Le Mans; July 7th and 8th; the 24hr race to beat all others.
Final position: 26th overall.
Above all else, this was a team event and we could not have had a better one - everyone whether in support or driving was totally committed and did a superb job.
The line up was the usual team, with Ed Robinson driving with us once again, and Mark Crankshaw as our fifth driver. David Luckham was Pit Wall Manager, Heidi Vincent (whose birthday it was on Thursday when we set off) was in charge of provisioning and finally Chris Smith did everything else.
We left Dover on Thursday morning and drove from Calais via Rouen down to Le Mans arriving at the circuit in time to set up the tents and get the barbecue going for supper. The Canterbury College team came and set their camp next door.
On Friday we moved all the equipment into the circuit getting everything set up in the garage allotted to us and pitching our tents on the grassy run-off area of the main motor racing circuit.
Practice went well and all the drivers got down to 61 seconds with Tom achieving a fraction over 60 seconds. As at Llandow, we changed the rear rims to wider ones and the handling of the kart was generally thought to be OK.
Whereas Friday had been hot and sunny, Saturday was more overcast, but stayed dry until we lined up on the dummy grid, whereupon the drizzle descended. The race was still officially dry and everyone was on slicks but they only lasted a single formation lap before Bob Pope called them all in and declared the race wet. Tyres were changed on the grid itself and after almost 25 minutes and two formation laps the race got underway.
Thomas was out first and drove well and safely in heavy rain for the first 35 minutes only (French regulations). Everyone had to change drivers between 30 and 45 minutes into the race and the pit crew decided to bring Thomas back at the earliest opportunity to avoid any traffic jams on the pit lane. This worked well except that the bolt heads holding on the side pods caught on the weighing scales so bending the supports and distorting both pods. This continued to happen more or less every time we came in, with the weighbridge operators getting increasingly tetchy about it. We were 29th at this stage.
Richard was out next in the continuingly foul weather, moving us gradually up to 28th at the end of the second hour.
James followed, having had the full wets changed for intermediates, driving on a track that was beginning to show signs of drying out. But lap times were still slow at 75 seconds and he spent too much time trying too hard and crashing too often. But by the time it was Edward's stint, the track was almost dry enough to put on slicks and he started to get respectable times coming down to 62 seconds by the end of his drive.
But before that the kart suddenly produced a smoke screen worthy of a destroyer laying down smoke. We thought it must be an engine at first but it soon became obvious that someone had hit him hard from behind, bent the rear bumper onto the right rear wheel, and that it was the tyre that was now burning up. (There is a more sinister and deeply disturbing explanation however. Full details are available now that we have had clearance from our lawyers)
He got back to the pits and we changed tyres for slicks, put on the new bumper and sent him off again. He drove well for nearly all the rest of his time but just before he was due to come in he got involved in a melange a trois and ended up hitting one of the other karts so hard with his nearside front wheel that he severely bent the steering column and nearly broke his wrist.
Back in the pits Ted Poole looked on in horror as one of "his" karts was attacked by Thomas wielding a heavy hammer to unbend the steering column - it worked and was reckoned to be straight enough to send Mark out. At this stage we were holding up well at 27th.
Mark's verdict was that a bent steering column was a little unnerving but that the kart handled rather well and achieved our best times of the race so far.
At 18:05hrs Thomas was out again and brought the lap time down to almost our quickest of the race at 61.524 seconds before rain began to dampen down the track again. Considerable discussion took place about when to bring him in and in retrospect we left it just a fraction too late. By the time we got him in the track was awash and the race had been declared wet.
But he was now out for the second half of his session on full wets and with an engine that disliked wet weather. We think its a design fault with the engine covers that allows water to seep into the electrics. At one stage he had to re-start the engine while still driving.............However, by the time he came back to the pits to swap with Richard we were up to 26th.
Richard kept up the pace for the whole of his drive handing over to James at 21:15hrs. The track was still drying and James came in for slicks eventually. Someone must have been driving even slower than him, because by 22:10hrs we were in 25th and 40mins later Edward went out for a quick hour's drive.
Mark was out just short of midnight and was able to bring our lap times down into the 61s again before Tom took over and got our fastest lap of 61.296 on lap 705. We were still 25th and had got ahead of Ariston again and BHM although Team Long Shots who were also running a Wright R1 were now well ahead of us having been behind at one time.
We were now into those dreadful dead hours when no one in their right mind would be driving a mobile generator round a race track at four o'clock in the morning. However, Richard was, David appeared to have been super glued to the pit wall and Chris was still pumping up tyres and pushing the kart back from the re-fuelling bay. This became necessary slightly earlier than planned as the steering column bent again - and it wasn't instantly clear whether Richard had developed powers to rival Uri Geller's or if he had hit something. Later, the full story came to light: he arrived at the hairpin going like the clappers, only to find Screaming SoCo facing the wrong way up the track (were they lost?) and rather in the way. Contact was inevitably made with the resulting bend in the steering column. Anyway, we had the spare one standing by and Thomas was dragged bleary eyed from his tent to do a quick change before James went out at nearly 05:00hrs.
At 04:20hrs we were classed as 24th - the highest place we were to achieve during the race - pulling further ahead of both BHM and Ariston and, further back, Toshiba who seemed to have hit some near terminal problem.
James started off OK and when it started to rain again he was smugly congratulating himself on not crashing, when a kamikaze self destructing missile came down the back straight and forgot that it had to turn right at the end of it. Unfortunately James was nicely positioned to be the launch pad and the out of control opposition skimmed across James' toes bending the accelerator pedal, demolishing the bottom third of the nassau panel and breaking half the brake pedal.
The brakes now felt a bit squashy and the throttle was sticking but the kart was still driveable. The pit crew decided to gamble on it getting wetter at this point so brought James in and changed to intermediates while James struggled to get the throttle to shut off properly. By the time he had done that, the weather changed and the pit crew changed their minds and went back to slicks. This turned out to be the right decision and James got in some half decent lap times.
Nevertheless we were on the downward slide and during Edward's time, the left front wheel bearing self destructed because of a bent stub axle. Thomas was again woken up to supervise the replacement, but we had to send Ed out again with an alternative wheel which was also bent. Some swapping around of tyres was then done so that when Mark went out we were able to give him a good wheel.
At this point we found that a rear wheel was also badly bent. We had a spare which we fitted, but it left us running without a safety net if we broke any other rims. And we were 30th with just 4 hours to go.
Mark started the fight back and gradually we unlapped ourselves from Fully Roaring, and pulled past and clear of Kenbro West Racing. But the rain was starting again, and again we agonised over when to bring him in for a tyre change. Finally at just after 09:00hrs he came in with the drizzle, we gambled on full wets and Tom pushed off for his last session. 60 seconds later we had the heaviest rain of the race and the track was running water.
We stopped timing his laps now, and just timed the distance he was behind the team in front. Again and again he unlapped himself and just before he came in again at 10:50 he had finally got ahead of Fully Roaring, while Ariston had done us a favour by trying to find a short cut through the gravel at the end of the main straight, and found that there wasn't one. They did a few more laps but were basically out of it.
Meanwhile the track had dried along the racing line and all the teams were praying for more rain before the wets wore out. It was obvious that it would rain again soon, but how soon? Finally it did, to cheers from the pit lane and we brought Tom in, after a fairly long driving stint.
Richard was going to finish the race and soon overtook Fully Roaring again who had got ahead in the pit stop and set off after Loft Ladder. He was taking 10 seconds a lap off them, but there just wasn't enough time to unlap himself enough times. Finally, for the last few laps, the recalcitrant engine with electrical problems threatened to give up altogether.
But he made it, and we made it and we got 26th place with a total of 1134 laps. The rain stopped as the chequered flag waved and the sun came out for a beautiful sunny afternoon.
We had achieved our primary aim of finishing but we didn't do so well that we that we can't now see how to do better next year. Its just a pity we have to wait twelve months before we get a second chance.
And who knows what we will be doing then? Maybe a different class? Le Mans was great fun but i) it was very expensive and ii) it wasn't really an international event - really just a UK race which happened to be in France. But we'll see..............
That afternoon we drove back to Alencon - Thomas hallucinating karts on the motorway - and stopped at a hotel for the night. Monday was a fairly easy drive back to Calais in time for the 16:00hrs ferry and then back to Wales for James and Cambridge for the rest of the team. We did take some photographs, but not as many as we meant to for reasons we won't go into here. Have a look.... or see the full results.
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