Having moved locally to Castle Combe when I was 7, I think of Combe as my “home track.” I’ve watched many race meetings there, but had never thought about competing there myself, until 2017.
Three sprints are run at Castle Combe each year, one of 1.75 laps per run, one of 1 lap per run and one of 0.75 lap per run so it made sense to aim for the 1.75 laps per run event. It meant we headed to Combe at the end of March, and the sprint took place exactly ten years to the day from when I had first ever competed. My first event was a Sevenoaks & District MC car trial on 25th March 2007, and the Castle Combe sprint was my 149th competitive event since I started competing.
I was down to be the first car out on track at the sprint, so we arrived early for scrutineering and signing on. It left me with a little over 45 minutes before the compulsory drivers’ briefing, and so I decided to walk the track. Whilst I’ve visited Combe many times, the opportunity to walk the 1.85 mile track and have a proper look at it was a good one. I really wanted to have a good look at Avon Rise and Quarry, as I knew they could prove to be tricky.
Before long, it was time to line up for my first run, where for a brief period I would be the only car on track. I drove the rally car in competition once in 2016 (a targa) and it had been around two years since I had driven her hard on tarmac, so I was curious as to how it would go. Then that was it, green light and off. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th…over Avon rise, brake, down to third, through Quarry, back on it and up to 4th, brake and 3rd for the chicane, confidence lift through Old Paddock (not needed with hindsight), 4th, almost snatching 5th before Tower, remember late turn in… And on it went.
5th in the rally car is not a gear I have used in competition before, but Combe needed it at least twice. After practice, I was 3rd in class (out of five). Not far off 2nd, but quite a way off Matt leading the class. I knew where I could find time and what I had done wrong, so it was time to wait for my first timed run; the first run that really mattered as it would count towards the final results.
My first timed run seemed to go well, and I had found 2.5 seconds but it was a scrappy run. Mistakes in a few places, including Quarry and Tower, cost me time and I wanted to go again but that’s not how sprinting works. I watched Matt’s runs, and then went to spectate at Camp corner with my Dad and a friend of his between my runs.
A car came off the circuit after their run and as it went past we could see it was on fire, it looked like a small brake fire at that point. I looked up to the next marshals post and could see the marshals radioing it in and at that point Dad and I started sprinting to the paddock. There was a moment of we might be first there/the marshals might need help/we might be able to get extra extinguishers/you can’t just watch.
As it happens we were first on scene, and running down the Camp bank I spotted fire extinguishers at Avon Bridge. “Purple coat lady” aka a spectator helped grab them before Dad and I extinguished the fire. I’ve had training before but never had to tackle a real fire in an uncontrolled situation and there was a horrible moment of thinking the whole car was going to go up.
It’s interesting how it all happened so quickly because you can have lots of training but you never know how you will react until you are in that situation. Certainly given I was competing it was not the sort of thing I was expecting!
Marshals came running with extinguishers and the rescue crew turned up although it was out by then. We just happened to be that little closer and able to get there first. The main thing is the driver was ok, cars are fixable and nobody was hurt (bar some annoying smoke inhalation for myself, if only it had been a still day! Thanks to the Combe med team for the checkover).
Thanks to Richard Handley for the photographs.
After that excitement, it was not that long until my second timed run. I felt that I linked things together; it was not perfect, but I knew I had been braking too early into Camp and it felt less scrappy. I’d hoped that with a more flowing run I would have been quicker, but no; 0.16 slower! Somewhat disappointing, but my earlier run and the times of everybody else saw me 3rd in class (out of five) by the end of the day.
Unfortunately, the SD Card on the Go Pro corrupted meaning I do not have any onboard footage of my runs, but Matt did capture me once on the start finish straight as I passed.
Having not sprinted for a couple of years or driven the Micra for a while, I’m happy overall with how the event went but definitely need some more seat time as there’s plenty more to get out of the car.
Photos by Jack Flash Photography