In the first corner of your first race, facing this way is never a good thing.
It happens to all racing drivers though, right? That’s what I’m telling myself anyway. Here’s how it happened.
It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on
Radical racing is said to be the quickest novice motorsport you can take part in. Lots of downforce, lots of grip and cornering speeds that even the best supercars can’t hope to match.
Knowing what I knew about the race series, when an invite came my way to take part in the final race of the 2019 season, the self-preservation gene in me definitely sparked into life. Sure, I’d love to kick around a nearby circuit in a Radical and set some lap times... But a race? That was a whole other level that I was massively unsure I was ready for.
Saying that, three seconds later I replied with a resounding yes and it wasn’t long before I was behind the wheel of a Radical SR1, the entry to the company’s track day weapon range.
Think of the SR1 as a miniature Le Mans prototype – it has some simple yet effective aero, is super lightweight (460kg) and through a 182bhp motorbike engine, it’ll reach 60mph in just 3.5 seconds.
I thought I was a fairly competent driver going into the race weekend, but translating from the road to the track is a whole other ball game. First of all, there’s the speed that the SR1 could carry through the corners. Despite having some tread instead of full slicks, the car stayed completely stable at speeds that would have a McLaren or Ferrari road car understeering into the armco.
All that grip and downforce when combined with the relatively small power output means that the key to a lap in the SR1 is getting the car turned in and then jumping back on the gas as soon as possible, carrying every kph your mind tells you is possible. And then you get back to the pits and realise that the top guys are still carrying 20kph more than you and making it look very, very easy.
The dream team – my race engineer Tom and drive coach Bradley
The next challenge I had was using every inch of the track. My survival instinct kept me using road car positioning, meaning I was leaving half a car width outside of me on every corner. That led to my turns being much tighter than everyone else’s, further hurting my peak cornering speeds.
Anyway, by the end of my practice, I managed to set a lap time of 2:05.94, which you can watch here:
What made me so happy with that time (despite my obvious slow bits) was that it would keep me with the field come the first race. After believing I’d be off the back of the pack by many seconds, it looked like I’d actually have people to race against.
And that turned out to be the case. I qualified in 18th, but was just a third of a second away from 17th. And having never been happy with any of my qualifying laps, I definitely had some people to tussle with if I could hook things up once the lights went green.
Sat at the back of the grid and waiting for the lights, I was told that most people in this moment have a sudden onrush of dread, leaving them wondering what the hell they are doing there and what they’re about to subject themselves to.
I can’t say I felt anything like that, in fact I was pretty damn relaxed. I knew how fast I could drive the car, I knew I could keep up with the first two or three guys ahead of me, it was all going to be fine. Just bring the SR1 back in one piece.
With a crescendo of rasping four-cylinder wails, the race was underway and before I knew it, I’d made what I felt was a bloody good start. Simply by being careful and keeping away from trouble, I’d managed to make a place up… I HAD OVERTAKEN SOMEONE! Without further thought, I was planning my next couple of passes having positioned myself nicely on the inside of the first corner.
And then, DOOF.
Before I had the chance to even register that I’d had a tap on my rear left bodywork, I was facing the wrong way in a flurry of revs and a massive spike of adrenaline. Going from mid-pack to a standstill isn’t great when you can’t get the clutch down quick enough, so I had stalled and quickly prodded the starter button to get going again. The engine woke back up straight away but I couldn’t get down the gears, having to trundle away in third.
That great start, my sheer joy from my first ever overtake – it all went down the pan in a fraction of a second.
Thankfully there was a safety car and I managed to catch up. And this then led to a fantastic race between myself and a car from the University of Derby. Pleasingly, I was quicker than him and was closing him down in every braking zone, but sadly I just never had what I felt was a clear opportunity to overtake. I returned to the pits with a P17 finish, my heart pounding with sheer excitement and a huge smile across my face.
It was a rather traumatic first-first corner experience, but what a fantastic memory to have sitting in the bank for when I next take to a track. I certainly got nowhere near the boyhood fantasy of dropping straight into a racing car and being up with the frontrunners from the get-go – give me my 10,000 hours and maybe 10,000 more and I might be halfway there. But as a first taste of motorsport, I couldn’t have hoped for a faster, more exhilarating trial.
Hopefully, there’ll be a lot more to come.