I’ve been on this earth for 42 years, and for at least 39-and-three-quarters of those I’ve dreamt of being a racing driver. I say three quarters, because it only took Radical Sportscars that final fraction of last year to make me one.
First off, I blame my dad, Tony, for all of this. I was two when he took me to Snetterton and I first caught the sight, sound and smell of race cars. I got into marshalling during my teens. It was the best way to get up close with the sport without the time or funding to compete.
For the last 20 years I’ve lived the sport through a lens as a professional photographer. While that paid the bills, it hardly set me up financially or gave me the time to take the plunge into becoming a racer.
When it came to making the effort, it seemed too complicated, too time-consuming and too daunting. That’s when Radical got involved.
My colleague Robert Ladbrook raced with Radical in 2017 and has been raving about it since. Before I knew it, numbers and emails had been swapped, and Radical was offering me the chance of a lifetime – to take part in the season finale of the 2018 SR1 Cup Championship at Brands Hatch last November. After 40 years of waiting, my life changed in about five minutes.
But, beyond those few excitable emails, what comes next? The world of club racing is a minefield of acronyms – ARDS, Nat B, MSVR, SR1… for a novice it’s confusing and a little hand-holding goes a long way. And Radical has that much covered within its SR1 Cup concept.
While the championship is also open to experienced drivers, the SR1 Cup was designed as a novice-friendly series when it launched back in 2012 and it’s never lost that. Radical can take a total novice, walk them through their ARDS (Association of Racing Drivers Schools) competition licence test, give them bespoke training and then plop them into an SR1 and turn them from newbie to racer. I was going to do the process in just a few weeks.
First, some background. I was as green as they come. My track driving experience was limited to handling the recovery truck at Snetterton, and then a few laps in my mate’s Escort XR3i on a trackday… before I crashed it at Riches. That’s it. Radical had its work cut out.
First stop was arranging my ARDS test – at my beloved Snetterton. The test is broken down into two parts – written and practical. After some stringent revision of racing rules and flag signals, I was delighted to pass at my first attempt, having scored 100 per cent on the written test and kept things tidy during a handful of laps with my instructor in a Peugeot 208 GTi. My dad turned up to watch and it made for quite an emotional moment when I got the congratulatory handshake. Seems like I’ll be living the dream for both of us…
Freshly armed with my licence, I felt ready to take on the world, but first I had to simply take on the SR1 in a test at Donington Park, a few weeks before my Brands Hatch debut.
Thankfully, the day dawned nice and bright (and dry!), but that didn’t dull the mild sense of panic when I first saw the SR1 in the garage with my name on it.
Not content to simply chuck me in at the deep end and see if I swam or sunk straight into the tyre wall, Radical recruited driver coach Stuart Moseley as a handy pair of arm bands. And with the SR1 running a stack of live data-logging equipment, there would be no excuses.
THE SR1 MIGHT be entry level, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cutesy, cuddly kind of car. Instead it’s a short, squat baby Le Mans prototype with menacing looks and equally menacing figures. It has a 1340cc Suzuki Hayabusa engine (reworked by Radical Performance Engines, RPE) that produces 182bhp and can propel the SR1 from 0-60mph in 3.5sec before hitting a top speed of 138mph. It’s a purebred, hardcore track weapon.
I’ll always remember trundling out of the pits for the first time, the vibrations as the revs rise, the feeling of being so low my bum could scrape the Tarmac and, most of all, the intensely heightened awareness of any other car within the same post code.
It was a frightening first few laps, where I basically concentrated on keeping out of the way of others. That first test was simply to get my eye in, and most of all build confidence.
Throughout the day, Stuart gave me regular debriefs alongside my video and data traces, and I had the full physics of the car explained to me. Where the weight goes when braking or accelerating and the effect each transfer has on grip and handling.
I wasn’t pushing anywhere near hard enough to get the aero working, and provide that vital downforce that generates extra grip and traction. I was also bad on the brakes. Stuart demonstrated my braking pressure by mildly nudging my arm, and then showed how I should be doing it by nearly pushing me over…
Knowing the car’s capabilities makes me less nervous. The bond between racing driver and car is largely built on trust and feel, and I was trusting the car more and more each lap.
At proper speed, the SR1 is utterly joyous and rather mind-blowing, especially to somebody of limited track experience. The engine might be small, but it’s a race-tuned rocket that responds instantly and will rev freely right up into its 9800rpm redline. Coupled to that is a six-speed sequential gearbox with paddle shift, and banging through the gears on the straights is as exhilarating as it is addictive. It makes you feel on top of the world… invincible. But push too far and the SR1 will bring you back down to earth.
While the chassis is brilliantly agile, it can be a handful if you get stupid. As I did at more than 100mph down the back straight. To counter my softly, softly braking approach I got on the pedal too hard… and failed to release it when the rears locked as they went light over the crest before the Club Chicane. Around I went. I managed not to hit anything, but it shook me up.
“Know what you did wrong?” said Stuart once I returned. “Yeah, I braked too hard and forgot to come off it when the rears locked, and it spat me around,” I replied.
“Good. So now you know not to do it again, don’t you..?” he said with a wry smile.
But that’s the point. This was my very first day in a race car, and after four 20-minute tests and a few hours of poring over my data with Stuart I did know what I’d done wrong. And I didn’t do it again. In that moment I realised I understood more about racing cars than I ever had before.
That’s the thing with the SR1, it’s a superb car to get into and learn. It teaches you about racing with aerodynamics, about mechanical grip, car balance and throttle control, and it’s not shy at letting you know when you’ve overstepped the mark. Finding the limit, and keeping it there, is a real challenge.
“THE SR1 IS BRILLIANTLY AGILE, JUST DON’T GET STUPID WITH IT, LIKE I DID AT MORE THAN 100MPH”
First test done, next up would be a quick visit to the simulators at iZone Driver Performance for a technique brush-up (see sidebar) and then back to reality with the pre-event test day at Brands Hatch.
I’VE NEVER FELT LIKE IT heading to a race track. Raw excitement and pure fear mixed into one strange cocktail. Arriving at Brands, I signed on, had my kit scrutineered for the first time and then met my coach for the weekend, Roger Bromiley.
At this point I’ll stress that Roger wasn’t there purely for me. I was running with the Radical Works Team, and all of my team-mates had access to Roger’s advice and data. It’s part of the service. No matter how quick you think you are, there’s always something new to learn. For me, there was a huge amount.
The morning is wet and, being November, freezing. And the car is not the car I remember from Donington when it was dry and sunny. I’d never run on a wet track, so wasn’t used to the vague, twitchy feeling. I also wasn’t used to the progressive throttle application required, so the first time I floored it coming out of Clearways the rears spun up and I pirouetted along the pit straight, much to the amusement of my watching engineer.
I composed myself and went again, building up my understanding of how the SR1 felt in completely different conditions.
After the session it was in to data with Roger. He explained why the car behaved as it did, and why the grip level was changing. I needed to explore more of the circuit – take the wider ‘karting’ line to find track with less rubber laid down, which was now slick with water. I also wasn’t going fast enough to work the aero. Slower meant harder to drive.
The debrief helps and I head back out and scrub a handful of seconds off. I’m growing in confidence as the track gradually dries out and I’m whittling the seconds away when it tips down with rain again at lunch. At least I get to experience all four seasons in one day!
Before I know it, the test is over, and my next session on track would be a meaningful one – the first time I’d be gauged against the rest of the grid in qualifying.
The nerves are jangling, but Roger’s words hang with me all morning on race day. “You’re just here to enjoy this so don’t worry about what anybody else is doing – the result doesn’t matter, only the thrill of taking part.”
With that in mind, I head out for my first official timed session on the damp circuit. Here’s the time to put everything together. My work in the simulator, all of the tips from Stuart and Roger – time to make it count.
After a few tentative laps to warm the Hankook tyres, I go for it with three minutes remaining in the session. I brake harder, accelerate sooner and give in to trusting the car. Bang. My first sub-60sec lap. A 59.59sec, which puts me ninth. The elation hits me before the chequered flag comes out. I’ve survived my first session… and been reasonably quick! There were tears in my eyes well before I got back to the garage to see my dad reduced to an emotional wreck by seeing me in the top 10. And this was just qualifying!
Regardless of what happened in the two races, the weekend was already a success.
With the sun poking out in time for the races, the conditions didn’t do me a lot of favours as I had to learn the tricks to the dry 1.3-mile Indy Circuit in race conditions, but the two 20-minute outings went by like a blur. I had some great battles within the midfield and brought the car home without a scratch.
One of my closest rivals on the weekend, Gavin McAlpine, said something after the last race that stuck with me.
“I never thought I’d be in this position, as a racer, at the end of my first season – it’s been a whirlwind,” he said. “I just keep asking myself, ‘Why didn’t I do this earlier?’”
I really couldn’t agree more.