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FEATURE + GALLERY: Behind the scenes on raceday with Fenny Compton-based Century Motorsport at the Silverstone 500



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THE Herald got a behind-the-scenes look at just what a raceday is like for Century Motorsport. The Fenny Compton team headed to Northamptonshire for the Silverstone 500 – the third round of the British GT Championship – and sports editor CRAIG GIBBONS was there to take in what happens in the lead up to the lights going out and during the race.

IT'S just gone 7am on the morning of the race and already all hands are on deck, as Century Motorsport have just four-and-a-half hours before the Silverstone 500 gets under way.

There's no calm before the storm – that's because the storm arrived the moment the team arrived at the historic circuit a few days previously.

The garage is a hive of activity, with mechanics working on all four beautiful looking cars before they head out for the 15-minute warm-up session at 9am.

The No. 90 (Will Burns and Jack Brown) and No.9 (Tom Rawlings and Chris Salkeld) BMW M4 GTRs look superb, as does the gold-coloured No. 21 Aston Martin Vantage AMR GT4 (David Holloway and Bradley Ellis).

But it's the No. 91 BMW M4 GT3 (Betty Chen and Angus Fender) that really takes my eye. Century Motorsport are the only team to be running this car and it's one brilliant piece of machinery.

Excitement is certainly building for the championships' most famous race, but to escape some of the madness, the Herald managed to squeeze in a chat with team owner Nathan Freke and engineer Rob Sharp after a quick wake-me-up coffee.

"The hours leading up to a race can be quite stressful for a driver," said Freke. "I've been there myself and you can get really nervous.

"There's a massive range of experience not just on the grid, but within the team too. It's important we try to keep the drivers in a good head space and keep them calm.

"We talk them through the start procedure and strategy. We come up with as many permutations as possible so it's impregnated in their brain.

"The cars then need to be constantly checked. We're looking at fluid levels, making sure nuts and bolts are as tight as they can be, making alignment set-up changes and doing any final tweaks."

Inside the cosy team lorry where we are chatting, Sharp is busy number-crunching on his laptop and it's at this point in the day when the role of an engineer can get quite hectic.

"For me right now, it's about making sure we have all the data collected from previous sessions, what we're doing with tyre life, the expected pace of the car for a stint, checking the driver is briefed on strategy and what the pit crew are doing," he said.

"I'm also looking at whether we have the correct tyres to go on the car and the right amount of fuel to go into when it comes into the pits.

"It can always be a little bit hectic trying to chase the set-up of the car and fine tune it to find that last little bit of lap time.

"However, the guys in the garage are absolutely great and everyone knows what they're doing. Everything tends to run quite well."

As the clock strikes 9am, the team's two BMW M4 GT4s, the Aston Martin Vantage AMR GT4 and BMW M4 GT3 make their way to the track for the 15-minute warm-up, but almost immediately they're back in for pitstop simulations and there's no doubting this is a critical element in endurance racing.

Unlike Formula One, it's not about having the fastest pit stop, as doing this could land you with a penalty, as Freke explained.

"You have three mandatory pitstops so each driver has an equal amount of stints, and each driver has to have driven a minimum of 80 minutes throughout the race," he said.

"When it comes to pitstops, we are not racing against the clock. We have a minimum stop time which is fairly generous. When the car comes into the pits, it triggers a timer and that's a little over two minutes.

"So what happens is, the driver will get out, shuts the door and comes behind the line, then the fuel goes in. Nothing else happens until 48 seconds when we can then service the car, get it up on the jacks, take the wheels off, put new ones on and then change the driver.

"By the time that is all done, you've got about five seconds to drop the car, start it and then release it.

"If you are 0.001s under that minimum time, you get a drive-through penalty. If you're under that time by ten seconds, you get a stop-go penalty of ten seconds.

"Obviously, if you're over that time, you're losing time to competitors, so we factor in a one-second buffer.

"The GT4 cars have five wheel studs so the minimum time for them is even longer. The car is just sat there and you think 'what is going on?', but the crew are just dialling the counter in.

"It's a cardinal sin to make an error in the pitstop phase because it means you've wrecked a driver's race. They pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to race and if the team they're employing makes an error like that, it's a big red flag."

Pitstops are very well rehearsed and just as Freke explained, time almost seems to stand still when the driver gets out of the car. It's a very regimented process and two minutes seems like an age when you're used to seeing Formula One crews finish what they need to do within the blink of an eye.

When all that's said and done, the cars make their way back out on track for a final running before the autograph session with fans outside the garages at 10am.

Suddenly, the paddock is filled with thousands upon thousands of people who want to meet their favourite drivers. All this adds to the excitement and with just one hour to go until the race gets under way, the drivers head back into their respective garages to get suited and booted.

It's not long until the cars start to make their way out onto the grid and it's at this time when drivers are fully briefed on strategy and any potential eventualities so that nothing comes as a surprise.

"A lot of the strategy is pre-planned," said Sharp. "We always have a plan so that nothing out on the track surprises us. If a safety car comes out, we have to think about what we're going to do, but also what the other teams are going to do as, ultimately, they're the ones we are racing.

"It's just about making sure I know what to do at each stage of the race."

So how does strategy work when the race gets under way?

"You don't get live data from the cars, but the drivers can tell us a certain amount from the steering wheel," explained Sharp. "It tells them about fuel, so we can work out whether we can extend the stint or not. When the tyres come off, we can look at what the tyre life was and think whether we can push tyres further or not.

"The steering wheel also provides timing data and the big one from that is we can see whether the driver is on the pace and whether or not to pit earlier than planned to get the benefit of new tyres.

"If the track temperature suddenly goes up, tyres wear quicker which dictates stint length, so there's that as well.

"Strategy is not an exact science, but we're getting towards that in terms of the parameters we have got to play with."

By now the cars are lined up on the grid and as team owner, Freke admits the butterflies before the lights go out are much worse than when he was a racing driver.

"They're 100-times worse," he said. "If something goes wrong, I am the guy they come to, it's my head that is on the block, so my level of stress is uncomfortable.

"It's a disaster zone if a car doesn't finish. If it's mechanical, you know you're in for a drilling. If it's a crash, then you know you're going to be telling the lads they can't have Monday off and will have to cancel their plans for the week to fix the car."

Suddenly, the roaring of engines is heard on the track as the cars go round on their reconnaissance lap before the rolling start. For a short while, the pit straight is silent – and then the action starts.

But in the garage, there's a strange sense of calm. In essence, the team has done their job and it's now down to the drivers to perform.

Everyone is gathered around the TV screens watching the live action as well as the timing pages, taking in as much information as they can.

In the short time of calm, we head out to Copse corner to take in some of the action. There's Lamborghinis, McLarens, BMWs, Mercedes-AMGs, Aston Martins as well as single entries from Ginetta, Toyota, Bentley Ford and Audi, each with their own engine tone.

The difference is so distinguishable that even when sitting back inside the garage and hearing the cars roar down the pit straight, you can eventually tell which manufacturer is which – only those who are real motorsport nuts will probably understand what I mean!

It isn't until 45 minutes into the race that the flurry of activity in the garage begins, as the team's four cars slowly come in one by one for their first mandatory stop.

Unlike in the warm-up, there's no room for error.

The driver jumps out, slams the door shut and sprints to the side so the fuel can be put in. But as one crew member can only carry so much weight, there's a rolling queue so as one member empties one can, another member is on hand to rush in and empty the next one.

It’s essentially a fuel conveyor belt and it works really well. When that's all done, it's time for the tyres to be changed and the new driver to get himself buckled in. The cars are dropped and off they go again.

Once again there's a sense of calm and this process repeats itself until all mandatory pitstops have been completed. Thankfully, there seems to be little drama for the Century Motorsport team and all four cars are running without any noticeable issues.

With 20-30 minutes remaining, the excitement started to build as the No. 90 BMW M4 GT4 driven by Burns and Brown were in contention for a second-placed finish in class, while the Aston Martin AMR GT4 pairing of Holloway and Ellis were also looking good for second place in their Pro-Am category.

It's an anxious watch and every minute feels like an hour, with more and more people gathering around the screens.

From being able to hear a pin drop, the air is then filled with applause as the two cars secure their places on their respective podiums.

Everyone rushes from the garage to the entry of the pitlane where the podium ceremony will take place, with champagne sprayed everywhere as the drivers celebrate their achievements.

Once all that's done and dusted, everyone heads back to the garage for a quick debrief and then it's time to pack up and go home.

Unfortunately for Century Motorsport, the amended result showed Burns and Brown were given a 40-second penalty in lieu of a ten-second stop-go penalty for causing a collision. This demoted them to fourth in the GT4S class, a disappointing result after what had been a brilliant weekend for the No. 90 car.

The next round of the British GT Championship takes place at Donington Park on 28th-29th May.



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