With all of our previous mechanical issues sorted out, we went back to our campsite on Sunday night optimistic of better results in races 2 and 3. As I awoke on Monday morning, I hadn’t even opened my eyes before I foresaw the challenges ahead. The unmistakable pitter-patter of rain hitting the tent told me that it was going to be a very wet day.
This actually made me happy. There’s a saying in motorsport that goes something like this: “Nobody likes racing in the rain. If they say they do, they’re either lying or crazy.” I must be crazy, because I genuinely enjoy racing in the rain. I had one wet practice session early in my career where I was effortlessly 1.5 seconds faster that everyone else. Since then, I’ve always been at or near the top of the timesheets in every wet session I’ve been a part of.
There are two big challenges in racing in the rain. The biggest is lack of vision. It looks like you’re drowning. By that I mean the message that your brain receives from your eyes are that you are submerged under water and you need to somehow come to the surface. If you aren’t careful it can drastically affect your breathing, and you need to regularly take deep breaths to remember that you are in fact breathing air. To get an idea of what it’s like, next time you’re on the highway in the rain, find the biggest truck you can, drive alongside and turn your wipers off (actually, don’t to this. It’s dangerous!). Now keep in mind that our cars don’t have windshields, and the windshield that you can’t see through is actually right in front of my face. Driving an open wheel car in the rain, you don’t even have the luxury of seeing your own hands.
-It kinda looks like this
The second major problem is the lack of grip. This is actually the fun part. Both because driving a race car that’s sliding around a lot is fun, and the intellectual exercise of looking for the grippiest part of the track. When the track gets covered in water, the oils in the rubber that has been laid down in the track come to the surface. The rubber that was very sticky in the dry is now an oil slick that runs all the way through every corner on the track. Rather than looking for the largest radius to keep speed up, racing in the rain is all about finding where on the circuit the grip is. Typically this is on the inside of the braking zones, and around the outside of the corner where there’s no rubber.
The really odd thing is, the Europeans haven’t figured this out yet. Watch a wet F1 race, and you’ll see the drivers taking the same line through corners as they did in the dry. I went out before our first race to see if it was just a Formula One thing or if everyone in Europe drove like that. I watched a few laps of F3 qualifying and discovered that they were taking the exact same lines in the wet as in the dry. This was my time to shine! I had a secret weapon that apparently nobody else knew about.
I was feeling good going into Race 1, and carefully took note of where puddles and running water were positioned along the track. I got a decent start, now confident that when the lights went out I could go.
-Driving onto track for Race 2
Then my lack of recent experience kicked in. 5 years ago, after competing continuously for several years, I had developed a sort of 6th sense about where I was on the track. When you can’t see your hands, you need that, along with some vague visual cues of trackside objects flashing by, to figure out where you are, when you need to brake, and where the next corner is. I didn’t have that anymore, and the only visual cue I had was the rain light on the back of the car in front. I was also able to pick up the bright orange suits the track marshals were wearing, and was sometimes able to figure out where I was because I knew vaguely how they were positioned around the track.
Nevertheless, I was hanging on. There were a few corners where going off-line didn’t help much, but there were others where I could easily gain several car lengths by taking the rim-shot “American” rain line. According to Austin, I had gotten up to 8th overall, simply by virtue of the EcoBoost cars falling off the track.
My turn came, yet again. Again, at Druids, and this time I got stuck in the gravel (retiring, again, 2 laps from the end). I was disappointed and frustrated that I was consistently making mistakes in that corner (I hadn’t had problems in any other corner, even in the rain), that we hadn’t finished the race, and that my rain racing chops hadn’t come back as quickly as I had expected them to. Still, when I got out of the car and behind the barrier, two other drivers had gone off there, and one of them stuffed the car into the wall. So it could have been worse.
After we retrieved the car, Austin got it weighed and discovered we had 15kg (33lbs) of rocks on board!! After removing all the rocks (that took a while!), and cleaning the dirt off the car, the guys kept working on a few minor electrical problems while I went off to a Formula Ford autograph session.
-I was working on building an aquarium in my sidepod…
By the final race, I was exhausted. We’d been working 16-hour days for the last 3 days, and I don’t sleep well in tents. On top of that it was cold and soaking wet. Sitting in the assembly area for Race 3, all of this was swirling in my head. I desperately wanted to finish at least one race this weekend, but my brain was running on fumes.
More precisely, it had enough gas (petrol?) for ¾ of a lap, because that’s as far as I got. Yet again I carried too much speed into Druids. This time I missed the gravel, and had it gathered up just as I slipped off the track. But by then I was on the grass and there simply wasn’t enough grip to let me steer the car back on track, and I hit the wall. Surprisingly, the only damage was two wishbones, a bolt, and parts of the steering linkage. At least it was our last session of the weekend, and we didn’t need to rush to fix it. At the end of the race we brought the car back and began packing up to go home.
-Cold, wet, and exhausted
While packing up, the race coordinator came by to remind us about the post-event awards ceremony, and she insisted that Austin and I attend. “Great,” I thought, “I can’t wait to watch these other guys get awards for races that I didn’t win.” I was cold, wet, exhausted, and I just wanted to go home to some clean sheets.
Still, I didn’t want to seem grumpy and anti-social, and they hinted that there were other prizes aside from just race performances. So after sitting through 3 race trophy presentations (actually 6, because they scored the EcoBoost and Duratec champions separately), they moved on to other awards. They were clearly watching what we were doing, because they awarded us the “Spirit of Formula Ford” award for the weekend. After working our butts off all weekend with no on-track results to show for it, this was a huge morale boost. It’s a tribute to how hard Austin, Evert, and Jake had worked throughout the weekend just to keep the car working, and it’s great to see their hard work recognized by the Formula Ford community. Also significantly, we were awarded a free set of Dunlop racing tires (sorry… tyres). This will at least help offset some of the unexpected costs from the weekend, and maybe help us stretch our season budget a bit further.
It was definitely the most exhausting race weekend I’ve ever had, and I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get back up to speed as quickly as I expected. A big part of that was the lack of practice, and qualifying 1.5 seconds off the pace with only 6 laps of practice was encouraging. As well, the ease with which I kept up with the pack in Race 1 was another bright spot. We’ve showed some great potential, and I’m excited about the possibilities this season. The dedication, effort, and commitment my team showed was inspiring, they worked incredibly hard for nothing aside from sheer passion for the sport. We’ve got 5 weeks now before the next meeting, and we’re determined to come back more organized and with all of our mechanical gremlins sorted. There’s a shop in Lichfield where we’re going to give the car a new paint scheme, and there’s also a small sprint track where we can run the car cheaply. It’s not quite a full road course, but it’s enough to get the small problems we had this weekend sorted out.
As I’ve been saying, we have all the pieces we need to succeed, we just need to put them all together.
-The exit of Druids. Looks simple enough.