Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A weekend in dire straits: British 24 Hours. Teesside, 13-14 August 2016

After a promising buildup, the 2016 British 24 Hours descended swiftly into farce. Not just for the Corporate Chauffeurs team, but as a whole.

I'm not going to go into my usual minute detail because I don't think anyone wants to read it and frankly, I don't want to write it. So we'll stick to the highlights - or lowlights, as one team put it.

The Corporate Chauffeurs team - and in particular captain Alex Vangeen, team manager Luke Jones, Bradley Philpot and George Lovell - spent four months, hundreds of man hours and a not inconsiderable amount of money preparing for the biggest race weekend of the year. No stone was left unturned in the quest to be the best prepared, best drilled, best equipped hire team in the paddock.

Meanwhile, there were encouraging signs from the Teesside management, with two positive rule changes for 2016: kart selection by random draw, and a fixed-length mid-race maintenance stop for every team. They agreed to let us attach lights to our kart and posed no objection to our large awning. They were a pleasure to deal with, as they have been every year since our debut in 2011.

The good news continued through both setup days: kit, drivers and helpers all present and correct, Friday practice completed without a hitch, the usual radio glitches ironed out. Even the weather seemed to be on our side for once: we've never been warmer or drier at Teesside.

But by 9.05am on race day we were beginning to wonder why we'd bothered.

George Lovell, out first in practice in the kart allocated to #11, declared it virtually undriveable. Since he runs his own kart circuit, we tend to trust his judgement. Race instructor and double British 24 Hours winner Bradley Philpot was faring little better in #22, with major handling and engine issues evident within half a lap.

By the time our karts returned to the garage, less than 10 minutes after practice started, they joined a lengthening queue of ailing machines. At one point, a third of the hire kart field was in for remedial work ranging from incorrect tyre pressures to total engine failure.

Despite several return visits to the pits and a kart change for #11, the Corporate Chauffeurs teams qualified 18th and 22nd - both over a second away from the pole position laptime with world-class drivers at the wheels. Up and down the hire kart field were similar stories of zero kart parity and woeful reliability.

Last minute changes to tyre pressures and engine valve clearances - which the drivers had to persuade reluctant mechanics to undertake - enabled both crews to unlock some pace at last, and in the early hours of the race we rose swiftly through the field, running as high as 3rd and 4th at one point. That, we realised later, was as much down to others' misfortune as our searing speed.

But in the second hour, #22 slowed with an ailing left engine and pitted. The cause: an oil-filled carburettor. In hindsight - and with hard-won mechanical insight - we should have insisted on a new engine. But the mechanics, knowing full well that our left engine would almost certainly seize before the end of the race, nevertheless changed only the carburettor. Remarkably, the engine would last into the 20th hour before finally succumbing - costing us a needless 10 minutes on top of the 11 minutes we lost with the original repair.

After their kart change during practice, the #11 crew fared better, although niggling fuel feed problems, brake discs covered in chain lubrication oil (by the mechanics) and a shattered sprocket at half distance dropped them out of podium contention.

The troubles suffered by both Corporate Chauffeurs crews paled next those of the Leicester Lightning team, whose race 'lowlights' are immortalised on Youtube. Imagine our surprise when, in the closing hours, they appeared in 8th place in class, having been credited the laps lost to unreliability. To my knowledge they were the only team thus gifted and I'd love to hear the rationale for that. Had the Corporate Chauffeurs crews been similarly compensated (14 and 21 laps), we would have finished 1-2 comfortably. I'm sure there are other teams who could stake similar claims for the victory.

I'm not in possession of all the facts, and there may have been contributing circumstances beyond the organisers' control. I can only report on our experience, and that simply wasn't good enough. We spent the thick end of £3,000 in race fees plus the same again in travel, accommodation, kit hire, food and drink, clothing and branding, to field our two crews. Like many hire teams, we have sponsors involved, whose return on investment depends on us fighting for the win, not sitting in pieces in the garage. At a bare minimum, it costs a hire team £2,000 and a huge amount of energy to support the British 24 Hours. As far as we could tell, the hire fleet's race preparation amounted to a hosing-down and a new set of tyres.

Sorry, but that's unacceptable.

Nobody expects guarantees of 100% reliability. It's a 24 hour race, after all. But it's not unreasonable to expect the karts to have been fitted with fresh consumables, to have been tested and equalised to within say half a second over an 80 second lap. In other words, in return for their money and attendance, every team deserves to start the race on as even a footing as possible.

As it was, not even the tyre pressures had been checked, with wild variances across the fleet and across individual tyres on karts.

Despite our woes, every member of our 14-strong team put their hearts and souls into making the best of a bad situation. We kept our heads high even when Luke Jones fell seriously ill overnight and had to be admitted to hospital. In the end we finished 5th and 11th in class - testament to relentless pace especially from newcomer George Lovell and Teesside old hands Philpot and Weddell, and superb work in the pits.

But it's hard not to feel that all that talent, effort, money and time was wasted. Hard also not to feel that despite positive early signs, the hire teams were treated very poorly by Teesside in 2016. I gather that for 2017 the Club Hire class will replaced by a more expensive 'Rookie Extreme' class with new karts closer to the owner karts in specification. That sounds promising, but the quality and extent of kart preparation and parity will have to be leagues ahead of what we experienced this year. And the cost will put it out of the reach of many current Club Hire teams.

It's a shame to lose Club Hire. Done properly, it could be highly competitive and excellent value. As things stand, Corporate's Chauffeurs' plans for 2017 are fluid. But without some real commitment to the hire class from the organisers, and published details of how 2016's failings will be rectified for 2017, I very much doubt that we'll be returning.





Wednesday, 10 August 2016

British 24 Hours 2016. Teesside, 12-14 August. Preview

This is where it gets real.

There are plenty of 24 hour kart races, but none quite like this. The European Prokart Endurance Championship (EPEC), of which the British 24 Hours is part, includes two other 24 hour races at the Isle of Man and Le Mans. But the British 24 Hours, held at EPEC's behemoth home circuit in the northeast of England, holds a special place in our hearts. With up to 70 owner and rental kart teams sharing track and paddock space, its scale and carnival atmosphere have no equal.

Everyone goes to Teesside. It's The One, the most coveted prize of all.

At its heart, a race - any race - is a simple thing. Get to the finish line first. And at Teesside, as in any race, the devil is in the detail. We must push our machines and ourselves to the limit but no further, treading the knife edge for over 1200 racing miles. We must balance speed on track with mechanical sympathy; use our collective years of experience to make sure that not a single second is wasted in the dozen or more scheduled pitstops we will make. We must plan down to the last detail yet be ready to react on the fly. We must be lucky, and we must make our own luck.

Only then will we have a shot at taking the chequered flag ahead of the 41 other teams also striving for the same glory. With a single hire class in 2016, our usual (fearsome) competition - Northampton Maidens, Teesside Tigers, CD31, a host of Elite Karting League regulars - are joined by a host of strong newcomers from the defunct Standard Hire class. The fight at the front is going to be tougher than ever.

Corporate Chauffeurs has, over the years, become a well-drilled racing team. We've put a lot of effort into preparing for the British 24 Hours; in 2016, we've raised our game again. Equipment, logistics, planning, analysis of past triumphs and mistakes... no stone has been left unturned. For me, fatherhood has dictated a quieter race buildup this year, but I've been blown away by the commitment and sheer hard work of my teammates over the past few months.

As usual, we'll field two karts, numbers 11 and 22, crewed by a mix of Teesside old hands and talented newcomers. Russell Endean and Jonny Spencer return to defend their Club Hire title at the wheel of #11, joined by Club100, BUKC and BRKC front runner David Longman and former Super 1 star George Lovell - who also happens to run his own kart circuit.

Having missed the podium by a hair's breadth in 2015, #22's crew have a point to prove. Corporate Chauffeurs captain Alex Vangeen, Michael Weddell and I are joined by teenage superstar-in-waiting Piers Prior and Race of Champions quarter-finalist Bradley Philpot, who swaps from #11.

Also for the first time, we'll be without the services of my wife Marianne, who will be following the action from home while extolling Daddy's heroics to our three month old daughter. She's devastated to be missing the race and not at all secretly glad that she won't spend the weekend working flat out on her feet beside a noisy, windswept and rain-lashed kart circuit. We'll miss her in more ways than we can count.

Work commitments have sadly claimed our excellent 2015 team manager Arnaud Tinet. But his shoes have been enthusiastically filled by top 2-stroke racer and PR guru Luke Jones, who is responsible for our new sponsors and expanded social media presence. Having done sterling work in the buildup, Luke will run the pitwall and direct strategy for both karts during the race, He'll be assisted by returning karting widows Charlie Fitton and Marie Mcgeachie - respectively, Jonny's and Michael's girlfriends.

Once again, we're hugely grateful for the continued support from the Vangeen family business, along with T.B. Mackay Energy Services and new-for-2016 sponsor Opie Oils. As always, we'll put our hearts and souls into delivering the perfect result for them, and for ourselves.

Testing for the British 24 Hours will start on Friday 12 August. Official practice and qualifying will start at 9am on Saturday, and the lights will go green at midday. For race updates and live timing, visit our Facebook page www.facebook.com/TeamCorporateChauffeurs.

To everyone racing this weekend: good luck, and stay safe.

I'm counting the minutes, and I know I'm not the only one.




Wednesday, 9 March 2016

A long hard look at the Elite Karting League

Round 1. Whilton Mill, 6 March 2016

Mothering Sunday, 7.55am. In a leafy corner of Northamptonshire, Mother's Day seems to have been cancelled - or at least postponed. More than a hundred sons and daughters have forsaken their elders to spend the day tearing around a greasy strip of tarmac in a fleet of even greasier four-wheeled rollerskates. There are a few long-suffering mothers about; I imagine an outing to Whilton Mill wouldn't have been their first choice of Mother's Day treat.

I'm keeping my guilt in check. I've sent her a card.

Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us all for our transgression: the sun is shining - for now - but the cold is trying to bite through two layers of thermal underwear. The pitlane tarmac sparkles; every surface on the twin rows of silent karts looks dusted in icing sugar. 

This feels like my debut in the Elite Karting League, the pan-UK championship run by Bob Pope and his Teesside Karting team. But it isn't; I joined the Newmarket Hornets team last September for the round at Clay Pigeon in Somerset. I have never written about that day and never will, not because of the karting - which I remember little about - but because 5 September 2015 ended horribly, with my newly pregnant wife and a friend seriously injured in a freak road accident. Six months later, she is on the mend; while I race outdoors for the first time since, she has strict instructions not to leave the house.

So for me, this is a reset. EKL day 1. In the paddock, it takes me all of ten seconds to spot familiar faces, though - my British 24 Hours team, Corporate Chauffeurs, effectively joins the EKL for one weekend a year at Teesside. And there's a scattering of British Rental Kart Championship refugees about - Matt Curtis, Jordan Donegan, Connor Marsh, Rhianna Purcocks, my Hornets teammate Kyle Power... I'm pleasantly surprised to run into Ryan Smith and dad Neil, who have made the long journey down from Dunbar.

The EKL format is unusual in that it combines sprint and endurance races into one event. Teams of three or four drivers share an hour's practice, twelve sprint heats and a two hour endurance race between them; points from all the races are added together.

The teams are named for their home towns - Bristol Bandits, Coseley Cougars, Northampton Maidens, and so on. The Newmarket Hornets, run by Carl Vella, is one of the founder EKL teams and has morphed into a behemoth: today, seven driver crews will race under the yellow and black banner.

I met several of the regulars last year: Kyle, Steve Dodds, Dan Hemmings - but many of the faces are new to me. As the typical race morning flurry - signing-on, briefing, changing and (most important) acquisition of coffee and bacon butties - begins to settle, I'm united with my teammates for the day. I'll be racing with Tim Marangon and Jonathon Seekings, neither of whom I've met before. We're the Mighty Hornets, number 59, the least experienced of the Hornet crews. Tim is a circuit local, but I've only raced here once before and Jonathon will be turning his first ever laps here in practice. 

In classic sprint event style, every team is allocated a range of grid slots from front to back over the 12 heats, giving everyone an equal shot at glory. For simplicity we elect to rotate our drivers through the heats. I'm third in the lineup, meaning I will race in heats 3, 6, 9 and 12.

By 9.30am, the engines are clattering; we find number 59, load it up with a perfectly-formed 2kg lead disc (one of dozens smelted by the multi-talented Kyle Powers) and send Tim on his way. We'll each have 20 minutes to dial ourselves in before the mayhem begins.

Although the weather is dry, the circuit is cold and damp; it's a voyage of discovery for those first out. By the time I take over from Jonathan for the final 20 minutes, the laptimes have come down to around the one minute mark - still several seconds away from fully dry pace.

My only previous experience of Whilton Mill is a soaking wet day in Club100 2-stroke karts. I know which way the corners go, but that's about it. In 20 laps I learn the basics: hold on tight and take turn 1 flat; brake late and hard for Christmas corner, the highest point on the circuit; brake early and gently for the downhill right-hander at Ashby; turn in late for the tricky left-right at Chapman; turn in ridiculously early for the Boot, which leads into the final two corners.

At Teesside, the failings of the cumbersome EKL karts are partially masked by its fast, flowing layout. But they're brutally exposed here. Within two laps I find myself reminiscing about the (relatively) balletic old EKL fleet used until 2014.

The engines and brakes are strong, but the extra 25kg in this newer chassis makes itself felt in a front end that stubbornly refuses to go where it's aimed, and a rear that snaps into oversteer if you try and pivot the kart into slower corners with a rapid flick of steering input. It's as if the front and rear halves of the kart weren't designed to be attached to each other. Cold tarmac is a contributing factor, but the balance is poor.

When I return to the pits I'm shocked at the reading on the weighbridge - over 245kg with a quarter of a tank of fuel. My seat insert is still set up for the BRKC, so I'm a little over the 85kg minimum limit for drivers - but the maths doesn't add up. My understanding of the EKL rules is that driver and kart combined must be over 235kg at all times, and drivers must weigh 85kg. But if I took all the lead out of my seat and stripped naked, I'd still be over 235kg in the kart - while weighing significantly less than 85kg on my own. So which rule applies? When I query it, nobody seems to have an answer.

As the heats get underway, I'm forcibly reminded of the lack of downtime on an EKL race day. Contrary to something like the BRKC, where you often wait for hours between heats, here there's barely time to ingest calories. And in a three-man team, all of us need to be on hand at the end of each race, to move our numbered Nassau panel to the correct kart on the grid for the next heat. It's chaotic, but it works: the Teesside staff are efficient and faffing is kept to a minimum. I'm pleased to see karts being swapped from front to back, to stop the inevitable migration of the fastest machines towards the sharp end.

I'll be starting 4th, 5th, 18th and 19th (out of 25) in my heats. I'd prefer to save the higher grid positions for later heats, but no matter. As the race director - whom I recognise from the British 24 Hours - blows his whistle to get heat 3 rolling, things nearly go pear-shaped for me straight away. The right engine stalls, the field streaming by as I stutter towards turn 1 on the formation lap. I manage to reach the pullcord without stopping, coax the engine into life, and regain my position on the rolling grid before we exit the final corner. The drivers to my left seem to bolt a moment before the lights on the gantry blink green, taking several others with them - but the driver in front of me hesitates. Stuck behind him, I lose three places instantly. I spend eight laps chasing hard and take the chequered flag in 7th place, less than a second behind the driver in 3rd and slightly annoyed at the baulked start. 

There's barely time to gulp half a bottle of water before I'm on again, starting 5th in heat 6. This time I'm luckier at the start and nick a place on the run up the hill. But there the luck runs out. I'm struggling for pace, dropping half a second to the leaders and vulnerable to attack from behind. I hang on until halfway around the final lap, but am powerless to stop a three kart train streaming past. 7th again. But I'm not actually driving too badly, and the racing so far has been much cleaner than my hazy memories of Clay Pigeon last year.

So far.

In my final two heats I learn that there are two mindsets in EKL. If you start in the top eight, you drive with commitment and respect for your fellow driver and the rules. If you start any further back, you drive like a red-misted loon on a stag do. From 18th on the grid I spend a very long 8 laps being shoved, rammed and squeezed; drivers barrel into non-existent gaps, brake-test each other and generally ignore the basic rules and etiquette. I'm not sure what the marshals and stewards are doing, but they certainly aren't paying any attention. It's a sad excuse for a race.

Heat 12 gets underway in a hailstorm, which is a first for me. Not surprisingly, it's like driving on ball bearings. People spin off on the formation lap. My left engine stalls and I'm forced to jump out. But it won't fire; a marshal comes to my aid and gets it going after 10 or so attempts, by which time the field is almost at the final corner. I have no chance to take up my 19th position on the grid, and am 10 metres from the back of the field as the lights go green. 

Still, I keep it on the road when many others don't, pick my way through the carnage, and have made up around 10 places before somebody either runs out of talent or decides to use me (rather than the left pedal) to slow down for Ashby. I'm hit hard from behind, the kart pirouetting through ten metres of grass and mud, and bouncing off the tyrewall. It takes me and a marshal more than a minute to haul it back to the circuit, by which time I'm a lap down. 

My teammates have had a similarly mixed time in the heats - including a disqualification for Jonathan, for being 0.1kg underweight (but over 235kg in the kart). We're a glum threesome as we prepare for the endurance race - which, we learn, has been extended to 2 hours 20 minutes. The Race of Champions (a 20 minute race for a cash prize) has been scrapped, and the time added on to the endurance.

Our spirits are lifted when Jonathon qualifies a good 7th; at last, a chance of a decent result. But we fall victim to another EKL oddity: the karts are not refuelled before the race start, which means everybody starts with differing amounts of fuel. And when you arbitrarily lengthen the race, it's quite likely that any team with less than half a tank of fuel at the start will have to make an extra fuel stop.

In the end, we lose a whopping 8 laps to the leaders. We're far from the fastest team in the field, but more than half of our deficit is the result of a second stop for fuel, plus a litany of misfortunes in the pits. Stalling engines, lead weights that weld themselves to the chassis, and my personal favourite - the sight of our kart jammed in the tight fuel bay exit. By the time I take to the circuit for the final 45 minutes there's little left to fight for, but at least the circuit is dry. I concentrate on extracting some sort of pace and consistency from our unwieldy beast, whose sloth-like handling is further hobbled by a steering wheel that looks big enough for a Transit van. Given the way it corners, that's probably apt.

By the time the chequered flag falls, I've managed to set our team's fastest lap of the day and bank some useful mileage for the British 24 Hours, so it isn't a total loss. The Newmarket Hornets are a friendly, welcoming bunch and it's a pleasure to have joined them again. In fact, the EKL as a whole is better natured than you might expect, given some of the antics on track.

But it's a difficult championship to take seriously. Some of the rules are inconsistently applied or downright unfair, kart parity is less than brilliant and driving standards are shoddy. At nearly £140 for a total of just over 90 minutes on track it isn't conspicuously cheap, either. It's a friendly day's racing with good variety, but for serious rental karters it leaves a lot to be desired.



Photo: Connor Marsh Racing


Photo: Connor Marsh Racing

Thursday, 21 January 2016

BRKC 2016 rounds 3 and 4. Milton Keynes, 16-17 January

"At least it's not snowing", I remember thinking yesterday while scraping ice off the car.

Sunday, 8am. I sit in the breakfast room of the Milton Keynes Holiday Inn Express. Outside the windows, the world is wonderland white; I'm staring at a miniature snowman built with great care atop one of the waist height lamp posts that flank the path outside. Cereal and tea churn uneasily in my guts.

Saturday evening did not go to plan, my 3 year-old nephew having fallen ill after dinner and necessitating a swift change of accommodation for Marianne and I. She's already trying to grow a baby while healing a broken leg; a stomach bug isn't going to help.

The move meant a late start to the Saturday blog and a late night; I'm exhausted and jumpy, struggling to control a surprising level of competition nerves. On my phone, the BRKC live timing page flickers to life; across town, Annelien Boutens, David Longman, Robin Kassam and others are heading out for qualifying. Round 3, heat 6. 25 races down, 19 to go. I'll be out in the last race of round 3, in two hours' time. I gather my gear, ignore my guts and head out to scrape snow from the car.

In Thunderdome, the engines are roaring, the heaters fighting their interminable battle against the frigid air; my cup of coffee slips through my nerveless fingers and nearly falls onto the circuit. I step away from the railings, wondering how often drivers get doused by hapless spectators here. Later I learn that my British 24 Hours captain Alex Vangeen managed to halt a race last night by dropping a Coke from the viewing gantry.

Beside me, reigning champ Ruben watches the on track action - BRKC newcomer Régis Gosselin leading Jake Campbell-Mills and Mateusz Bartsch. It's my first chance to chat to him this weekend; so far things are going to plan - two wins from two starts - but he has two tough heats today and is taking nothing for granted. He's making notes of the highest finishing karts in each heat, trying to spot any which might have a tiny advantage: he will have to select a kart for the final and at this level, every nugget of knowledge could make his championship. He tells me that two years ago, the driver above him on the leaderboard hadn't done his homework, selected a slower kart, and lost out as a result.

Not for the first time, I'm struck by the attention to detail and work ethic of those at the sharp end. Ruben has huge natural talent, without doubt, but he works exceptionally hard to maintain his stratospheric level week in, week out. Nobody is going to turn up, jump in a kart and beat him. No matter how gifted you are, you'll have to put in some serious hard graft to have any hope of matching him.

Talking of which... we're on. Round 3, heat ten. Which features three race-winners (Boutens, Bayani, White), one former F2 racer (Pineiro) and the stealthily fast Slawek Piskorz. As I settle myself into kart 18, calm descends. I have Ed White ahead of me, which should guarantee me a clear lap.

My second qualifying attempt on the original layout feels, if anything, better than the first. I line up a respectable fifth this time - the four superstars ahead, Slawek behind. As we get under way I ignore the threat from behind and focus on the distinctive yellow, orange and blue livery of Ramon Pineiro. Ahead of him, Oliver Bayani is a little slow out of the Snail and has to defend hard from Ramon as we concertina into the hairpin. They're both slowed and I close up; Ramon has another go into the final corner. It doesn't come off, and I'm brushing his rear bumper all the way into the Snail, looking for a gap as we get on the brakes for the hairpin. But Ramon just about keeps the door closed, then seems to find another gear and pulls away as I start to come under pressure from Slawek.

I'm driving neatly enough but struggling for pace; Slawek is quicker, hustling me hard into the Snail and forcing me onto a defensive line. I hold him off and maintain my position as both of us complete what turn out to be slow pitstops. Mine's a touch less tardy, which gives me a moment of breathing room - but the clear track shows Slawek's true pace for the first time. He's at least a couple of tenths faster than I am, and gobbles up the gap before finally making a move stick into the Snail. We're side-by side all the way down to the hairpin, but Slawek has the line; swearing, I'm forced to concede.

A couple of laps later, what looks like a backmarker comes out of the pits beside Slawek, and tussles with him all the way through the Snail before emerging ahead. Bemused at his driving, I take advantage and repass Slawek into the hairpin. Behind us, unseen, Ruben pits to avoid our battle but second-placed Ed continues. The 'backmarker' turns out to be Daniel Nicholls, who has jumped both Slawek and I in the pits. Cue more swearing.

And more still when, a lap later, what I took to be Slawek trying to nudge his way past actually turns out to be Ed, trying to lap me and get on after Ruben. Having already missed a blue flag, I jump out of the way and lose a little momentum. Slawek, who by now has a touch of the red mist about him, forces his way past me at the Snail - a little messy, but he just about gets away with it. He pulls away as I pay more attention to the blue flags and get out of Ruben's way. For a couple of laps I'm given a masterclass in indoor karting technique; the speed that Ruben carries out of the corners is simply breathtaking.

Slawek catches up to Nicholls and hassles him all the way to the line, the two of them making hard contact within metres of the flag. Slawek comes off worse and is less than impressed. I take the flag seventh, wondering where my pace went, and annoyed at my continued tardiness in the pits. It's cost me places in all three heats so far. When I return upstairs I discover that ours was the fastest race of the championship so far: Ruben broke the lap record in qualifying - unprecedented - and then repeatedly lowered it throughout the race, Ed just a tenth or so slower.

A quarter of an hour after clambering out of the kart, I'm in the car, rushing back to the hotel to collect Marianne and all our gubbins before my final heat in an hour's time. When we return, she comes face to face - on crutches - with Formula Fast CEO Phil Stanley - also on crutches. He was walking around yesterday... turns out he tripped over a kart in the pitlane and has done something nasty to his foot. The cameras caught his mishap, which I watch much later.

As we used to say in South Africa: Eina! Hope he's back on two feet soon.

After a disjointed morning, it's time to catch up on the state of the leaderboard. With three rounds complete, only Ruben Boutens and the scalpel-like Lewis Manley (the only driver in the building that makes Ruben look a touch lairy on occasion) have won all three of their heats. But the usual suspects (Ed White, Annelien Boutens, Matt Bartsch, Stefan Verhofste) are snapping at their heels along with a host of the great, the good and the stealthy. Lee Hackett has been flawless on his BRKC return, while Brad Philpot is having a superb weekend after an up-and-down 2015 - despite losing time in the pits to Alex's coke can gaffe yesterday. Having been disappointed last year, Oliver Bayani has spent a year building up to this, and it's paying off.

With three second places, Sean Brierley has been relentlessly consistent, as have newcomers Régis Gosselin, Rico Haarbosch and Lorenzo Stolk, and old-timers Jonny Elliott, James Martin and Bjorn Vermuelen. F4 racer Michael O'Brien has also been piling up points, while slow starts have given way to top results for the likes of Daniel Healey, Kamil Gorlo, Russell Endean, Kim Enson and Sander de Baets.

Still more are there or thereabouts. Spinnael, Campbell-Mills, Snoep, Pineiro, Longman, Duma, Jones, Beroual-Smith... such a glittering array of driving talent that you practically need sunglasses to look at the leaderboard.

With the final round of heats already underway, I install Marianne on a comfy sofa in the viewing area, close to a heater, with Geoff White and Lawrence Hackett for company. Two other karting widows - Brad's girlfriend Becca and Sophie, Russell Endean's other half - have come to spectate; I wander over to catch up. I haven't seen either of them since this time last year, but it's a brief reunion: Marianne is the main attraction and rightly so.

Round 4 starts with a bang, as Ramon Pineiro misses the last-chance-to-pit board, takes a penalty, and hands a shock win to Thomas Zels, whose previous best result was a sixth place. My sometime EKL teammate Kyle Power follows him home to cap off a strong BRKC weekend. Two new winners follow - Sean Brierley and James Martin finally getting the job done after threatening all weekend.

As heat three gets underway, journalist and F1 commentator Will Buxton is jumping for joy in the reception area.
"Fifth! Get in!" He's just chased Sean, semi-finalists Ryan Smith and Ben Greenwood, and Raeed Ali home in heat two - his best result of the weekend. Will's enthusiasm and support for our championship is invaluable; he's given generously of his time this weekend, helping James Auld with the commentary while regulars Anwar and Sean are on track. That says it all about BRKC 2016: our backup commentator's day job is in F1...

Suddenly, it's my turn. As I suit up, Sean is giving me advice: "Don't watch the guy in front in qualy, it'll just distract you. Focus on your lines and braking points..." I pass Geoff White on the way downstairs and get an encouraging "Get stuck in, mate..." Which is exactly what I intend to do.

They aren't getting any easier, though. Round 4, heat four features no less than four race-winners (Hackett, Philpot, O'Brien, Enson) and at least four more drivers who have been racking up solid results since Saturday morning (Austin, Gray, Leppan, Zaluski). Chris Brookshaw has been less consistent, as have I - but I know him to be mighty quick on occasion. It wouldn't take a big slip to bring up the rear in this one.

But my lap is neat - one area where I've improved on last year - and I line up sixth, with the three superstars plus Steve Gray and Karol Zaluski ahead. I've outqualified Kim Enson, which goes some way to illustrating just how close this is.

Green light. Lee Hackett - on pole in kart 9, which seems to have developed a tiny advantage - bolts straight away, pulling a gap on Michael O'Brien. But the rest of us are nose to tail; in third place, Brad is being kept honest by Karol Zaluski and Steve Gray. By all of us, in fact.

Nine laps in, Kim Enson takes advantage of a slightly tardy exit from the Snail and edges me wide into the hairpin, meaning that I've been passed in every heat this year - a first, and not a statistic I intend to repeat. I pull myself together and stay close, hassling when I can, constantly aware that the rest of the field is right there behind me. Nobody's falling off the rear this time.

I make a better pitstop than I did on the alternate layout yesterday - 1.3 seconds quicker in fact - but it's still a second away from the best and I narrowly lose a place to Luke Austin. Kim is one of the last to pit and just holds on to his sixth place. In these final laps, the field has split in three: Lee out front on his own, second (O'Brien) to fifth (Gray) covered by less than 2 seconds, and sixth (Enson) to tenth (Brookshaw) covered by even less. We're all driving out of our skins, matched to the tenth; probably the closest race I've ever been part of here.

At the flag I'm eighth, just six tenths behind Kim Enson in sixth, and less than a second ahead of Brookshaw in tenth. The entire field is covered by 22 seconds after 35 laps, with half that covering the second to tenth placed drivers. On laptimes, the whole field is covered by 0.421 seconds; second to seventh fastest covers just 0.127. I have set a faster race lap than fourth-placed Bradley Philpot; so has tenth-placed Chris Brookshaw.

Back upstairs, I gulp my 50th cup of tea as the action roars on; James Auld goes falsetto as Anwar mistimes his pitstop and exits to take the flag in a photo finish with former Formula A world champion Colin Brown - who has struggled this weekend, but is already making ominous noises about a full-scale return to karting after seven years away. Oliver Bayani takes his second win ahead of Tyler Mays - massively improved this year, and through to the semis with three fourth places and a second to his name. Newcomer Bartosz Malutko is third, having shown consistently strong form since a steady first heat.

Anwar's penalty, like Ramon's, drops him out of the semi-finals - a shame, as both had had strong results in the opening three rounds. On the upside, it does free him up to continue his sterling work in the commentary booth, playing James Hunt to James Auld's Murray Walker.

Barely has the dust settled when Slawek Piskorz brings the house down by nabbing pole position ahead of Sam Spinnael and Sander de Baets - the top three covered by less than a tenth... we're glued to the screens, hands white-knuckled on the railings as the lights go green. Will he hold on? Or will the sheer weight of top-level competition experience behind crush him?

There's not a hint of visible tension; Slawek simply gets his head down and drives as the others squabble for position behind; seriously quick all weekend, he finally has a chance to show it, and nobody else can live with him. Like me, he's been slow in the pits, but finally nails a fast (sub-45 second) pitstop lap when he most needs it, and romps home to one of the most popular heat wins of the weekend. He's followed by Régis and Sander, with Sam fourth.

I cheer Slawek into the pits and stay put for the next heat, which contains an astonishing 7 race-winners including my British 24 Hours teammate Russell Endean. As expected, it's tight and tense, Ruben leading a battling quartet: Verhofste, Bartsch, Vermuelen and Endean. There are some great moves for position, and some dodgy ones (Matt Bartsch receives no less than 3 bad pass flags - ten points for effort). Poor David Longman scuppers his semi-final hopes by locking up on the pit entry, sliding over the first stop line, and triggering the dreaded yellow light. The penalty pitstop drops him to tenth.

Russell gets a mauling from the Europeans; forced to defend hard for 35 straight laps, he looks a touch relieved to cross the line fourth, behind Ruben, Stefan and Bjorn and ahead of Mateusz. Beside me, Brad has been hopping around throughout the race, willing Russell to take points off Bartsch and Verhofste, which will give him a better shot at the final.

The final three heats seem to rattle by in no time. Daniel Healey notches up his third win on the trot (only Ruben, Lewis and Lee have matched him). Both this and the following heat feature impressive drives from midfield runners - Sam Slater and Darren Pearce ahead of Round 3 heat winner Craig Mcallister, Adam Davis second to Lewis Manley in heat nine.

BRKC 2016's final heat is won by Ed White ahead of impressive newcomer Rico Haarbosch and yet another of my Corporate Chauffeurs teammates - Michael Weddell. Both he and longtime friend/rival Ryan Smith ("we've been joined at the hip since 2009") have driven superbly this year and I'm pleased to see them make the semifinals - for the first time in Ryan's case.

At this point, my very patient wife calls time and asks to be taken home.

As the semifinal grid lists are posted - Tyler Mays and Thom van Dijk just making the cut (the latter despite a disastrous 9th place in round 4's Death Heat), Bartosz Malutko and Slawek Piskorz just missing it (the latter despite his round 4 win), we're saying our goodbyes. I'm sorry to be leaving before the climax, but circumstances meant that Marianne has spent far more time than intended at the circuit today. She's enjoyed catching up with the karting crowd, but the cold is seeping and it's time to go.

Of course, we stay up to date throughout the journey home, Marianne feeding me lap by lap updates from the live timing. I nearly mount a roundabout in Bicester when Ed and Annelien finish, respectively, sixth and tenth in semi final 1. It's a shame to see the likes of Daniel Healey, Rico Haarbosch and Michael O'Brien just miss the cut after superb results through the heats.

As to the final itself... a staggering third title for Ruben, and what a return for Lewis Manley after his stumble last year. Stefan Verhofste is as relentlessly consistent as ever. It took just one heat for Régis Gosselin to morph from BRKC unknown (he's a former Clio Cup winner so hardly a rookie) to heavy-hitter; making the final on his first appearance is a great achievement. There were six Brits in the final - the most we've had at Formula Fast, I think - I'm especially pleased for Sean and Oliver who put some very big names in the shade to get there.

I know that Lee and especially Ed will be disappointed, which is what happens when winners don't win. They also pick themselves up and go again. And they remember, I hope, that they're among the best in the world at what they do.

Besides the podium, there are two special awards. The Kam Ho memorial trophy, in memory of the veteran karter and friend to many in the BRKC, goes to the driver who finished 28th overall - the position Kam finished in on his last BRKC appearance in 2014. This year, that driver is Michael Weddell, who is, I know, very honoured. For 2017 there is talk of awarding the Kam Ho trophy to the highest placed driver aged over 35 - something to strive for, and a fitting tribute in my opinion.

The Genevieve Reason trophy, for the BRKC's most determined driver, goes to fourth-placed Matt Bartsch and rightly so. Nobody hunts down their opponents on track quite like he does; his overtaking moves sometimes blur the line between inspired and insane - which makes him one of the most exciting drivers to watch.

Genevieve Reason was part of the Formula Fast family, working on the BRKC in 2014 and 2015, before her life was tragically cut short in a road accident last May. I remember her as an utterly charming lady whose loss will have been devastating to the FF staff and her loved ones; naming a memorial trophy after her is a lovely gesture.

And with that, we're done. BRKC 2016 consigned to history, immortalised here and in hours of video and thousands of photographs; Tim Andrew's black and white shots are some of the most evocative I've ever seen in karting. I said in the preview that this year's championship would scale new heights in every area. And it did. Venue, circuit, organisation, commentary, broadcast, competition standard, atmosphere, pizza... all stratospheric.

Brad, Ollie and Phil and all at Formula Fast: thanks for making it happen, and for the huge effort that went into making it fair and smooth-running and well-catered and warm(ish).

Everyone that came and raced and supported: thanks for making it special. Please come back next year.

Everyone that's still reading: Jeez, have you got nothing better to do?!

(thanks!)


Saturday, 16 January 2016

BRKC 2016, rounds 1 and 2. Milton Keynes, 16 January

GOOoo-od MORNING MILTON KEYNES... oh my God it's early...

At times like these, I often hear the late, great Robin Williams in my head. I try and imagine myself as a morning person. But I usually doze off with the effort of maintaining the persona.

It's 7.15am. A perfect winter dawn is washing the eastern sky, the temperature hovering around freezing. In Formula Fast's reception area, I can smell coffee. It's the only thing keeping me upright.

With just 45 minutes until BRKC 2016 turns a wheel in anger, there's a quiet buzz about the place. Quiet, because the morning briefing isn't mandatory this year, so only a skeleton crew is here: drivers for the first couple of heats, their long-suffering loved ones, the staff (now into their second 20 hour day). And a smattering of race junkies.

At 7.30 we line the railings on the viewing gantry, steam from a dozen mugs curling towards the rafters as BRKC founder Brad and Formula Fast head honcho Ollie do their stints behind the microphone. I half-listen for anything that wasn't in the briefing video, sense the seconds ticking towards 8am.

Because today marks a BRKC first for me. I've been drawn in the first heat. Since the moment I learned my fate - while half-cut in a Fuerteventura hotel bar last Friday night - I've worried about this moment.

Suddenly, it's here. I'm downstairs in the pitlane, drawing my kart number (16) from the ball bag, collecting my 2.5kg weight, which added to my seat and the mountain of curry I wolfed last night makes... 92.1 kg. 1.3 kg more than yesterday. Some curry.

Normally I'm clearing my head at this point. But there's nothing to clear. I'm conscious. I will get in the kart and drive. That's all I've got. There are no nerves. Sander de Baets - one of the many excellent Continental racers present - has drawn the kart in front of me. As we're waved out of the pits to get BRKC 2016 rolling, I focus on maintaining the gap to him, hoping he'll drive a fast out lap and give me a chance to get some sort of feel for the circuit. He does; I cross the line around ten metres behind him.

33 or so seconds later, he seems a fraction closer as I take the chequered flag. Wishful thinking no doubt... but now he's giving me the thumbs up as we roll to a stop. Only when Michael O'Brien has taken his customary pole position and the marshal points at me do I get it. Second. I've qualified second, in front of some rather quick people. I hadn't dared look at the timing screens.

Before I know it - I might have nodded off - we're away. I get a decent start, staying on Michael's bumper right up until the first corner, when he seems to find another layer of grip. Over the next five laps he storms away at a slightly embarrassing rate, leaving me to fend off the advances of my friend and longtime fellow BRKCer Ryan Smith. I sense that several behind are faster, try and find a balance between defending my position and maintaining some sort of pace. It's hard work, and Ryan is never far away - but it works.

I'm fully expecting to be jumped in the pitstops, and react as soon as I sense clear track behind me. As I later discover, I lose at least a second in the pits - but am pleasantly surprised to exit just ahead of Ryan. I'm just starting to believe that I might scrape ahead of him - I've no idea what position I'm in - when I leave just a fraction too much space on the entry to the hairpin. Ryan is there without hesitation, sliding neatly through with just a brush of bumpers, Sam Spinnael following him slightly more forcefully... and I've got that pearshaped feeling as someone else clouts me into the last corner.

But I get it together, hang on and peg Ryan and Sam to the flag. The screen shows me fourth, which means that I held my position through the pitstops. It's disappointing to lose places on the track, but I held off Sander (who later apologises for hitting me) and bagged some reasonable points. And it's barely 8.30 in the morning.

As the morning wears on I neck cups of tea, flit between the viewing gantry and posh new entertainment/media centre. It's equipped with a suite of simulator pods which are doing a roaring trade, while James Auld commentates from the windows overlooking the track. Beside him, live broadcast manager Darren works his magic, using the feeds from trackside cameras to follow the action F1 style. After a few early glitches it's being broadcast to an enthusiastic online audience.

On track, it's mostly going according to the script. Ruben Boutens blazes through his first heat despite a typically flawless drive from occasional commentator Anwar Beroual Smith, while the other double champion, Lee Hackett, holds off Sean Brierley (the other occasional commentator). Brad Philpot takes a slightly lucky first win after Jake Campbell-Mills sportingly deems his own pass not good enough and lets Brad through; Michael Weddell turns fifth on the grid into third at the flag, setting the fastest lap of the race in the process.

2015 runner-up Stefan Verhofste wins his first heat commandingly, while Club100 regular David Longman takes an excellent second place ahead of one new name (Paul Davis) and one very old one (Alex Vangeen).

In heat 8, the script is thrown out. Oliver Bayani takes a superb pole against none other than previous finalists Annelien Boutens, Bjorn Vermuelen and Russell Endean. Lucky, we think, expecting him to be swamped once the race starts... but he gets his head down and simply drives away, leaving Annelien a distant second at the flag. Russell looks uncomfortable at the wheel by his (exceptional) standards, and comes home a disgruntled fourth. We give Oliver a deserved hero's welcome when he returns upstairs.

Over the course of the morning I've managed to catch up with most of the old guard - Geoff and Ed White (who is mopping up as usual, despite a shortage of practice and a cold kart in his first heat), Ryan Smith's devoted dad Neil, EKL and Dmax regular Slawek Piskorz, Anthony, Tracy and Tyler Mays (The latter having a solid day with a pole and two fourth places to his name after two rounds of heats), Sean Brierley (blindingly quick as ever) and my British 24 Hours teammates. Jonny Spencer was a late entry and, unable to take Friday off work, went into his first two heats cold. He's had a baptism of fire, but it's good to see his name beginning to climb the leaderboard later on. His girlfriend Charlie, who ably supported us at Teesside last year, is the only Corporate Chauffeurs 'wife' to make an appearance so far.

By chance, I met BRKC's oldest and youngest competitors during practice on Friday. Michael 'Dutch' Westhoff seems to be enjoying himself on race day despite a penalty in his first heat. Armed with a bacon buttie, I nab a spot on the sofa in the media centre next to Kezia Lay, taking part in her first major karting competition at 14. She's on a steep learning curve but is improving with every lap; mid-conversation I realise that I've been karting since before she was born. Incidentally, at 41 I think I'm second only to Michael Westhoff in age (correct me if I'm wrong).

Just after lunch (for me, a free, discarded slice of pepperoni pizza), Marianne makes it two Corporate Chauffeurs wives. Broken leg notwithstanding, she makes it upstairs to reception with the help of my brother and BRKC 2014 entrant Jonathan. Everyone's delighted to see her as I knew they would be.

2pm. Time for me to suit up and do battle for my second and final time today. I enjoyed the new alternate layout yesterday but it is tricky, with grip levels varying dramatically between patches of rubbered and clean concrete. I watch a masterclass from Ruben Boutens and try and learn what I can from the viewing gantry.

But from the outset, I'm uncomfortable, despite having drawn the race-winning kart from the previous heat. It seems to bog excessively on the slow hairpin exits and feels twitchy even by the standards of this circuit. I qualify fifth, behind Slawek, but can't stay with him in the race; Lewis Manley, Sean Brierley and Oliver Bayani disappear into the distance. Aside from a moment's excitement when Sean exits the pits into my right bargeboard and bullies his way past (he apologises afterwards), it's a lonely, frustrating 36 laps. My woes are compounded by a poor pitstop which loses me a place to Jack Mitchell. Sixth. I console myself with the fact that I was thoroughly dispirited at this point last year with a sixth and a ninth place to my name. Despite the influx of talent, I'm doing better overall.

With my day's racing over, I join Anwar and James in the commentary booth and and try to cobble something coherent together when they thrust the microphone at me; I have renewed awe for the job James does. Anwar and Sean seem to be taking to commentating rather well, too.

Domestic matters and common sense necessitated an early exit today, so I missed the evening heats, but I see that at the end of round 2 it's a familiar story at the sharp end. Rico Haarbosch is the only new name in the top ten, with a mix of superstars, unknown quantities and under-the-radar drivers knocking on the door - Sean, Oliver, BRKC debutant Régis Gosselin, James Martin, Dan Healey, Anwar... Jonny Elliott also having a fine first couple of rounds.

So far, I think BRKC 2016 is living up to the hype. I saw some phenomenal racing today, and judging from the livestream and timing feeds, that continued this evening.

Tomorrow, we go again. Can't wait.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

BRKC 2016. Milton Keynes, 15-17 January. Preview

It's nearly time for the talking to stop.

Time, nearly, for the dreams of apexes and tyre barriers, of squealing rubber and chesty roar, to become reality.

And its nearly time to be reminded of the things we forget from year to year. The never-better taste of a Sunday morning bacon buttie. The knuckle-wrenching weight of a 10kg ballast block. And the inimitable, penetrating cold of a metal-and-concrete warehouse in January.

This, then, is the British Rental Kart Championship. If you've been here before, you know something of what lies in wait. A three-day shot of adrenalin, a pressure-cooker of world-class competition played out over a deceptively simple 500m indoor kart circuit. A welcoming environment of friends old and new. And pizza. Lots and lots of pizza.

But whether you're an old hand or not, we're all in uncharted territory. For the first time in its history, the BRKC has sold out. 100 drivers - 10 more than last year - will stake their claim for a coveted spot in the final. In the process, we'll compete in 24 practice sessions and 44 races, and turn over 22,000 laps between Friday morning and Sunday evening. Between us, we'll drive the fleet of karts from London to Singapore.

Based on previous experience, I've no doubt that they'll be up to the task. Our hosts, Formula Fast, have been burning the midnight oil for months in preparation. Nobody works harder to maintain crucial kart parity and keep the competition fair. Ollie Fox and Phil Stanley, together with their hardworking crew of marshals and catering and admin staff, have run a superb championship for us since 2014; every indication so far is that they've raised the bar again in 2016.

The comprehensive live coverage will also hit new levels of professionalism, courtesy of Darren Cook and Scruffy Bear pictures, with every race streamed live via multiple cameras. And of course it wouldn't be BRKC without the dulcet tones of James Auld, who returns for a third stint behind the microphone. This year, he'll be assisted by BRKC stalwarts Anwar Beroual Smith and Sean Brierley who will conduct roving interviews throughout the weekend. Like it or not, we'll all be getting our 15 seconds of fame this time around.

As to the quality of competition... BRKC has always been tough, but this is something else. Taking on our two double champions (2012-2013 champion Lee Hackett making a welcome return) will be an expanded contingent of talent from across the Channel, an ominously fast band of local experts, a loyal core of BRKC oldtimers - and a whole host of unknowns. There are national and world karting champions from five countries, single-seater racewinners, a Race of Champions quarter-finalist (guess who?) and rental kart superstars from every major UK championship.

There will be no easy heats. Every last hundredth will count. And as ever, the atmosphere, the noise, and the consequences of every tiny mistake will push even the coolest heads to breaking point. Will we have a British winner after two years of Dutch domination?

By 8pm on Sunday, we'll know.

As I write, there are 37 hours until the engines start for official practice. Two sleeps, a frenzy of packing, a long journey for many. In stomachs across Europe, the butterflies will be starting to flutter. For the drivers and their supporters, this is the calm before the storm. And what a storm it's going to be.

BRKC practice starts at 10am on Friday 15 January. The first race - which will feature yours truly - starts at 8am on Saturday; all races will be streamed live. For social media updates including live stream links, follow @Britishkart on Twitter, and the #BRKC2016 hashtag on Twitter and Facebook. A day one wrapup will be posted here late on Saturday, followed by the championship blog next week.

Welcome to Thunderdome, folks.

BRKC 2016



Monday, 31 August 2015

British 24 Hours 2015. Part 2 of 2. Sunday.

(Click here to read the race preview)
(Click here to read part 1 of the race report)

12.15am.

My body reports that it's upright, fully clothed and outdoors. My body clock questions why this should be so. My brain tries to ignore the complaints and focus on my immediate need: caffeine.

But it'll have to wait. Both #11 and #22 are in the maintenance stop window, and it's about to get very busy. Between 12 and 3am, every hire kart must be brought into the maintenance garage for a check, lubrication and a change of front tyres. The original rules had teams being called in at random, potentially causing havoc with race strategies - to everyone's relief that's been changed back to the original system. We're allowed to schedule the stop to coincide with a driver change, minimising the time lost.

Alex is in #22 around 50 laps into his stint, Brad in #11 with 35 laps on the board. It's time for Michael to get changed; I take the headphones and Arnaud fills me in on the latest. Because of the red flag earlier (no injuries, thankfully) we're running a little ahead of schedule and have time in hand: if an opportunity presents itself, we can call the maintenance stops early without running into problems with fuel later on.

The skies over Teesside are virtually clear, one or two stars visible beyond the floodlights. Beneath them the race roars on, the noise and pace relentless, the leaders past 600 laps and counting. The air is still, the temperature hovering in the low double figures, our tiredness making it feel colder than it is. There's a quietness to the paddock now. Fewer people, less chatter, absolute focus on the job at hand. The graveyard shift - between midnight and dawn - is what makes 24 hour racing unique. Even after all these years it still feels otherworldly; I hope the magic never fades.

We troop around to the pitlane en masse; Michael, Ryan, Arnaud and I. Marianne has reappeared and takes charge of the awning. Fully suited up with his radio on, Michael continues on down to the maintenance garage, where he'll report on its status: as far as we know the mechanics can only service one kart at a time. If we time it wrong, we could lose three laps.

On lap 547 - 56 laps into Alex's stint - there's an incident on track and the full-course yellow is thrown to slow down the field. This is a prime opportunity: if we can get our stop done while everyone else is circulating at half speed, we'll gain an advantage. It's too soon for #11, but I warn Alex to be ready and watch the fuel bay.

On the first slow lap, two karts peel into the pits, one heading on down the hill to the garage: we wait. These are race-defining moments; standing beside Arnaud, I have to remind myself to breathe. As Alex comes around again, the flags are still waving and I tell him to box as long as nobody peels off into the pits in front of him. Michael reports that there's still a kart in the maintenance garage, but I gamble that it will be gone by the time Alex gets there.

Alex comes in to a clear fuel bay. Ryan waits at the gate to give him a push down the hill - we've elected not to start the engines - and I run across to help. In seconds he's fuelled up, back in the kart and coasting at running speed down the hill. I sprint after him and we arrive almost simultaneously - to a clear garage. Three mechanics descend as Alex vacates the kart, lifting it up onto a stand and going to work. We wait, Michael holding his seat ready to jump in, Ryan and I primed to start the engines.

It takes less than four minutes to check and oil the kart, and swap the 550 lap-old front tyres for a set of shiny new rubber. The engines are started for us, the kart rolled out; Michael is in and away up the hill. Alex looks exhausted but pleased: we've all coped with a tricky situation very well and kept ourselves in the hunt for a podium.

By now Brad is 50 laps into his stint in #11, and Arnaud asks me to stay on and help him with #11's stop. As I wait by the fuel bay, Michael is practically singing in my ears.
"This kart feels sooo good..."
He's making the most of the new tyres: during his 73 lap stint, an incredible 62 laps will be in the 1 minute 19 bracket. I run back to the awning and hand the headphones over to Marianne so that I can focus on #11.

Arnaud asks me to keep track of Brad while he focuses on the fuel bay and reports from Ryan - out next - at the maintenance garage. It quickly becomes obvious that this is going to be trickier: we managed to beat the rush with #22, but #11 will have to stop in the thick of it.

The floodlights are relatively far apart here, creating areas of shadow punctuated by sepia-tinted washes of brightness that turn everything monochrome. From where I stand I can see about two-thirds of the circuit, but its furthest point - the banking - is a quarter of a mile away. Picking Brad out from 62 other drivers is a real challenge, but I do my best and just about manage to keep tabs on him.

But the laps are ticking away. Time after time Arnaud is forced to abort Brad's pitstop to avoid queuing at either the fuel bay or the garage; our nerves are at snapping point as one hour forty minutes comes and goes. We're into uncharted territory now.

For the fifteenth or twentieth time I track Brad through the final corner and keep Arnaud up to date on his position; the fuel bay is clear, Arnaud gives the 'box' command and Brad is finally in. Once he's out of the kart and it's safely in the garage, he reports that the engines were cutting out through the final corners and wouldn't have lasted another lap. Bullet dodged.

Brad's second stint will stand as Corporate Chauffeurs' longest of 2015: a whopping 77 laps and 1 hour 43 minutes including a three lap full course yellow.

After what feels like a slightly longer maintenance period than #22's (38 seconds longer to be exact), #11 is returned to us, Ryan hops in, we start the engines and away he goes. It's been a stressful hour, but both crews have hung on to their positions: the class lead for #11, fourth for #22.

By now Michael is halfway through his third stint, and it's time for me to clear my head. I'd hoped for a little more time but a quiet ten minutes, a cup of tea and a banana will have to do. Lee is back after a couple of hours' rest, and before long we're back in the pitlane with Marianne, preparing to call Michael in. I have a dim memory of others being there as well... Russell, Jonny, or Charlie - or possibly all three - but am absolutely focused now. It's 2.15am, and I've never been more awake in my life.

The team calls it flawlessly and our changeover runs like clockwork; we're into a confident rhythm now, our world stripped of all but the essentials. For us, there is only the race.

For me, the race is steadily improving. The kart feels strong, engines sucking hard at the chilly air, tyres still relatively fresh, driver hovering on the cusp of mediocre and competent. I'm not fast, but I am more consistent and far better in the traffic. Within a couple of laps I encounter Ryan Smith as he leaves the pits. That's three times in three stints; this time I manage to pass him before he gets up to speed.

Jonny Elliott is hereabouts as well, passing me as I'm edged wide by an owner kart out of the corkscrew; he looks to be locked in a tight battle with one of the Club Hire frontrunners. I get in the draft and, for several laps, have a front row seat as they duck and dive around one another. They slow each other down enough for me to slipstream him through the banking (I think - my memory is fuzzy here) and pass him into the penultimate corner. I suspect he wasn't expecting to see me again.

We swap positions at least once more - both of us having to avoid a high speed spinner at one point - before he pits. It's been a fun, hard-fought fifteen laps or so, and I'm sorry to see it end.

Marianne has been doing a great job on the radio as usual, keeping me up to date on laptimes and anything else relevant - and as two owner karts break down within moments of each other and the full course yellow is waved, outdoes herself again. I'm coming out of the Corkscrew when her dulcet tones blare "GO, GO, GO!" through my headset and I save a precious couple of seconds clearing two slower karts before the Esses.

My body seems to have resigned itself to the punishment and I'm feeling little of the fatigue that ailed me earlier; suddenly the watch on the steering wheel reads 3.45am and Marianne is giving me a ten minute warning.

After 71 laps I peel off into an empty pitlane and, with Alex's help, hand over to Lee with no dramas. The others are quick to congratulate me; it was a solid enough stint, my best so far, and we're still fourth in class. I enjoyed it, and am satisfied that I'm improving.

As Lee gets to work chasing down our rivals for the last spot on the podium, I try and rest. After three stints and just over four and a half hours at the wheel, the draining adrenalin reveals a heavy toll on my already weakened body. After a break in the cafe watching the laptimes - and a long overdue Facebook update - I take myself off to the tent as the first signs of dawn begin to streak the eastern sky.

I emerge just after 6am feeling like Indiana Jones after a bad day at work. Slumped in a foldout chair beneath the awning, I try and identify a part of me that doesn't hurt. The rising sun has yet to warm the air; despite several layers I'm shivering so hard that tea is slopping over my hands.

On track, all is well. Jonny leads the Club Hire class in #11; great work from Lee on track and everyone in the pits has lifted #22 back into third position. Alex is complaining over the radio about the rising sun and the track being slippery. I tell Lee that morning dew can sometimes have this effect. Alex mishears the radio message as "there might be a slight Jew on track" and later admits to having nearly put #22 in the gravel at turn 2 because he was laughing so hard.

If there is dew, its effect is being overcome by the combination of cold air, rubbered-in tarmac and daylight: the pace is phenomenal, many teams setting their fastest laps after more than 18 hours of racing. Alex is rising to the occasion, getting within three tenths of Michael's fastest lap on two occasions despite a 14kg weight disadvantage. Weight adjusted, his 1.19.027 probably stands as our fastest of the race.

The rest of the drivers are suffering. Michael is due out next but is ghost-pale and complaining of nausea. Marianne suggests swapping stints with Lee or I, but we're not in much better shape; we settle the question in the old-fashioned way: rock paper scissors. Michael is scissors to our rocks: we'll stick to the schedule.

Throughout the night, Charlie and Marie have been helping Marianne keep us fed, hydrated and upright; now, they step it up a notch just when we need them most. Fried egg butties are produced for everyone that needs them, along with the biggest, strongest mug of coffee I've ever seen (thank you Charlie). Initially my stomach rebels against the food, but after a couple of bites I realise I'm ravenous; sitting beside me, Michael echoes my thoughts: "Isn't this the best thing ever?"

While he gets changed, I wolf down a second butty - bacon this time - and the thought of a fourth stint on track starts to seem conceivable, if not exactly alluring.

By 7am we're back in the pitlane. Michael is healthier than he was an hour ago, but still frets about vomiting in the kart; I'll be ready in case he needs to pit earlier than planned. On track, the full-course yellow is out again; if it lasts long enough we could take advantage and bring Alex in. It doesn't, quite, but after three slow laps and one more under green flags the fuel bay is clear; Alex pits after a superb 65 laps, still third, and we send Michael out with a silent prayer that he'll be all right. Contrary to appearances, we're not actually trying to send anyone home in a body bag.

As I get into my overalls for the final time I feel ready for one, though. The caffeine is wearing thin, exhaustion seeping through, my stomach struggling to process the calories. My body feels like a patchwork of dark blooms of ache and white searing pain; holding my head upright is a major effort.

With his work on track done, Alex takes charge on the pitwall; excellent planning from Arnaud and Marianne, and some great reactive pitwork from everyone, has saved both crews a pitstop; all being well, Lee will bring #22 home, and Brad will do the honours for #11.

On track, Michael must be running on pure adrenalin: his pace and consistency are staggering, as they have been throughout. On lap 847 he sets what will stand as our fastest tour, a 1.18.759. We're still clinging to the final spot on the podium, but the CD31 team are shadowing us, half a lap or so behind, matching Michael for pace more often than not.

In #11, Ryan still leads, but they too are being pushed hard by the Northampton Maidens, the gap hovering around the 30 second mark. It's nailbiting stuff, but I simply don't have the energy to think about it.

At 8.30am, it's time to don my helmet and shut out the world for the final time. In the pitlane, as the adrenalin finally starts to kick in I have to take deep breaths to avoid throwing up.

All things considered, what follows is probably the best stint of my life. And the worst.

At 8.50, Alex calls Michael in; the record will show that our pitstop is the fastest of #22's race - due in part to a stunning in-lap. With fresh air blowing through the vents in my helmet, I instantly feel less awful and start to dredge up the energy I need from somewhere.

In its 22nd hour, the kart feels far sloppier than it did during the night, the front tyres washing wide into the hairpin and forcing me to back off more than I would like. But I'm acutely aware of the threat from behind - CD31 are 30 seconds back and closing - and digging deep. And my pace, somehow, is better than at any point in the race. First Marianne, then Lee update me on the gap every few laps or so; as the tenths evaporate I do the maths. Strong pace notwithstanding I'm going to be caught, and the fact fills me with a rage such as I've never felt in a race.

I take more risks in traffic, find another couple of tenths. Finally, after more than five hours at the wheel, I'm somewhere close to the level that my teammates have been all race. But it only delays the inevitable; after setting my fastest lap of the race and three consecutive laps within a tenth of it, I'm passed for third place on lap 968. Lee's on the radio throughout, egging me on, keeping me informed, not letting my head drop once I've lost the place. It's a huge help.

After three laps in CD31's draft I'm shoved rudely wide at the Bustop by an owner driver, costing me two seconds and nearly putting me across the grass. The driving standard of some of these teams has been shocking this year; I'm sick and tired of the lack of respect and courtesy, and snarl over the radio at Lee and the world in general.

At 10.20 I'm given the 'box' command for #22's last pitstop of 2015. It goes without a hitch, Alex helping me push the kart around to the changeover area. I watch as Lee drives safely away, then use the last of my energy to kick a heavy plastic bollard back two feet - scaring Chris Hollywood in the process (apologies). I've dug deeper than I can ever recall, done my best. But my best wasn't good enough, and I'm devastated.

The others are quick to lift me, as always. It was a good stint in a kart far past its best, and I'm happy with it. But although I've improved every time I've been on track, I simply lost too much time earlier on. I have been better than last year, but last year we were lucky. This year I feel responsible for the loss of our podium.

Lee has rejoined less than two seconds behind CD31. But despite his usual titanic effort, the machinery simply isn't up to it. We watch the leaderboard as the gap grows, hearts sinking with every half-second.

Russell still leads in the final laps of his final stint in #11, but there's drama as the leaderboard suddenly shows them fourth. The kart is fine, but the transponder has failed; a new one is strapped to Brad before their final changeover, the lost laps credited, and no harm is done.

Brad, however, faces similar problems to Lee: #11 is ailing after nearly 1,000 laps at the ragged edge. The Northampton Maidens are in better shape, and are catching him. Fast. With half an hour to go the gap is less than 20 seconds and they're taking half a second a lap. Brad never wavers, using all of his skills and experience to drag every last tenth out of the kart without putting a wheel wrong. Even through my fog of dejected exhaustion I'm feeling the strain. After everything we've all been through, Corporate Chauffeurs can't stumble now.

Normally we'd be derigging by now, but it's out of the question. We line the Armco, eyes fixed on the circuit or the timing screens on our phones. Alex is still on the radio to Lee; #22's laptimes are relentlessly consistent. Arnaud - who as far as I know hasn't slept a wink - is keeping Brad informed, brows furrowed.

As the clock ticks past ten minutes, then five, Brad still leads, the gap still dwindling. My chest threatens to burst as midday ticks by on my watch... then the final lap board is shown, the Maidens less than five seconds behind. After 1048 laps - 2,200 kilometres - it's come down to a straight sprint.

I pick up Brad's distinctive red and white helmet into the hairpin, follow it through the banking, the right-hander, the final left... and we're up on the barriers, a sea of blue shirts trying to cheer loud enough to drown out the engines as #11 takes the flag 2.879 seconds ahead of the Northampton Maidens.

Half a lap later, Lee powers through in fourth, responding to our cheers with a shrug and a dejected wave. Like Alex, Michael and I, he has driven out of his skin; while I'm bitterly disappointed to have missed the podium, the #22 crew has much to be proud of after falling as low as 12th in the early hours of the race.

We crowd around the podium for the presentations and clap Ryan, Russell, Jonny and Brad onto the top step. There are big cheers, too, for the Maidens who turned it into the closest 24 hour finish I've ever seen - and for CD31, the stealthy team that proved too quick for #22 in the final hours. In the Standard Hire class, we're pleased to see Stuart McKay and his crew take an excellent win against some very fast competition. The enthusiastic John Lewis partnership team join them on the podium - another great effort.

It's bittersweet for the other Corporate Chauffeurs drivers of course, but I'm delighted for #11 - Brad especially put huge effort into lifting us all to another level this year, and richly deserves his win. He also receives the 'Driver of the Day' trophy for his superlative final stint.

Their race was far from straightforward, what with the wheel detachment and transponder failure and a dozen other challenges, no doubt. But their pace was scintillating. And fantastic work on the pitwall and in the pitlane by Arnaud, Marianne, Charlie, Marie, Chris and all of the drivers on both crews played a huge part in their win. Alex, Michael, Lee and I would dearly love to have been up there with them, but a little piece of #11's glory belongs to all of us.

And that's it. The British 24 Hours 2015 is history. For me, again, it's been a privilege to be part of the best hire kart team in the paddock. As the story shows, it's been a difficult weekend for me - the result in part of a tough couple of years off track, with very little racing. On Sunday night, after the dust had begun to settle, I briefly considered calling it a day.

Then I came to my senses. More karting is what's needed, not less. I'll never be brilliant, but I can do better than this. There's talk of Corporate Chauffeurs joining either EPEC or the EKL next year, and I'll be temporarily defecting to the Newmarket Hornets for the EKL and EPEC rounds at Clay Pigeon in just a few days' time.

But that's for another blog. For now, all that remains is to thank everyone that made Teesside 2015 so special, and who makes the effort to read this blog.

And yes - we ARE already talking about 2016...