Our seven cars lined up on the 33 car grid- scattered throughout the pack. Belonging to the Royal Navy Royal Marines Car Racing Team, the cars consisted of mid-engine monsters such as the heavily modified Vauxhall VX220, and small, light and agile hatchbacks including two Mini Cooper’s and a Mk6 Ford Fiesta.
The team being previous, and current, competitors for the overall AFRC Championship, has amongst the best driver line-up on the grid. Made up of current serving members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, these drivers and support crew know how to engineer a superb race car, and how to get the most out of a less than optimal situation on track. This team provides an incredibly friendly side to motor racing and houses many inter-team rivalries between drivers of the same and different classes.
Brands Hatch’s Indy Circuit provided the all-new season opener for the championship and the 750 Motor Club, which was previously held at Oulton Park. Many of the drivers had never driven this circuit before and almost half the field were classed as novices. To be rid of the novice status, drivers must be classified as finishing six championship races- which also qualifies them for the Birkett 6hr Endurance Race at Silverstone at the end of the season.
In a dry-damp qualifying session, the team qualified, at best, in 4th place thanks to Keith Attwood in the Mini Cooper. Followed by a 6th, 11th, 13th, 15th and 20th on the grid for the rest of the drivers.
In the run up to Race 1 of the AFRC at 1200 hours, the focus became the tyres. Whether, it would be dry enough for the slight treaded equivalent of slick dry tyres, or if treaded, road-going equivalent, wet tyres would be needed to prevent possible aquaplaning. The choice would have to be made long before the race start to allow time for a change of four tyres, and time to reach the pre-race assembly area. Most chose wet tyres, but a few went for the riskier strategy of dry tyres that would improve performance later on in the race, as the track surface hopefully improved. This included the RNRM driver of #69 Ford Fiesta, Richard Beaumont.
The cars sat on the grid, as the rain, then sleet, then hailstones came down onto the circuit. All RNRM cars, except the Class B Vauxhall Astra of Adam Dewis not taking the start, were spread through the grid when the countdown began.
Lap 1, somewhat uneventfully became a cautious tip-toe on cold tyres on a soaked circuit. After 8 laps, all RNRM cars still ran with various climbs up towards the front of the field. The Ford Fiesta of Richard Beaumont spectacularly spinning three times at the Surtees and Clearways complex, including one whole 360 spin, highlighted a less than ideal set of weather conditions for the motor racing rookie’s first race. His race eventually ending in the gravel trap on the outside of Paddock Hill Bend after sliding wide. A red flag immediately followed, permanently ending the race with the Guest BMW M3 GTR victorious. In overall 5th place, and 2nd in Class C was Keith Attwood in the Mini with the best result for the team. However, the driver of the race had to go to the rookie, Lewis Pemble, finishing high up the overall order in 17th position also in his first race. The rest of the team finished relatively high up in the order, with no other on track retirements.
The sudden, short showers lasted for the next few hours as different categories of cars rubbered in the circuit. Half an hour or so spent in the garage retrieving gravel and dirt from inside the Ford Fiesta’s brake callipers, suspension and front and rear wheels was essential before the Armed Forces Challenge Race 2 at 1600 hours.
As the start time grew closer, the conditions began rapidly improving, and the track became drier and drier. The decision for the second round seemed simple after Race 1- Wet Tyres only, any alternative would be too dangerous. However, the surprise change in conditions meant only one thing. The tyre strategy was open once again, and slick, dry tyres were rightfully fitted to all Royal Navy cars as any water on the circuit had disappeared.
Differently to other levels of motorsport, the grid order for Race 2 was determined by the second best lap time from the single Qualifying session that morning. This meant that the highest placed team driver would be the Veteran Mark Inman in the overall victory contender Class A Vauxhall VX220, which would start in 3rd place. The first official RNRM member was Gareth ‘Stirling’ Moss, in the white Vauxhall Astra, with a quick second best qualifying time to place him 7th on the grid. Followed closely by Adam Dewis in 8th, Keith Attwood in 11th, Steve ‘Hutch’ Hutchings directly behind, Lewis Pemble in 17th and Richard Beaumont in 24th.
Unfortunately, disaster struck before the race even started as Steve Hutchings in the Peugeot 106 pulled into the garage with a mechanical issue and was classified as a Non-Starter. The race began and the Red Flag was almost immediately waved on the first lap, as the BMW E46 stalled at the front of the pack. As the BMW was recovered and the rest of the field were rearranged in initial grid order, Moss’s Vauxhall pulled into the pit exit and was shortly followed by Keith Attwood’s Mini. Three Royal Navy cars were out of the running before one lap had even been completed.
On the third standing start of the day, all cars got off the grid in relative grid order and lap times began to tumble as cars spread out and drivers pushed on a completely dry track. After 13 laps (4 more laps than the first race), the Royal Marine Veteran Mark Inman, in the Vauxhall VX220, took the chequered flag in 1st place. The three official RNRM finishers finishing in rough qualifying order of Dewis in 7th, Pemble in 19th, and Richard Beaumont in 24th (and 5th in Class D). Compared to the race of survival that Race 1 became, Race 2 was a largely clean race with all the drivers finally being able to get to grips with their machinery at full speed.
The results of Round 1 and 2 of the championship give a mixed up championship order. The order being decided on Performance Index points (Average Lap Time divided by Fastest Lap Time) awarded after a race. Novice drivers are also awarded separate points for the Novice Category. Meaning that Pemble’s consistent Race 1 performance places him incredibly high up (18th and 6th in the Novice Championship).
Significant championship positions include Attwood in a joint 5th place, Moss in 8th, Pemble in 18th, Dewis 19th and Hutchings in 20th. The honorary team Veteran Mark Inman sits in 3rd in the Drivers Championship and 1st in Class A.
The RNRM team lie in 3rd out of four teams in the Team Championship. The team’s target for the relatively short Armed Forces Race Challenge season, is to topple the mighty RAF and Army from the top two positions.