In this piece, amateur racing driver Mathieu Gauthier-Thornton takes us through his journey into motor racing, starting at the world-famous Silverstone circuit in 2021 as a competitor in the Clubmans Sports Prototype Championship. We will be following Mathieu throughout the 2022 season and sharing some of his insights from the sharp end of the grid in future articles.
Motor racing. It’s something I’d wanted to do since I was barely old enough to think. The fire was lit at an early age, with Murray Walker blasting out of the TV at weekends and motorsport highlight tapes on repeat during the week. It was only a matter of time before the bug bit. I wasn’t sure how, when or if I would ever actually get behind the wheel, but I knew I’d throw everything at it if I did.
As is common, funding this hobby was an impossible reality for me growing up, so I sought my thrills through playing almost every racing game available on the PlayStation and eventually the PC. I came close to achieving my dream in 2015 after qualifying for Nissan’s GT Academy, a competition in which Europe’s top Gran Turismo players battled it out for a seat in a factory Nissan GT-R GT3 car. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
Until that point the only real track experience I’d had was the occasional blast in a rental kart. My inexperience cost me as I failed to realise brakes and tyres required heat, and lots of it, before they start to perform. It wasn’t something that Gran Turismo focussed much on at the time, so in the crucial final shootout against my UK rival (and now close friend), I braked too late for the cold brakes, sailing past the apex into the dusty green abyss of Yas Marina’s apron. Trying to rectify this, I then proceeded to completely overdrive the car for the remaining two laps I had, and my chance was blown. Lesson well and truly learned.
Five years later, however, my luck changed. I won a ‘Season’s Racing’ competition with Vision Motorsport Engineering (VMEP), giving me the chance the race a Phantom P94 CSP2 for the 2021 Clubmans Sports Prototype Championship season. The competition cost £250 to enter and consisted of several stages. The first was indoor karting, where points were awarded according to a formula that compared the best lap with the three closest laps in that session. Fortunately for me, we were allowed two cracks of the whip, as my first session was shared with an enthusiastic, yet slow and almost certainly alcohol-fuelled 40th birthday, making fast and/or consistent laps almost impossible…
Stages two and three were completed at VMEP’s HQ in Stratford, using the on-site F3 simulator running rFactor. Stage 2 consisted of a session once again assessing pace and consistency in relation to the fastest lap in the sim, measured on a critical, one-shot 10 lap run. To practice for this, I put together a sim racing setup at home as close as I could get to VMEP’s, and drove Donington in 10 lap chunks, critically analysing myself each time. Stage 3 was a similar affair, but with the added twist of an unknown setup change for which we had to give detailed feedback on handling – something that was to come in useful later in the year. After the scores had been totted up, I’d won by a narrow margin. I found out in the early stages of 2020’s initial lockdown, and could scarcely believe it when some champagne, a framed certificate and a handwritten letter from the team owner arrived at my door.
For those unfamiliar with a Clubmans car, they’re UK club racing’s equivalent of a Le Mans prototype albeit with the engine in the front. With tightly fitting bodywork, large wings and slick tyres, these cars far outperform their price bracket. As at Le Mans, it’s all about multi-class racing here: CSP1 for cars up to 200bhp with flexible engine choice; CSP2 for cars up to 130bhp using a sealed MG K series unit, and CSPA and CSPB for older, pre-’81 cars using Ford’s 1700 and 1600 engines. The championship also visits some of the UK’s best circuits, such as Donington, Silverstone and Brands Hatch. I had a test in the car at Donington shortly before my first race and the performance on offer immediately stood out. 130bhp doesn’t seem a lot, but when it only has to move 420kg, it is. In comparison to my only other experience in a slick-shod, downforce car (as an instructor occasionally driving PalmerSport’s JPLM), the Clubmans car felt infinitely more agile due to the weight difference.
The prospect of my first race weekend was tantalising yet daunting in equal measure. It was Silverstone, after all, and we were racing on the shorter National layout. With 30 cars entered in differing classes, track space would be at a premium too. After thousands of laps of solo practice in the simulator, and numerous sessions with friends on iRacing to brush up on my racecraft, it was time to race. Was I prepared? I thought so, although there’s nothing out there that will prepare you for the adrenaline hotpot that is the starting grid.
Qualifying morning came. The track was wet, and it was my first time in the car in those conditions. It turned out to be an absolute joy, and any initial trepidation disappeared as I began to feel the slightly blurred limit, the lower speeds bringing mechanical grip back into the fore over aerodynamics. This was aided by a late setup change to soften the car, allowing it to roll more on the suspension and therefore generating more weight transfer at lower speeds, which in turn helped the tyres to grip.
There are multiple challenges in a lap around Silverstone. The aerodynamics work to great effect at Copse due to the high speeds, requiring commitment and trust that the aero will get you through; Luffield and Brooklands saw me searching the road for grip at lower speeds, seeking out the lesser used areas of the track to avoid the greasy racing line like a snowboarder looking for the fresh powder down the mountain.
I held pole for the entire session, bar the last lap – damn! As the track dried, I felt the wet tyres beginning to overheat and backed off to preserve them for the weekend. When wet weather tyres overheat, it feels almost as if someone is turning up the power steering assistance, as the rubber tread blocks lose the battle to retain their shape and melt into submission. Second it was for me, and I returned to the pits happy, although somewhat frustrated I’d missed out on pole in my first race.
Soon I was on the starting grid. Time seems to accelerate exponentially the closer it comes to lights out. You begin by slowly getting changed, before finding yourself rushing to get to the collecting area in time, scything through the paddock and parking up in order ready to take to the circuit. Then everything you do is fully focused on the job at hand. Extinguisher? Check. Camera? Check. Ignition on, and off you go for the formation lap.
The next phase is critical to a successful start, as you work the tyres and (more importantly) the brakes hard to get some heat into them. It feels cruel and uncomfortable to drive a lap holding the brakes to heat the discs, but it pays dividends when you use them properly into turn one. This was especially important for me, as I’d been one of the minority who had gambled on slick tyres in response to the drying conditions. Every degree of heat mattered, as it would quickly be lost after driving through even one large wet patch. A wet tyre will naturally generate heat quicker in these conditions, as the deeper tread pattern moves around; a slick needs to be worked hard from the off.
My heart rate steadily rose as I went round the track, reaching a high as I settled into my grid slot. As the lights came on, the revs rose in sync around me. Time slows down. You see the heat haze radiating off the other cars around, feel every vibration as the revs settle at around 5000, and smell the fumes. As the lights disappear, the revs momentarily drop before crescendoing as the grid accelerates.
I was off, and had time for a quick glance either side to gauge the space around me before looking ahead and seeing a Class 1 car rushing up, having stalled on the grid. I ducked left at the last second. My senses were in hyperdrive as I tipped the Phantom into turn one, making sure to stay off-centre to avoid the slew of damp rubber on the racing line, which would have sent me spinning out of control. A good move, it turned out, handing me some momentum to catch the faster cars ahead.
I’d retained my position and had also picked off a couple of Class 1 cars ahead struggling in the mixed conditions. As the track dried and the sun shined, I really started to make hay. Over the next few laps, the heat (and my confidence) in my tyres increased. I set up a move around the outside for the lead into Luffield, braking late on the drying line to sweep past the #84 car who was wrestling with overheated wet weather tyres. This was it – I was leading my first race! A brief moment of excitement ensued in the cockpit as I smiled, knowing what had just happened. The sky had other ideas, unfortunately. While I pushed hard to build a 10-second gap, it was soon to be stolen by a sudden and mighty downpour two laps from the end of the race.
It wasn’t just a change in the weather either. As my slicks lost all temperature, handling the car became a knife-edge proposition. My senses were on alert, ready to react with countersteer to combat sudden losses of grip caused by the increasingly wet areas of the track. My entire approach changed, now braking earlier and more gently to avoid the almost undetectable lock-ups due to the new lack of friction. With three laps left of the race, and the other cars out there on wets, I knew a win was unlikely. But I also knew I had to keep it on the circuit to finish in the increasingly difficult conditions.
While flailing on corner exit beginning the last lap of the race, I was passed round the outside by the #84, but I managed to bring it home in second place. All in all, it was a successful first race in some of the most difficult driving conditions I’ve ever encountered. Crossing the line, I glanced across to see the team alongside my family watching on and cheering. I then backed off to begin the cooldown lap. The realisation had hit me; I’d just taken part in my first real race. The boyhood dream was off to a flying start.
For more information and to see the race calendar for 2022, you can catch all the action at https://www.msvracing.com/cars/race-series/clubmans-sports-prototype-championship/
With thanks to Colin J Smith (https://www.colinjsmith.co.uk) and Joy Richings for permission to use their wonderful images.