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After its brilliant class win at the Nürburgring 24-Hour race Saxon Motorsport stepped into uncharted waters at the 24-Hour race at the Slovakia Ring.
Saxon Motorsport We follow the team to the Slovakia Ring 24 Hours.
They say there’s no rest for the wicked and no sooner had the Saxon team returned from its class victory at the Nürburgring 24 Hours then it was busy prepping for the next event, the Hankook 24-Hour Series race at the Slovakia Ring in Bratislava. The race was a midweek event so the team duly assembled on Monday evening ready for a busy day testing on Tuesday before the race itself on the Wednesday.
Tuesday dawned bright and warm and the team had the morning and afternoon to set up and complete scrutineering ready for first practice at 6:00pm. Regular readers may remember Saxon had some issues with the organisers at Silverstone earlier in the year when it was battling with changing rules and Balance of Power restrictions right up to the race. Well, initially at the Slovakia Ring, the organisers appeared to be putting obstacles in the team’s way as well, because at this race the Saxon BMW was moved up to the TCR Class with the faster SEATs. For a while it looked like the minimum lap times, fuel restrictions and additional time penalties imposed upon the original SP3 class would still apply but discussions were initiated and these penalties were all eventually relaxed to enable Saxon to compete with the TCRs more equitably.
As it was 26ºC in Bratislava on Tuesday and forecast to be a few degrees hotter the following day – despite the possibility of a few thunderstorms overnight – one of drivers’ main problems would be keeping cool during their two-hour driving stints. To this end, the car was fitted with a ‘cool shirts’ system, where water from an ice-filled container is pumped through a cooling element laced through the driver’s special flameproof underwear, keeping core body temperatures down.
Practice and qualifying gave the drivers three-hours of track-time to learn the technical new circuit whilst chief engineer Jon Taylor and Team Manager Clare Lee confirmed tyre wear, fuel usage and optimal lap times for the two-hour driving stints to hopefully give the team a race-winning strategy.
As race day dawned it became apparent that Slovakian weather forecasting is apparently no better than in the UK. The morning was damp, windy and was forecast to be changeable during the race (starting at 2:00pm). The morning’s warm-up was the team’s first chance to take a look at the track in the wet. The previous day’s practice and qualifying were run between 24ºC and 26ºC and proved that the track with its long straights and hairpin bends was hard on brakes and fuel consumption. However, the sessions went well for Saxon with the team’s three drivers learning the new track progressively, setting a time that put them fourth on the grid behind three TCR SEATs – exactly as expected. The organiser’s agreement to allow Saxon to run with 100-litres of fuel with no minimum lap time should have made for a very interesting race as the team saw how the SEATs coped with fuel economy and tyre wear (being front-wheel drive) during the Silverstone 24 Hours.
The drivers elected Nick to start the race and he managed to move up to third place for the first 35 minutes before the rear tyres started to go off and he dropped back to fourth position throughout the remainder of the two-hour stint. It soon became apparent, however, that the TCR SEATs were coping with the fuel allowance and tyre wear better than expected. Indeed they were managing to complete nearly two hours before refuelling and changing front tyres only; the rear tyres were changed every second stop. The front tyres were, however, on the canvas! This reduced the advantage Saxon had envisaged but didn’t change the strategy. The team continued to keep driver stints to the full two hours in order to limit the number of stops to the absolute minimum of 11.
After a fairly uneventful night, the 135d was still running fourth overall, fourth in class and chasing the three TCR SEATs. Unfortunately the SEATs also had an uneventful night! Saxon was also losing time to the TCR SEATs on every pit stop due to the delivery speed of the diesel fuel pump which is supplied by the series organisers – a frustrating problem over which the team had no control. In consolation, the next quickest class – Cup 1, consisting of mainly BMW M235is – were a safe distance behind.
The only drama during the night proved to be a scare when Richard reported a gear change problem. Given previous issues with the gearbox, the team decided to call him in for a precautionary ‘box change before the car became stranded on the circuit. At the previous race in Germany, the team changed the gearbox in a remarkable 22 minutes; however, it felt that even that could be improved upon. True to its predictions, the job was completed this time in an extraordinary 13 minutes! Subsequent inspection of the sequential ‘box was to prove that the team and gearbox supplier Drenth, true to its word, appeared to overcome the previous issues and the fault lay with a deteriorating clutch diaphragm. This continued to be a minor problem throughout the final six hours with adjustment being required at each remaining scheduled pit stop.
With six hours to go, each driver still had one stint to complete. Tom had set the team’s fastest lap during the early hours when the track and air temperatures were lower. All they had to do now was to ensure that the car made it to the 2:00pm finish without any heroics.
Sure enough, 2:00pm arrived and the team finished in its grid position. It started in fourth place and ran in fourth place throughout, chasing the TCR SEATs for 24 hours. Finishing fourth in class, Saxon was the highest placed non-TCR car and the highest placed diesel/alternative fuel car for the second race in succession.
The next morning the team departed Slovakia and made its way back to base after a satisfying performance although the guys regretted not being able to take the race to the TCRs and put them under pressure. On returning to Hereford, the team’s focus is now on Round Five of the VLN Championship back at the Nürburgring on 16 July. Nick is intending to take two cars to Germany: he will drive Saxon’s petrol V10 alongside team regular Jamie Morrow, whilst Tom Barrow, Martin Gibson and Ellis Hadley will drive the team’s newly prepared 2.0-litre diesel 1 Series, all in Cotswold Hereford BMW colours. The latter three drivers will be starting their qualification process to enable them to run in next year’s Nürburgring 24- Hour race, a process that dictates each driver completes a minimum of 18 competitive laps in a 2.0-litre car. To achieve this Martin and Ellis have obtained sponsorship from their employers – GiTi Tyre Corp.
GiTi will be providing tyres as part of its support package for its drivers and so the team will need to learn the characteristics of a new brand whilst running two very different race cars. Cotswold Saxon sees its role in training and developing new drivers as an important part of development, both for the team and future drivers. Martin and Ellis both ran with the team at the final Britcar round at Donington in 2015, acquitted themselves well and were pleased with the way in which Saxon was able to help their entry into endurance car racing. The team is sure that it will continue to develop a long association with them and GiTi Tyres.
Meanwhile, the 24-Hour 135d endurance race car will be put to one side pending its next outing – possibly at September’s 24-Hour race in Barcelona. The new-for-2016 N57 engine has performed faultlessly since a newly designed crankshaft by Arrow Precision Engineering was fitted but it still needs some development on the turbo side. Owens Developments, who have provided the latest more reliable unit, will be working with Saxon to give the engine a broader power curve to enable the drivers to be less critical of gear selection. Nick is also keen to increase the upper rev limit of the engine over the winter which could produce a further 10 per cent in peak horsepower for next season.