Ash MillerDriver Columns

Living The Dream Leg Four: Reaching Brands, a camper floor, satellite spotting and a grid of Clios

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Ash Miller in the UK
Ash Miller in the UK

There are moments in life that give off a certain vibe. That edgey feeling that yes, you are doing something right. That gut instinct that gives you validation that you are pretty well aligned with the universe around you.

Come the Thursday prior to Brands, whether it be the freshly cut grass on the Brabham straight, the summery sunshine, or the sounds of footsteps pacing the tarmac – whatever they mean together, that feeling of arriving at a place you feel you belong was palpable. Bathing in almost liquid golden sunlight, sitting on the straight awaiting Danny Buxton’s arrival for a track walk, the realisation of time and place hit home.

The drive to Brands itself was eventful enough. Accompanied by Ant all the way from the Whorton-Eales family home in Footherly, having spent a sunny Wednesday afternoon wandering around green fields to unwind before the weekend’s work, we hit the road to find the new i10 replacement had a rumble in it that caused the rear doors to insist on parting company with the vehicle above 80mph. And if that wasn’t action-packed enough, Ant insisted on keeping me awake by applying the handbrake at roughly that speed, at sporadic intervals. Job done, I guess.

Walking the track upon arrival with Ant, then again with Danny later on, you quickly realise that Brands Hatch GP is, in every way, something special. Between the intense dips, mountainous rises, blind apexes and sweeping bends, only the truly brave wheel wizards get the most out of the circuit. Used only 4 times a year, joining the grid and getting a chance to race this spectacular lace of tarmac is a genuinely exciting experience.

Track memorized and notes taken, it was off to the Whorton-Eales camper for an early night’s rest. The family had once again opened their doors accommodatingly and allowed me to make their camper floor home.

Friday arrived amid a buzz of fever pitch, as British Touring Car teams and their supporting acts assembled their cars ready to do battle. And come 11.40, it was time to find out what a Clio Cup car was like.

Out of the pits to get to grips with the car for the first time, up through the sequential gears, feeling the car underneath me as I sunk into the Paddock Hill dip, had me addicted. Those first few laps compare only to Bathurst for sheer thrill. And right from the outset, it was into the deep end.

Having never seen the circuit, raced a front wheel drive, used a sequential box, or driven a left hand drive, I was happy with 14th quickest in first practice, just 1.4 seconds shy of the pacesetter Paul Rivett. Learning how the car handles differently was in equal parts engaging as it was exciting, and after the first session, it was into the Scuderia Vittoria truck for a look at the data.

Overlaying the data against lead regular Luke Wright, it was interesting to see the comparisons. The margin between front runner and mid pack was a matter of just a few tenths in key places – something that, in a series so tight, getting right becomes vitally important.

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On board with Ash at Brands Hatch

After the first couple of practice sessions were done and dusted, the next few hours were spent in quiet reflection, studying the data and seeing where time can improve. The next big challenge – Qualifying.

Right from the outset the pace was ferocious, as the front runners swapped times, and having posted a best time over a second up on my practice efforts, I was feeling confident. Indeed the times reflected as such – 12th place on the grid, just 0.7 seconds behind pole man Rivett, meant that I was in with a realistic chance of a great result. Indeed I qualified just two tenths behind Ant, who had lined up just ahead in 11th.

With aspirations of full-time racing over the other side of the world very much alive, there’s no rest for the wicked.

The opening few moments of Race One are moments I’ll never forget. As the cars heightened their V6 revs and readied themselves to pounce, it was down to business. Off the start the Clio clutch was kind, enabling a chance to steal some spots and come into first Paddock Hill, then Druids, in 8th spot. However, mayhem broke loose as Scuderia’s team leader Wright found Jack Goff’s door ambling him aside, and the two ploughed into the tyres on the exit. Meanwhile, in the chaos, my gauge on distances was skewed by the left-hand-drive, and as Graham Hill bend rushed towards my #0, the front of the car found the back of James Dixon.

Both cars were pitched broadside across the track, but with cold tyres working just as much for as against us, I stuck the boot in to get the car lined up square with the track once again. For the field following, though, it was Them 1, Ash 0. Finally able to find the right gear, I tailed the pack down in 16th spot.

The remaining laps wound off as the charge started, moving up the order and making the most of the pace of the car. By race end I was into 12th, just a couple of metres behind fellow Scuderia debutant Chris Smith. Finish first race mission – complete.

As the celebrations ended and the sun fell, the chance came to find some time to walk the track yet again, and as darkness fell over Brands, absorbing the electric atmosphere became impossible to avoid. A whole new sky above, sans Southern Cross, was a curious sight, particularly when Ant and I observed satellites moving across a crystal clear sky.

Once the light of morning dawned, the day swelled with optimism after a good showing in Race One. In fact it swelled so much it broke records, with a the temperature erupting to a balmy 29.9 degrees C – officially London’s hottest October day.

The only thing hotter than the airborne heat was the racing, and come Race Two, with a championship at stake, the Clio Cup field was electric.

The field were let go for the final time, and although making an average getaway this time, managed to hold station in 12th place. Bumping and grinding of panels aside, the field threaded their way through the opening lap, as the pace rocketed at fever pitch.

Right from the outset I had a battle on my hands, as first Chris Smith, then Andy Gorton put pressure on my #0. However, the race panned out beautifully, as positions came and I slowly started to work my way up the order.

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Come mid-race, the battle was with Nicolas Hamilton, who defended every bit like his Formula One World Champion brother, and provided some fantastic clean racing. With the laps counting down, I could barely believe that this is where I am, doing what I’m doing, racing who I’m racing. And loving every second.

Of course, those were thoughts that came later, as the battle raged onwards. Tyres began to disagree with my driving, and as the final lap approached, Gorton managed to find a way past, the life of my front tyres having died a couple of laps beforehand.

I crossed the line in 13th, merely 15 seconds behind the race winner, and having achieved the aim of finishing the races for the weekend. The lap speed was only a second off the race winner – and that, from a car that had never seen my fingertips before. Game, set, match.

As the sunlight gave way unwillingly to the moon’s advances, the sound of trucks and cars being boxed and shifted took over the cooling air. Once done with the post-race analysing and celebratory shoulder patting, the final goodbyes to the Scuderia team took hold. It was a pleasure working with such a professional and well-prepared team, and I owe them my many thanks for a brilliant weekend of racing – particularly to Danny Buxton and Tom Ferrier, who orchestrated the mammoth 4-car job with success.

With cars away and the Whorton-Eales mobile hotel ready to rumble, we had time for one final meal at the circuit’s restaurant before downing our drinks and hitting respective roads. If there’s a thanks to be given, it’s the Whorton-Eales family, who gave their space and time to accommodate a random Aussie adventurer. I don’t think Lichfield, or anywhere else for that matter, would have been quite so interesting without Mark, Sandra, Dan, Jodi and of course, Ant.

Still buzzing from the weekend, I camped back in London with the Sanders family one more time, and got to watch the telecast back on ITV which was, to say the least, very cool. An early night, followed by a good sleep, and all of a sudden, it was back to Heathrow, and back onto a plane for the long haul return to Australia.

After two weeks of unparalleled adventure, mischief, challenge, excitement and breathtaking memories, coming back again seems somehow wrong.

And, as I travelled thousands of metres above the earth, the mind was already shifting to 2012 – and, if the results over the last two weeks are anything to go by, the next piece of the adventure. With aspirations of full-time racing over the other side of the world very much alive, there’s no rest for the wicked.

No rest – but, occasionally, a few moments to grasp at memories made during this round, and let them fuel the fire that burns ever brighter, in the quest to fulfill a dream.

Live it, even.

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