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One thing I've learned about the motorsport world is that everything is last-minute. I'm not sure yet if that's because of the nature of racing or just because accidents and breakages happen, and this throws everyone's plans out, in a domino effect. Or maybe it's just difficult to finance motorsport, and there are simply not enough people going around to do the work.
So what do you need to prepare for racing? Here's a simple list.
- Get your ARDS test and listen to the part about joining the first race carefully (e.g. signing on, scrutineering, entering the track)! And also learn the part about the starting procedures, as you won't get to practice these (unles you join the GRDC, where they give us a practice).
- Buy your race gear. If you buy as a package in one go, you'll get a discount. You might want to wait a while before buying the HANS device, but make sure you buy a HANS well before the first race, and start to use it on your track days (as it takes practice to adjust to restricted head movement).
- Join a club, such as BARC or 750 MC, as a racing member. This takes about a week, possibly two to come back.
- Get hold of your race schedule for the season and book hotels a few months ahead, near the circuit.
- Think of your graphics / livery and discuss with a wrapping company. Schedule in a date at least a couple of months before the first race.
- Get hold of the race technical regulations and ask a professional motorsport team to set it up for you (e.g. ride heights, corner weighting, roll bar settings). It should take about 4 or 5 hours at around £60 / hour.
- Learn from the team how to do a spanner check. After a few track days, you will certainly have some loose bolts, missing clips and clamps, etc.
- Learn what technicals to check at a track day every time you go out on track, as you will be responsible for these on race day: tyres (set the pressures), fuel (make sure you have enough) and wheels (make sure you have torqued them correctly).
- Watch some races in your series, and learn the corners, holding area and start procedures. Maybe take some video.
- GET AS MUCH TRACK TIME IN THE CAR AS YOU CAN AFFORD
Track time is the key to becoming competitive. Even if your natural ability is not as good as a fellow competitor, you will almost certainly get quicker than them if you spend more time in the car.
The ARDS (Association of Racing Drivers' Schools) test is the racing licence test sanctioned by the MSA (Motor Sports Association) in the UK. As you progress through motor sport and do more competitions, your licence will also progress through different levels and you will, for example be allowed to compete outside the UK.
You can take an ARDS test at most race circuits, including the MSV tracks and Silverstone, where I took mine, as arranged by Ginetta. The test is taken over a period of one day at the circuit. Before going, you'll be given an application pack which includes a DVD (called Go Racing) to explain all you need to know about the test. You can also search on Google and download an old copy of the MSA Blue Book (part of the general rules and regulations) to read about the procedures, flags, and so on that are explained in the DVD.
Watch the DVD as many times as you can, and you will absorb all you need to know to pass the theory part of the test. It will also help you with the practical test, as it explains the general principles of speed and of smoothness, accuracy and consistency that the ARDS tester will be looking for.
On the test day itself, you'll do two sections: the written test and the practical test.
The written test normally comes first, after an introduction session and another viewing of the DVD. The test contains about 20 questions in multiple-choice and written-response format (such as writing down which flag is for which track situation). Each candidate in the test room gets a different set of questions, so there can't be any comparing of answers!
The practical test involves a demo run with the instructor, where he shows you the potential speed of the car (normally a front-wheel drive, such as a Clio or Megane) on a race track. I think it's also designed to put you in the right frame of mind, and let you know that you are there to drive fast, and if you're not prepared for that already on the day, you should think about it. These instructors are professional racing drivers, and they can go FAST.
The practical test then involves two instruction sessions of about 15 minutes each, after which you'll sit in-car with the instructor and discuss what he sees you doing wrong (and right) and the areas you should concentrate on, such as not blasting the throttle too early before the apex. These sessions are like a mini instruction day, to point out areas where you might spin or go off the circuit, and to educate you on the principle of going fast and urgently on track, and therefore not becoming a hazard.
The third practical session is the test itself, and the instructor will ask you to do three or four laps without any input from him / her. They are looking for awareness (mirrors - and you should tell them what you see approaching), control and safety, and a minimum speed around the lap. You don't have to set records on the speed, just drive within your fast ability and with urgency. If you spin or exit the circuit by out-braking yourself, you will fail the test.
At the end of the practical test, the instructor will probably tell you in the car if you have passed or failed that part. After this you'll also get the results of your written test. If you pass both, your paper is signed and you can apply for the National B licence.
The 750 Motor Club has a clear process document on how to go racing, here: http://www.750mc.co.uk/racing.htm. See also http://timarnold.com/get-your-race-licence and http://www.rebeccaracer.com/ards-first-step-in-to-racing.
Helmet and HANS
Compared to motorcycle helmets, availability and models of racing helmets are more specific. You must buy a model with an FIA approval, and they normally come in white, silver or black. It's rare that you'll find a helmet with graphics. I've only seen one Bell model with red / white graphics pre-applied. The helmet will also need HANS posts (locking points on the rear of the shell) because all MSA events in the UK now require the driver to use a HANS neck brace.
If you're intending to race, it's best to get accustomed to the HANS device as soon as possible. They are not uncomfortable in my experience, but they do restrict your sideways and rear vision and movement (e.g. for reaching a non-closed passenger door!) because you can't turn your head more than 20 degrees or so, or move your head away from the seat.
You will obviously need the five-point harness in the car to use with the HANS device, and all this takes time to set up when you get in the car, so it's best to get comfortable with doing it every time you go out on circuit.
I chose a Stilo ST5 Composite helmet (the design for lifting the visor is great), with a Schroeder HANS device (seemed the lightest and best value) and a tinted, iridium visor for those low-sun winter afternoons on track. The iridium visors look dark, but from the inside, they are clear and don't restrict light in my opinion (and you can always leave it up when not wanting the sun shade).
Graphcis / Livery
I suggest finding a local company that shows pictures of racing cars on its website. There is probably a supplier within 20 miles of you that does this for some race team or other. I was lucky to find Jellyfish Design within two miles, and they do wraps for BTCC and many other race teams. Race cars are mostly wrapped, not painted nowadays, and the design and wrap can cost from £300-500 upwards, including advice on the design. A cheaper option is just to get stickers made up by the same company. You'll need a couple of months to go through the process when it gets close to racing season, so it's best to think about the graphics early if you can. I was caught out by needing factory fixes to the car just when I was planning to send the car to Jellyfish for livery, about a month before the first race, so that was too late.
As it stands, the car looked like this (below) just before the first race. You'll notice that you need number boards and possibly windscreen banners from the series sponsors, and those will need to go on top of your graphics. So that's another reason for starting graphics early. I will now have to work around the number boards or get some new ones.
Track Time (Track Days to Test Days)
I can't stress enough how important it is to get track time in your race car if you want to get fast, particularly for competition. You may not expect to win, but you will want to give a good account of yourself for your own satisfaction, and end up in the position you think you're worthy of. You will know straight away who is faster and slower than you when you go on track days with fellow competitors. It is possible to move ahead of others purely by putting more driving time into the car.
With the Ginetta G40 GRDC, this is particularly true because all cars are the same and you have a level playing field upon which to work on your driving, and gain familiarity for when the car is on the limit. No matter what anyone says, I think the G40 is a difficult car to drive, but also extremely rewarding when you learn what NOT to do and how to control the car. The only way to learn this is to put more track miles in and keep pushing. That will involve spins, but fewer as time progresses.
Track time is cheapest on public track days, and I have an article on those, here: http://www.saferoncircuit.com/index.php/12-finding-a-uk-track-day.
If you're not finding enough time on track, you'll need to put more money into the game unfortunately, and you can go to Test Days, which are eligible for drivers with race licences only. You can find out more about Test Days here: http://www.msv.com/testing.aspx. These days are often run in sessions, and normally on weekdays. Your track time will be limited and it's more expensive, so you have to go there with a specific goal in mind, to work on areas of driving, track-learning or set-up.
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There's a lot to learn, starting with the driving, then onto the maintenance and set-up, and even the media and thinking about sponsorship.
Learning to Drive
Learning to drive fast is best done in a low-powered car with no electronics to cover mistakes. This is just what Ginetta aims at with the G40 and the GRDC championship. So what do electronic controls do? Stop you spinning, primarily, which I found out as soon as I got into a Ginetta on a damp day at Silverstone. I'd only ever spun a car once before, but on the day at Silverstone I must have spun four times at least. My mistakes were either applying power too much and too early, or holding the lock too hard on the exit of a corner. In my 911 and even in my C230 daily driver, the stability management system controls excessive power inputs to the driving wheels so that it's actually difficult to spin.
After six track days in the G40, I'm slowly finding the speed. Taking the racing line and hitting the apexes is not a problem, but maintaining momentum through the corner is my challenge. On a wet day, that's even more difficult, until you learn the limit of grip in your car and your set-up. Even then, there are spins, but you have to show a certain amount of aggression (or assertiveness, as instructors like to call it), so spins and track excursions will happen now and again.
Primarily however, I remember four cornering principles when going around, plus the mantra the MSA teaches you when taking an ARDS race licence: speed is a combination of smoothness, accuracy and consistency.
On a car like the G40, you can adjust many parameters that will affect handling. The easy settings are tyre pressures, damper return / bounce, and anti-roll bar stiffness. The latter will have a big effect on your understeer or oversteer and the first two will also affect steer and levels of grip and feel. It's not at all simple, and I have adopted a beginner's approach to to fix the anti-roll bars to soft at back and medium front, then just make one setting change per day on the dampers, depending on how slippy the track is. If the track is dry, I'll stiffen the dampers. As for tyre pressures, I'll measure them as soon as I come off track and keep them level all round at the recommended pressure when hot (which is around 28-30 PSI in the G40).
Other settings are best left to the experts, and for that you'll need to pay a team to do some set-up work on your car. I chose Ginetta specialists Fox Motorsports, and they will check through your car and set up the ride height (and corner weighting), cambers, toe-in, and show you how to do spanner checks for faults that develop in the harsh environment of a race track.
Corner weighting and ride height are the first things I would ask a specialist to set up on my car.
Driving a car on the race track will put big demands on all components. I always spend half a day checking over the car after a track day. As well as the spanner check, this also includes washing off any of the track debris and grime from under the car and in the engine bay. There's a lot to write about maintaining the G40, and I have a separate manual for that.
I also keep a record of the set-up changes that I make during track or post-track maintenance.
Media and Sponsorship
This is not everyone's bag, and I would only recommend taking it seriously if you're intending to make a career out of race-car driving. As an amateur newbie, you won't get sponsorship, except for help and possibly some small financial support from family or friends, or your own business. It won't cover a racing season at all, so you need to fund the car and the track days, plus race entries yourself. In the right championship, you can do this for a reasonable amount, affordable to your budget, such as the GRDC, Caterham Academy or 750 MC's Locost and Trophy series.
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I looked at buying or building a track-adapted car several times, including BMW 3 Series Compacts (750 MC championship eligible) and Renault Clio 172s. The price was about £3-5,000 for a built track car, apparently road legal. In my view, the problem with buying a track-prepared car is that you don't know how reliable it is, or how legal for MOTs. If I were building a track car, I know I would have to make decisions, and possibly compromises about taking equipment out (such as airbags or electronics) or adding specialist parts that may cause difficulty for a road-going vehicle (such as lowering springs or camber).
I had the Porsche sitting in the garage depreciating slowly, so I decided to switch it for a factory-prepared race car, rather than buying a cheap track car as an extra to the Porsche. I found that the Caterham 7 and the Ginetta G40 were the two main options. I wasn't, initially, considering the race championship options, although both came with that option.
I looked at the Caterham in the factory in Crawley, but I still find them a bit old-fashioned in appearance, and lacking a roof. If I'm spending the amount of money they ask, I want a car that ticks all the boxes, and Caterhams didn't do that for me. I was looking at virtually the same car in the 1980s when I visited the factory in Caterham.
And so to Ginetta, and the G40. I have been watching these cars as they support the British GT Championship, and although they seem a little tail-happy to drive, they are exciting to watch. I liked the strong, tubular chassis and the clamshell hood for efficient access and quick repair of front-end race damage.
I filled in a form on the Ginetta website to enquire about the road-going version of the G40. The response was instant, and by phone from the Commercial Director. They said they can provide a G40 road car, which has a bigger 2.0 litre engine, but why don't I sign up for the racing version, with the 1.8 litre engine? The race package was cheaper but the car is not so powerful. The 2.0 litre road version is also suitable for track, but can't be used for the racing.
I decided to go racing, as it was now or never. The GRDC package included car, race licence application and entry into four rounds supporting the British GT Championship. Now that's a quick way into a professional race series if ever there was one. But there's a steep learning curve ahead, as I'll describe in the next posts.
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This is the first article I intend to write about my transition from road cars and track days to motorsport. I haven't competed in any motor races in my life, but it's something I've always wanted to do, and now appears to be the time to make the move. Here's the story, and in future posts, updates on how I'm getting on.
So what's my experience of cars and motorsport? I've always wanted to get on track but in the 1980s, when I started driving, I didn't seem to have the right contacts and certainly no money. Track days didn't really exist, and karts were just something you found at fairgrounds, and not something you could buy or try out. How things have changed, for the better.
My first experience on track was in Finland in the 1990s when a friend introduced me to his hobby, which was mini racing and karting. I was hooked and soon bought myself a Dino Kart with a 100cc 2-stroke Yamaha engine, from Henri Lahokoski's shop in Tampere. Before I could use the kart more than two times, I moved back to England, and the kart had to go due to other priorities.
Back in England in 2000, my sister bought me a Formula Ford track experience at Donington Park. This was a good one, and lasted the whole day, with a qualifying session around an oval of the Melbourne Hairpin, and then out on circuit for lead-follow laps. I surprised myself by qualifying at the front, so I was setting the pace down through the Kraner Curves, with very little experience of what to do, but loving it.
My next time on track came in 2013 at Lydden Hill, when I had bought a Porsche Cayman 987.1. I had upgraded to faster and faster road cars after my return to England, and I thought the Cayman was the ultimate, most expensive car I would ever buy. I had a great time at Lydden, but... I boiled the brakes, broke a tyre, etc. And there starts another phase of getting hooked... You upgrade the brakes and possibly the engine mapping, and then you think of suspension modifications, and on it goes. Soon you find that it might be better to invest in a more capable road-track car, or just convert something cheap into a track car.
In my case, I found the money (via a bank loan) to buy an even more expensive car, which I thought was the ultimate road and track car, the Porsche 911. Mine was a 997 Gen 2 basic Carrera, purchased from Paragon, close to me in East Sussex. It's a fantastic car and Paragon are brilliant at supporting their customers, helping them with ideas, including advice for track excursions. I took the 911 to Goodwood, Mallory Park and Brands Hatch.
Each time I went on track, I realised that I had to do something to make the 911 track-suitable, like spare wheels and tyres just for track, camber adjustments, anti-roll bar adjustments, upgraded brake fluids, and more. I stopped at doing the "more", like lowering springs, and reluctantly told myself that the 911 was too valuable for me to take on track, and it was never going to be suitable for the tough track driving I was starting to experience.
So I was looking for a solution, went to a hill climb at Firle, saw lots of specialist cars, spoke to a couple of friends about options, and made the decision to change the 911. I wasn't using it much on the road, was nervous of breaking it on track, and it was mostly preserved in the garage. This was not my way to get on track.
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