The Donington Historic Festival has fast become one of the most anticipated events of the year, with star-studded grids and three days of nail biting race action. This year was no different and the OUMF boys' hopes were high following on from the teams’ successful first race of the season at Brands Hatch.
Since that first meeting, the Riley’s engine had been equipped with a new Kent camshaft, and been re-tuned on the rolling road at Pitstop, thanks to the generous support of Andy Burns at Kent, and John Yea at British Motor Heritage, and Ralph Saunders respectively. Our excellent new Lifeline control systems were in place, and what tread remained on our tyres had been balanced and deployed on the car to best advantage with the help of Phillips Tyres. We had also fitted a rear anti roll bar for the first time, and the superbly crafted BTB side exit exhaust system had been fitted for the unsilenced Donington Historic Festival.
So by Thursday afternoon, James Martin, making his debut as OUMF team leader, oversaw the packing of the ubiquitous Volkswagen team van with all of the kit required to maximise our attack come race day - and the first phalanx of the team made their way to the circuit later that evening to set up base.
On the following dry, fine Friday morning the obligatory Signing on was followed by Scrutineering, and, as is becoming the norm, the teams’ meticulous preparation ensured that the scrutineers were happy with the Riley at first asking. With car and driver in order, we had time to read the lavish Donington souvenir race programme, and were delighted to find the OUMF team’s overall victory last season at Thruxton given a special mention, and some great photographs of the Riley in action.
The first of the two practice sessions took place, allowing for various changes to be made to the Riley’s set-up to combat the increasing pace of our competitors and to test the newly run in, slightly more powerful ‘B’ series unit in our own arsenal. The first ‘Touring Greats’ practice went well, but in the second practice session, for the ‘Coys Trophy’, OUMF's upward progress came to an unexpected halt when it pitted, with the engine beginning to feel tight and a slight loss of power reported. A post-session examination of the car showed no over-revving on the tachometer tell tale, good compression on all cylinders, and an inspection of the oil showed no ‘bits’ present - but there was a hint of a golden sparkle that suggested possible accelerated wear on internal components. However, this was discovered well after nightfall, and as it had became too dark to continue, it was not until Saturday morning that a better idea of the possible damage was revealed.
In the sunshine of Saturday morning, it was possible to examine the contents of the oil drip tray properly, and in the bright light, it was detected that the engine oil did have something in very fine suspension - a distant resemblance to metallic paint. Chris Snowdon, our great supporter and fellow racer, arrived bearing gifts of parts for the Sebring project. He took a look, and confirmed our fears, as did Tom Maitland, the original builder of the engine, who arrived with his parents Robin and Debs (very kindly bearing tins of delicious cakes for the team!). Their advice prompted the immediate removal of the sump to further assess how much of a beating our precious engine had taken. The results spoke for themselves - as larger grey and copper coloured shavings of big end or main bearing were clearly present in the remaining oil. It was clear that our crank, already ground to well undersize, had begun to pickup on the bearings.
Devastated, we had to make the decision to inform race control of our retirement from further racing before making the necessary arrangements to head home. What had promised to be such an exciting and competitive weekend had ended in the frustration and disappointment that we have often faced on account of having to race with undersized standard cranks, with no funds for the forged steel ones used by nearly all of our fellow racers. However, at this low point things suddenly took a dramatic turn…
Early in the afternoon, a call was made to the more experienced members of the OUMF team back in Oxford, revising for their final exams, to tell them of what had happened, and ask for any last minute advice. They were horrified at the news, and said they were pretty sure that there may just be sufficient components back at the OUMF shed in Oxford to fix it - and they would check immediately and ring back. A nail-biting period of time passed as we awaited their findings - and began to contemplate the possibility of going back to Oxford with the Riley, rebuilding the race engine overnight, and returning in time to race in the ‘Coys Trophy’ on Sunday...
We did not wait long; the decision had been made. OUMF was about to embark on it's most heroic race weekend effort in recent history and one that will not be forgotten for years to come.
While the OUMF pit was being cleared and packed, and the car loaded, the Race Secretary and the Clerk of the Course in Race Control were told of the plan. When they heard that we intended to be back to race the following day, their tacit reaction said it all: no one would believe that we could travel a total of five hours, completely rebuild and repair a blown engine overnight, and get back again in time to race it - untested - on track next day.
As we bid Donington Park not goodbye, but ‘au revoir’, it was very clear that no one in the paddock seriously expected to see us again that weekend – which simply reinforced our resolve to prove everyone wrong as we charged back to base to get stuck in. We were determined to show that OUMF is a force to be reckoned with - but our blithe optimism was to be severely tested during the following hours.
The team's efficiency was displayed to the max on the drive home as the requisite calls and preparations were made with those members of the team back in Oxford to ensure the fastest engine rebuild in OUMF’s history. It all paid off; and as night was falling on arrival at HQ, the rest of the team were already there to meet us. The van was unpacked and the Riley racer was unloaded and up on axle stands in under 10 minutes. Within half an hour, the engine's ancillaries had been removed, the engine was out and on the rebuild bench. It was carefully taken apart with everyone keeping total focus on cleaning and meticulous checking for any and all damage that may have occurred. By the end of this process, it was clear that the serious damage had been localised to No 1 con-rod bearing, the front main bearing, and their corresponding journals on the crank. However, it was clear that the scoring on the journals meant that the crank and one of the rods could not be reused. At his point we could not have been more grateful for the crank that James Martin had brought back after being beautifully re-ground by Crosthwaite and Gardiner – where he is on placement this year. It fitted perfectly, with the bearings kindly provided by Pitstop, as did the spare K1 conrod which matched the other three to the gram. So, with these parts in hand, the rebuild could continue!
What followed was a thorough and careful inspection and cleaning of each and every component that would have been exposed to the contaminated oil as well as carefully cleaning, including comprehensive ‘rodding out’ of the oil ways of the cylinder head and block. Alongside the disassembly and cleaning of the engine, preparations were made to ensure that the rest of the car was ready to roll straight out onto the circuit the next day. Each and every member of the team got well and truly stuck in, to ensure that this effort was well worth the lack of sleep.
We had realised before that the key to maximising our efforts would be to work on a rotating shift programme from the early hours of the morning until noon the next day. Accordingly, it was decided that half of the team should retire circa 3am on Sunday morning - just after , while the other half cracked on with the completion of the engine. What this meant was that while Team 2 laid their weary heads, Team 1 would work on to prepare the engine for Team 2's arrival a few hours later at 9am. By 6am the engine had been built and placed next to the Riley on the floor - with a very welcome accompanying note for Team 2 on the rocker cover reading: "FIT ME! FIT OIL COOLER FIRST!"
Team 2, consisting of Ding Boston, Andrew Doyle, Tolga Karabetca and Andy Boulet arrived bright and early, eager and ready to fit the newly built, yet completely untested, engine while Team 1 of Dom Norman, Andy Parsons, James Martin and Vlad Ardeleanu got some rest. Within an hour, the new engine was back in. Within two hours, all ancillaries had been fitted, and by the time Team 1 reappeared at midday – race day! – they were well rested and ready for the new challenge. After refilling the engine with fresh Fuchs Titan oil, and fitting the recharged SuperB battery, unexpected issues ensued, and two frustrating hours were spent sorting out fuelling and timing issues, majorly caused by a faulty distributor cap. Then the Riley underscored and vindicated OUMF's efforts with gusto, as the freshly assembled ‘B’ series roared into life, sparking a wave of grins across the oil smeared faces of its builders.
With the race due to start at 5pm, time was of the essence to fully repack the van, load the now running Riley and get to the circuit over two hours away. The team was now filled with a new-found enthusiasm, having already achieved the impossible. The woes of the previous day and the lack of sleep were quickly forgotten as the convoy, comprised of the most determined of the weekend's competitors, set off back to the circuit.
The surprise arrival at Donington was a near repeat of the previous day's unpacking efforts at HQ, with the now very temporary OUMF team pit set up before the trailer was even unhitched. The grid was already taking their places in the assembly area as Ding was duly thrown into his race suit and the rest of the team got the Riley off the trailer and went through their final race checks. With minutes to go, the car was spanner checked and fuelled. We had already largely achieved what we had set out to do, by just being there - and the surprise was evident across the faces of many organisers and officials. Because of the uncertainty of whether or not we'd be in the race, and our last minute reappearance, our qualifying efforts on Friday had been made redundant, and we found we were obliged to start from the very back of the grid.
The formation lap was short but that came as a welcome to those of us who couldn't wait to see if our fight had paid off. It had. The lights went out and the most colourful grid of the day sprung to life with the likes of Lotus Cortinas, Mustangs, and Falcons taking a strong and early lead. However, from our pit spot we could see the familiar grey OUMF Riley 1.5 make a resounding start down the inside of the main straight and into Redgate - passing a total of 11 cars in one fell swoop! The race was truly on, and OUMF was back. For the next few laps we would see the lap times tumble as the car adapted to its new heart and established its dominance around the sweeping landscape of Donington Park.
Lap after lap the mighty OUMF Riley 1.5 thundered on, with her crew looking on in both delight and awe at their handiwork performing so well. Soon it was almost time for the mandatory ‘driver change’ visit to the pits, and on lap 11, with the car having climbed to a cracking 4th in Class already, we brought the Riley in for what proved to be a blindingly quick pitstop. Ding just had time to shout a mention of a vibration and apparent brake fade as the door was slammed and the Riley shot off again down the pit lane and back onto the circuit to rejoin the fray. With all our expectations riding so high as the car rounded Redgate and disappeared from view, we were not to know that the Riley would imminently suffer a fate which was tragic yet completely unrelated to the previous issues….
It accelerated hard as it swept steeply downhill through the Craner Curves and Ding was setting the car up for the notorious fast right hander at the bottom - the Old Hairpin - when the car dropped and lurched to the left. As the underside of the car hit the tarmac, he saw the front left wheel overtake him, and instantly thought the bottom of the left upright had snapped. Using what little steering input remained, he kept the car straight as it left the track at high speed and slid across the grass run off area for around 100 metres before it came to a halt - very luckily without the broken parts digging in and somersaulting the car as was anticipated. The fickle fist of fate had smashed our hopes of a glorious OUMF triumphant comeback. After the race the car was quickly recovered by faultlessly careful marshals - thank you all! - and it was found that the left front hub had sheared through. It seemed a rather poor reward for our efforts, and a disappointing end to our aspirations, but with the driver unharmed and the Riley sustaining minimal damage, especially considering the nature of the incident, we quickly realised it could have been so much worse and were very relieved. There was nothing left to do but wonder at how much more of a manic weekend this could possibly have been.
We headed back to our pit a little subdued, and somewhat baffled by the turn of events. The van was repacked once again, the Riley loaded, and the trailer hitched for the long ride home, but not before our great patron and HRDC supremo Julius Thurgood had a few kind words to say about our efforts. In the prize giving ceremony at the end of the day, we received both his praise and admiration for achieving what many had thought of as impossible only a day earlier. In a final touching gesture, he awarded the team not only the ‘Spirit of the Meeting’ trophy - for the grit and determination that served as a shining example to the rest of the field - but a second one too, in recognition of the Class award we might have won had disaster not denied it.
Over this eternally memorable weekend, the OUMF team demonstrated its commitment to dress up, show up, and never give up - no matter what form the wry face of adversity may take. We may be easily dismissed by some as mere ‘students’, but this young team once again displayed why we are fast becoming a serious force to be reckoned with in the world of historic racing. We can only assure our ever-growing number of supporters that we are so grateful for the help and encouragement of every single one of you. Thank you for bringing such fantastic learning opportunities and vivid life experiences to the team, and with your help we intend to be back stronger and better than ever to once again pick up the gauntlet at Silverstone on May 28th.