Big opportunities in Motorsport don’t present themselves all the time, so when you get one it’s important to seize it. One evening after work I saw a tweet from Race of Champions and followed the link to find out more.
“The ROC Factor is the chance for champions from lesser known race series to pit their driving skills against the best in the business. Whether from single-seaters, rallying, time trials, drifting or more… if you’ve proven to have championship winning skills then it could be you. “
I simply had to give it a shot, even more so because they wanted a video entry – and I’ve worked as a Videographer filming and editing for years. I knew straight away that I’d be able to get shortlisted if I put together a well edited clip and really sold myself. I saw that the closing date was the next day so I spent the following 8 hours working on the idea and editing it together. I eventually got it finished and sent in by 3am without taking any breaks. Low and behold, the organisers extended the closing date by 2 weeks the following day, presumably because they didn’t have enough entries, but its was in now so all I had to do was wait.
I waited over of a month to hear back and then received confirmation that I was one of 10 drivers that were being put forward to a public vote. The idea of this made me cringe a little as I had been through something like this in the past with the ‘Budweiser Dream Job’ and I knew how tough and draining a process it can be. Getting votes from people online is not easy, and if you sit back for a few hours others can easily catch and pass you. It takes every hour of every day sitting down writing to people individually and getting some close friends to do the same. E-mails, phone calls, message boards and chance meetings would all play a part, with shared posts, tweets, news articles, youtube videos and radio interviews doing their bit as well. But there was no greater swing than the community at r/formula1 over on Reddit.
After being away and missing the first 2 days of campaigning, I woke up Monday morning and saw myself in last place. I decided I had two options. 1. Give up and pretend this thing never happened or 2. Make a big push today and see if I could get back in the game. My first plan of attack was to turn to Reddit and make a plea to the community there that have always been very supportive of what I do. A well worded post title and just the right amount of information in the body would see the most insane wave of support I have ever witnessed. That morning I was in last or 9th with 2% of the votes. By midnight I was up to 22% and leading. Well over 2,000 votes had come in for me and more would follow. The next 4 days were spent in front of a computer, 16 hours of the day messaging and trying to figure out new ways to get votes. Being able to watch the vote count live was a good way to tell if something was working.
Bradley Philpot, the main contender, had huge support from Peugeot, Will Buxton, Fake Charlie Whiting, amongst others – all of whom have a huge twitter following. It was hard to keep him behind and before long he was in the lead again. The two of us battled right until the last hour and then it was again another anxious wait for a week to see if the judges would choose us, because in the competition terms it stated that they didn’t have to. I was convinced that my lack of racing experience would rule me out and that 3rd place Charlie Robertson would be selected. Luckily we got an email to say that the judges had decided the public had spoken and our share of the votes was enough to go through.
As far as myself and Brad were concerned, we would compete on Thursday in a shootout and the winner would take place in the ROC Celebrity Skills Challenge. It seemed like a pretty big deal – getting the chance to drive in the former Olympic Stadium on live TV with millions watching all over the world. Now I realised I needed practice. Driving an autotest course in a car that I was unfamiliar with was going to be challenge against someone who was well used to it. First on the agenda was Mondello Park, where I work as an instructor part time. They were kind enough to let me set up a few cones and play around in a Mazda MX5 after work one day. It was definitely a very valuable experience to get, so thanks to all involved in making that happen. I also ventured up to Rally School Ireland in Co. Monaghan for the first time in about 3 years to see what I could learn there. Owner and Instructor David Smith has been very kind to me in the past and really helped me iron out some bad habits. I did several sessions there in a Ford Escort, mostly in the wet and I feel it prepared me well.
I wasn’t really nervous building up to the event, but then on Wednesday evening I started to feel it a bit. As I left my house to drive to Dublin I got an email that took my breath away – “Also, I have pretty big news for you. Tomorrow we will announce that the ROC Factor winner will not only contest the Skills Challenge, but also the individual Race of Champions! This is due to a last-minute injury for Jorge Lorenzo.” I literally shouted ‘WHAT THE F***’ several times.. I could not believe it. This is the kind of thing you day dream about as a kid when your favourite soccer team picks you from the crowd as a substitute to replace an injured player. This simply does not happen. It was a lot to take in. The significance of the next day was huge.
Fast forward through a night with very little sleep, an early flight and the journey to the Stadium. I arrive and am greeted by one of the organisers, Abby. She gives me my all access driver pass, brings me through an array of corridors explaining where everything is and eventually into the main area where all the drivers were out testing in pairs in different cars. It was so cool. A mini race track in an arena like this. Abby went on to tell me that we were going to be racing on the track itself as well as the skills course. This had me very excited, however it would be an idea that never came to be in the end.
I was shown around the rest of the venue and had free reign to do as I please. It was a nice feeling to be able to go into any room in the building. I then met Bradley in the drivers room. It was a huge empty locker room with just the two of us facing each other. Myself and Brad had met before and chatted online in the build up this, so as much as we were enemies for the day, we chatted a bit and hung out, but didn’t become too friendly.
Over the next few hours I tried to figure out what was going on, what the format would be – no one was really able to tell us anything for sure as the main priority was to make sure all the professional drivers had time testing the cars. It was pouring rain out and very slippery. Several cars ended up in the wall or spinning on track. Eventually we got a call to make our way out to the main arena – still without any real idea of how it would work. As someone who likes to meticulously prepare for things like this, I was out of my comfort zone. Not nervous, just completely unaware of what was happening. Several Pros joined us for, Jason Plato, Susie Wolff, Nelson Piquet Jr, Jolyon Palmer, Andy Priaulx and Mick Doohan. This was their time to practice the skills course as well and I was quite surprised to watch as they all seemed to struggle a lot, bar Jason who was mega.
Then it was time. We were told to put our helmets on and get ready to hop in to the Ariel Atoms. The time keeper told us we had one practice and two timed runs. One of the mechanics talked me through how the Atom worked, but it was pretty basic stuff once it started up. Terry Grant was also on hand to give advice and was very good to me.
At this stage I was trying to focus entirely on myself. This was a big moment. Sure, my heart rate was more elevated than normal, but I was quite calm and didn’t feel a huge amount of nerves. I knew I had a job to do and I was going to give it my all. Brad had made me aware that he had access to practice in an Atom prior to the event. As an instructor at a race school for ten years, he is in and out of them quite a bit. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t affect my approach. My way of dealing with it was to not look at his runs and just focus on my own. A seemingly good idea, but also flawed in it’s own way.
The practice was sloppy. I had trouble getting the car to step out with the handbrake and it was understeering a lot on initial turn in. My next run was the first one that really counted. You can see in the video how I drove it. My biggest error coming through a section of gates when I clip and knock a bollard. In hindsight all I had to do was back off and take it slower. That is what Bradley would do after seeing my mistake – just dialled it back bit and took it nice and steady. I brush another bollard in the last section of the run as well, but everything else went quite well and lot quicker and smoother than him overall – just lacking a bit in spacial awareness. Terry told me after that I just needed to do what I did again but be tidier. He didn’t give me any idea of who was faster, however maybe he just didn’t know. So I went out for my final run. I knew this was it. All or nothing. For some reason I felt I had to push even harder this time – I guess that mentality comes from circuit racing where you have to push really hard if it’s your last chance to get a good lap in. If only I was to realise Brad took it nice and easy. In the end I made a mess of the run, clipping the same bollard and then spinning at the donut. I knew instantly it was all over. I kind of hoped that they would let us do something else but my gut told me I was done. Later we got the timing results and I discovered that only Plato was faster than me on that day without the time penalty. Bittersweet. Afterwards both myself and Brad felt they could have given us more time to practice as we literally spent 3 minutes in the car in total. But it was the same for both of us and that’s what we signed up for so you can’t complain.
We went back inside, still unsure if we would have a race off on the track as well. Once in the driver area, cameras gathered around to film us talking as if we were about to do the event. So for a few minutes I had to be an actor and pretend to be enthusiastic when I already knew I had lost. We then had to stare each other in the eye for what felt like an eternity while they filmed from different angles. Fredrik Johnson then appeared with a mic to break the bad news to me. As emotional as I was inside, I remained calm. There was no anger or sorrow, just acceptance that it wasn’t meant for me. I had my chance and let it slip. People have worse things to live with. Life goes on.
The rest of the weekend was a fantastic experience. Sitting in the drivers lounge rubbing shoulders with all these legends and famous faces, chatting to them about anything and everything. It was something very special that you cant really buy. Even with a paddock pass at an F1 event, you’re never going to be sitting in a room next to Button, Ricciardo and Massa with Toto Wolf chatting to Eric Boullier in your peripheral vision whilst Sebastian Vettel strolls into the room and walks past you to leave his helmet down before an interview. The whole thing was nuts – I genuinely can’t believe they gave such access. I felt very privileged to be there so I didn’t hassle many of them for a photo. It was one of those times where you just had to enjoy being there because it wouldn’t happen again. Being a fan boy wasn’t going to do anybody any good. All the drivers were nice to talk to but I have to say Massa and Kristensen definitely won me over the most. And on the Saturday, a little bonus was getting a passenger ride with Petter Solberg as he took on Vettel.
I also found it interesting to watch all the drivers doing the skills course again on the Saturday when it was a little less wet. It was comforting to see these pro drivers spinning, knocking cones and making a complete mess of the route, showing me that if it’s so easy for them to make a mistake, I have nothing to be ashamed of. I guess it just shows us that some drivers perfect a certain style in their chosen formula and when they have to do something outside their comfort zone with no preparation, they can look amateur.
In the end Bradley didn’t managed to get as far as I expected, so maybe that was telling of what my fate could have been as well. We will never know. One way or the other, being part of and associated with this event and all its press has been a fantastic experience. It doesn’t mean getting a package together for next year will be any easier, but it definitely gives me the confidence to push even harder.
A big thanks to everyone who was involved on this journey – so many people from the Irish Motorsport community and Mondello
really stepped up and gave me a great push as well. Here’s to 2016!