Silverstone Sprint (part of MG Live!)

posing in the paddock at Silverstone with the MG Midget

Rob Dixon (without whom none of this would be possible) and I posing in the Silverstone paddock

Trusty assistant Rob and I drove down to Silverstone this evening and after some searching (and slightly sarcastic remarks from “proper” MG racers we asked for directions) we eventually found the paddock. The car was running well and I was slightly daunted – this was the full on a section GP circuit after all and my competition debut. I was nervous before I discovered

Fitting numbers to the Midget for the first time in the Silverstone paddock

If you have forgotten your beam breaker you will need to improvise. I lined-up with a hastily broken off bit of clip board, covered in black tape and cable-tied on. It didn’t look professional but overall the car did, having been prepared for exactly this type of event by its previous owner.

Silverstone MG Midget 1500 Sprint Hillclimb beam breaker

For Silverston Rob had to hastily cobble together a beam breaker for the trusty MG Midget

Scrutineering is the most stressful part of the whole event. What if something has worked loose? What if I haven’t got the correct paperwork? What if they don’t let me compete?

The scrutineer didn’t laugh at my beam breaker (though he was somewhat condescending towards my cheapest-I-could-find race suit) and sent me off with only one instruction: “Clean your bloody engine”.

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MGCC Linc autotest

Nigel Peck was fast all day

This was organised by the MG Car Club Lincolnshire branch (but held in Norfolk) as a warm up for the California cup, the big autotest at MG live in Silverstone. For me, it didn’t go as well as the first one.

The courses were much more complicated and I frequently screeched to a halt on the line to be told I’d gone the wrong way. The courses look complex before you start, some even involved reversing into boxes, but as soon as my brain was also engaged with driving as fast as possible it became difficult to remember which cone to go round next or how many times I had been round the last one. At one point I had to stop and ask a marshal which way to go which didn’t help my time.

Apparently one of the things that amazed Michael Schumacher’s team bosses was his ability to drive a ten tenths and still have a bit of brain left over for thinking about tactics. This autotest proves, as if any proof were needed, that I am not Michael Schumacher. I’m not even Ralf.

This is the Autotest route I kept getting wrong. it looks more complex from the car!

Of course I could have tried going slower but as with the other events I tried, as soon as I catch site of a stopwatch the red mist descends and I suddenly develop very weighty feet. Especially the right one.

From watching more successful rivals there seem to be two approaches. Of the two fastest, Bruce and Nigel, (both who drove Midgets), one drove on tarmac like I do on grass – engine always screaming, rear wheels almost always spinning, car slewing gracefully from hanging out on the left to hanging out on the right.

The other driver was incredibly neat and smooth with hardly a chirp from the tyres. He looked like he was doing some kind of insanely speeded up driving test.

They traded fastest times all day.

Overall I didn’t do very well, partly because of all the wrong roundings but I did manage to fluke a fastest time of day on one of the courses that was simple enough for me to remember. This was made all the sweeter because the people I was competing with then went on to perform brilliantly the next weekend and win the California cup.

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Sporting Car Club of Norfolk mixed surface Autotest

First up was the Sporting Car Club of Norfolk mixed surface autotest, held at, but not on, the Snetterton race circuit one glorious Thursday evening in June. Unusually, SCCON autotests require a passenger buy my usual rally navigator, Rob, pulled out at the last minute. This left my fiancée Hayley to heroically fill the breach.

Hayley is not really a motorsport type of person. Or an old car type of person. She doesn’t much care for trying to give directions to a driver. She is definitely not a going fast person. But she is brilliant at supporting me and, to be honest, hadn’t really understood what was about to happen.

I hadn’t deliberately misled Hayley – her confusion was a result of an interesting point of language. As I pointed out later, I had said “we won’t be going very fast” by which I meant we wouldn’t reach a high speed, which we didn’t. It is fair to say that the first run came as a bit of a shock to exactly half the people in the car.

As we screeched away from the line and the back of the car drifted around the first cone (the Midget does this well) the route papers Hayley was holding flew into the air and she used some words she doesn’t use very often.

When the tyre smoke cleared from the stop-astride finish line I looked across to see Hayley noticeably pale and quiet. The next day her arm ached from clinging onto the rollcage.

Brilliantly we then watched one of our competitors do a test while his passenger ate a pasty and Hayley started to calm down. By the end she was giving instructions – “slalom all the way down then one-eighty” and finishing them with “Darling”. Which Rob never does.

There were about twenty competitors, mostly “double driven” cars where two drivers take it in turn to have a run. There was an enormous variation in cars from an ancient creaking Fiesta to a Lotus seven and a brand new Fiat 500 which I suspect may have been a garage’s demonstrator. Some cars were rally prepared so we were surprised and chuffed to finish third overall.

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Hughes rally report

In the woods (part of an army training ground) on a test against the clock

If you want to see someone go into meltdown give them 2 maps (which will need multiple refolding), a clip board with speed tables, a clip board with route instructions, a series of time cards that need to be handed to marshals in the right order and a sheet for noting down your start times and your target speed (which often changes mid-regualrity) and any code boards you pass on route. Hang two or three stopwatches and a roamer (for accurate map measuring) around his neck and put a pencil in his mouth. Squish him and all his gear into a very small, noisy and bumpy car. Throw an envelope of instructions at him and then drive up to a junction in the middle of nowhere and say, calmly, “left or right?”

After a full day and well over a hundred miles of competition the guys at the front will be separated by seconds. Anyone who competes alongside his or her spouse runs the risk of being separated full stop.

Rob (my navigator) coped admirably though we were both shattered after a day of competition. This is because the driver gets to hare about on what rallyists call “the loose”.

Spread out throughout the day, the tests take place on private land and are basically short stages. We did two rallies and we saw a real variety of test. Some were on bumpy, wet concrete at a disused airfield, one was on grass and several were on gravel between the trees. All were brilliant. My favourite was the one in a farm yard (complete with cow shed).

"On the loose!" This was a big gravelly car park for lots of tail out action

There is some effort to keep speeds down and preserve cars so, there might be a stop astride line by a huge bump that a stage car would sail over or a cone on the apex of a wooded bend to prevent too much clipping.

Wheelman and Nav are still working as a team because it is often not clear from the route diagram where you are going to go until you get there. The organisers are very careful to make sure you can’t see the course or other competitors before you start. You can hear their engines working hard though, and see the dust or mud (depending on weather) they throw into the air. This does a very good job of getting the adrenalin going and that’s before the marshal leans in front of the windscreen and counts down “Five! Four! Three! Two! One! GO!”, complete with cool rally hand signal.

My car was perfect for some of these stages and set some excellent times. In our first rally we set the second fastest on one test. I’m sure we were helped by the car being narrow.

On the rough stages we were less successful. The lowered suspension was a real hindrance and it slowed us. In several wooded sections there was a pronounced camber and we quickly realised that to stop the car permanently hitting the ground we had to drive with either the left or the right wheels on the top of the camber and swerve around potholes.

Our competitors used very accurate trip meters (special rally ones). We just wanted to have a go and so didn’t bother. At lunch we were in the top half of the table because the regularity sections were easy. As it got more complex we slid down the order and ended up nearly last. With half a mile to go we ran out of fuel (turns out the gauge doesn’t work) but otherwise it was just great fun.

On a road section. Rob probably looking at the map, me probably asking him where to go

But the best bit is that it is one of the few types of motorsport where you are definitely acting as a team. We are already planning strategies for next year.

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Hughes 2009 tomorrow!

Rob and I are in Kent! Car bumbled its way down this afternoon for scrutineering. Car passed fine. Lots of very serious looking competitors with serious looking cars. Some seem to be here for a laugh but not many. Will be interesting to see how tomorrow goes!

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Rally training with HRCR

Rob and I drove to a training course about classic rallying run by the HRCR. To be honest there wasn’t much for me to do because the real skill is the driver. A preparation expert had a look over the car though and pronounced it fine. Rob spent an afternoon learning about maps and map books. At the end we had an untimed practice. As far as we were concerned we won! ie got back first. This may not have been what we were supposed to do, however, Little car cruised there and back without a hitch. Recomended

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