So you’re probably reading that title wondering what it’s all about. While this season I’ve been concentrating on racing in the Patch Tyre Equipment Fiesta Zetec Championship, I also had some other races that I planned to take part in. The main one being the TradeTeam Citroen C1 24 Hour race in Rockingham. Having missed the first 24 hour race, due to racing in Bishopscourt, I was definitely looking forward to this one. The car had done a 4 hour race in Snetterton a couple of weeks previously and ran in the top 10 until a red flag right at the end demoted us to P12. I had done half a dozen laps in the car when we shook it down in Mondello at the Vee Festival but having never driven Rockingham it was still going to be a case of being thrown in at the deep end!
Our team for the 24 hour would consist of myself, my dad Alastair who has won every Fiat championship in Ireland and the UK Fiesta series as well. John Cooper, a multi UK Fiesta winner and championship runner up and Barry Hallion, a former MK1 Punto Champion and front runner in Zetec Fiestas and Irish Supercars. Myself and Barry had never raced at Rockingham, so we tested on the Friday just to get an eye in. We were also using a slightly different layout of Rockingham with the addition of a high speed chicane at the turn 1 banking and an extended loop at the end of the lap. My first impressions of the car and track together was that keeping momentum up was absolutely critical as with only 68bhp losing a fraction of speed resulted in seconds lost on lap time. The C1 runs on standard Nankang road tyres which have a surprising amount of grip but overstep the limits and the car does bite back considerably! We survived testing with no issues and prepared for qualifying on the Friday night.
Qualifying consisted of one session an hour and a half in length. We knew before it even started that our qualifying pace would be our weakness, so the aim was to get within the top half of the 38 car grid. Each driver only had about five laps to set a time and my run was ruined by traffic and then a safety car so I aborted my running and handed the car over. At the end of qualifying, we ended up P17- exactly where we thought we’d be. We then had an hour of night practice and the contrast between driving in the daylight and the dark soon became clear. Apexes become a lot harder to spot and any visual references you used as brake or turn in points vanished. Those five laps were a sighter for what I’d be in for as my first stint wasn’t due to start till almost 12am on Sunday. We also learned exactly how far the car would run with the fuel light on as it duly ran out of fuel halfway around its last lap of the session! With night practice over there was nothing bar a 10 minute warmup on Saturday morning until the race kicked off at 5pm on Saturday.
After a thorough team briefing before the race, we were assembled and ready to kick off. Alastair would start the car followed by John, Barry and then myself. The sight of 38 C1s tearing into turn one of a 24 hour race is a nerve wracking one as we were dumped well outside the top 20 trying to avoid the mayhem and we were left with a lot of work to do. After the first two and a half hours we had climbed back to P20 and knew there was a long way to go so all we had to do was to keep chipping away and stay out of trouble. As John headed out of the pits he was greeted by the sight of a C1 flying backwards into the tyres making up the pit exit and demolishing them forcing him to take an unconventional route across the grass! He put in another solid stint to keep us in the top 20 and handed over to Barry who’s stint was punctuated by a half hour safety car and a lot of traffic to deal with. As we edged towards the seven hour mark I began to get myself ready to jump in.
Going out into the middle of the race is nerve racking enough. Going out into a race in the pitch black in a car you’ve barely driven a track you hadn’t driven prior to the day before and throw in 37 other cars piloted by a range of drivers from pure novices to race winning BTCC and GT drivers really is an eye opener! Almost immediately there was a safety car which helped settle me down into the race. It was getting to the phase of the race where the slightest lapse of concentration would see you off the track and in the gravel. In between safety cars I was actually making decent progress. I was lapping half a second faster in the dark than my qualifying time which kind of proved how affected my laps were. You need 110% concentration to keep going for two hours at night especially when you’ve a car sat on your bumper with the full beams and spotlights totally blinding your view ahead. By the time I pitted I’d got us from P18 to P12 and handed over to Alastair who got us into the top 10 just before the halfway stage.
As we entered the early hours of the morning the effects of being awake for nearly 24 hours was starting to take its toll on our team. Most of them took the opportunity to grab some sleep but unfortunately for me I drew the short straw of staying on the pit wall to monitor what was going on. It tends to get a bit lonely when it’s only yourself and the driver on track awake in your team! We had finally broken into the top 10 on merit but we were running out of sequence to the teams we were racing so we still weren’t 100% sure who we were fighting. We encountered our first problem of the whole race when Barry ran wide off a kerb, bent the wheel and caused a puncture. Bending the wheels was a real hazard as they bent easily if you ended up bouncing off the edge of kerbs. We lost two minutes changing the tyre but a succession of safety cars soon meant we were back up to where we would have been. I was trying to prepare myself for another two hour stint but a lack of sleep was seriously hampering that. Eventually the time came and as Barry pitted we were now back in P12 and I knew I couldn’t afford to let off the pace.
As I exited the pits, I found myself on the back of a five car train which included four of the leaders. I knew I could use this to my advantage and decided just to sit behind and follow. This turned out to be a good call as I was suddenly now two seconds faster than I’d been all weekend and flying. This proves that just following other cars and sticking close to them means you learn so much more than just constantly driving about on your own. Having stayed clear of some questionable attempts at overtaking and dealing with a rapidly deteriorating rear right tyre, which was making the handling inconsistent to say the least, I brought the car back in running in P8 as we entered the final six hours.
It soon became apparent though that all was not well with the little C1. Alastair was struggling to lap within even two seconds of my best lap and being in clear air we knew something was not right. After a long safety car period the car found some pace and he was back into the 2:19s about half a second off our best lap of a 2:18.5. He handed over to John as the temperature began to increase and tyre management became even more critical. The front tyres would just about last a stint but they tended to be totally shredded by the end. As more teams began to hit problems including the race leaders who had led for all 22 hours before a driveshaft failure sidelined them. I was then informed I would be the one to bring the car home and to see whether I could improve on our current P9.
However as I exited the pits I became aware of a fairly serious issue with the car. The lack of pace Alastair had during the first half of his stint he reckoned was from the car being quite warm as it would be after two hours of flat out driving. As the laps went by the car began to get slower and slower in a straightline to the point that in somehow managed to lose a second between the final hairpin and the line and that’s only two straights and a flat out banked turn! I was running some three seconds off the pace I’d ran at previously and the car struggled to get moving out of the corners and the revs took ages. The final of the many safety cars came out with an hour to go and I was dreading the restart as not only was I the leader of the pack and had never done a safety car restart from leading my lack of power meant I’d be killed on the restart by the faster cars. However as I exited the final hairpin and put my foot to the floor I was surprised to find myself pulling away from the pack. The five safety car laps had cooled the car down enough that the power was back and the car was back on song. I had a great battle with former UK Clio Cup racer Paul Plant in the Bianco car but I was conscious that I had to get the car over the line. I’d lost track of time totally until I saw the last lap board and knew I only had four kilometers left to do. As I exited the final corner and came down the main straight the pit wall was crowded with teams but right in the middle was the Irish flag waving like crazy! The feeling to be the one to bring the car across the line was unbelievable and it’s fairly unexplainable as to what it’s like. We finished the race in P8 but after the post race checks we were promoted to P6 which is an amazing result for us in our first 24 hour race.
None of this would have happened without our team as small as we were compared to a lot of the others we proved you don’t need a lot of people to make it work. Alastair, Samantha, Chloe, Ronald, John,
I’ve one final race to do this year at this weekends Leinster Trophy which is the biggest race weekend of the year and I’ll be looking to round off a fairly luckless season with a win or two!
Thanks for reading