On the hottest weekend of the year so far, everything was looking good at the HQ on Saturday ahead of OUMF's first race of the season. The Riley was running beautifully, and by mid-afternoon all prep was done, bar adjusting the clutch - which appeared to need simply bleeding to fix. However, it didn't respond, and with the help of our new Easyview inspection camera inserted into the bellhousing (what a superb bit of kit!), we were able to see that the inaccessible clutch pivot bush had collapsed. Rather than remove the engine at this late stage to get to it, the team ingeniously adapted a smaller diameter clutch slave cylinder to fit. This gave a heavier pedal, but a longer throw - and proved an excellent temporary fix. This allowed us to leave Oxford later than planned, at 7pm, but to still reach the Rising Sun pub near the circuit in time for food and a good evening before quickly setting up in the Brands Hatch paddock and retiring to bed.
We awoke to a warm sunny morning, and the delights of the HRDC hospitality tent which was open even earlier than usual for the unlimited coffee's we needed while we greeted old friends not seen since last season. The team soon had the Riley through scrutineering, fully spanner checked, and ready for the 'Touring Greats' practice session - but only thanks to a fellow competitor who lent us the vital timing transponder as ours had been left in Oxford! We were glad to see Stretch Talbot and Big John Hayer who arrived from Oxford to support us, and get them into the meeting with our spare tickets, and all in time for practice.
The Riley shot off round the track, but as it approached the end of the first lap the car died and it trickled the length of the pit straight and came to rest just beyond the start finish line at the exit of the pitlane. The team came running, and being so close, a marshal was persuaded to let them push it back through a gate into the pits and set about finding the fault and fixing it. Tracing the problem to a burned out ignition switch and bypassing it took most of the session, however the car finally burst into life. It shot off down the pitlane - only to meet the chequered flag being waved for the end of practice and to be directed straight back into the paddock! This gave rise to the very real worry that we hadn't completed the mandatory 3 laps to qualify for the race. While we sought a way of going out with another practice session in order to do so, the results of the Touring Greats session were posted, and to our surprise we found that the Riley was listed as having qualified, albeit at the back of the grid. We were very relieved - but couldn't understand what had happened...until it dawned on us that the Riley had gone over the finish line on its first lap, been pushed back past the line into the pits, and then gone past the line again and into the paddock - so the transponder signal had been picked up 3 times. Never mind one of these was while being pushed backwards, the track computer counted them all as laps completed!
The race proper wasn't until after the lunch break, so the emergency repairs were all made good and everything checked throughly once again. We also had time for plenty of chats in the paddock, helping other teams get their cars going again after problems in practice - including lending the Devines a replacement front upright for their Riley - and luxuriating in the extremely hot sunshine enjoying motor racing at its best.
After the issues in practice the team was a little nervous as the Riley lined up at the back of the 30 car grid, particularly as the handling had been very strange on its one practice lap. However, as the flag dropped, the OUMF racer got a great start and shot past several cars by the first corner. Very quickly it became apparent that the handling issues in practice had only been a combination of a dirty, damp track and cold tyres, and as soon as they were warm the Riley pressed on up through the pack on the now hot sticky circuit. Concerns about the amount of smoke generated by the car exiting the tighter corners were later found to be the rear tyre walls touching the bodywork, and also the inside rear wheels spinning up as they scrabbled for grip - but the team have ideas about how these issues can be addressed before the next races.
We had a quick 'driver change' stop/go at 16 minutes into the race which gained us more precious seconds, and with the car continuing to go like a turbine, it crossed the line after 45 minutes having passed 22 other cars to finish 8th overall, and 2nd in Class - and with a best lap time quicker than 3 of the cars that finished in front.
Given the circumstances in which this result was gained, this was a great credit to the diligence and resoucefulness of the team - Dom Norman, Andy Parsons, Dave Constable Berry, Jack Batkin, James Martin, Andy Doyle, and Jack Swarbrigg - and is a terrific, trophy-winning start to the 2017 season. Yet again a huge amount was learned by everyone, under great pressure, and the day proved yet again there is no substitute for the experience to be gained in real motor racing with the OUMF team. And for our student built and run Riley to be just 2.5 seconds a lap down to Andy Jordan in his 'money no object' A40, when we know he won the last BTCC round here at Brands the previous weekend in the Pirtek BMW...well, it's very exciting, often all a bit unbelievable, and leads one to dare to dream of how the rest of OUMF's racing year might pan out. Could the mods we have planned deliver a fairytale ending?!
Right now, the reality is that everyone in the OUMF team owes a colossal debt of gratitude to all our supporters and sponsors, and especially to Julius Thurgood for donating a 7th year of entries to the HRDC race series. Thank you all - and the team's determination to fulfil your expectations at the scintillating Donington Historic Festival on April 28/29/30 has never been greater.
See you there!