A Beginner’s Diary: Part 4 – Into the Fray

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Leaving the pits for my first race heat seemed a pretty comfortable experience. After the practice of the previous day, there was a familiar routine to getting the kart round on cold tyres while keeping up the pace with the drivers ahead. The “Esses” at Forest Edge in Hampshire were no longer the obstacles of dread. So as the karts in front weaved left-right to get heat into the tyres, I followed the herd on this Sunday morning. This weekend I came armed with 8 fewer kilos at the scales after a crash diet, so could enjoy the luxury of adding weight to the kart to get to 177kg, as well as a better fitting suit.


One thing I hadn’t tried before was the rolling start and it was uppermost in my mind through the decent into the “Wingers Dip” and the long rise through the back of the circuit. To get things moving, half the track was cut off for the rolling start which meant short-circuiting the Bus Stop chicane along this back straight. As the pack turned right, I caught sight of the lights over the start-finish line and realised that now it was racing — For Real ™. Except that it wasn’t as the pack wasn’t properly formed up so another lap we did. Good news for me as it always takes three laps to get any decent heat into my tyres.


So back through the Esses, Wingers and Up Hill the karts flowed once again. As we reached the chicane, the pack was properly assembled and after the turn right, this time it was going to happen. A second later, 125cc engines roared like the Charge of the Light Brigade. My 28-odd horses were in full flight past the start-finish line, but quite a distance back from the kart ahead. I didn’t care too much as crashing at Haynes Loop was something to be avoided like the plague. Starting at the back was probably a good idea as the pack soon peeled off into the distance.


The first few laps were conservative even by my standards, but I stayed on track and passed a couple of drivers who’d ended up in the dirt. By lap three I was in full flight, caning chicanes with wild abandon and hammering through Haynes with all the grip my CRG machine could muster. This was awesome fun. It wasn’t long before the inevitable blue flag was waved in front to signal the fastest karts were behind me and needed to pass. I moved offline to allow them to keep their fast lines and race pace. Then — as if from nowhere — the chequered flag appeared – just as I was getting going.


As we peeled off the track I was relieved I had finished in one piece. Soon I was back at the Wright Technology Centre, where my Race Engineer, David, assessed the performance. “A bad start …” he rightly concluded. Rather than keep close to the back end of the machine in front, I was so far back Cornwall was in sight. I knew to be really competitive you needed to literally push the kart in front over the start but I’ll try that when I get more experienced. Analysis of my lap times on the Mychron 4 revealed consistent 47s laps which was brilliant for me. On the weekend session beforehand 49s felt to be on the ragged edge so “seat time” was really paying dividends. David’s father, Colin, asked how the kart felt and to me it was great … lots of preparation the previous day had delivered a really good set up.


Saturday’s work was invaluable and I strongly advise all newly-approved ARKS racers to do as much as possible. I’d reached the stage where I was no longer fighting the kart, instead easing it through the twists and turns of the track. I was still a few seconds off race pace but I’m confident this will fall with more driving. Another experienced 177 driver at Forest Edge is Chris Hartridge, whose son also races with Wright Racing. First thing that day, he and David took me on a track walk and talked through each corner for grip, entry point, throttle and braking position. It was an excellent lesson in preparation. For example, going into the Bus Stop, I should blip the throttle to pump fuel into the carburettor and that should make it much more throttle responsive out of the corner. On the exit, I should also take some kerb as the slight unloading of the kart will allow the engine to build revs more quickly in time for the straight. It made a difference.


Another tip is to gauge performance with another competitor. There are six 177 ARKS newbies, and my chosen “shadow” is Rob Ruddy. He’s a bit faster than me and a bit more fluent around the track. By using him as a benchmark I’ll hopefully improve at a realistic rate. I put that into effect during Saturday practice and examined where he was strong and less strong on track. I’d discovered I could catch him through the corners but lost him in the straights. Haynes gave me good traction and exit speed and by the time of the Esses I could get close to Rob. Another opportunity was into Wingers – and it was here I tried an overtaking move. As we accelerated through Down Hill, Rob left the door open through Ansons turn, so I dived into the gap. We were wheel-to-wheel as both karts emerged from the corner on full throttle. Forces were pushing my kart towards the outer edge of the track and this, of course, was where Rob was positioned. He ended up with two wheels on the dirt as I pushed through the corner, but thankfully nothing more dramatic than that. It felt like a good move, albeit perhaps a bit too ambitious on my part.


Attaching yourself to a team is a must for the new driver. The experience of those in the know vastly outweighs the costs. On one of my practice laps, I lost all power though Haynes and coasted into the pits. God knows what had gone wrong. Back at the WTC, David and Colin set about the fault finding process with careful examination of the carburettor, fuel pump etc… The fault was traced back to a dead spark plug, something which also drastically curtailed the success of Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull in Bahrain a couple of weeks later.


While they don’t all cost of the earth, replacing parts does mount up. During one of the Sunday heats, while negotiating Haynes, I was whacked up the rear and the front of the CRG ended up tangled in the steering mechanism of Rob’s kart. The pile up was caused by another newbie barrelling in further back on cold brakes and tyres. My first reaction to this first racing accident was to throw my hands in the air and swear into the helmet. Once I had engaged brain, I realised I needed to get going. Un-mating the CRG from Rob’s chassis got me moving once again – with no apparent damage. The kart felt good through the Esses and into Wingers. It was only on my return to the pits that I discovered the right hand-steering track rod was bent like a banana. A quick repair job got me out on track for the 177 Final. Race completed, we waited for the results and it wasn’t a huge surprise to learn I was last – even though I finished. But the differences with the winner, Nick Maton, were stark. His average speed was 52.10mph, mine was 46.22mph; his best lap was 43.19s, mine was 47.31s. Also, the fastest guys were quickest around lap three; the novices mostly lap 6 to 8. More homework needed on where I’m losing time and more seat time for sure (I already have a few ideas).


Even though karting is seen my many outside the sport as a bit of recreational fun on a Saturday, it’s interesting to see current F1 drivers using karting as a serious training tool. Last year it was no surprise that Michael Schumacher trained on KZ-class machinery to see how his neck – and general fitness – were coping. The lack of power steering and considerable forces on the body make it a discipline to keep establish racers “honest”. Felipe Massa at the Bahrain Grand Prix also referred to karting during his rehabilitation. And it was heartening of all to learn that Mark Webber had got out in a Rotax machine a week before this year’s Australian Grand Prix – albeit for fun more than anything. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see him at Forest Edge. I’d even bring a few tinnies for that Saturday evening.


Next time: Forest Edge track gets an overhaul – with awesome results







Kart_1: 8 kilos lighter meant a new suit

Picture: Stephen Rees


Kart_2: Charging through “Haynes” – great grip out of this corner

Picture: Stephen Rees


Kart_3: On the brakes into the tight “Bus Stop” chicane

Picture: Stephen Rees


Combat_1: Battling with Rob Roddy into “Wingers Dip”

Picture: Edward Partridge


Combat_3: Closing in for the pass on my fellow ARKS novice

Picture: Edward Partridge


Combat_4: “…I have you now young Skywalker….”

Picture: Edward Partridge


Chris_H: Chris Hartridge’s invaluable track walk and tips saved at least a second during practice

[note to Mark: his name is spelt correctly] No picture credit needed


Pack: The kart in front is – whatever you like apart from mine

Picture: Edward Partridge


Spark_plug: Race engineer David isolating the cause of engine failure: a dead spark plug

No picture credit needed


Wheels: Colin Wright using lasers to adjust toe-in

No picture credit needed


Wheels_2: Colin Wright using lasers to adjust toe-in

No picture credit needed


Gearbox: Gearbox boys waiting for the green flag for practice

Picture: Edward Partridge