When I last wrote an entry, I had been bitten by the track day bug and I was plotting big power upgrades. A new job meant that the Celica was being retired from daily use, with a Skoda Fabia VRS taking its place. I also still have the Skoda – although I am considering swapping it for a TVR Chimera in the near future, but that’s another story….
A chance conversation with my new boss got me thinking – it turned out that my new company (Informatica) had previously sponsored one of its employees to go rallying, and they would be prepared to sponsor me to go Hillclimbing and Sprinting.
I had always wanted to drive competitively, and taking part in a few timed sprints at a GT-Four owners’ club track day had hooked my interest in the discipline. If you don’t know, a Sprint is a timed run round a tarmac course, usually between 3/4 mile and two miles long.
A Hillclimb is the same thing, but usually up a fairly steep gradient. The courses vary from being extremely tight and technical, for example the famous Prescott Hillclimb, to fast open race circuits like Goodwood. It has the advantage of being relatively low cost due to cheap (~£100) entry fees and it is fairly easy on the cars as the runs don’t last that long and there are no other cars on the course at the same time to hit!
After some research, I went along to the Gurston Down Hillclimb early in 2008 to meet with the organisers of the HSA (Hillclimb and Sprint Association http://www.hillclimbandsprint.co.uk) championship, which was billed as a novice friendly championship. It was a wet and miserable day, but I was hooked! From the fabulous sound of the 600bhp V8 single seaters, to seeing a 400bhp Audi Quattro claim third fastest time of the day, I knew that this was something I wanted to do. It also helped that the HSA organisers were really friendly and helpful and they gave me a lot of good advice on how to get started.
I decided to spend money on making the car reliable rather than big power upgrades for my first season. A full check over at a local motorsport preparation specialist (http://www.btecracing.co.uk) fixed a lot of niggly problems and showed that the car was producing a relatively healthy 265bhp, although the leakdown test showed the engine to be a bit tired. I got my medical booked so I could apply for my MSA license and bought some racing overalls. In the meantime, I had heard about a new series which was not being run under MSA rules called the Toyota Sprint Series (http://www.toyota-sprint-series.com).
Thus, on a wet and windy day in March 2008, I found myself on the start line at Waterbeach airfield about to start my first ever competitive event. To say I was nervous was an understatement, but as I set off, the adrenaline kicked in and everything became a bit of a blur – especially when I managed a spin on my first practice run! Luckily I was in the middle of a wide expanse of tarmac so there was nothing to hit – most of us were complete novices that day and I think just about everyone managed at least one spin as the surface was so slippery. At the end of the day I had managed a slightly faster time than a car that was very similar to mine. I was tired, wet and aching but I wanted more!
My first MSA event was very different. It was a beautiful day in May at Goodwood race circuit. One of the great things about the HSA championship is that you get invited to many prestigious events that a National ‘B’ license holder (i.e. novice) driver would not normally be invited too.
I had never driven the circuit before and I was somewhat awed by the sense of history as I parked the Celica in the famous wooden paddock building in my allocated slot. Luckily the organisers had arranged for newcomers to the circuit to have a passenger ride with one of the marshals so we could get a rough idea of where the Circuit went. My first thoughts were ‘this is a fast circuit’, followed by ‘those big earth banks are awfully close to the side of the track!’
When I returned, my car passed scrutineering, but my helmet didn’t – it turned out that although it was certified for motorcycle racing, it didn’t have the right sticker for car racing. Luckily a HSA member I had never met before lent me his helmet – one of the great things about the sport is how friendly and helpful everyone is, even to those they are competing against.
After a couple of practice laps I was lined up on the start line in a Toyota, wearing a bright red Ferrari helmet waiting for the light to go green. I had a pretty good start (about 2.5 seconds to the 64 foot marker thanks to four wheel drive) and I was soon arriving at the first corner, desperately trying to remember braking points, lines and where the circuit went.
As the lap progressed, I relaxed and was soon doing a four wheel drift around Woodcote corner with an enormous grin on my face! I got a pretty good time for my first ever run, but sadly I didn’t get chance to improve on it, as a chap in an MX-5 had a pretty big crash and rolled onto a tyre wall. He was taken to hospital to be checked and luckily he was OK, but the meeting was cancelled.
I ended up doing eleven events in 2008, including taking a class win at MIRA (a super secret test facility, near Nuneaton). I had one significant accident, also at MIRA which resulted in a bit of broken fiberglass and a bent wheel. After that I got myself on a track day and really got to grips with the car’s handling, especially under braking (no ABS), so in a way the accident at MIRA helped me quite a bit. My closest competitor in the HSA championship was in a lovely white Audi Quattro running about 300bhp, which I used as a yardstick for my times. Towards the end of the season I finally beat him at Shelsey Walsh and I started to feel like I was getting near to the limit of the car’s capabilities. In the end I came second in class in the HSA championship.
With the 2009 season looming, the car is currently in pieces. I was lucky and managed to find a load of parts from David Llewellin’s ST165 Group A rally car at an auction, including a real Group A engine block and some Group A turbos. My next Auto-Journals entry will detail the rebuild process of the car into something which I hope will be truly competitive in the 2009 season, especially against all the pesky Mitsubishi Evos that I keep coming up against!
If anyone is thinking about taking up motorsport, my advice is to go for it! Hillclimbing and Sprinting is a great way to start – you can turn up in a standard road car if you wish. You just need a licence, overalls, helmet and a bit of black metal bolted to the front of the car to break the timing beam. The adrenalin rush from getting a lap just right is like nothing else, but be warned, it is addictive! Come and spectate at a club event and see for yourself.