My First Win

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It’s been just over a week since I won my first race in Motorsport and the thought of it still brings a massive smile to my face. Any racing driver will tell you just how much that first win means to them and how much confidence it gives you. I know it sounds like a cliché but I feel like I’ve finally gotten that monkey off my back.

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I didn’t test the day before the race weekend as we were at the Wings For Life  Cord Club annual fundraising dinner the night before testing and didn’t get in until the early hours. Instead, I tested on the Tuesday of the week of the race, albeit on the GP Circuit. The race was on the National Circuit at Silverstone but I felt testing on the GP layout would be sufficient as only one corner divides the GP on to the National route and I had raced it the year before so knew the lines. Testing on the Tuesday was primarily to test my brakes which I’d been struggling with for the last few races of the summer which saw me pull out of my final two races. Luckily, after testing and checking nearly every part of the braking system on my car, my mechanics at EMC managed to figure out the issue. I was so grateful that my brakes were working as they should be again that I only did two sessions of testing. There’s nothing worse than brake issues to chip away at your racing confidence so I was really excited about the prospect of racing a fully functioning Cayman S again at the Walter Hayes event that weekend.

We were out early for qualifying on the Sunday and it was greasy. The track wasn’t warm and it was a damp day, although definitely not wet so I went out on slicks. The Cayman is so well set up that it generates heat quite quickly in the hard compound slicks so I was pretty much good to go straight out of the box. My lap timer was still set up for the GP loop so I had no idea what my lap times were. I’d done a 1.06 the previous year but in warmer and dry conditions so I estimated that I’d maybe managed a 1.08 and that I may be third or fourth. As I came into the pit lane I saw Alex my mechanic jumping around like a lunatic telling me that I’d qualified on pole. I really couldn’t believe it! I really didn’t feel like I was driving quickly at all and I wasn’t even flat through Luffield due to the greasy conditions (although I probably should have been) so was even more surprised to learn I’d managed a 1.06. Katie Milner had qualified only a tenth behind me in her Ginetta. She’d beaten me in the BWRDC race the previous year so I knew it was all to play for that afternoon.

The forecast for the afternoon was dry and we were called early to head out to the holding grid. As I left my pit garage it started to rain and I had about a minute to make the decision whether to go onto wets or stick with slicks tyres. My race coach from last year and good friend Brad Philpot had come to support me at the race and all I had to do was look at him to know what to do, ‘put me on wets’ I shouted as I quickly drove back into the garage. About five minutes later I headed towards the holding grid with a very red-faced and out-of-breath Alex (my mechanic) and I instantly started to get a bit nervous. I hadn’t felt nerves all day until the marshall held out the ‘2 green flag laps’ board, as is standard procedure before the start of a wet race to allow you more time to get some heat into your tyres. It suddenly dawned on my that I would be leading the cars round the circuit for these warm up laps! What if I went too quickly? What if I got the amount of laps wrong? What if I forgot where the track went?! I had never been in this position before so all these thoughts went through my head as the whistle went for the start procedure of the race.

When I pulled up onto the start grid I could barely see the gantry where the five second board would be displayed because of my sun strip and cage! I could see the lights though so as soon as I heard Katie next to me start to rev her engine, I did the same. With the PDK gearbox and radial hand controls I have to engage the gear by applying around two thousand revs whilst keeping the brake firmly pressed to get away cleanly. Too much throttle overpowers the brake and during my last race at Silverstone I jumped the lights by a good two seconds! I said to myself inside the car, ‘my god you better get this start right!’. As the lights went out my wheels were spinning up on the wet tarmac but I got away well. As I came through Copse for the first time I looked at the clear track in front of me and for the first time in my four years of racing I was leading a race! As I got onto the Wellington Straight I’d pulled a bit of a gap but by the time I’d got to the Pits Straight to pass the timing line for the first time, Katie was right on my tail. This was going to be the race of my life! It was really wet and in our haste to get wet tyres on we didn’t have time to soften off the suspension. Despite this, the car handled really well and Katie and I spent the first couple of laps testing out where the grip was. About four laps in, my windscreen started to fog up and I realised that in my excitement at starting on pole, I had forgotten to put my de-mister on. With one hand on the steering wheel, one hand operating the brake and throttle and Katie right in my engine bay I had to decide when I could sacrifice a hand to switch on my de-mister without losing the lead…

The turning on of the de-mister resulted with Katie passing me at the end of the Pits Straight. She then proceeded to get away from me which forced me to really up my game. I raced hard for the next couple of laps and caught her up into Brooklands. We were stronger in different places: I was able to turn in on the ABS on my car which Katie’s didn’t have, whereas the weight of Katie’s car being nearly half that of mine allowed her to really put the power down coming out of the fast corners with less risk of momentum oversteer. About six or seven laps after Katie had overtaken me, I reclaimed the lead of the race as I passed her down Wellington Straight. We negotiated traffic for a few laps and then I started to pull away putting in the fastest lap of the race on the penultimate lap. I crossed the line five seconds clear and I have never been so excited to see that chequered flag.

As I came into the pit lane, I’ve never seen so many grins from my friends and mechanics. Everyone was absolutely beaming. I still couldn’t quite believe I had won my first race! Katie immediately came over to my car to congratulate me and in my excited bewilderment I extended my hand to offer some kind of formal handshake! She brushed it aside and gave me a massive hug and said ‘well done’ followed by her dad Jonny coming over to congratulate me. I have huge amounts of respect for Katie and her family and I was so grateful of their support and genuine happiness for me achieving a win even if it was at the cost of Katie coming second. Katie has won many races during her career and I know that she knew exactly how I felt at that moment. Racing friendships are are born out of a love of a sport that only those competing can ever fully appreciate and the support racing friends give to each other is incredibly important. I was so happy to find out that Katie won the handicapped race with me taking second place (although, I did get chided by Andrew and Brad that I didn’t come first in the handicapped race – oh the irony!) . It was a great end to both of our seasons and I was so happy to share the BWRDC podium with a good mate once again.

It’s been the most incredible year both in racing and with my FIA involvement and a win was the perfect way to end it. I’ve learnt a huge amount about myself this year and feel like I’ve come a long way since last season. Last year was the toughest year I’ve experienced in sport and I was so close to calling it quits with racing for good. I’d put so much pressure on myself that I had really forgotten what I loved about the sport and started to question why I had ever even started it in the first place. Pressure applied in the right way can drive people to achieve great things, but put too much on your own shoulders and it can be really destructive.

When I was first injured, people questioned whether I would ever be able to live on my own and no one really expected me to get the grades I needed for university. Even my teachers at school tried to persuade me to take my A-Levels over three years instead of two thinking that the pressure would just be too much for me. Through my university years and when I first started playing wheelchair rugby I developed a massive chip on my shoulder about failure, I was petrified of it. When I first started racing, people would suggest that I may struggle against non-disabled drivers because I only had one hand on the wheel or didn’t change gear. I just simply wouldn’t accept this. I accepted that I might struggle because of my lack of experience, that the speed of the car might be too much for a novice or that a slick tyre championship wasn’t the right choice for entry level – these were all things I could improve upon with practice. My injury and how it dictates the way I control the car is fixed and won’t change therefore trying to point the finger at that when times were tough was not an option for me. The resulting pressure I’d put on my shoulders not to fail was enormous so this season I decided to do things my way and not to care about what anyone else did or expected me to do. I decided that none of the results would matter and the only thing I would focus on was having fun. The results that followed were so rewarding.

The most valuable thing I have learnt this season is that I haven’t achieved what I have in racing in spite of disability, I’m where I am in life because of it. I have asked myself; do my stories of success reflect a woman who, after breaking her neck at sixteen years old, saw no future for herself? Do they resemble someone who is absolutely petrified of failure? and almost threw away a career in racing when times got tough last year? The answer is yes, they do. The reason for my success is because of my failures, because each time we fall down we learn how to get up bigger, better and stronger for the next time. Failing isn’t a weakness, it’s a tool to make you stronger. Everyone has it in them to succeed, I’ve just managed to find that catalyst that makes me realise I want it badly enough.

I’ve been in this sport for less than four years. In the space of the last twelve months, I’ve won the Lord Wakefield Trophy, presented the third place trophy to Kimi Räikkönen on the podium at the British Grand Prix, started working for the FIA and now I’ve just won my first race. Believe me when I tell you that anything is possible.

Photos by Jakob Ebrey and Marc Waller