Race of Remembrance

“We will be back next year and we will win.”

That defiant assertion is issued by an exhausted Dan Jude whose Lotus Exige has just staggered across the finish line at Anglesey after a torrid weekend of endurance racing in the bleakest corner of North Wales.

Race of Remembrance has rapidly ascended to a position as one of the crown jewels of the British club racing calendar. This year represents its fourth running, growing in length from nine hours to 12. The event features a full grid of production sports and saloon cars ranged against the elements, each other and a circuit which features lethal  fast corners as well as big braking zones into slow hairpins. It’s an unprecedented challenge – even the hardy spectators require significant endurance as bitter winds and rain batter the circuit from the Irish Sea.

The event is organised by Mission Motorsport, a charity which helps the rehabilitation of injured service personnel through the motorsport and wider motoring industries. The centrepiece of the weekend is the aggregate endurance race which is split over Saturday and Sunday. Racing kicks off at 3pm, running into the night with the flag falling at 9pm. At 9am on Sunday it recommences with a rolling start; running until 3.30pm. A pause at 10.45am is given to the moving remembrance service from which the race takes its name.

Practice  and qualifying alone take their toll and by Saturday morning there are tales of woe up and down the pit lane: Dan Jude’s #8 Exige has required a full gearbox rebuild while elsewhere engine and differential changes have been rife, with spare cars sacrificed for precious components. In fact, an electrical fault on the #8 Lotus gives rise to an urgent social media hunt for a local road-going car to plunder for parts.

Going endurance racing at any level is tough but for small clubman race teams, this is an event which has stretched all participants. And the flag is yet to drop.

Mid-afternoon Saturday and the cars are resplendent, paintwork gleaming with competitors fresh and fighting fit. The #8 Exige has taken a strong pole position, its potency landing it in the Invitational class and away from its brethren. It leads from the front but a writhing pack of Caterhams threatens its authority from the off. The Caterham teams all enter on a relay basis. This means each driver enters their own car, with up to four cars per ‘team’. This confers a significant advantage on tired machinery which might do a quarter of the distance of some rivals.

As a result of that, a Heroes’ Trophy is awarded to entrants using just a single car. All the Lotus teams bar one are scrapping for this coveted title.

A rhythm is readily established, with quick runners soon in among traffic – as one might expect, a Caterham enjoys a significant performance advantage over a stock Citroën C1 shopping trolley. The race doesn’t pass without incident though and it’s terrible luck for the crew of the #28 Mazda MX-5, which runs an engine bearing just after sunset. The team has built the race car up from a road-going Mk 3 in six weeks but promises to return stronger in 2018.

Sunset brings a new atmosphere to the race, with the pits bustling under floodlights and peril looming large on the race track. Each car tells its own story with mud splattered up the flanks of virtually all runners and 12 safety cars during the opening six hour leg betraying misadventure in all directions.

During this phase of the race, Datum Motorsport loses its white Exige to rear-end accident damage – the same fate white befell its other Exige earlier in the weekend. The #64 S1 Elise of Yorkshire brothers Ben and Lee Brooks attracts penalties but keeps on truckin’ at a reliable and useful pace. The Brooks boys are the only drivers to have entered each running of the event in the same car, and vow to keep coming back for as long as it takes place. “You get more track time here than an entire season of Elise Trophy and it’s for a great cause; why wouldn’t we do it?” quips Ben.

An unlikely black BMW 320d is grounded in its garage, puffing black smoke from the cam covers – not your typical exhaust location. Out on the track, tortured tyres and glowing brake discs create a unique spectacle. Warm jackets, woolly hats and thick gloves are the order of the day but it looks 10 times as cold in the exposed cockpit of a Caterham.

At this stage in the race, strategy is starting to play a role. Nine pit stops are mandatory, each requiring the car to remain stationary for four minutes. Most teams have been recording fuel mileage empirically during practice and consumption as high as 8 mpg is mooted for MX-5s and Elises at flat chat.

The disruptive effect of the safety car intermissions, unintended penalties and on-track incidents all conspire to challenge the team manager. It’s generally accepted that a car will dive in for fuel and service upon deployment of the safety car only if it’s worthwhile. A four minute unnecessary stop while the safety is only out for a lap can be suicidal. Every technician is glued to TSL’s live timing screens while their car is on track, desperately seeking reassurance that the pace is right and the progress smooth.

Gravity-fed fuel dispensers force 25l of race fuel into a car in 12 seconds, but only so long as a fire marshal is in attendance and the car is connected to the garage complex by an earthing cable. The rest of the stop is dedicated to driver swaps, tyre changes, visual inspections and thorough cleaning of glass and lights. The best teams are well-drilled, timing their stops to the millisecond.

It’s during the darkness of Saturday evening that the race unravels for Dan Jude’s British Sports Car Services team. Two off-track excursions lead to spells in the pits – and tear the front splitter off the car, adversely affecting the balance. Most frightening is a third incident when a toe link breaks through the flat-out Rocket right-hander, pitching the car into a spin at over 100mph.

When the flag falls at 9pm to signal the end of the first part of the race, the team finds itself once again tending to a poorly gearbox. As most participants settle into a well-earned beer or six, BSCS is hunting out the nearest supermarket to stock up on nocturnal provisions. The endeavour on display up and down the pit lane belies the event’s amateur status, with Herculean efforts evident from every crew.

Sunday brings rain which leaves the track greasy and the cars muddier than ever. Where once there was brilliant white, now the vehicles are smeared brown and grey. The glowing brake discs of the night give way to grubby wheels caked in pad dust – one can smell the cars’ travails.

Times in the morning are initially slow but the stiff sea breeze combined with sunshine and intense track activity on- and off-line soon dry the surface and many cars produce their outright fastest laps during this phase of the race.

BSCS Exige maintains the overall fastest race lap, remarkably set within the first hour of the race, throughout. Only the very swiftest clutch of relaying Caterham runners can get within a second of the potent Lotus.

While the race’s brace of Exiges has suffered, a trio of Elise runners has quietly toiled its way into strong positions. LoTRDC regulars Craig Denman and John LaMaster relay S2 Elises to fifth position, showing remarkable speed and consistency. While one car is on track, the other enjoys thorough servicing in the #4 pit garage. Denman in particular is spectacular during Sunday’s slippery running, with flamboyant drifts through the cambered turn two hairpin.

The battle for the Heroes’ Trophy goes to the wire – with the S2 Elise of Rob Boston Racing facing a late dash from the Brooks brothers’ S1 Elise. Following a couple of penalties – naturally disputed anecdotally though not with the stewards! – the Yorkshiremen, sharing with Phil Grayson, are just a handful of seconds away from a laurel after 12 hours of effort.

Every runner appears jubilant – and utterly fatigued – by the finish and the sheer endurance of the event is a useful metaphor for the endeavour of the beneficiaries this race seeks to serve.

Many Mission Motorsport folk are involved in the preparation, running and driving of cars in the race. These include not only race cars but also the stunning Jaguar F-Type pace car, wrapped in a bespoke poppy livery for the weekend. One becomes accustomed to seeing amputees around the Race of Remembrance paddock but never inured. This is a race which exists for the charity’s beneficiaries – the rest of us are simply lucky to share it with them.

The remembrance service at 11am on Sunday morning is led by a military padre, with hymns, prayers and the national anthem. It’s an experience quite unlike any other in motorsport and rubbing shoulders with decorated service personnel is deeply humbling. This short service helps shape the character of the Race of Remembrance, but what defines it will always be the human spirit in the face of adversity.

It may be a club-level event, taking place on one of the most exposed and inaccessible outposts in the country, but Race of Remembrance has become an essential cornerstone of the national racing calendar. See you next year – and make sure you pack your thermals; here everyone has to face a little adversity, even the spectators.

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