"REACH FOR THE STARS... BELIEVE YOUR OWN POWER."
I’m usually nervous when I strap myself into the car before the start of a World Final. It wasn’t that I’d never done it before, because this particular World Final was number 23. It’s the pressure of the occasion that seems to get to me.
This time it was different. There was no tension, I wasn’t on the edge, had no butterflies in my stomach. I felt good. It was the World Championship, the one that I had raced for all year, and I just felt calm and focused.
I only had one mechanic, Lee, to help me with the harnesses. The rest of the team had wished me well before I went onto the track. Lee patted my shoulder and walked off, leaving me alone in the car. I waited for the signal to fire up my engine.
When it came, 34 V8 racing engines roared into life. We moved off on the rolling laps. Paul Hines, on my inside in pole position, seemed to be going a little fast. I looked in my mirror and saw Frankie Wainman Junior behind Paul, arm out of the window, signalling him to slow down. It was Paul’s first time on the front row in a World Final and he was pumped up. I thought that I was doing a good speed, controlling my half of the grid from the outside of the front row.
At the start of the back straight, half a lap before the race started, I let Paul go a little bit. He quickly came back into position, but by then I had moved across slightly, positioning my car central on the track, leaving Paul no option but to slot in tight up to the inside edge. I’d been studying the starts of races on YouTube to get a few ideas, and I’d decided I wanted Paul towards the inside of the track with little room to move about.
I didn’t want to go too early, get in front and get clobbered into the first corner. I couldn’t afford a bent rim or bent shocker, I needed the car 100% for the whole race. Equally, I didn’t want to go too late and let everybody else get a jump on me and hang me out to dry. We slowly approached a patch of tarmac which had been freshly laid to cover a pothole, a point that I’d highlighted to myself on the parade lap and thought would be a good point to go. I booted my foot down on the accelerator. The engine screamed, but I suddenly realised it was too early, I would be on the front of a train going into the first turn. I immediately lifted my foot, but just as I did so, everybody else went – the green flags were waving and the World Final was on!
So it was pedal to the metal again, down the home straight we went. I looked in my mirror and I could see that the foreigners on the third row had not set off quite as quickly as the front four: myself, Paul, Frankie and Tom Harris. I kept wide to let Paul and Frankie go and could see Tom sweeping into the first turn behind me, so I decided to let all three through and slot into the gap before the foreigners. I stayed wide, really wide, but Paul, Frankie and Tom took a wide line too.
All of a sudden the train followed on behind. Cars pushed each other into the corner and I was engulfed. One of the foreigners scraped the back of my bumper, just at the moment where I needed to be making the turn near the fence. It twitched my back end and set me up for a good exit from the corner, so I shot up the inside of Tom a second or two after he had passed me on the inside. I had survived the first turn and only lost one place.
Down the back straight we thundered. Frankie nudged Paul to make him run wide so he could take the lead on the exit of the next corner. I was close enough to go through too as we passed the starter, meaning that in the space of the first lap I had gone from second to third to fourth to third to second!
I was looking at the back of Frankie’s car. He had a reasonable gap, but I wasn’t concerned. I knew that after two or three laps, the time it takes for my tyres to warm up and reach their peak speed and grip, I would be able to catch him and take the lead. That would have to wait a little bit first though, because as I began to close the gap the marshals waved their yellow flags to bring the race to a halt and rescue Rob Cowley from his rolled car.
We lined up on the home straight, waiting for the track to be cleared. I was second behind Frankie. Just above his car, across the start-finish line, was a banner. It read, ‘reach for the stars… believe your own power.’ I stared at the banner. It seemed to be speaking directly to me. I felt good, confident in my car, faster than Frankie. I was persuading myself that I was going to win the World Final.
Once the short stoppage was over, we rolled past the banner, round the turn and onto the back straight. Frankie went really early, more or less as we went into the turn at the end of the back straight, but I was ready and I went with him. In the couple of laps I knew it would take my car to be at full speed, I looked in my mirror. I could see that Dan Johnson was coming through the field quickly, but I was also catching Frankie. We circled the track a couple of times. I was close to where I needed to be to challenge for the lead. A cloud of tyre smoke appeared where Murray Harrison spun wide towards the outside of the first turn, so I aimed for the inside and blasted my way through. That was out of character, usually I would see smoke and back out of it, but this time I went for it. Frankie must have backed off a little, because down the back straight I came alongside him. Then the yellow flags came out again and I saw smoke coming from a car in difficulty. We stopped again. I looked behind and saw that Dan Johnson was now in third place behind me.
I wasn’t aware that there was a problem involving Peter Rees until Guy Parker walked on the track. I overheard him telling Frankie, ‘you can’t get out of your car but you can take your helmet off, it’s going to be a while.’ When he came to my car I asked what was amiss. Guy told me that Peter had crashed and wasn’t in a good way, so I could take my helmet off. I didn’t, I left it on.
I sat on the home straight again, in the same position as before, behind Frankie’s car and looking at the banner. ‘Reach for the stars… believe your own power.’ It took on such significance in my mind. It was the basis of what I had been thinking before the race. It was as though the banner had been put there for me – it even crossed my mind that it might be a figment of my imagination!
A bit later on, Guy came over again and repeated that I could take my helmet off because they were cutting the roof off Peter’s car, but the helmet remained on. I was still, focused, positive. They could take as long as they liked, they could throw whatever they wanted at me, but I wasn’t going to get out of the mindset I was in. The confidence I had in myself and my car would not be diminished.
After a long delay, the race restarted. Frankie went early again and shot away. I got a good enough start to keep up with him, but I had to be careful that the differential didn’t give way. The Transit rear axle I raced with could cause a few problems because the differential didn’t like it if you floored the accelerator to set off or changed gear too fast. I was conscious of not putting too much stress on the back axle on each restart. It was evident straight away that Dan was in a big hurry. I got a little push from him as I was brushing the apex, just as I was turning into a corner. Dan was letting me know his presence, I was under his feet, and he gave me a reasonable tap as we went down the home straight. I had two choices. I could ride my luck and potentially be on the receiving end of a big hit, or I could move aside. This was the World Final, Dan wasn’t going to be hanging around and I didn’t want him putting me out of the race, so I moved out of his way and he came past. I held my line well and settled in behind him, but within another lap or two my car gained speed and I was keen to pass him back. I gave Dan a reasonable nudge, perhaps a little harder than he gave me. Just as I was positioning myself to overtake, the yellows came out again. It seemed that they waved the yellow flags every time I was trying to improve my position!
This time I lined up on the home straight in third position. Frankie was still up front. In second was Dan who was travelling fast. I looked in my mirror. Now I had Andy Smith behind in fourth, then Paul Hines, then Stuart Smith Junior. Andy was the driver who I’d said before the race was the one I had to beat. He was the defending champion and aiming to be the first driver to win the World Final four times in a row. And suddenly he was up my backside.
This was the moment of truth. The next couple of laps would be the defining laps of my race. I still felt confident, but I needed a couple of laps to get to full speed again.
I needed to stay focused. There was that banner again. ‘Reach for the stars… believe your own power.’
Frankie took the third restart in a similar manner to the first two, going early, but I was now expecting it and both Dan and I kept up with him. I looked in the mirror heading down the home straight. Andy was about two car lengths back. Another quick glimpse as I made the turn showed that he braked in a similar place to me going into the corner. He wasn’t diving at me on the first bend. We went down the back straight and into the next turn. Andy didn’t attack again. I kept a good speed through the corner, faster than I had in the early laps after previous starts, so as I passed under the starter and glanced in the mirror I realised that I’d pulled a little distance away. If Andy didn’t attack me on this corner, I thought I would be ok. As I came out of the turn safely again, suddenly I felt up for it. I was relatively safe in third place and driving well.
The next time I passed the starter, I could see that Dan was setting up his car to attack Frankie. In he went, connecting with Frankie’s back bumper, a good hit. Frankie rattled the wall, but Dan’s car was unsettled as well and ran wide. I could see Frankie riding the wall. I stayed close to the inside and as Dan returned to the racing line down the back straight I was only a fraction off him. I looked in my mirror to see Frankie recovering from hitting the wall and rejoining just behind me, in front of Andy. If I was Frankie, I’d have got out of the way. His car was injured, but he was still trying to beat Andy down the back straight. I could tell that something was going to happen.
I concentrated on making a good corner. I breathed in, turned the wheel and just missed the kerb. It was a clean corner with a tight inside line, meaning that if Andy flew at Frankie he wouldn’t hit me as well. I made it round the corner and looked in my mirror as I was going down the home straight. Something had happened because Frankie was no longer there, but I couldn’t see any impact. But that wasn’t my problem. Dan Johnson was.
My good corner allowed me to carry more speed down the home straight and Dan was in striking distance. I knew it would have to be a decisive move. I hit Dan hard, a good knock, as we went into the corner. It was measured. I didn’t want to follow in, but I wanted Dan to hit the fence. For a moment I wondered whether I had got it right. Dan headed wide, but I was carrying a lot of speed too. I concentrated on making the turn and keeping out of the fence, but I was also aware that Dan was hitting it. As I returned to the racing line down the back straight I realised that Dan had kept it going and was within striking distance. But he didn’t take a shot at me. I got another good line through the corner and went past the starter. The World Final was now at half-distance, and I had the lead.
There was no time to think. Into the next corner. Concentrate. I turned through it and was off down the back straight again. A quick glance in the mirror. Dan had dropped back, too far to get a measured shot. Remember to breathe. I knew I had to concentrate on making good laps now. Frankie was parked up and out of the race. I couldn’t see Andy. As far as I was concerned, it was a two-car race between Dan Johnson and me for the World Championship. It was time to see how good my car and I really were.
Every lap, every bend, I put everything into making the car run perfectly into corners. As I caught up to backmarkers I couldn’t afford to wait. There was no option of giving them a tap and hoping that they moved over. Anybody who got in my way was going to get dustbinned. Marco Falkena appeared on the racing line and I sent him into the fence, but I knew I mustn’t hit anybody too hard because I didn’t want the waved yellow flags to come out again. Dan might have taken a bit of a knock and was seeing a few stars, but if had time to recover and started up my backside after a caution, I’d be a sitting duck.
I wasn’t thinking about winning, I was just thinking about driving good laps. Then I saw the starter show the board saying five laps to go. Bleeding hell, I had led for a few laps now, something I’d not done before in a World Final. I could tell that I was pulling away from Dan. This could be it!
I started to count the laps down. I circled the track a few more times and looked up at the starter expecting him to be holding up the last lap board. Two laps to go. Bloody hell, I was counting too quick! Another lap down, now it was the last lap. I wasn’t worried about car failure. I was wondering whether Dan was far enough away. I could tell that he was a reasonable distance from me, but this was the World Final. How brave – or how daft – did Dan feel? I had already experienced Stuart Smith Junior being a boat ride away from me on the last lap of the British Championship and still coming at me, so as I went into the last corner I was watching Dan in my mirror. Surely he couldn’t get at me now? Halfway round, I realised it was impossible for him to touch me.
I could see the chequered flag in the air. I lifted my arm out of the window. I was already celebrating as I crossed the line.
The wave of emotion I expected didn’t come. I was just laughing. As I climbed out of the car I had completely dry eyes. Drivers came over to me, congratulating me. My team came running on. I wanted my family on track to celebrate with me. My dad was there, happy to soak up the atmosphere, although he made clear that this was my moment, not his. My wife was tearful. I said to her, ‘what are you crying for? We just won the World Championship! This is fantastic! This is what I've been doing it all for. This is the goal I’ve been aiming for!’
I was World Champion.