SERIOUS FUN, BUT SERIOUS RISK TOO

SER10S 3T SERIOUS RISK TOO

A RIDE IN THE MR2 CHAIVDIONSHID DROVED THRILLING UNTIL THE ACTION GOT TOO HOT

is the maddest thing I've ever done," said a fellow Toyota MR2 racer at Brands Hatch after the red flags had been shown because of an accident. I

asked him whether he'd done much car racing. "No, this is my first race, I used to race bikes." And this was the maddest thing he'd ever done? What was he doing on motorbikes? "Oh, everything really... circuit racing, the Manx Grand Prix, the [Isle of Man] TT." Simon Gardner had a point. Even though he had lapped the TT course — arguably the world's most dangerous race track — at over

100mph on his first attempt, this was full on. A while ago a press release came through my inbox announcing that Toyota was sponsoring the MR2 Championship. A carmanufacturing giant sponsoring a club championship — this was interesting news. When Toyota withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of 2009, CEO Akio Toyoda said the company would put some of that money into grass roots motor sport. Well, here it is. The amount may be small according to various people in the championship, but it is there. I was kindly offered a drive by Toyota and within two weeks I was sitting in one of Rogue Motorsport's MR2s

on the grid at Brands. The championship can be traced back to 2003 and the

750 Motor Cub RoadSports series, where Mk1s were encouraged to race under strict modification rules designed to keep costs down. In '04 plans were drawn up to include Mk2s and by '05 the MR2s had their own class. For '06 the cars could support their own grid, leading to a split from the RoadSports series; within 12 months there were so many cars that grids had to be divided and in '08 the MSA granted the series championship status. The MR2 category is hugely popular. Cars can be bought for as little as £4000, and not only

are they easy to race, they are great to drive — there really is nothing to rival a mid-engined car with rear-wheel drive in that respect. However, as with many single-make series, the determination to win is on a par with that in the BTCC. When 30 cars are lapping within four seconds of each other the only way to gain an advantage is to drive that bit harder, which is a dangerous game to play when you're on the very short and tight Brands Hatch Indy circuit. A week before the race a member of the Toyota team sent through an image of what had happened to him when he took part in the same race in 2010. I opened the file to reveal a Toyota MR2 four feet off the ground and literally flying through Paddock Hill. "We understand what it's like racing the MR2s at Brands," he said, "so don't panic, just try and stay

safe." It turned out that staying out of trouble was easier said than done. I won't dwell on driving standards here, as I've talk to Jeff Allam about that (see right), but suffice to say they were mixed. Some MR2 drivers had been racing for many years, while others were sporting beginners' crosses — or 'targets' as they were lovingly referred to at Knockhill when I started racing. When I overheard the following before one race at Brands, I must admit I quickly blessed myself before fastening my seat belt: "but if you're on

the inside, it's your corner," said one racer, to which the other replied correctly that yes, it was, as long as you were in front. "No, no, if you're on the inside — whether you're in front or not — it's your corner." This was going to be interesting... What struck me come the first MR2 race was just how far some people took it. A nudge going into Paddock or

a dive down the inside of Graham Hill — when you already had two wheels inside the apex — seemed to be de rigueur.

I managed to stay out of trouble almost all weekend, and even though people had leant on me in every session so far, the Rogue Motorsport MR2 had remained relatively unscathed. However, my turn for trouble came in the last race of the day. My plan was to just survive the first lap and if I lost places, well, so be it. But coming out of Druids it became apparent that this wasn't going to happen. A car further up the field had spun exiting the hairpin and then carried on spinning across the track and through the field of cars. There wasn't much anyone could do to avoid it, and soon cars were diving all over the grass and Tarmac trying to avoid each other. As I approached the melee another Mk2 was punted up the back and spun into my path... It was only two days later, after an MRI scan, that I found out I'd ruptured a disc in my neck that had jutted into my spinal cord, and I was lucky to still be walking. If it had slipped another millimetre or so the chances are I wouldn't

be writing this now. Perhaps it might surprise you to learn that if I were asked to

go and race in the MR2 championship again, I would say yes in a flash. Yes, the driving standards need to be looked at, but the MR2 is — for me — the perfect club racer. It's predictable and fun and everyone involved is extremely helpful. Until you are in the braking zone for Druids, that is...