The switch from sim to real-life racing is one steep learning curve
European correspondent Nik Berg has been competing in an grassroots endurance race series for the Ford Ka minicar. Follow his other EnduroKa exploits here.
As the 2022 Formula 1 season drew to a close in the heat of the Dubai desert, my real racing efforts began in earnest at a freezing and rain-sodden Brands Hatch, in the Kent countryside.
Ever since the heady days of the first Sony Playstation I’ve been a Gran Turismo fan. During the pandemic, I raised my game by joining a small online racing community known as 27 Racers. It was during our weekly races that the idea of taking to the track for real was first mentioned by my virtual rival Tim Parsons. Nick Creed also raised his hand (and that of his sister Natalie Knowles) and soon we formed AFK (“Away From Keyboard,” in gamer vernacular) Racing.
By chance, just a week earlier I competed in the Race of Remembrance in a similarly powered Citroën C1, which immediately made me the most experienced member of our team. Nick and Tim have many miles of track days and go-karting under their belts and Natalie is an accomplished club-level Supermoto racer, but none of them have raced a car before. My three-or-so hours around the Anglesey Circuit in Wales, therefore, means that I get voted as last to qualify and first to race.
First, however, there is scrutineering. As we line up with the other 45 cars to be inspected, we find a problem. The external pull handle for our fire extinguisher isn’t working, so it’s a mad dash to the circuit’s race shop to buy a replacement and fit it before qualifying begins.
The race will run for eight hours and 20 minutes and finish in darkness, so qualifying commences just before dusk to give drivers the chance to experience the circuit at night. Tim, Nat, and Nick all head out, completing around half a dozen flying laps each before handing over to me.
I’ve driven hundreds of laps of this circuit online and done half-a-dozen track days here over the years, but always in daylight. In the darkness, even with the aid of additional lights, it’s a totally different story.
The infamous right-hand Paddock Hill Bend at the end of the pit straight simply vanishes into the abyss as it drops precipitously away. Every time I turn in, it feels like a leap of faith. The rollercoaster-like drop is something that no racing game can simulate, and the apex of Druids hairpin is pure guesswork.
“A simulator doesn’t portray the track elevations anything like they really are. Paddock Hill bend looks completely different compared to what it did on my TV,” Nick tells me after his qualifying session. At least the downhill left of Graham Hill bend and the left-right kink of Surtees and McLaren are visible, as is the inside curb at the final right-hander, Clearways.
The good news is that we unanimously agree the car feels great. We’re not lacking in straight-line speed compared to the rest of the field and there’s a massive amount of grip from the sticky Toyo tires. My time is only good enough to put us 44th out of 46, but we are just hundredths of a second behind the next three cars up the grid, albeit a couple of seconds off the pole sitter.
At this point it’s worth noting that EnduroKA is very much an entry-level, amateur series. This event, though, falls at the end of the professional racing season, so there are some big guns out for the weekend—including Le Mans winner and factory Porsche driver Nick Tandy.
Race day dawns with a torrential downpour. Our plan to start on the scrubbed tires from qualifying goes out the window, and we elect to fit a brand new set on the front. At the suggestion of Tristan, Natalie’s husband and our chief (only) mechanic, we douse the tires with brake cleaner to get rid of any silicon residue and pray for grip.
The race begins with two chaotic laps behind the safety car. The entire field concertinas, suffering several near-collisions at the pinch point of the Druids hairpin. As the green flag waves, one car is already in the gravel, so it’s with no small degree of trepidation that I cross the start-finish line at racing speed for the first time.
The rain may have stopped but the circuit is soaked. Up ahead cars are sliding, spinning, and beaching themselves. Discretion is the better part of valor, so they say, and, mindful of the need to hand over the car to my teammates in one piece, I take my time to build up pace.
As the laps tick by and a dry line begins to appear, I’m actually able to make up a few positions. With all cars the same spec, there’s no way to power past, so it comes down to late braking and perfecting the line to slingshot through the corner. There’s so much more feedback through the steering and pedals than in my gaming rig that I have the confidence to trail-brake into Graham Hill, getting the car rotated early and getting on the gas quickly to gain on the cars ahead. When a safety car comes out at around the one-hour mark, my pit board shows P36 and the word “box.” Phew.
It may not be the fastest strategy but, to allow everyone to drive in daylight, we’ve chosen to do first stints of around 70 minutes each and then shorter, 50-minute second stints. As we’re not too sure how much fuel the KA will use, we’re also filling up at each stop, just in case.
That means when Tim goes out we’ve dropped back a few places, a setup which unfortunately gets worse: We get a two-lap penalty for a refueling infraction, as our fuel man forgot to wear his balaclava. First lesson learned.
Another teachable moment follows soon after. Exiting the notorious Paddock Hill Bend, Tim has two cars on his inside and slightly misjudges their closing speed and proximity. Rubbing is racing, apparently, and we pick up our first (and only) battle scar, which requires another pit stop to apply tons of tape to the door mirror.
Thankfully the remainder of Tim’s stint goes without incident, and we begin to make up lost ground as his pace quickens. Nat is out next. Despite an early spin, she does a cracking job on tires that are now long past their best. When she pits we swap them over and also discover that the fuel tank has lost a retaining bolt. Replacing it means a longer stop than we’d like. We lose more laps.
Nick is out next and is soon flying, getting within a second or so of the leaders’ lap times, although we have to curtail his stint slightly when we spot that the fuel tank is now flapping around on the opposite side. We replace both bolts and then I’m out again.
One of our best investments has been an AIM Solo 2 data logger which we’ve programmed to show shift lights, speed, lap counter, and lap timer. On this next session it fails to get a proper GPS signal, so I have no real idea of my lap times and the team isn’t giving me any info from the pit board. I feel a little left out in the cold.
A smattering of rain and the sun dipping mean that the track is actually cooling too, but the effort of driving means I don’t feel it—unlike the driver of the Autotech Ka, which now has no glass after being rolled at Paddock corner. I manage my fastest laps of the race (I discover later) and we’re back in to the high 30s in the overall rankings.
Tim and Natalie keep up the good work as day turns to night. As we approach the final hour, we’re holding a comfortable mid-30s position. We send Nick out, but after just a couple of laps he’s back in pit lane complaining that the car is undrivable because of vibration.
Up on the jacks it goes. We check for play in the bearings, but all seems well, so we send him out again. He’s immediately back, and we realize that it’s been over four hours since we changed the front tires. They’ve gotten so hot that the rubber has melted and glooped over the tread, causing vibrations and a massive loss of grip.
Tire pressure is one of the few ways that we can impact the car’s performance (and we haven’t figured out what works best yet.) Around the paddock, we hear some teams run as high as 70 psi, while others say they only go to 30. We’ve settled at around 45 which is giving us stable handling, but perhaps causing the overheating issue. Do we trade a little pace for more longevity? This will be one of the questions that more experience will hopefully answer.
In the meantime, we swap to the set that came off earlier in the day and Nick stays out to take the flag in 38th place. We’re elated to finish our first race with the car intact and driving as well as it did at the start.
Yes, we’re 63 laps down on the winner and have made 10 pit stops compared to the four that the fastest teams did, but we have so much more knowledge to take into next season that we can only go forward from here.
One final thing we discover is that, even at this level of racing, teams will take any advantage they can. Three are caught out and disqualified for technical infringements. We’re promoted to 35th.
There are six races in 2023, from five to 12 hours in length, and we can’t wait to take everything we’ve learned into our first full season.