazing one. I relished the chance to drive a fast car, set the fastest time and mixing it up with the front runners.
It was also a fantastic experience working with a great team of mechanics and engineers (we had a William F1 team engineer on our team). The car has the pace and the team has the character and ability to win the race, all the mechanical failures were really shocking as the parts that failed were all new on the car. I do not think the team could have done anything more to prepare for the race. I guess it is time to go back to the drawing board, work through the reliability issues and MacG Racing will be winning some races real soon!