27 November 2017

David Pattison’s Diary of a Gentleman Racing Driver: COTA 24 Hours

David Pattison’s Diary of a Gentleman Racing Driver: COTA 24 Hours

Luck. You get wished it and wish for the good kind. It is a lady. People often say that you make your own. If you are Mark Webber in Formula 1, it is said that if he got any at all it was only ever the bad kind. There is absolutely no doubt that if you are going to do a 24-hour race, then you need the good kind and lots of it. At the 24 Hours of COTA, we certainly got our fair share of the good stuff.


It was early September. The British GT season, in a McLaren GT4 with my team Tolman Motorsport, was to finish before the end of September and I felt that it wasn’t going to be quite enough to finish off the season. I had, in the past, done some one-off races during a season. This had usually been to get ‘testing’ track time on the British GT circuits, such as Spa and Brands Hatch, through racing in the European GT4 Series. In January 2016 I had started the season early by taking part in the Dubai 24-hour race. But I had never looked to extend the season before.


Chatting to our lovely truckie and all round ‘Mr Fixit’, Gordon, he mentioned that a team called Brookspeed had entered two cars into the first 24-hour race at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA). There were some spare seats and would I be interested? And I was, for a variety of reasons: it was COTA, a circuit I have always wanted to drive. It was in Austin, a really cool city that I knew pretty well. It was a 24-hour race, and I had loved the 24-hour experience when I raced in Dubai.


24-hour racing is like no other. You need stamina, patience and the aforementioned luck. If you can keep going round and round respecting the car, with just tyre changes, refuelling, the occasional brake change and a good strategy, you will almost certainly finish on the podium.


Staying out of trouble is more difficult because the races are multi-class and, unless you are in the fastest class, you are being overtaken as often as you are overtaking. It is made a little easier by the fact that most of the drivers realise that you don’t have to win every corner. Although there is usually a mad Italian team, usually in a Lamborghini, who spice things up a bit!


There is a major difference if you ‘buy a seat’. It is a very odd feeling to leap into the unknown of a new team, new team-mates and a different car. There is plenty of potential for whole new realms of self doubt to get stressed by. Being an Am/Gent there is always the worry of how you might stack up against unknown driver partners, and how you would work in a completely different team environment. To complicate it further, they don’t know you either.


Despite this I really wanted to do another 24-hour race and really wanted to drive COTA. It genuinely wasn’t about getting a result, much more about the track and the experience… honestly!


The format for this race was slightly odd. It was to be the first 24-hour race at COTA and the organisers didn’t want to upset the local residents with noise through the night. So the plan was to do 14 hours on Saturday finishing at 11pm, and then 10 hours on Sunday finishing at 6pm. It meant that there would be a break for sleep and less night running but still a lot to cope with. There were also the usual constraints on fuel, lap times, driver stint durations, as well as how long the car could run on a tank of fuel and how long the brakes would last. It would make the strategy really important.


The race was across Saturday and Sunday. On the Friday there was to be a three-hour test, a 90-minute free practice, a one hour qualifying session and a 90-minute night time test. Each of the drivers had to do at least two qualifying laps and at least two timed laps in the dark. On the Thursday, there was the chance to take your hire car around the track in a two-hour session.


Wednesday was set up day and I had arrived in Austin on the Tuesday evening. I went to the track on Wednesday to try and get a feel for it. All I could see was the mountain that was turn one. Amazing. I had spent some time on a simulator with those good people at Base Performance to learn the track, but nothing prepares you for seeing turn one in the flesh. It just goes up and up and up. Wandered around but actually just succeeded in getting edgy and irritable. Decided it would be best to leave and just rest at the hotel.


The only news on team-mates was that I would definitely be driving with Freddie Hunt, son of the late James. There would be others but no news on who they would be.


On the Thursday the circuit was busier. Freddie and I took my Hyundai Elantra for a spin around the circuit. If you ask a racing driver what is the fastest car you have driven they will usually say a hire car. This session proved to be no different as it was red flagged for driving standards! Not a great omen for the race. But with my driver’s hat on I could see why people got carried away. What a circuit, long, technical and undulating. A real challenge.


There were a whole new set of new people working in the team, but Brookspeed had asked my Team Principal, Chris, to come and run the car. My engineer, Rob, to get us through the race and ‘Mr Fixit’ Gordon was on hand. So it didn’t feel too alien and there were friendly faces around. The new faces turned out to be really good guys, who proved to be brilliant at what they did. By Thursday evening we also had two American driving partners: Alan and Joe. A little bit younger than me, but clearly grown ups who had driven the circuit before. Interestingly, you could see the self doubt in their eyes and hear it in their words. Although all we had to do was get used to the car and go round and round for 24 hours unscathed. Simple.


There weren’t just familiar faces in the team. There were a number of British GT drivers taking part: Liam Griffin and Adam Balon were driving together. William Phillips, Ryan Ratcliffe and Paul Hollywood – yes, THE ‘Great British Bake Off’ Paul Hollywood were also there.


Friday came and proved to be a really busy day. The first half of the test session was spent bedding in brakes: helpful for learning the track, but not much use to build up pace. After that we had about 20 minutes each, which turned into about seven laps. The same was true of the free practice session and then we had a couple of laps each in qualifying and night testing. So a total of about 20 laps to get used to the car and the track.


I don’t really know what I was expecting of myself. I’d had a good finish to the British GT season. Proper quick. I somehow had developed a false confidence that I would jump into this different car and be instantly quick. Slightly forgetting that it takes a lot of work to get there.


Slow doesn’t begin to describe it. Miles behind the rest of the team and seemingly no way to get better. On consulting my book of driver’s excuses, it was of course the car’s fault, instantly hating it and wishing my McLaren would miraculously appear. It didn’t. The only pleasure I got in the warm ups was driving in the dark, where I was closer to the others and I volunteered to do as much night driving as required. As it turned out I didn’t do any night driving at all.


Rob, the engineer, told me not to worry as he knew me and therefore knew what was going to happen. It was a new track and a new car. In a nutshell, he said, I would get faster. Wise words that, at the time, I didn’t believe.


There were 45 cars in the race and we qualified 32nd. There were more ‘faster cars’ than ‘slower cars’, so we would be overtaken more than we would overtake. Our class had around eight cars in it. All GT4 cars, with the exception of a very swift GTA works Aston Martin which had the word ‘winner’ written all over it, not literally, obviously, and was co-driven by Paul Hollywood (yes, THE Paul Hollywood). We had a sister Porsche run by Brookspeed, with a really good bunch of guys sharing the wheel, and, generously, their knowledge of the car set up and circuit.


It was decided that I would start the race. Probably to get the slow guy out of the way first! Although experience of rolling starts in British GT worked in my favour as well. Two green flag laps and we were off up the mountain that is called turn one. The mad Italians in the Lambo were well in front of us, so not a threat for a few laps, and everyone else had worked out that you won’t win the race on the first corner, but you could certainly lose it.


We were planning to do stints of about an hour and a quarter, which was the range of the car’s fuel tank. If there was a code 60, a sort of ‘on-track virtual safety car’, then you were allowed to put half a tank of fuel in, but not fill up. This could allow you to do a two-hour stint if timings worked.


The first stint was unremarkable, in that I finished it in about the same position I started in. The only thing that did happen was that Rob was right. The time I needed to find came on lap three and I was pretty consistent from there on.


Alan, Freddie and Joe then had their first stints and we were progressing nicely. Unfortunately, our sister car had a big off in the third hour and had to retire from the race. Fortunately, no one was hurt but bad luck for them, particularly as one driver had not even been in the car. I could see how awful the driver who crashed felt. When you do a 24-hour race you are constantly worrying about letting down the rest of the team, in a way you don’t worry in shorter races. However, this bad luck for them would later prove to be very helpful for us.


My second stint turned into a two hour ‘double’. During that period, we moved up the leader board and by the time I came in for a driver change we were leading the class. A lead that we held on to until the end of the race.


The car ran like clockwork for the full 14 hours on the Saturday. It only required fuel, tyres and driver changes. Having practiced on the Friday, our pitstops were about a minute faster than anyone else. The Aston Martins were having problems with brakes and wishbones. All the drivers were consistent and we built a pretty substantial lead of 12 laps by the end of day one. Having started 32nd overall, we were now 22nd.


At the end of the first day all the cars were in parc fermé conditions on the grid overnight and then reordered into classes. We kept our 12-lap lead but were next to the fast Aston Martin for the start. We had worked out that across the 10 hours on Sunday, the Aston could definitely chase us down. They could run longer between fuel stops and were, on average, about five seconds a lap quicker. We were quicker in the pits and would probably only need to change brakes once in the race, versus their three times. A proper strategic race. Fortunately, we had Rob to plan for us.


My start strategy on day two was to let the Aston go and try and keep the gap to as small a time as possible. The same starting procedure as Saturday. Two green flag laps, during which the driver of the Aston seemed to be trying some bizarre form of intimidation, which actually just fired me up a little more. Then off we went. I waited for the Aston to go past and I waited and waited and it didn’t. By the end of my stint we had pulled out another half a lap lead. Just over an hour gone and all looking good, but still nearly nine hours to go.


So it went on as our drivers did their stints. The gap stayed between 11 and 12 laps. Still, the car kept running, fuel, tyres and driver changes. One stop for brakes, where the team changed the front discs and pads in under four and a half minutes from pit-in to pit-out. Outstanding.


As the day progressed there was some ‘robust’ conversations over who was going to finish the race. Some pressure from Freddie’s sponsors suggested that he should take the car over the line. It had been pre-planned that it would be me, as the race was finishing in the dark. Much rolling of the eyes from the three gent drivers was followed by a ‘what’s best for the team’ discussion. Despite that, the sponsors won the day.


Then, of course, because we were talking about winning and had taken our eyes of the main job of ensuring we finished the last four hours in one piece, the car developed a major issue. The racing car Gods decided we should be taught a lesson. Freddie was halfway through a stint when the car defaulted into ‘limp mode’. It seemed we had an electrical gremlin. To be honest I was looking for someone to blame, but there really wasn’t anybody. Grrrr.


The car came in and a quick fix was tried. The car went out again and it hadn’t worked. The feeling of despair was palpable. But, as so often this season, Chris led the team into calm action. As I said before, the sister car had crashed early in the race, and at the time, Chris had said that it might be useful for parts at some point. He was, as ever, spot on. An ABS sensor and a coil pack were taken off the other car and fitted to ours. All of this was done in the space it took for the Aston to gain five laps on us. An amazing piece of work by the boys and all done around boiling hot brake discs.


Afterwards watching the mechanics with their hands in bowls of cold water to cool their burns, brought home the commitment they make to do something they love. Nothing gets them fired up more than fixing a problem successfully. I have always been apologetic when watching them fix a car I have damaged/broken. But I am continually told it’s why they do it. Respect.


With about three hours to go it was now a case of hoping the car made it to the end. It did. Freddie did the last stint and drove perfectly. We kept the gap about the same and after what seemed like a nailbiting lifetime, the chequered flag was out and we had won the SP3 class in the inaugural COTA 24-hour race. We had also finished 18th overall.


Cue a lot of happiness in the team. Exhilarated doesn’t even begin to describe it. A magnificent team effort, beating a faster car with good consistent driving and a clever strategy. A group of people who didn’t know each other had come together and gelled as a team in double quick time. Lady Luck had played her part. It really, really didn’t feel like it could have gone much better. The top step, with my three new driver friends; Americans Joe and Alan, and fellow Brit, Freddie.


I had done my bit with two starts and matching lap times to the other Gents. Stayed out of trouble and got us into the lead. More driving on day one, but about a quarter of the total driving time under my belt. I grew to like the car and the circuit was spectacular. A real challenge.


Some new learning through seeing a driver’s agent and sponsors ‘demands’ up close. As a Gent driver let’s just say… educational.


I unwittingly provided the team with some moments of mirth. Our lap timer in the car stopped working and on the very lap I was complaining about the tyres going off, I set my fastest lap of the race. Proper racing driver! On the grid for the second part of the race I was interviewed for television and suggested that the Aston Martin next to me wasn’t a proper GT4 car, which it wasn’t, but it certainly got me some dark looks from one side of the grid and laughs from our side.


So that really is the end of the season for me. So glad that I did the COTA race. As with all my racing it was a privilege that will live for a long time in the memory. The top step will always make it a bit special.


British GT beckons for 2018, but I suspect another 24-hour race will be part of the calendar, I just need to work out what and whe