My first race


Exactly 20 years ago, and at the grand old age of 28, I raced a car for the very first time. I mention this now because, as the season gets underway I thought I might try to convey some of the feelings I felt that day, feelings I can recall as easily as the names of my children, in the hope that any of you who’d like to race but for various reasons have not yet done so might be further inveigled to take the plunge.

Frankel’s first race: Caterhams at Brands Hatch

The reason I left it so late will be familiar to most: I couldn’t afford to do otherwise. But when Caterham offered Autocar a Seven to race in its one make series for a season I knew I’d never get a better chance. I’d like to say I leaped at the offer and, so far as my colleagues were concerned, I did. Privately though, I was scared. Scared of getting hurt for sure, but more scared of being slow.

On a grid of ostensibly identical cars there’s really no hiding place and it wasn’t as if I could just turn up, prove to be as useless as I suspected and forget it ever happened. There were, I think, 10 rounds that season and five of us were going to do two each. By the season’s end everyone would know where in the pecking order their allegedly hotshot road test editor really stood.

In the end I only did it because I discovered I was more frightened of not doing it, of knowing for the rest of my days that I’d bottled it. So nervously I headed down to Brands for my very first race, driving the car as the rules insisted you must, with my brand new Caterham-Rover overalls (which I still have) folded neatly in the passenger footwell.

My only experience of the little Indy circuit had come three days earlier when a kindly chap taking part in an evening track day had patiently offered me some advice on lines and braking points. He’d been a useful single seater driver in his day and would become at least as useful a commentator thereafter. I can remember being told to brake under the bridge for Druids which I could do, and that Surtees was flat, which I could not. So, @benedwardstv, thanks for that.

Frankel tries Britcar, 2007

By the time I was called to the collection area on the mercifully dry race day, I would have happily lost my helmet, sabotaged the car, or broken an arm rather than take on what lay ahead. I’d qualified and in a time fast enough to put me right in the middle of the grid (which was gratifying and terrifying in roughly equal measure) but that was just like a rather serious track day.

I’d been to my rookie’s briefing where I’d had to admit to not only never having raced on this circuit, but at any circuit, and I’d been thoroughly cowed by the clerk of the course explaining my responsibilities to me. But there was worse to come. In the assembly area itself I could not think of a place on earth I’d not rather be. But my colleagues had turned up to watch, my girlfriend and some of my family too. Ducking it at this stage seemed impractical.

I was almost sick on the parade lap. I can remember sitting in my slot, surrounded by a swarm of angry, blipping little race cars staffed by homicidal maniacs with a sworn duty to take me out. But as the five second board came out, a curious sense of calm that could almost be mistaken for relief descended. There really was no getting out of it now. What would be would be.

The race

That was the last fear I felt which, given what was to come I still find remarkable. Because my working life was spent doing acceleration runs for road tests and thanks to the traction advantage of my then 17 stone frame, I got a good start. From 12th on the grid I was perhaps eighth heading into Druids for first time. Brake under the bridge, nicely done, seventh. As we streamed down towards the old Graham Hill Bend (which Ben had told me was technically flat but actually quicker with a little lift – thanks again) I could see the leaders. I couldn’t see how I could catch them but that hardly mattered. I wasn’t a complete idiot at this.

I think that was the moment a new dimension entered my life and if that makes me a shallow person so be it; but all those who’ve been bitten by the racing bug will know the moment its fangs sank into their heart. This was life on a new level, a level of super-sensitised intensity I’d never known with a steering wheel in my hands, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of miles I’d driven by then.

Unbelievably, at least to me, I found my way past a couple more. I was fifth and knew if I could just get a run on the car in front through Surtees, I could nip underneath him into Clearways. The third place man was not far ahead and suddenly the vision of a podium in my first ever race swam into my head. This time Surtees would be flat.

And at least the first half of the corner was. Only when I was sure I had no further chance of controlling the car did my foot shift from the pedal on the right to the one in the middle to try to limit the trajectory of the now fast rotating Caterham.

Impressively I managed to spin off the track in one direction and then back across it in the other watching with detached curiosity all the other Sevens trying to miss me, which they did. At the time it was probably the closest I’d come to being seriously hurt in a car, but all I could think about was all the places I was losing. I rejoined way down the order, got past a couple of stragglers and finished 12th, precisely the position in which I started the race.

Sadly I missed my second race on account of the Caterham being rebuilt at the time after a monumental off at Lydden in the hands of one of my esteemed colleagues. I never drove the car again.

But as you can see, the memory lives with me to this day. It was worth every sleepless night, sweaty brow and nauseated stomach a thousand times over. I still get nervous in assembly areas but I think that goes with the territory. As does that feeling of elation, the joy of simply being out there taking part in the world’s best sport.

If you can, and I appreciate that for many it is just not possible, try and do one competitive motor sport event in your life. It may not be for you, but then at least you’ll know. Or you may discover that, until that moment, a part of your life has gone unlived. It might light a fire in your heart that, in my case at least, after 20 years shows not the slightest interest in going out.

More from Andrew Frankel
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McQueen vs Newman
FIA muddles historic racing regulations

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