It occurred to me this year on more than one occasion as the races went by that I somehow hadn’t earned the right to be enjoying this much good fortune, like it is all a nice dream, from which I would any second wake up and realise that it was a Friday morning and I was actually late to go and watch the real drivers go racing. Putting aside that I don’t like the “rookie” title, a horrible Americanism for a driver in their first year of racing, the title was correct, this was my first racing season in cars.
I have previously raced offshore powerboats (the ultimate adrenalin rush, but strictly a game for the fully sponsored or very rich if you want to win) and had a somewhat painful foray into the world of cross country rallying on a motorbike, another exciting and very challenging sport, but one that has a tendency to hurt from time to time. Other than this my only racing experience on four wheels has been the many 24 hour Kart race organised by Paul Berger around the streets of Dubai.
The drive in the orange Khaleji Motorsport number 32 car came about when a group of us were talking cars, ex-wives & racing (all expensive hobbies to have), at the ARM garage and John Sinders (Team Principal of Khaleji) said he wasn’t sure he fancied doing a full 45 minute stint alone for the following season; never being one to miss an opportunity I quickly volunteered my services to share the drive and that was it, for the 2009/10 season I had a drive in the lovely orange liveried Khaleji GT3 RS.
Come race day number one, John’s business commitments meant he wasn’t able to attend the race, so I was out on my own for the whole race. I can’t say I was excessively nervous about racing, but was somewhat apprehensive about the start and the first corner; no driver, let alone the new boy, wants the embarrassment of having to walk back up the pit lane having trashed the car without even completing a single lap.
The reality of the race was uneventful, the car was faster than the few cars that were behind and the driver wasn’t driving it well enough to keep up with the two front runners, so I was on my own challenging no one, but with no challengers for the whole race, a solid third first time out.
Some confusion over the number of trophies being awarded meant that I didn’t get to stand on the bottom step of the podium with Harris (race winner) & Steve Adams (2nd), but was later given a trophy after someone realised the mistake. At the time this was somewhat disappointing, it would have been nice to have stood with the others on the podium after my first race, at the time I didn’t know if we would be back there again; more cars were expected for next race and Harris and Steve looked miles ahead.
After a messed up pit stop & driver change in round 2, I really pushed the car to catch Will Dew, I fancied that bottom step of the podium again and Will’s M3 was between it and me. I caught him on the last lap passed him in turn 15 and then being far too polite, left him a gap to come back through in turn 16 and came 4th by a fraction of a second.
Round 2 was a turning point in many respects; for my driving, it bothered me that I had allowed Will to take back 3rd place by my own poor race craft, my ego can live with being beaten by a better driver, better car, or just a great move by someone, but to have lost through my own poor driving didn’t sit well with me.
For the car I had now finally pushed it to the point I could tell there were things that could be changed to suit my driving and allow me to get more out of the car.
Round 3 on my favourite track, the Dubai Autodrome National Circuit and my first win! I have always loved the National configuration, it reminds me of torturing my first car, a 1.1 VW Golf N, to get the absolute best out of it on those twisty country roads back home in Norfolk, where momentum is the key and if you are brave you can carry remarkable speed through combination of lefts & rights after the 1st corner to close up and dive down the inside of the car in front into the braking zone of turn 7.
After the race Harris wrote of the “deeply frightening speed” our RS was making through that section, which I guess, when you are watching the car loom large in the mirrors it must be, a coming together in this section would not end well.
After round three the team made a few more changes and improvements to the car and with growing confidence , I pushed the car and my driving further, listened to others advice, tried a few different set ups on the car and learned new ways to shave a little off here and there. After round 3 our performance seemed to get better and better, Sheikh Hasher joined for two rounds and showed there was even more speed in the car to be found and coming into round seven the number 32 GT3 RS with me at the wheel had recorded 4 straight wins.
It would be fair to say by round 6 I believed I could take the championship at the end of the season, but coming into round 7 I only needed three points in either of the next two races and I felt it was very much mine to lose. A performance penalty in Round 7, designed to provide closer racing, left me with a 10 second longer pit stop than Harris, my rival for the championship, and as a by product left me mad as hell.
Having fought nose to tail for every win up to round 7, I saw this as a win gifted to Harris by the stewards and wasn’t shy in telling them how I saw it; having received the news that it would stand for the race, I was sitting on the grid in one of my quietly determined “I’ll give you penalty” type of moods by the time the lights went out.
Once again this was the National circuit, my favourite circuit in the world (I have only driven a few so don’t take it as gospel that it’s the best) the car was perfect and with adrenalin coursing through my less than amused mind & body I was going to run flat out for 45 minutes, poor car, I hope the ARM boys built it strong!
As it worked out this was my best drive of the season and produced the largest winning margin over 2nd placed Harris, job done Championship won and stewards proved correct, oh well nothings ever perfect.
So how does a rookie win a championship? with a whole lot of help from some very dedicated people whose names don’t often appear on the press coverage of a race.
Can’t wait for next season, although I feel a weight of expectation to succeed again, I hope I can.