David Pattison’s Diary of a Gentleman Racing Driver: 2018 pre-season
Tolman Motorsport’s David Pattison returns with his acclaimed driver blog ahead of the upcoming British GT campaign. But just how close did he come to switching series, who’s ‘Nick’, and is his trusty BBC weather app still installed?!
It feels like it’s been a long winter. I guess if you enjoy driving racing cars, then winter always feels long. The British GT season finishes in September and doesn’t start again until the following Easter, so it’s six months without a race and all those ‘Beasts from the East’ haven’t helped the time go any quicker!
To fill some of the gap, in November, I had bought a seat in a 24-hour race at COTA in Austin, Texas. It turned out to be an amazing experience, not only because it is an amazing circuit, and it is an AMAZING circuit, but there was also the little matter of winning our class. Big grins all round.
2017 was my fifth racing season and in terms of results, my best ever. We had a new McLaren 570S GT4 which seemed to work well with my driving style. We had finished second in the British GT GT4 Pro/Am championship and had some amazing results including three class wins and three overall podiums. We also had a couple of ‘if only’ races: if only we hadn’t had a puncture, if only we hadn’t run out of brakes. The full gamut of excuses from the driver excuses handbook, which on reflection seems to become a bigger and bigger book as the seasons progress. All targets for the season were achieved and I got pretty quick by the end of it, with some of the trade press saying some nice things about my performances.
When you get to the end of the racing year, the off-season seems to split into two. The first half is about sorting out what you are doing and with who. The second half is about getting ready for the season. The racing industry seems to use the Autosport show as the date when the focus changes.
What was I going to do and who was I going to do it with? Towards the end of the 2017 season my thoughts turned to what to do in 2018. For some time, the plan for 2018 was to enter the European GT4 Series and ‘enjoy’ a range of ‘bucket list’ circuits. But as we got more and more competitive in 2017, and my competitive instincts came to the fore, it became clear to me that the best, and most competitive option, was to carry on in British GT and try to get to the top step in Pro/Am and give the overall championship a real go.
Simple to say, but a lot of things to put into place to then achieve that. A lot of work because we needed to secure a place on the grid, I needed to understand what the team were going to be doing in 2018 and there was the little matter of what my Pro driver, Joe Osborne, was wanting to do in 2018.
So the first half of the off-season was spent putting the team together. Our car had been the quickest McLaren on the grid and, at many of the weekends, was the quickest GT4 car. Fabulous when you have everything and everyone signed up, but in an off-season there will always be a lot of interest from others who want to get some of this competitiveness for themselves.
The team, Tolman Motorsport, who ran my car brilliantly, were being approached by a number of people to run their cars in 2018.
Joe had, very deservedly, won British GT’s Allan Simonsen Award and would undoubtedly be in high demand. He was also talking to McLaren about a works contract and I didn’t know what that would mean for me. Our engineer, Rob, was also a key signing to try and nail down.
On the other hand, my improvement had not gone unnoticed and there were plenty of Pro drivers who were keen to talk to me about the seat in my car. So there was a juggling act to go through and it required time and patience to sort out. Two traits that I was finding increasingly hard to deliver on!
By December we had our place on the grid confirmed, the team were getting closer to knowing what they were doing. Rob was confirmed and Joe was going to be a McLaren works driver, and he said that he could drive with me.
As it turned out Tolman were selected by McLaren to run their Driver Development Programme (DDP). Which was fantastic for the team, but for me it would mean very different things. Instead of being one car out of one, I would now be one of three. That would take some getting used to on my part, and the team would have to operate in a very different manner. I had only shared the team once before and that hadn’t been a particularly happy experience.
Having said all of that, for the first time in my racing career I would be starting the season in the same car, in the same championship, with the same team and the same Pro driver. That felt very good and hopefully I would be able to start the season where I finished 2017: confident and relatively quick.
In previous years I have always been stronger in the second half of the season, which I have always put down to getting used to new cars, changes in Pro driver and different classes of racing. A whole load of driver excuses was rapidly becoming irrelevant.
Having got the team in place and attended the Autosport show, it was now time to start planning the testing schedule and working on some personal fitness goals for the season. Nothing like a regime but the driving is very physically challenging and I wanted to be in good shape for 2018. So a bit of weight loss and a bit more exercise were the requirements of myself.
Oulton Park is the first race weekend, so we needed to test there. In the past we had been to Spain to test to enjoy the warmer weather and drier tracks. We decided against it this year and it turned out to be a good call as most of the Spain/Portugal tests seemed to require a snow plough.
Going into the race weekend we have had three test days. The car felt good, the lap times were good and not surprisingly, we ‘enjoyed’ a wide range of weather conditions. One day at Oulton we were running for four sessions: very wet, wet, greasy and bone dry. Almost four seasons in a day and certainly a proper test. I haven’t done much wet running in the McLaren, so it was a proper day of learning.
At all of the testing, the team was getting used to running three cars. The four development drivers are all really good kids. The atmosphere is collaborative and friendly. Rather annoyingly for me, Charlie, Michael, Lewis and Jordan were not only very respectful, but they were very, very quick. They will be competing in the Silver/Silver class, but I felt like I held my own. I was also pretty close to Joe. I was in a good place but as always at this time of the year, you are never sure where you are pace wise or whether you have done enough testing.
Against what I could see it was good, but those quick Gents that I need to match (I can hear Joe saying ‘beat’) were not around for comparison. Only next Monday at Oulton Park in race one will I have any real clue. Unless, as currently forecast it snows, yet another ‘Beast from the East’.
Looking forward, what does Monday at Oulton Park and the rest of the season hold, and what are the targets for me/us? SRO have put together a really competitive field for 2018 with 36 cars on the grid. Whilst the GT3 field are not directly competitive with us, it is a high class field and there are a huge number of works drivers, and I can’t help thinking they will take very few prisoners as they lap the GT4 cars. Always a contentious time and never perfect. Getting them to understand your confident driving early is really important.
In GT4 there is the largest field ever with 23 cars. For the first time since I have been involved there are more Silver/Silver pairs than Pro/Ams. There are still a couple of cars to declare but it looks like 12 Silver/Silver to 11 Pro/Ams. Not only that, there has been a step change in cars and drivers in the GT4 category. There is a new car from Jaguar with the amazing Invictus Games programme, as well as Mercedes and BMW (what a great noise that makes). Six competitive McLarens on the grid in their second season as well as the proven cars from Nissan, Toyota and Ginetta.
It will be a privilege to be on that grid and I know I will have to be at my very best to compete, and that is exactly what I plan to do. There are a couple of very quick Gents that I need to compete with and are clearly my targets, I suspect there are more that I don’t even know about yet and there is a man in a new Mercedes who I reckon will be quick this year… let’s call him Nick!
What’s the expectation? Joe very helpfully, at the British GT media day press conference, said that anything less than a Pro/Am championship victory would be a disappointing season. I love the British GT Fans Facebook page and last time I looked they had Joe and I as favourites for the overall championship. So not much to live up to then!
From my own perspective there are some personal targets for the season. Yes, we should aim to win the Pro/Am championship. Yes, we should aim for a good finish in the overall championship. In addition to that I want to get quicker in qualifying and get closer to Joe in terms of times across a race stint.
Where will we end up? As ever it will be down to the racing Gods, great preparation, good people, the BBC weather app and a large slice of luck.
But I do this to fulfil an inner passion, the number one priority is therefore to enjoy the challenge and do my very best.
Oulton Park, Easter Monday. I can’t wait!