I've never been to Snetterton when its stayed dry, and despite the glorious weather back in London last weekend was no exception to this rule - we arrived at the track on Sunday morning to be welcomed by a constant drizzling rain and a very wet circuit. This time I was entered for two races - 'Classic Thunder' and the usual Group One Touring Cars.
In the collection area it started to dawn on me what I had left myself in for here, most of the other cars were built with fibreglass panels, perspex windows and lots of wings/spoilers, and I'm sure the majority of the field had at least double my power. Still, it was raining so that would suit my Golf and I'm not really competing for championship points anyway - it was going to be a bit of fun and good practice for the Group One race later.
So I head out onto the track (complete with very expensive new exhaust manifold) and immediately have a big problem - the clutch slips the whole way round the track, and I can hardly get the engine over 3,000 rpm. Bugger, I can't believe it. The car just came back from a garage three days ago and drove 25 miles without any problems at all - now I have four track sessions to get through and the bloody thing hardly goes at all! Towards the end of the session it starts to improve slightly and I can get to 4,000 before it slips - and the track is VERY slippy, so I can still make up time on the other cars in the bends. The result is a best lap time of 1.44.78 and 12th on the grid, out of 16 starters - somewhat miraculous in the circumstances. I even manage a lurid spin at Riches, just to prove I'm trying hard...
After the CT qualifying debacle we'd taken drastic measures in the paddock. An oil leak onto the clutch was suspected, so we emptied a whole bottle of brake cleaner into the clutch inspection hole and basically revved the engine to death, hoping to clean off the oil. The stuff that came out of the bottom of the car was black, confirming the oil leak suspicions.
Out onto the track for Group One qualifying, and the clutch is worse than ever. Its badly worn to start with, and now with the brake cleaner on it I can hardly get round the track without stopping - its a disaster. My best time is something like a 1.55 before a Mustang empties the contents of its sump at the Esses and the session is halted while the mess is tidied up. This proves to be a real bonus - while the car is sat in the pits the engine gets hot and burns more fluid off, so as soon as the session is restarted the clutch is much better. I do a few quicker laps (my new Rollcentre lap timer telling me exactly how I'm doing as I cross the line each time) and finally manage a 1.32.54, with only a slight lift on the main straight as it slips in third gear. Phew, maybe the car will last the day after all.
By now, although its still very cloudy and generally miserable in the true Snetterton tradition, the track is well and truly dry - which ain't good for my little Golf. The lights go green and I'm immediately swamped by two of the cars I out-qualified, by the first corner they have 100m on me. I manage the first lap ahead of the two RKP Rovers, but on lap 2 James Hall gets the run on me out of Sear and cruises by on the Revett Straight. Damn! On the plus side my clutch isn't slipping at all, the previous qualifying session must have burned all the oil off. Anyway I try to follow best I can and catch right up through the Bomb Hole and into Coram - enough so to get a run on the Rover into Russell Bend and take him on the inside. Yippee - I'm back in 14th place again.
But the Rover is right up with me down the pit straight then approaching Sear, and again he comes past me on the Revett Straight. He gains about 200m by the Esses but again I make up a lot of time through the Esses and exiting the Bomb Hole to Coram. This time I'm not close enough, but I follow very closely through the chicane and try to keep the gap as small as possible up the pit straight and down the Revett straight. There's a big gap developing, but I'm much quicker again through the Esses, Bomb Hole and Coram, and again get the run on the Rover down to the chicane and out brake him to take the position heading up the pit straight. This time though he even powers past me before Riches, the first corner. We both go very wide at Riches, the Rover almost on the grass and me following wildly under steering, but again I get a better exit from Coram and get to the chicane first once more.
So this continues for most of the race - the Rover passes on the straights, I out brake him at the chicane and get by. About lap 6 and I get the Esses hopelessly wrong, taking a trip across the gravel and losing valuable time. Lap 8 and the leaders are coming through to lap us. By this time the Rover has developed quite a lead but he's slowed badly letting the lead Camaro through - this time I'm not really close enough to make an easy move, but I've counted wrongly and think its the last lap. I reckon there's nothing to lose so attempt a rather lurid manoever down the inside at Russell, I out brake myself and end up heading straight across the gravel, with the Golf bouncing all over the place. In the resulting clouds of dust I rejoin the track and I'm still ahead of the Rover - yippee - but as I pass the line there's no chequered flag - aaargh, another lap. Yet again the Rover streaks past on the Revett straight, despite me attempting one blocking manoevre. James is getting quicker as the race goes on and its getting much harder to stay in touch. But then three more quicker cars come up to lap us. This is my last chance, so I hold my position through the Esses and Bomb Hole, retaining as much speed as possible, then they all come past approaching Coram. I'm hoping the Rover will have to slow to let them by and this is exactly what happens - he goes wide to give them space and I slot him behind them getting a tow down to Russell. With some very late braking I slot in ahead of the Rover and try to make as good an exit onto the pit straight as possible to stay ahead. But I've gone in too fast so the car under steers coming out, I lose momentum badly. I check my mirrors and the Rover is sideways too, so I've got a chance. We both nail our throttles to the floor and head to the chequered flag, he's catching fast but I take the position by 0.1 seconds, with the Rover alongside me. If the chequered flag had been 10 metres further down the track, he would have had me.
So an absolutely superb race, really good fun and the closest finish this season so far - I finish 11th overall, with a best lap time of 1.31.39.
Its been a couple of hours since the Classic Thunder race, so on the green flag lap I check the clutch with lots of revs around the track and it seems to be holding OK. This is a long distance (15 lap) race, all I can do is hope for the best. So we line up on the grid, I'm alongside the Capri of Malc Best with the Mini of Burrows in front of me, the Sunbeam of Andrew Guy behind.
I make a great start and immediately I'm right up with the RKP Rover of Lukins, however he is baulked by someone else and I get stuck behind him, allowing the Sunbeam of Guy to pass on the inside. As I change to third gear the clutch slips and I have to lift off to get drive again, this allows the pack to get away but there's chaos at Sear so I manage to get right back with them. The clutch slips once more down the Revett straight but again the pack is held up at the Esses and I'm right up with Guy's Sunbeam again. For the first lap or two I dutifully follow the pack round, burning the oil off the clutch plate and planning my moves. Lap 3 and I get close to the Sunbeam through the Bomb Hole, get a better line through Coram and decide to attack down the inside approaching Russell Bend. The Sunbeam pulls right across in front of then brakes hard, leaving me nowhere to go. SMACK!!! - I go into the back of him and the fronts lock up, and I have my third excursion of the day onto the gravel, this time straight across at the chicane.
In all the dust and confusion I aim for the tarmac stuff again and join back onto the track still behind the Sunbeam and with unknown damage to the front of the Golf (the Sunbeam's bumper looks a little second hand). I lose time badly at Riches and Sear as the car under steers badly (dirt on the tyres?) and I then spend the next 5/6 laps desperately trying to get close enough to have another attempt at Andrew Guy. But its no good - I do a best time of 1.30.6, and try everything I can - slow entries, fast entries, later and later braking - but if anything the pack ahead are easing away from me rather than me catching them.
A Mustang going slowly causes me some aggravation as he doesn't make it easy for me to get past (which I eventually do at the Esses) and then I come across a Capri (Murray Henderson) who's having his own fair share of agricultural moments. After a 2 lap battle he gets Russell horribly wrong, and I get the run on him down to Riches, passing under braking at the corner. He's much quicker than me down the straights, but I manage to keep him behind me as I close on the pack ahead.
But then the Rover P6 of Pete Holton goes wide and holds them all up, and I'm right up with them again. And now Rick Kerry's XR3 goes wide at Coram and slides all over the grass on the outside of the circuit, before coming across the track sideways and taking out the barriers at the entrance to the chicane. Miraculously he rejoins facing the right direction and gets out of the chicane ahead of me, but now I'm right on his tail. We're both starting to struggle with overheated front tyres and fading brakes, but I stick with him and get a better exit out of Russell on the following lap. Heading towards Riches I go to the inside and try to out brake him, he follows around on the outside but I've got him, and I make it stick through Sear and down the Revett Straight.
But next lap round I make a pigs ear of Sear, go very wide and ominously the Escort behind doesn't. I head down the straight hoping for the best but its no good, Rick gets the run on me and he's back in front at the Esses. Bugger! I was too soft letting Rick get past me at Thruxton and I want to finish ahead this time. Anyway, we're on the last lap and I'm trying everything. My brake pedal is going straight to the floor, this is by far the hardest circuit for braking so far this season. I try and out brake Rick at Sears but I'm not close enough, we both go wide at Riches so I lose an opportunity to get a run at him, then at the Esses he goes in too quickly and all of a sudden his Escort is going agricultural, bouncing across the gravel trap. My chance - but hang on a sec, I'm going too quick too, my brakes are shot and I follow him straight into the gravel too! Doh! Oh well, if I had any talent it wouldn't be half as much fun.
So through all the dust and tyre smoke I head to where I think the track should be and eventually the air clears - and yes, I'm still behind the yellow Escort. There are only two corners left and I get a better exit out of the chicane, pulling alongside Rick up the pit straight. But its too late, the chequered flag comes out and he takes the position, with me down in a lowly 15th place.
So in 25 laps of racing I've managed to go off the track on four separate occasions, together with a spin in qualifying too. For the next race I'm going to ask the organisers for a waiver to allow my Golf to run tractor tyres - I reckon I'll be much quicker. What it will definitely have before the next outing is a new clutch, crank oil seal, rear wheel bearings, front brake pads and new fluid. After two hard races the poor little thing is in some need of a little TLC...
Next race - Oulton Park, 5th August - where apparently the tyre walls are all a lot closer to the track...
Thanks to Ben Pike for the excellent photographs. See more at his web site, Pikeynet.