Autoblog races the Le Mans stars, and loses...
There really aren't that many chances in life to test out the theory that you too could have made it as a racing driver if you'd been afforded the same opportunities as Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button. Most of us are content to carry on taking the racing line around roundabouts and exiting tight left-handers under the misplaced impression that professional racing really can't be that hard.
But last week we popped down to Sandown karting track in Surrey to have all of these illusions shattered in one swift overtaking manoeuvre.
Autoblog races the Le Mans stars
Actually it turned out to be several swift overtaking manoeuvres, as we were racing against the stars of the Le Mans series before they headed up to Silverstone on 11/12 September.
Former F1 racer and Peugeot 908 driver Anthony Davidson was the most high-profile UK driver with us, joined by a pair of younger competitors with a very famous name – Greg and Leo Mansell were also due to race, even if dad Nigel couldn't make it. Eight time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen joined other stars of the series such as Darren Turner and Sam Hancock.
To slow down the professionals a bit, each driver was partnered with a journalist in a kind of cruel handicapping system. Just to reinforce the feeling that our chance had passed us by, we were paired with Phil Quaife – a 24-year-old driver from Kent who is competing at Silverstone in a Ferrari F430 for CRS Racing. He may not have been the highest profile name on the grid, but as he's a former karting champion we reckoned we had got a pretty good draw.
After the obligatory safety video that we all had to watch – even the pro drivers, who spent most of the time laughing at Martin Brundle's presenting and driving style – we headed out to talk tactics. The conversation went a bit like this:
Phil Quaife: "Ok, do you want to take the first practice then?"
Us: "Err, ok. I think I should warn you I have never gone karting before, any tips?"
Phil: "Drive fast!"
Us: "Er, ok!"
Phil was onto something by sending us out first though – the driver that went out for second practice was the one who started the race – and that meant that he would line up on the grid and could provide us with a decent start.
Like a mini-Le Mans, the race was to be timed rather than run over a set distance, and was set to last an hour. Both drivers had to race, with changeovers permitted from 15 minutes in, but a gentlemans' agreement among those of us sitting out the first half seemed to be that we'd all switch at the half way point.
After our qualifying session, Phil found himself starting down the grid in seventh, while Davidson was up on pole. Equally unsurprising was the fact that that was where the former F1 man stayed. He is shorter in real life than we had imagined, and his lightweight frame obviously worked in his favour. He carried an impressive turn of speed around the track and set the fastest lap of the day – 49.979 seconds – on lap 14.
But while Davidson was setting a blistering pace up front, Phil was calmly carving through the field. Well, as calm as things seem to get in a go-kart. He was actually involved in a series of hectic battles that moved him as high as third after 33 laps, although that slipped to fourth by the time we took over after 35 minutes and 39 laps. Another place was lost while we were changing in the pits so we came out in fifth.
Damage limitation was the best we could hope for, but to make matters worse, it had started to rain, albeit lightly. We'll maintain until the day our driving licence is taken away (and beyond if we have grandchildren willing to listen) that this smattering of moisture was the reason for our slower times and also what caused us to spin on the third of 26 laps.
This had the marshals waving a "Calm down" board at us and as eventual winner Darren Turner lapped us for the fourth time, we realised there probably was something he was doing that we weren't. We'd enter a corner just behind a pro-driver (after they had lapped us naturally) and then come out ten metres further back. It took us about ten laps to realise you didn't need to stamp on the brakes for the corner at the end of the start/finish straight – you could carry a lot more speed through the bend if you just eased off the throttle a bit.
Eventually we took the chequered flag in a not too disgraceful eighth place out of 14 teams, ahead of Tom Kristensen and Sam Hancock's teams. That we finished so high was entirely down to the skills of our talented and ultra-competitive team mate. It certainly had nothing to do with the ham-fisted approach we adopted behind the wheel. We're just going to have to accept, begrudgingly, that our chance of starring in F1 is gone and stick to taking the racing line around mini roundabouts.
Check out the gallery and the video of the day to see the stars (and journalists) in action, and head here for tickets to the 1000km event at Silverstone on 11/12 September.