Birkett Team

The Birkett What?

Birkett Mini The Birkett 6 Hour Relay is perhaps the greatest club racing event of the British motor racing season; however, most people outside of the motor racing community have never heard of it! The basic concept is that teams of 6 cars compete in a relay race, and the team that completes the most laps of the Silverstone National circuit during the 6 hour race is the winner. However, there is a handicap system in order to compensate for the disparity in performance levels of the vast array of cars competing in this event. In essence, all the teams are seeded to establish what in theory should be the fastest team, then the remaining teams are awarded credit laps which are added to the actual number of laps they have completed at the end of the race. Consequently, the winning team is that with the highest aggregate number of actual and credit laps.

This epic event has been running for the past 57 years and the RAFMSA has entered Team Flywheel for the past 3 years. One of the features of this unique occasion is the great diversity of competing cars. Power outputs range from 50 to over 500 horsepower, top speeds range from 90 to over 140 mph, and some cars are on slick racing tyres whilst others are on road tyres or even skinny vintage tyres. The age of the cars varies from those built in the 1920s to cars built in the past year. The one thing they have in common though is the driver, who is someone who must be determined to push the car to the limit and complete as many laps as possible for the team. It is important not to judge a car’s performance by its looks too. Thunderbug, a vintage Frazer-Nash chain driven car from the 1920s with rear wheel braking only sported a modified Riley crankcase onto which has been grafted two cylinders from a World War One bomber’s radial engine under its oil-stained and battered bonnet! Although the engine only revs to 1,600 rpm, each of those cylinders is a whopping 2.1 litres, giving a total capacity of 4.2 litres. During the race many drivers of more modern machinery were given quite a shock by this monster! Hopefully you are now forming a picture of this dynamic motor racing spectacle. But you might also consider that the Silverstone circuit is licensed for a maximum of 34 cars, and that most Formula 1 races have a grid of approximately 20 cars. The Birkett though has special dispensation for a grid of 42 cars provided no novices are allowed to race. Basically this means there will probably be more overtaking in one lap of the entire event than a whole Formula 1 race! Indeed cars battling 4 abreast around some of the corners, all on the limit of adhesion, is not an uncommon sight.

The 2006 race was held on Saturday 28th October, with RAF Team Flywheel gathering on the Friday prior. Everyone was excited and sporting huge grins, but there was an underlying feeling of trepidation as the grid for the 2006 event had been further increased to 50 cars. Consequently, up to 300 cars would be competing in the race and a great deal of skill and awareness would be required from each driver during their sessions on the track. Many of the teams had been contesting this event for many years and this was only our third time. Despite our inexperience, the previous year we finished third overall and first in class out of 42 teams, thus we had a lot to live up to. Our 6 cars all passed scrutineering, and preparations for the race commenced and continued throughout the day. By the evening we were ready for some light refreshment. Next day most of the drivers were awake early, mulling over what the coming day had in store. Would it rain? Would a grid of 50 cars all make it through the first corner unscathed? How realistic would our handicap be? Consequently, most drivers were up by 7am, kicking tyres or walking around the deserted track. By 8am the pits had come alive, engines coughing into life and being warmed up with scattered barks of exhausts and howls of rising revs. At 9am the circuit was open and a continual stream of cars gathered in the pit lane awaiting their turn to qualify.

Rain was forecast for later in the race and we also anticipated that with 50 cars on the track there would probably be many incidents resulting in the deployment of the safety-car to reduce and control the speed of the cars around the track until hazards were cleared. Whenever the safety car is in operation the laps completed are not counted, therefore this is a good time to swap over cars. We needed a race strategy then and the plan was to start the race with one of our medium pace cars (Matt in his Mini) in the expectation of an incident in the first few laps that would result in the operation of the safety-car. We would then put out the faster cars to make best use of the dry track. The slower cars would run during the forecast wet weather as they would be proportionately more competitive than the faster cars in the wet conditions. Then we would finish the race off with the faster cars again. At 10.40am each team despatched one car to the assembly area ready for the start of the race at 11am. At 10.45 the cars moved out onto the track and took up their places on the grid; Matt was in 32nd place. At 10.55 the cars proceeded on the formation lap, weaving from side to side attempting to get some heat into the tyres on the cold autumn track. At 10.59 and 45 seconds the revs of fifty racing engines rose in a crescendo of noise, and a heat haze shimmered above the grid. At 11.00 the red lights went out and 50 left racing boots (with feet in them clearly) released 50 clutch pedals, whilst 50 more right racing boots pressed on 50 accelerators. Tyres screeching, a sea of 50 cars roared up the start straight and as the cars passed the pits, the crews pressed their faces against the wire mesh safety fence and looked to the first corner with concern. The dust settled and the noise diminished, everyone had made it through the first corner. One minute later and the timekeepers were busy as the pack came past on the first lap. The air was split by the howl of the cars passing our pit in top gear and at full throttle. The race was on – what would happen over the course of the next 6 hours?

Several minutes into the race and one of our spotters reported that Matt had had a big spin on some oil at Copse corner. This is a high speed corner and although the car was approaching 100 mph when it span, he had avoided contact with other cars and the safety barrier. He had managed to keep the engine running so that as the Mini’s gyrations diminished he was able to snick first gear and rejoin the fray. Despite the spin Matt had a great first session and although being surrounded by potentially faster cars, he maintained his position within the pack and had moved the team up to 31st position when he handed over to Billy, 25 minutes into the race. The weather remained ominous but the track was still dry. Billy had made unbelievably good use of the dry track and, when he returned to the pits to hand over to Martyn 35 minutes later, he had taken the team 26 places up the leaderboard and into 5th place. Martyn’s ‘D’ Type thundered down the pit lane and onto the track to continue the battle. For 30 minutes he maintained a blistering pace. However, reports came in from our spotters around the track that plumes of smoke were billowing from the rear of the car as it approached the corners. Five minutes later Martyn was in the pits and handed over to our guest driver John, a senior race driving instructor at Mallory Park, in another ‘D’ Type. The pit crew and Martyn were busy checking over the car and it transpired that one of the rear brake callipers had burst a seal and brake fluid was leaking onto the hot exhaust every time the brake pedal was pressed. We had just lost our second fastest car.

Meanwhile the timekeepers were concerned with John’s progress, lap times were down on what was expected and when he came in after 30 minutes it transpired that the car had developed a high speed misfire; nevertheless we were still in 7th place. The occasional drop of rain was starting to fall now so Steve was sent out onto the track in his diminutive Singer Chamois (posh Hillman Imp) and surprising many of the larger cars with its nimbleness through the corners and tail-out attitude exiting the corners. Despite having one of the slower cars in the team, Steve was doing a brilliant job and at the end of his session we had only dropped 5 places to 12th. Despite the threatening sky the forecast rain had not appeared; consequently, Billy was back out on the track again. Twenty-five minutes later and an accident resulted in the safety-car being deployed and during this break the team took the opportunity to get Matt out again in the Mini. As Billy returned down the pit lane we were half way through the race.

At this point we were pleased to be in 11th position; however, we had lost our second fastest car and we could not find the source of the misfire on our third fastest. Furthermore, still no rain thus our prospects for the second half of the race were poor. We took a pragmatic decision therefore to abandon our attempt to match or better last year’s result, and to concentrate on ensuring all of our drivers had some good sessions out on the track. This was a positive attitude in adverse circumstances, because it would enable all of our drivers to hone their racing skills in the unique and hectic conditions of this great event. Steve took over from Matt, and when he came in he handed over to Brian, who had so far been waiting patiently on wet-weather standby with wet-weather tyres fitted. The ‘D’ types were using a gallon of fuel every 8 miles, and some of our other cars only had small fuel tanks. Brian’s Metro had good fuel endurance and we expected to keep him out for almost an hour. Thirty-five minutes into his session though he made a surprise visit to the pits with boiling brake fluid and a subsequent total loss of brakes. Examination of the car revealed that the end of one of the driveshafts had sheared off, and the respective disc brake was having to locate the wheel as well as provide braking! We had lost another car!! Even so we were now two thirds of the way through the race and despite our difficulties had only dropped to 15th.

John was scrambled in the remaining ‘D’ Type to take over from Brian, but the high-speed misfire was still there. By the time John came in we were down to 28th so, with 45 minutes left to the chequered flag, Matt took up the challenge once again. This time we had 2 cars on standby in the pits; Steve in case Matt broke down, and Billy in case the safety car came out in the last 20 minutes of the race. The safety car never came out though, and Matt’s Mini behaved impeccably all the way to the chequered flag. After 6 hours of racing and chaotic activity in the pits, Team Flywheel crossed the finish line in 25th position. Despite the harsh handicap assessment, and all the problems faced during the race, we had still beaten half of the field. To put this into perspective, the racing conditions were extremely difficult due to 50 cars of vastly different capabilities being on the track at once. Even so, the Team Flywheel drivers had excelled. Billy’s fastest lap was a tenth of a second under the lap record for his type of car, whilst Martyn, Matt and Steve had all significantly bettered their personal bests for this track. As for Brian, he was in his first season of motor racing and had only progressed beyond novice status 2 two weeks before! Additionally, this was the first time he had ever driven at Silverstone. The race had also been an opportunity to host members of the RAF Sports Board to whom we are eternally grateful for financial support. We also hosted 2 other persons who had generously bid for tickets at the British Armed Forces Charity Ball to join our team for the day.

Contesting the Birkett requires excellent teamwork and thankfully we had a great team.

Team Mgr/Driver Chf Tech Billy Fletcher (Fletcher Hornet Mk4). RAF Wyton.

Drivers

Driver Sqn Ldr Brian Watson (MG Metro) HQ STC
Driver Sgt Martyn Astley (Jaguar ‘D’ Type replica) RAF Cosford
Driver Sgt Steve Platts (Singer Chamois) RAF Conningsby
Driver Cpl Matt Preston (Mini Cooper S) RAF Cosford
Driver John Arnold (Jaguar ‘D’ Type replica) Guest Driver
Team Co-ordinator Sqn Ldr Paul Martin-Jones. RAF Kinloss

Pit Crew.

Timekeeper Cpl Jason Lappin RAF High Wycombe
Timekeeper Ian Hamer
Timekeeper Chris Astley
Spotter WO Roy Wardley HQ STC
Bacon butties Neil Fletcher

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