by Rob Oldland
What seemed like a great idea last summer when I signed up for the Caterham Academy, seemed much less so the morning of the 18th July, the morning of my first ever race. While of course I was excited, I was also very nervous. I was at Oulton Park situated in the North West of England near Liverpool and while it was dry as I arrived at the circuit a little before 8am, the forecast was
bad and without doubt rain was incoming.
I have very little experience of driving on a wet track, just 20 minutes while at Bedford Autodrome when drizzle made a track a little slippy. Although, I wasn’t alone as many other of my Academy colleagues were in similar positions and most probably equally as nervous and concerned, I just had to suck it up and approach it like a racing driver which I was about to become!
There’s very little you are allowed to change on an Academy car, but I did change the anti-roll bar to the softer ‘orange’ option which would provide me with a better feel in the wet and the cool tinted black visor on my helmet was swapped for the clear option and treated with Rain-X inside and out as was the windscreen.
The heavens broke before the first Academy ‘White group’ qualified. Soon after watching the White group I was in the car and heading out on to the track for my 15 minute qualifying session. To qualify to race, first you must complete three timed laps. I therefore used the first three laps as ‘bankers’ and took the opportunity to get the feel for how much grip was available through each of the corners. The intention was to then have two or three quicker laps. In reality, I was only able to complete four timed laps and the forth lap was hampered with traffic. The result? I qualified 18th out of 22, although I was feeling confident in my ability to handle the car in the wet conditions and confident I had good race pace to keep up with the mid-order.
The White group raced first in appalling conditions. It was raining hard and the spray was almost impossible to see through. So you can imagine how great it was that 25 of the 26 starters made it across the finish line. Last month you may recall that I mentioned we have an international competitor, Domenique Mannsperger from Germany. Domenique drove an absolute masterclass in the rain to win the White group race finishing less than two seconds ahead of Hugo Bush - what a race!
Caterham Motorsport provide lunch which would usually be a magnificent buffet served in the Caterham marquee. Due to COVID restrictions this wasn’t possible. However, a hot takeaway box was provided to us all and was most welcomed.
Now it was the turn of my group. Without doubt the rain had eased as I left the paddock and headed to the assembly area. In the assembly area the cars are lined up in grid order. Then you head out of the pit lane for the green flag lap. Arriving at the grid was a moment I had wondered what would feel like. I was surprised how close the cars are positioned, it looked impossible to see a way through the field and that’s with the cars stationary. The 5 second board was lifted and soon after the red lights were on, moments later they were out, we were racing!
I made an excellent start. Years of owning a Caterham paid off knowing that lower revs and bringing the clutch up slowly would see me get better traction, so much so I drove straight through the gap of the two cars in front on me before finding some room to get round the first corner. As I approached the second corner ‘Cascades’ I could see that three cars had come together which I was able to navigate through with out incident. Similarly, as I approached the final corner of the first lap ‘Lodge’ I could see a car spinning to the left and another to my right which I narrowly avoided. The rain had eased, so much so that a dry line was beginning to appear, but don’t let that fool you as some parts of the track were still treacherous and moving from the the drying line to the wet line caused the car to slip and slide. Over the following laps I gained three places by placing my car in the slipstream of the car in front along the long straight heading into Island Bend. Although I started to lose some focus and before I knew it I had cars filling my mirrors and lost some places I had thought so hard to gain. I was so pleased to see the chequered flag and finished in 10th position, I was absolutely thrilled! The Green group was won by Tom Cockerill finishing just ahead of Chris Skillicorn who were both lucky after they both had a spin on second to last corner of the final lap. All 22 cars that started, finished. What a terrific result for everyone’s first race especially in such tricky conditions.
What a buzz! Over the years I have done many crazy things for an adrenaline rush, this trumps them all, what a thrill. My thanks to fellow Caterham owners Garry, Derek, Will and Paul who all travelled to support and help me throughout the event. Now it’s on to Cadwell Park, the UK’s mini Nurburgring. Please subscribe to my YouTube vlog to follow my journey.