16th March 2018

After some time away from the hot seat, Editor Ben Whibley finds himself falling in love with motorsport all over again – thanks to an invitation from Boss Racing and a seat in a Caterham C400

It’s been a while, racing a car I mean. Although I have driven numerous cars over the past four years on various track and test days, I haven’t raced one. So, it was back to basics for me to get myself ready to do
it all again.

With the race weekend firmly on the calendar I started my preparation. OK, so the more frequent racers among us would perhaps swallow the excuse book and just get on with it, but this time around I was invited to race with Boss Racing in their Caterham C400 in the Classic Sports Car Club (CSCC) round at Brands Hatch Indy. I have competed in this series before and know that it not only delivers on track, but it doesn’t break the bank as it represents great value for money.

The C400 however offers rapid speeds; achieving 0-60 in under three seconds and capable of sub 50-second laps around the Indy circuit, all thanks to its mighty, two-litre Cosworth engine with refined sequential gearbox. All-in-all, a bit of an animal and a brave choice for my return to the grid, but it was time to blow off the cobwebs and get some more trophies in the cabinet from a glorious comeback… what could possibly go wrong?

The race weekend started a little earlier for me, on the Thursday, with a trip to Banbury, Oxfordshire. It was here that I met the team from Base Performance Simulators. A simulator company with a difference and a team that has a real passion for getting the best out of drivers at both pro and amateur level.

The company is led by Darren Turner, who is known for taking the double at Le Mans as the Aston Martin works team driver. And what a team he has produced at Base, including the few that I met such as Lucy Woodbridge (marketing & sales), Nick Boaz (operations & support) and Marc Wood (technician).

First impressions were high as I headed to the technical room with its multiple screens for analysing my driving. Marc Wood strapped me into the state-of-the art, in-house simulator allowing me
to interact in virtual reality, which enables any driver/team to maximise both experience and potential. Being just over 6ft tall I have always struggled fitting into a single seater cockpit, but this was ok and is a seat that Daniel Ricciardo has had the pleasure of sitting in. The adjustment was easy and with a press of a button the pedals moved forward and I sat comfortably, ready to begin.

As this is a fully immersive motion system, it recreates every bump making the experience as real as possible. This can make some people feel motion sickness – if anyone would be affected it would be me – but after about a lap, I didn’t even notice. So, I placed the headset on – it has a microphone so I could speak with Wood – the cockpit rose up to the 6m arched screen and I was in the pitlane ready to go.
The one thing I’d say about simulators is that it wipes out any cost estimates compared to the real world of racing. Not a false sense of hope, but it means you can push yourself more than you might otherwise. Although, simulator or not, that is probably the attitude you should have, rather than worrying about a potential excess bill from Grove & Dean Motorsport Insurance!

As we had an hour, we decided to get as much seat time as possible. I spent the first session getting used to the setup, car and my visual markers for braking. That quickly became normal, so we started looking at the braking as the first point and Marc Wood pointed out that I could push 15% harder at Paddock Hill Bend, 10% at Druids and 20% at Clearways.

I quickly adapted and managed to improve on the pressure, and spilt seconds after each corner Wood gave me direct feedback – “good”, “bad” or “get on the power earlier”.  As a reference for past coaching, one tends to look at this out of the car using the Racelogic system, but this was instant and something I found extremely useful.

A few sessions in and Wood fell silent as I was getting to grips with the car. I honed in on my lap times which improved by 10ths each lap. After the last lap of the first session, Wood went through the data, suggesting that I try working on a few corners and focus on laying down a qualifying style for five laps.

I tried to treat it as real as possible; head down and go for it. As the tyres don’t need warming up (just the driver) I managed to secure my fastest lap which I could see on the steering wheel. This was great to see.

I know that if I’d had the simulator to myself I couldn’t have pushed as hard. I tend to have my fastest laps following rather than leading. Wood’s instruction and guidance was a huge help, informing me as I went and explaining what I was doing right or wrong within
split seconds.

After the coaching, I asked Marc Wood and Nick Boaz for their take on dealing with amateur drivers to professionals. “This is a product for all levels and budgets in the sport and something that has grown to be the norm in the world of motorsport,” they said, something which we all agreed on.

They have also seen the technology grow and at pace too: “We’ve spent many hours and days improving the simulator for our clients and are able to take on almost any circuit and car to give the best experience possible.”

Something that has also grown significantly over the past 12 months is Virtual Reality (VR). A newcomer to the world of motor racing, VR has seen the likes of HIVE, PS4 VR and Oculus all aiming to take this market on for home entertainment. But will it threaten the simulator market? “Not at all” said Boaz. “It’s something we are aware of, but it’s not strictly ready and is also a different dimension to what we are offering.”

He added: “VR is still only running at 720p and is not hi-res for starters and the perception of the car is different. With Base you are fully submersed in a car with the steering wheel in front of you and a huge screen which offers that realistic perception but we are always keeping an eye on it.”

I took a lot from my day with Base Simulators and was now ready for Friday test day at Brands Hatch. I was keen to put everything I had learnt into practice, literally.

So, come Friday morning I was confident, but the heavens opened. A cold, wet and windy morning was probably not the best weather in which to drive the Boss Racing C400 beast, but I was itching to get going. I signed on at MSV, got comfortable with the C400 and headed out on track. I’ve driven in the wet numerous times in a Caterham – even got on the podium – so I was no stranger to the elements. What I wasn’t used to were less powerful cars overtaking me as I found it hard to lay down the power in this animal. Especially on the straights going into gears as high as fourth and fifth and the backend still wanted to come out. It was a firm reminder from Rob and Colin at Boss Racing that you needed to press the clutch when going up and down the gears.

As the first session came to an end, I hoped the circuit would dry as I only had three half-hour sessions left, but the next was equally damp. However, I was starting to work on the wet lines which Darren Burke (ARDS instructor) had told me to take – “wider around Paddock and Druids take the normal dry line”. I won’t go into details on his tips here, but I recommend a session with him to open your potential.

In the MsD Summer Annual, we published an article by Gavin Gough, a sports psychologist. He’s worked with numerous drivers over the years and offers a new approach to help them mentally, on and off the track. Motorsport has so few areas to find improvements that every little counts. So I was keen to take up Gough’s offer to open my mind up about racing.

I’d already told him about an incident I had at Paddock Hill Bend back in 2011. It’s haunted me for quite some time, a stupid mistake in which we changed a few areas on the car, tampering with the brakes etc, and somehow the brake bias was moved to all front without me noticing. I did a warm-up lap and heading into Paddock I locked up, bounced over the gravel and into the tyre wall. It was my first real incident and going from 70-0 on the data logger really showed how accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. To this day I find it hard to fully commit on the brakes and cannot pass Paddock Hill Bend without the accident haunting me.

Gough was keen to dive deeper and so we found a quiet spot at Brands and he put me in a state of hypnosis. He wanted me to recreate that moment back in 2011 in my mind, but from a third person perspective, an out-of-body replay and imaging the incident in black and white as if I was watching it on TV, constantly rewinding and playing it until I played it without the incident and could look through the corner.

At first I was a little apprehensive, but just as I got back into the car he told me to relax and be at one with the car – close my eyes and create the perfect lap! As I headed off into the session I did look through the corner and didn’t, for the first time, think about the incident. I came back in buzzing and felt like a new racer again. This highlights to me the importance of the mind, especially in a sport like this. Having the right mind-set is critical and can be the difference between winning and losing a race.

As we moved into the final two sessions, which were held in almost completely dry conditions, I started to feel at one with the car. With the sequential box, you don’t need to dip the clutch and just flat shift into gear which is even faster and it felt like I could really launch the car out of Clearways and down the start/finish line. I managed to keep up and I started to beat the other drivers’ times, which was exciting.

I found time to sit down with Gavin Gough again, who went over a few more points and started digging deeper into my mind to learn more about me and my personality. He explained some reasoning into my thought processes and gave me some homework – looking at areas where I can improve my mentality on and off the track.

After the last session, I still had around one second a lap to find, but as we still had old rubber and had begun to work on the car setup, I knew there was plenty of time available. Having said that, overall the car handled beautifully and was a testament to Boss Racing who have created a perfect and well-balanced car. The C400 had me wanting more and after watching Darren Burke’s lap on the VBox, I could see how much harder I could push, albeit a few hundred tenths a corner.

Of course, I was never going to be a race winner by having an hour’s practice, but I moved into race day with the right mind-set and solid lap times from my practice sessions. This gave me the confidence I had so desperately been looking for at the start
of the week.

We started with the usual essentials – driver briefing, scrutineering – and then got ready for qualifying. We warmed up the car and setup and I soon got myself up to a comfortable seventh on a drying track. This wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to push it now, get closer to the top of my class. I felt that I had returned to where I belonged. All the preparation from the previous days was paying off, the car felt comfortable, the track was dry, my lap times were good and I wasn’t last!

After about five laps disaster struck. My run of confidence was over. The engine failed in quite spectacular fashion, which resulted in a DNF and an abrupt end to my comeback. I cannot praise Rob and Collin of Boss Racing highly enough though; they worked tirelessly to get me back out in a different car, but it just wasn’t possible. To be honest, it didn’t feel right either after all my preparation in the C400.

So my race weekend was over, but what an experience those last few days had been. The bug was well and truly back and I am now more desperate than ever to get back on track.