It’s not every day that you get an offer from the head of a car company to race a ‘works’ GT4 car. Not in my world at least. I do have a race licence and for the last couple of years I’ve turned out as a bit of fun in the 360 MRC 6 Hour event. This was different though; two 18 lap sprints against aspiring BTCC drivers, who had done at least three-quarters of a season, were mostly a third of my age, on a track I’d never even driven in a road car. Oh and to top it off at least one of the races was on live national TV. The potential for personal embarrassment, or worse still, damage to the car was sky-high. The only option then was a polite but firm “thanks, but no thanks.”
Except, and to repeat what I said at the start, it’s not every day that you get an offer from the head of a car company to race a ‘works’ GT4 car. “Thanks. Yes of course” I heard myself saying. Lawrence Tomilinson of Ginetta was the man making the offer, a run out at the Rockingham round of the BTCC-supporting Ginetta Supercup was the drive in question. The G55 is a 355BHP V6 slicks and wings, paddle shift GT4, running times quicker than the BTCC cars and only marginally slower than the far more powerful Porsche Carerra Cup 911s. However unlike the designed for ‘gentleman driver’ GT3 cars the GT4 class eschews ABS and traction control. Great… I think.
Thankfully I had reported on Base Performance Simulators a while ago and had accompanied the Team USA graduates there for a session last year. So after a swap of emails with Ella Barrington, the incredibly well organised manager of the facility just outside of Banbury, I was booked in for a session on the GT simulator.
I was trying to be calm but this is different from the other times I’ve been there. This is serious, this is work. What if I can’t get it? Hell what if I can’t even get in the Aston Martin cockpit…? I know from previous visits that the whole team at BPS are top quality and a great cup of coffee is the perfect welcome. The GT set up is brilliant, and great news I CAN fold myself in. As I locate the steering wheel on the splines, the familiar view of the Rockingham pit lane is visible through the windscreen.
BPS has a massive variety of GT cars modeled in the system (and single seaters in the open cockpit room just on the other side of the corridor) so loading up a G55 takes no time at all. Before I venture out my ‘engineer’ helpfully gave me a few pointers as to the circuit, a briefing on controls and slammed the door.
Suffice to say my first laps are nothing short of a disaster. All I learn is how to do is how to reverse flick turn after spinning, and that most of the inside kerbs can’t be used. After a particularly lurid spin exiting the fast left before Tarzan, I’m startled when the passenger door opens. The wrap around screen is so immersive and the feel from the pedal and steering were so lifelike, I had completely forgotten I was in a simulator. The only thing missing from that first run was the huge repair bills I would have had in the real world.
With a little coaching from BPS staff and an unexpected visit from a very well respected team manager and engineer who was working with one of his young drivers on the single-seater rig, I progressed quickly, even with my novice capabilities, from just trying to survive and keep the car on track, to actually honing my breaking and turn in and having the confidence to try different approaches to corners and sequences of turns to see how it affected my lap times. I even managed a full 18 lap race simulation run without an off.
An hour passed in no time and after further discussion with my ‘engineer’ I was happy with a best lap of 1:23.8. I knew this was off the pace of the quick guys I’d be out there with but at least I was in the ballpark.
So to the track with just a single 20 min qually Saturday, two 40 minute practices on Friday were my only real opportunity to get familiar with the G55. Suffice to say I kept it on the island in FP1. Taking turn one on the oval flat in 6th and hitting 235KPH before breaking for the T2 hairpin is surely one of the best feelings in British national motorsport. The result was 5.7 seconds away from the fastest time. Not bad, especially as the guys at the front all slammed on new tyres at the end whilst I stayed on old rubber all day. I learned the racing driver excuses from Darren Turner not from his staff at Base performance by the way!
FP2 was awful. I struggled with the balance of the car on old rubber and committed the cardinal sin, overdriving! My lap times suffered by several seconds but ironically I was a little closer to the front of the field. BTCC rubber on the track was the general consensus of opinion for the slower times for all. A blow out exiting T1 did little for my confidence, but at least all that practice of recovering spins at BPS kept the Ginetta out of the wall.
The rest of the weekend was much smoother and a new set of Michelins for qually helped me find 4 seconds of pace from FP2 and now I was even closer to the front of the field… but still off the back of the grid. A 12th place in race one (from grid 14) was followed by me running in the heady heights of P9 in Race 2, having actually overtaken several cars and had a decent battle before a safety car bunched up the field. Ultimately a rear upright mounting failed causing retirement half way around the last lap but 2 signatures from the C of C was proof I’d performed in a satisfactory manner.
So here’s the thing. This very occasional racer (I won’t even call myself a racing driver) was able to be safe and enjoy an event that was frankly far beyond my experience level and probably my talent. So unless I’m a woefully undiscovered talent (oh I wish) there has to be another reason.
Simply put the difference was Base Performance Simulators. My time in the GT simulator and the expert help afforded to me by the staff at BPS, along with the data analysis of my laps, engendered me with technical knowledge of the Ginetta G55 and the Rockingham circuit, learned in an entirely safe environment. That was invaluable but just as important was that the BPS experience was so close to real life that I took confidence into the driver’s seat. That confidence would have taken me, with zero experienced behind the wheel of a GT4 racing car, many hours of expensive testing (and possibly crashing) on the track to gain. That experience allowed me to concentrate on being in the race and ‘racing’ not just in the car hanging on.
Did I make mistakes on the track at Rockingham, yes of course. Did I spoil anyone else’s race, crash the car or hurt myself, absolutely not. Was I slow – yes, but at least I know why and I got faster quicker than I thought I would. Do I want another drive in the Ginetta – what do you think? By the way in the real world in race 2 I got down to a 1:24.7 – less than a second away from my BPS time.
If Base Performance Simulators can make such a huge difference to an occasional racer, imagine what it could do for your as an up and coming professional racer or indeed to a driver (of whatever level) in learning a new circuit, a new technique (left foot braking, paddle shift, transferring front to rear drive) or a new car or series. Given the cost of track testing – and spares – it’s surely an easy choice. I’m still not a racing driver but BPS was the best racing decision I’ve made.