Driving for Preptech UK, in their brilliantly prepared Gen 3 Renault Clio Cup car, we had a strong driver lineup of myself, Cody Hill, and Andrew Gordon-Colebrooke.
For all of us, it was our first ever 24 hour car race – so it would be a long race of learning, trying to reach the chequered flag, and seeing where we end up at the finish.
With 75 cars entered, it would be a challenging race, just to keep out of trouble let alone anything else. With cars ranging from full-spec GT3 Porsches and Mercedes SLS’, through to Renault Clios and Honda Civics, there are classes all the way through the field; so multiple races within one big race.
The first few laps of the Barcelona circuit were tricky, as conditions were not ideal, with the circuit drying from earlier rain. This would set the tone for the next couple of days, rain coming and going, circuit going from dry to wet, wet to dry; not what we were hoping for!
Come qualifying, it was more of the same, with a circuit continually drying all the way through the session. We ended up with a strong qualifying pace, 5th in class, right with the other Clios.
We’d managed to out-qualify quite a few cars who were in classes above us, and lined up 61st overall out of 75. We were right in amongst all the other Clio Cup cars, but had many Seat Cupra Turbos behind us who would surely challenge on the opening laps. We also had a Lamborghini Huracan at the back of the grid to look out for, which blew an engine in qualifying!
I started the race, which was quite an experience; from the packed grid, to following a huge grid around on the rolling up lap, it was eye opening and a great experience.
On the opening lap I just wanted to stay out of trouble, which I did. We got mugged into turn 1 by all of the quicker cars behind us that we’d out-qualified, but by the end of the first lap, the lead Clio was only a few car lengths ahead.
I pushed hard to keep up, with these laps being my first in full-dry conditions – after two days of being at the circuit already, all of my laps had been in the damp!
For a while I was catching the championship-leading (and winning) Presenza EU Clio, despite their Clio having more power and less weight than our car (something which we will look to match for 2016) – but 20 minutes into the race I’d cooked the front tyres from pushing hard, and had to cool down the pace.
One stint down and I swapped over to Cody, and was thankful to get out of the boiling hot car. The heat didn’t do much good for me, (or perhaps it was closely following a Diesel Seat Cupra for nearly half an hour, chucking out black smoke?); and without warning I fell ill about 20 minutes after finishing my stint – First lesson of endurance racing? Get the proper nutrients back into your system asap after a long stint!
Thankfully for me, Oliver (team owner), Andy (mechanic & joker) and Jay (assistant team manager) got me back up to speed, while Cody and Andrew double stinted for me. Sorry guys, I’ll make it up!
My next stint in the car was therefore not till around 10 or 11pm, my first proper foray into full darkness. We’d done some laps in Night Practice the day before, but that was more like dusk rather than pitch black.
Heading out of the pit lane, and heading down towards turn 1, my mirrors were full of full-beam lights; quite a daunting experience. Nevertheless, the night stints were great fun, and I quickly adapted to the night conditions, running a quick pace and keeping it out of trouble.
We were now running 3rd in class, and were the leading Clio, not bad for a team running their first ever endurance race! We were really showing up some of the more experienced teams.
About an hour into my stint, heading towards turn 1 and flat out in 6th gear, I hear a loud bang, and on the exit of turn 1 it’s obvious there’s a big issue with the engine. I radio’d it in, and got back to the pit lane as quick as possible; which wasn’t that quick at all really with only about half power!
It turned out we had a cracked exhaust manifold, our first (and to be only) major issue of the race. Unfortunately to get the exhaust manifold off is quite a big job on a Clio, but the Preptech mechanics got to work in an instant, and 30mins later the manifold was re-welded and we were back under way, Cody taking over now. Unfortunately we’d obviously lost a lot of time here, but still half the race to go.
My next stint was again in the night, around 4am, so still pitch black.
I’d really got to grips with the car and the circuit by now, and was able to properly use trail braking into corners to get a lap time advantage – something which is quite difficult to learn with 74 other cars on circuit!
This stint was thankfully completely trouble-free, and again I totally enjoyed the night stint. Pace was great and the car was on song too, catching and passing a few Clios in this stint was to be the highlight.
A big oil spillage at the chicane made for a tricky few laps, but nothing major.
A full 2 hours later, I’d swap over to Andrew, and this time, no ill effects!
My fourth and final stint would be around 9.50am, heading towards the final part of the race.
Again a totally issue-free stint with good pace, keeping out of trouble. I thought by this stage I’d be struggling, aching or otherwise – but actually found this stint to be one of the easiest of all; perhaps because the 75 car grid was by now depleted from retirements, so traffic was that much easier to deal with.
We can only run a 2 hour stint at maximum, as per the regulations, so at 11.50am I swapped over to Cody, who would run the last 10 minutes to take the chequered flag. Normally to need to do a driver change with only 10 minutes to spare would be an annoyance, but due to our earlier issue, we were out of sync in terms of stints, and also unfortunately out of contention for a podium.
Instead it gave a well-deserved opportunity for Cody, who’d been faultless and rapid all weekend, to take the finish.
We managed to make it to the finish on our first ever event – something many teams take several attempts to achieve. The only issue we had was the cracked manifold, a bit of bad luck – but something which we’ll address for next race too.
A great event and amazing experience, which definitely showed me that endurance racing is the way to go!
A big thank you to Paul at Sunniva, I would not have this opportunity without the support.
Huge thanks to Oliver and everyone at Preptech for such a good car, and look forward to working together in 2016!
Next Race: Dubai 24 Hours, FIA 24H Series, January 14-15-16 2016