The MINI Challenge is one of Britain’s most popular one-make series, that has grown and grown in recent years. There are more than 60 cars in the championship – and the weekend, we’re racing one of them.
The series has four classes, and we’ve jumped straight into the top-line MINI JCW class. A 255hp 2.0-litre turbo racer with sequential gearbox, slick tyres, a wealth of telemetry and umpteen other tech delights.
It can genuinely claim to be a mini BTCC touring car.
Find out how we get on over the weekend… latest updates come first!
1010h – weather update/2
You can watch MINI Challenge racing on Channel 4. Its presenter, Andy Jaye, is worried…
Here's the start line at Snetterton…never seen fog like it. Racing delayed. Not convinced this'll happen pic.twitter.com/SQ5SXHq0TT
— Andy Jaye (@andyjaye) October 30, 2016
1000h – weather update
It dawned misty. It’s still a pea-souper. And, as the clocks have gone back, it gets dark at 1630h. Which will make today… interesting.
0945h – team-mates
— Richard Aucock (@richardaucock) October 29, 2016
0915h – food check
0900h – car check
0830h – weather check
— Richard Aucock (@richardaucock) October 30, 2016
Saturday race 1
I headed into race 1 with no confidence after having it ruined by qualifying. One step forward, etc. For hours, I’d been anxious, unsettled, annoyed, embarrassed, the full kaleidoscope of emotions. I’d come here to find out just what it was like to be a racing driver. I was certainly finding that out.
Half an hour before the race, the team pushed the cars down into the assembly area the the bottom of the pitlane. It was sunny and, as I walked behind, I remembered I’d forgotten my sunglasses. So I’d have to face all the stares at the amateur in the guest car without the security of my shade shield. Bizarrely, I was also wondering what I’d forgotten. Helmet, gloves, balaclava… what else do you need to go racing?
Ah, a radio. Which team manager Oli had. All MINI Challenge drivers are wired into race control so they can tell them off from the control tower. Belted, helmeted and settled into the car for the start, I hoped the one and only time I heard them would be for the radio check.
Race time. First, assemble on the grid. Then do a green flag lap to desperately get some heat into the brakes and tyres (I weaved furiously as I didn’t want a repeat of qualifying), then find your spot on the grid. I was row 13. Please, be lucky.
The red light flashed on in the distance (I could just see it past the massive aero wing of the car in front), so I followed Oli’s instructions: 4,000rpm and, when it goes green, feed in the clutch smartly but not with a bang, short-shift to second with the clutch, be relatively sensitive on the throttle, then you’re good to go. I got away OK. They bustled a bit in front, but I wasn’t last, and I made it through the first corner with just a dab of drama – nothing like the full-on sideways stuff of the car in front.
Behind me, thanks to a somewhat controversial protest in qualifying, was BTCC driver Jeff Smith. Blimey. He had a 10-second penalty and was clearly a man on the mission. He was soon with our gaggle of three cars, and I wasn’t going to get into his way going into the fiddly quick stuff. The crowd, and the marshall with the blue flag, had come to see him, not me, so I dived out his way. I was now at the back. This could only go one way.
But, sitting in my Audi earlier, having a quiet 20 minutes’ think, this is exactly what I’d aimed for. Qualifying was such a setback, I needed a confidence boost. Finishing the race with not a single moment with the car, with consistent lap times and a feel for it, was exactly what I wanted to do. So I bedded down.
By the end, I was delighted. I didn’t pass the cars in front, but I was catching them. I was running similar lap times and, as the results later showed, I wasn’t the slowest guy on the grid. I was up to pace; I had the pace to run on the MINI JCW grid, of sorts. And again, I knew where I could go quicker. I just didn’t want to get too cocky that time out because confidence matters so much. And there were still two races to go the next day.
In the pits, sweaty helmet off, race engineer (and multi-talented entrepreneur) John was there waiting for me. “Well done.” That meant a lot. Others took the glory but I was pleased myself, for different reasons. I’d learnt a bit more about what it’s like to be a racing driver and, while it’s still impossibly hard, it seemed a bit less insurmountable than this time yesterday.
One of the best bits was when team-mate James Turkington came up, cheery as ever, to find out how I’d got on. He’d had a good race but was keener to hear about me. The pleased smile said it all. I was back where I was at the start of the day. Hopefully tomorrow I could make progress again…
Qualifying was horrible. All the good feeling I had from testing, gone in an instant. What was so incredibly frustrating was the fact I knew all this. Kinda knew what I was doing wrong. Yet still over-drove and did it all. Blame the pressure. Because I wasn’t expecting it, it overwhelmed me and put me back to square one.
Prominent in my mind was the fact qualifying is only 20 minutes. No problem if you’re a Lewis Hamilton, but a bit of an issue if you’re a bloke off the street. I put in my fastest lap deep into the session yesterday, once I had confidence withe car. To do this from the off was another matter entirely.
And so came the first spin, when I tried to reenact the heroics I felt yesterday through Hamilton. One 360. Later on, I tried to go flat into the Bombhole. Cue another 360. It wasn’t going well: that was 20% of my laps gone. I instead stepped back, confidence shattered. The aim was simply to post a lap time, whatever it was. I almost did it clean too, with just the one hot lock-up into the final corner.
Trouble was, behind me, unbeknown to me in my panic, was my team-mate for the weekend, Charlie Butler-Henderson. Reigning champ and in the hunt for the championship himself. Into the first corner, he was right on me, which was a panic-riddled stress (by this stage, I didn’t actually know it was him). I stayed on my line and fluffed letting him past into the second corner. He understandably wasn’t happy. Neither was I.
I ended up two seconds slower than yesterday. Any progression I’d made, eradicated. This wasn’t part of the gameplan. I should be two seconds up, not two seconds behind. I’d gone into the session knowing where to make up the time, and ending up losing it all hand over fist. I can’t describe how brassed off with myself I was.
Motor racing is cruel. It leaves you standing against the barrier, alone, at the end of qualifying, trying not to hide from everyone, as you screwed up so you shouldn’t rush off and go underground. Take the helmet off, let everyone see you, suck it up. It was the most gruesome half an hour I can remember, with a million thoughts rushing through my head and a frustrated sense of powerlessness at what I considered idiocy. It was all on track and going so well before I got in the car. What happened?
Feel for the drivers who screw up. You don’t know what they’re thinking, but believe me, it’s horrible.
Prologue – Friday testing
The MINI Challenge JCW car is a mini BTCC car. Yeah, right, you might think. Believe me, though, it is. The slick tyres, the turbo engines, the low centre of gravity, the sequential gearboxes: if you want to know what a touring car is like to drive, drive a MINI Challenge JCW car.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to one of my team-mates for the weekend, Rob Smith. He’s fresh from testing a BTCC Chevrolet, with one eye on a season in 2017 (yes, he’s that good). Verdict? It took him five laps to get up to speed in the BTCC car, after racing MINIs so hard all year. So much is similar, the sensations are familiar. The biggest thing he had to get his head around were the monster brakes BTCC cars run.
Me, I don’t quite have Rob’s experience. I turned up at 8am on Friday morning at a bright and blissful Snetterton without a clue what to expect. My remit was, as a bloke who had a race licence by dint of the fact he’d done three race weekends in 12 years, and nothing since 2013, ask himself how hard can it be anyway. Like you, I shout at the TV and mutter under my breath when watching motor racing. OK then, smartarse, someone gave me the chance to ask myself, let’s see how you get on.
From road to race in one weekend. And this is why the first session of practice was so horrific.
For starters, I didn’t know the car. That’s what testing’s for, you may say. Yup, but I didn’t know the track, either. Something else that was kinda important was me not knowing how to be a racing driver. Jeez, I’m the guy who gets 30mpg from Bentley Bentaygas. What I was about to do was quite a few stages removed from mooching down the M1, no matter how hazily I remember that Britcar race from eons ago in a Mazda MX-5.
So I went out and it was like learning to drive all over again. You know when you feel quite astoundingly clumsy, clueless and out of your depth? That. I went into it, naively, in road car mode, and within a couple of laps, felt like I was sat in the Mastermind chair being asked about a specialist subject about which I had not a clue.
The first impressions were electrifying. This is a stripped-out 255hp turbo MINI. It’s blindingly fast. With no heat in the front tyres, too fast for the grip available. The gearbox needs a positive action. The rear end is angry and all too ready to kick you if it senses you don’t know what you’re doing. Steering, immediate and wired. Oh, and it’s loud, and the gearbox whines, and the diff whines, and it’s hot, and every sense is assaulted. Bang! It was like being chucked out of an aircraft holding a parachute with no instructions on how to use it.
I clumsily drove around, Tried to stay out everyone’s way. Went off. Went off again. Had moments I’d be delighted with in a car, with the full-on dab-of-oppo action, but which gnarled me no end here because I was making no damnned progress. Simply flustering with what line to take, what gear to be in, when to choose my moment to jump out of the way of the hand behind me.
It defined deep end stuff. Think you can drive? Think you can tell Matt Neal a thing or two, because you’re quite tidy across the Evo Triangle? You won’t know what’s hit you. I was you in that first session and trust me, it’s horrible. You feel like the amateur you are and simply want to skulk off, ashamed, at anything you’ve ever said about any racing driver ever. They were all doing magic on the circuit while I was getting in their way being a liability.
But here’s the interesting bit. For the first time, I had data. I was driving terribly but at the end of the session, I could find out just how terribly I was driving and compare it with a professional who wasn’t terrible. How intriguing…
Josh drilled down immediately what was going on. I didn’t have enough confidence. Brakes were all over the place, throttle was tentative in the extreme, gears were guesswork, the lot. 20 minutes later, I had a set of instructions. Brake later, and harder. Be more positive on the accelerator. Try these gears. Have fun.
I did all that, and after second practice, ended up five seconds a lap faster that I was previously. Blimey.
And so it continued. I started becoming a lot happier in the car. I was more consistent. I was still seconds off the pace of the quick guys, but it was edging down to getting up with some of the others – more importantly, I knew where I was losing time. Just, frustratingly, didn’t yet have the confidence in the car to make it up.
If I were a racing driver, this would come a lot quicker. But I’m not. So it would have to be an analytical step-by-step process, one where I try to understand it all, rather than just dive in and try to scrabble some speed out of nowhere. Which is why I left the circuit for my night in a Travelodge relatively happy with my first-ever day’s testing as a racing driver.