Rewind 12 months and Sim Racers UK entered a team into the spa 24 hour and did rather well for our first attempt. We finished a respectable 13th place in the second split of the re-run at the 6pm time slot for last chance teams. The event is well documented in my last blog and if anything was learnt from that event, then we needed to bring that to the table for 2017.
If I was to say that the Spa 24H special event was the highlight of my sim year then I would be under stating it. It gets entered in my calendar during January when iRacing announce the dates for the race weekend and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. The planning, the prep and the designing of the ltd edition team skin for that weekend is as important as the race itself. Oh and the most observant of you will have noticed we have had a team name change since last year’s event. In the last 12 months we have been through several colour and name changes and we have re-branded the group and made it more inclusive and recruited several members from around the globe becoming Sim Racers World (SRW) in the autumn of last year.
Anyway I digress, in the weeks leading up to the event all focus was on finding a decent set-up for the Beast. We had ditched the BMW from last year in favour of the Mercedes AMG GT3. A car which the team has had varying degrees of success with since it was released last by iRacing. Personally I have gelled with this car like no other, winning 1 sprint race and one 3 hour endurance event. It seems to suit my style of driving, and quite early on last year I managed to find a great base set-up that can be tweaked for most circuits. It loves kerbs and has a lazy gearbox making it easier to drive over longer periods. Most of importantly of all, it suits the Belgian circuit very well.
1 week before the event the excitement was beginning to build and the most common topic of conversation was how we as a team were looking forward to the event. 1 day before the event, the obligatory windows updates were done so they didn’t auto load during the event, all the health food snacks were purchased and the fridge was stocked. Well, in my case it was pizza and Pepsi Max, Peanut M&M’s and Jelly Babies! And the obligatory coffee! Oh, and I will add at this point that I did buy a 6 pack of bottled water because I felt guilty about all the junk food!
One thing I had remembered from last year’s event was that the night time period of the race (daylight in sim) is a period of the race where you need decent low level lighting behind the monitors when in car racing as your eyes struggle to focus. Racing in a darkened room is not good and makes you tired very quickly, and is compounded by the fact you’ve been awake for such a long period of time anyway. I will explain at this point that some teams have between 4 and 10+ drivers and evenly spread the driving stints so that drivers can get some sleep during the race. SRW like to do things differently, we keep the team to a maximum of 4 drivers. Why? It mirrors real life and also make it feel as if it really is an endurance race. Last year I got 90 minutes of sleep and by the time the 24 hours were over the sense of achievement was greater. idiotic maybe but its worth the extra wheel time.
So, 3pm on race day was fast approaching and we are all but ready to start this great event. 3 of us are registered and we are ranked 53rd out of 55 cars. Yet again we are bottom of the split, but this doesn’t worry us as we purposely didn’t pre-qualify and had plans to start from pit lane anyway. This time it need not be the case as we can start on the grid as we’ll be at the back anyway. So, the team is thus, driving alongside me this year are Dean Wallington (who raced with me last year), Senad Kocan who resides in Sweden and who has raced under the SRW banner for around 10 months now and is a great addition to the team and Stuart Musselwhite from southern England and has been a member of SRW since autumn last year. Both guys have raced with us over a couple of seasons in solo Blancpain races and partnered up with myself and Deano for endurance races and special events as well.
This is where best laid plans begin to unravel. Stuart had to work in the morning but got home in time to register for the start but had not accepted the team invite in time before 3pm and iRacing locked him out of the event. Not only were we frustrated but it more importantly it meant we were 1 man down……thoughts began to drift back to last year’s event and how tough it was with only 3 drivers. Still, we were here now and I was already doing the warm up lap and looking forward to the green light. Conversation on the mic soon turned to Plan B and how we were going to adapt our stints to cover Stuart’s stints. We decided before the event that the best way to attack the event this year was to double stint anyway because it would give the outgoing driver more time to recover before being required behind the wheel again. Without Stuart it just meant more stints and less sleep. Who needs sleep anyway!
So, 3pm was here and whatever happens now we just need to focus on the job in hand and make the best of a better car this year and the knowledge that the set up was the best it could be and that our race pace was pretty good. As the lights went out I dropped back and made sure I was the last car on track just to make sure I stayed out of trouble and avoid the carnage in the opening laps. 54 cars fighting for the same piece of tarmac doesn’t always go smoothly. This is SRW standard practice in endurance and has worked well in the past. By the end of lap 1 we had gained nearly 10 places and by lap 3 we had gained another 10 places. The plan had worked and as cars began to spread out around the 7km track things got easier for me to concentrate on the job in hand. The first hour flew by and apart from avoiding 3 separate incidents at the bus stop chicane with lightning reflexes nothing much happened. I slowly made my way through the field and got to our first fuel stop without incident. This was more than we did last year, so things seemed to be going well. The next tank of fuel seemed to empty incredibly fast and before I knew it my time in the car was over. Over 2 hours done and the car felt brilliant. Tyres were good, fuel consumption spot on and miraculously the car had not got one single scratch on it! In those two hours we had climbed up to 18th place and the pace was so good that we were still on the lead lap, which compared to last year we were still sitting in pit lane after an engine blow up! One interesting thing that we noticed at this point was that I went 4 laps longer than practice sessions predicted, what we didn’t factor in was how slow the first hour would be and that we would save 17 litres fuel. This unknowingly would play a major part in our final position after 24 hours.
Deano got in the car and immediately settled in to his metronomic style and as usual lived up to his reputation of using little fuel and hardly any tyres and going longer in his stint than anyone else in the team and in fact longer than all other teams without losing much lap time. We have always joked he swaps the Merc for a Tesla and again he proves us right! His double stint again passes without incident and after 2 hours and 14 minutes he has climbed the team into 13th overall and still on the lead lap. A gain of 40 places in four hours, astonishing! Nothing much else to report on at this point and my carefully prepared stint plan and data sheet was being filled in and to be honest we were running at a pretty much perfect race for our pace.
So the race was going well and Senad jumped in the car for his first ever double stint during an endurance and thrown in at the deep end in the biggest race event of the year! Before the race had started we spoke about being in the top paddock of the two available at Spa ( downside to being ranked in the bottom half of the field) and that the tight 90 degree right hand bend half way between the two sets of garages and lined both sides with a concrete wall, this could cause an issue if we weren't careful. what did Senad do? yes, you guessed it.....hit it! however, it was a side glancing blow that caused no other damage than scratch the still drying paintjob created especially for this race! phew.....got away with that one..although we did laugh about it, you could hear the sigh of relief when we realised it wasn't a serious blow. Senad quickly settled in to a great race pace and we just ticked off the lap chart for another hour. Then we had what can be called a light bump. going into the bus stop chicane Senad missed his braking marker by a couple of metres, decided he could go up the inside and overtake the car infront with the extra speed he was carrying and didnt plan on the guy sticking to his racing line and we touched, this caused the guy to half spin and we took the spot. albeit unfairly. we spent the next few minutes in a private chat with the other team members and we gave the spot back after slowing for them when they caught us. It was the least we could do as it we may well be on the receiving end at some point in the race to come. Senad finished his 2 hour stint with no further issues and when he entered pitlane we were sitting in a rather precarious 10th place but out of sync with everyone else in pitstops. (Remember we ran longer than most in the first 2 hours.).
It was my turn to do another double stint and everything went like clockwork. for the first time it looked as if lady luck was shining on us this year. I will add though, in these events you make your own luck and if you are driving outside of your comfort zone and chasing your tail for the whole race eventually something will happen to prematurely end your race. after last year and two disastrous starts in both attempts we decided the best way was not to fight with faster cars even if it was for position. this proved to be the best form of attack as several times during the race faster teams went by us only to end up in the wall with a few laps. like i said...you make your own luck.
the next few hours were a blur of fizzy drinks, coffee's, sandwiches and jelly babies! anything to get calories inside my body to keep the sleep gremlins at bay. Deano did the next 2 hours without issue and went to bed. He had been up since 5:30am and it was cracking on towards 2am in the morning! He had driven brilliantly even though he had been awake 21 hours!
we were now in 9th and it was 5am in the morning. 10 hours to go and well past the half way point and definitely looking forward not back. 4 cars on our lap and still all to play for and we were only 3 laps down on the lead car. we had already at this point worked out that at the pace we were running and barring any mishaps we could finish 5th or 6th which we far exceed anything we set out to achieve. the goal at the start is always get to the end. anything else is a bonus.
During the early hours session i had picked up 2 stop-go penalties for pit lane infringements and for the life of me i'm unsure how or why? we looked at the replay and still cannot see what i did wrong to earn them? still, we served the penalties immediately each time so that we didn't get disqualified. Losing 90 seconds is far better than that!
Now, you're probably thinking that i hadn't had any sleep, well, you wouldn't be far wrong but i had managed 90 minutes during the night, before Deano went to bed and caught about 30 minutes in the early hours. Now from experience believe it not the hardest hours are from 6am-11am on Sunday morning. tiredness creeps up on you and after 30 minutes behind the wheel all you want to do is close your eyes. You start missing apexes and laptimes drop by 2 seconds or more, i've call this the danger hours. it is so easy to misjudge an overtake or a braking marker but you fight all you can and your body is screaming sleep. but you carry on knowing the end is near and for us at this point it looks like it could be a definite top 10 finish.
Deano got up and was feeling really rough, he had to take some Beechams to make sure he wasn't too ill to drive, he had developed a pretty bad cold during the night and wasn't in great shape to continue his fair share of the driving.
19 hours pass without any incidents and the rest of the teams in the lobby are beginning to put their fresh drivers in the car and we needed to step up the pace to keep with them. we are now 4 laps down on the lead car but driving superbly. Senad went to bed at around 10 am in the morning with 5 hours to run and we began to worry when he didn't turn up for his stint, he came on the mic and apologised but he had been vomiting all night as he had eaten something dodgy from his fridge during the night session! he was really ill. it was decided he wasn't to do any more driving in case he took sick again and looked to his wife to take him to the pharmacy!
We now had two sick drivers but we didn't want to let all the hard work go to waste, so we dug deep and Deano and i just forged on relentlessly towards the chequered flag. Now during the race we had looked at 1 hour tyre wear and decided to risk it all with a pit stop just for fuel and front tyres. this saves around 15 seconds in the pits and could mean the difference between a top 5 and a top 8 finish. On reflection it was the wrong thing to do. the car was pig. Deano couldnt drive it at all. too much grip on the front not enough on the rear. which meant a car that wanted to spin at every opportunity. A huge effort by him though meant he got to the end of his stint but had lost time by being slower over the entire stint. the plan back fired and it meant that 5th place was slipping away, maybe we'd be in the fight for 6th if the last 2 hours went well.
The plan was always for me to do a double stint at the end of the race as i am not afraid to push and fight for every inch of tarmac if necessary. I jumped in the car and left pit-lane and by the time i got to Blanchimont on the out-lap something was wrong with the sim. i had stutter, i had lag, i had black-screen for milliseconds every minute or so. it turns out that apparently i had been victim of a game breaking ram page reading bug. an iRacing issue that affected quite a few teams during the race. This was serious for us, i was within touching distance of 6th and catching them fast when it struck. i had no choice but to either stick it out for an hour and keep my fingers crossed that my pc didnt crash completely. the hour passed with only one major incident and it was a screen blackout for 1 second at a braking point and i ended up in the gravel. miraculously i didn't hit anything, rejoined the track and kept going and only lost 3 seconds on that lap. my slowest lap of the race. The hour seemed to drag and i was really glad it was over. At the same time i was gutted that i didn't have the chance to pursue 6th and give them hell. I pitted and handed over to Deano, i restarted my pc and then live stream and it was fine. it took 1 minute and all was well again. 1 minute too long though and it meant i was a viewer and unable to affect the result any longer.
Deano exited pit lane 1 second in front 8th with 6th, 7th and 8th on the same lap only 40 seconds apart. He also knew that he had the race of his life ahead of him and for the best part of an hour he did everything he could to keep the driver behind at bay, but with 3 laps to go they went by us, Deano tucked in behind and shadowed him until the last lap. All that was between us and 7th was half a lap and a slipstream through Blanchimont and an overtake at the bust stop ahead. then it happened, a back marker somehow managed to get between us, 7th ran into the back of the lapped driver and Deano went left to avoid the slowing pair into the gravel and out the other side as 7th appeared from behind the slower car, it was anyone's position. Deano didn't see 7th to his right and hit him on the rear left corner as he went by and had to tap the brake to avoid carnage. This gave 7th enough momentum to go through. Deano had done everything the team could have asked of him but it wasn't meant to be. we had finished 8th. Only 5 laps off the lead car and less than 40 seconds behind 6th.
A back marker was the deciding factor in the end, but it was over. 24 hours of 99% perfection from the team. We had once again conquered the greatest, toughest race on the calendar. We had come through unscathed. No crashes. No engine blow ups. Not one track incident of note. yes we had issues off track, but the guys did what was necessary to overcome the sickness, the tiredness, and the overwhelming urge to pee!
579 laps in 24 hours. 2502 litres of fuel. 76 Tyres. 120 minutes of broken sleep. 4 bottles of water. 2 cans of Pepsi Max. 1 large bag of jelly babies. 1 bag of peanut M&M's. Copius amount of Tea and Coffee and a curry cooked by my wonderful girlfriend Olivia.(yes, she is still here!)
At this point i would like to say that even without Stuart, the team performed beyond expectations and I could not have asked any more from them. The camaraderie was brilliant as always. The support when not in the car was second to none and when we needed to pull together through adversity we soldiered on regardless and got the job done.
Thank you guys for making every second of those 24 hours worth the struggle.
P.S. When we run the event next year i'll be 50! does anyone have a commode I can borrow?