Open Saloons #1 - I've never been to Rockingham before, not even as a spectator and I'm beginning to think I've missed out. The place puts all of the other UK circuits well and truly in the shade when it comes to facilities and the track is exceptional too!
A general invite to the Eurosaloons drivers had gone out to attend an open saloons (anything goes basically) double header at Rockingham as a support race to the season finalle of the SCSA series (basically British NASCAR). With the end of season LMA race at Rockingham the following weekend it seemed like an excellent opportunity to learn the circuit without paying a fortune or sacrificing a previous day of paid holiday.
For those that haven't been there you have to see the size of the place to really appreciate what goes on here. We had 20000 spectators on the Sunday for the big race and the grandstands were only a third full. Some might say this is an indicator of how Rockingham has failed to fulfill its aspirations but given time I think it will reach capacity on a regular basis.
The Punto had been refettled for the last few races with a new camshaft and the lightest flywheel you are ever likely to find on a FIRE car. Torque delivery is superb now with a useful hike in peak power as well - even fuel consumption had been reduced! In qualifying on day 1 it was soon apparent that the changes had been very worthwhile, even on a damp track it felt much more lively. Qualifying about two thirds down the grid went to prove that the feeling was not just me.
The race itself started well and I immediately picked up two places off the grid - only to throw them away in the first chicane as I outbraked myself and then lost another couple of places. It didn't take long to regain the lost positions with the Porsches generally proving something of a handful even for their own drivers. All was going well until about 17 minutes into the race - suddenly the brake pedal went very hard and all feel of retardation lost. The servo vacuum feed had disconnected itself removing all of the servo assistance. As it turns out my lap times were not harshly damaged by this so all those years of weight training had paid off but I was definitely slower. My closest competitor (Porshche 924 #49) was quickly all over the back of the Punto and generally making his presence felt. Within a couple of laps he had slipped past and I was left chasing him - but only for two corners. Into the hairpin where I had outbraked myself earlier the Porsche suddenly span out - anywhere else this wouldn't be a problem but the slow entry speed here meant he blocked the track and within only a couple of inches between us the result was inevitable. One big crunch later I just quickly scanned the gauges and decided that whatever damage I had taken wasn't worth worrying about and just pushed on - and pushed the Porsche out of my way. Now I had Tim hassling me (as usual) and only the superior acceleration of the Punto kept me ahead for the remaining few laps.
In the paddock it was obvious that while I had not seriously damaged the car it was most definitely bent. The bumper was pretty much history (for the second time that day - the chocks on the trailer had made a good attempt on its life on the way to the track). The bonnet was looking like I had argued with a lamp post and the headlights were only just hanging in there.
Not as bad as it looked though - some judicious use of the 4x4 and a ratchet strap quickly pulled out the worst of the damage and the rest was quickly beaten into submission with brute force and tank tape.
Open Saloons #2 - day 2 was the big day, big crowds at a big circuit. Qualifying was business as usual - the only strange noise was the exhaust rattling against the shell (which it has always done anyway). Once again I qualified about two thirds of the way down the grid beating the same people as the day before. No traumas until near the end where something went bang under the car and the exhaust suddenly went up about 12dB. In the paddock one of the marshalls came over and kindly returned the remains of a stray exhaust hanger that had snapped off - the exhaust had developed a nice little hole where it was mounted.
With some help from Tony (the owner of the Punto) and his crew the Punto was pulled back to shape a little more expertly than I had managed - hardly up to showroom standard but definitely Punto shaped.
The big race itself highlighted a new problem - the hole in the exhaust was filling the cabin up with fumes while it was stationary in the assembly area and on top of that we had spilled a little fuel while refilling the tank. Mopping the fuel up was obviously essential and had been done but the remains had made the cabin a little heady to start with. Fortunately I was wearing an open face helmet so throwing up out of the drivers door wasn't as tricky as it might have been!
Once again the race itself started well and this time the Porsches managed to stay out of my way. With slightly better conditions than the day before the lap times started tumbling and I managed to improve by five seconds over my best time from race 1. No points to be scored but the practice was worth every moment and great fun at the same time. Dodging the lone SCSA car that had entered out race was very interesting although it was struggling with a WRC Escort Cosworth ahead of it and Tony Soper's Harrier and Joss's Lotus Sunbeam right behind it.
With 20000 spectators looking on it was a great relief to bring the car home intact and having done itself proud. Congratulations to Richard for getting the head rebuilt and the engine mapped in the few days we had (even if it did mean all of us staying up to 4am one night to get the whole lot installed) and a big thanks to Tony for supporting us and pulling the car back into shape.