Recent years has seen several highly publicised sim-racers making the step up from the virtual to the real world of motorsport, with names such as Wyatt Gooden, Bryan Heitkotter, John Prather and Jim Caudill, Jr successfully making the transition. What’s different about iRacing member Chris Partridge’s story is his objective of sharing his experience of going from armchair supporter to eyeballs-on-stalks racer by recording his progress for a series of BBC segments. The 42 year-old, a member of the BBC News production team, hit upon the idea for the series of reports following a one-off piece with Anthony Davidson in 2010, when the pair compared their layman and professional driving skills. Encouraged by his 1:19.9 lap time around the Bedford Autodrome circuit (just over four-seconds from Davidson’s), Chris set his project in motion, which culminated in his racing début in the Aston Martin GT4 Challenge of Great Britain at Brands Hatch last weekend.
Over the past year, Partridge has worked his way through simulators provided by the Williams F1 team and Le Mans winner Darren Turner (along with countless laps on his personal iRacing set-up, of course), before getting behind the wheel of the Lagonda GT4 Aston Martin Vantage. With numerous test sessions under his belt, the Englishman gained his racing license with flying colours and soon the time to gauge the returns of a year’s dedication came with his only scheduled appearance in the GT4 Challenge Series. You read correctly: for the past 12 months, Partridge has dedicated most of his free-time to prepare for just one race, the 90 minute ‘endurance’ event on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, co-driven by Lagonda’s full-time racer, Chris Porritt.
Although the previous day’s practice on the Brands Hatch course was blighted with rain, when race-day arrived Partridge was greeted with blue skies and warm sunshine for his first competitive meeting. Leaving qualifying duties to Porritt, the No.77 Aston Martin Vantage posted the fifth fastest time of the morning to earn a third-row slot for the rolling start of the 90 minute race.
As the green flag approached the Lagonda team laid out a strategy that would see Partridge take charge of the Vantage for the final 40 minutes of the race. Despite starting on scrubbed Dunlop tyres, Porritt had the No.77 car up to fourth position within a couple of laps, and was hanging onto the tail of the third-placed Aston Martin. When Porritt had completed 64 laps, steering the Aston Martin up to third position in the process, he headed to pit-lane for fuel, tyres and to hand driving duties to Partridge – who had paced a trench outside of the team garage while waiting for the car’s arrival. Pulling away from the two-minute pit-stop cleanly (the minimum required for the series), Partridge joined the circuit with the Lagonda still in third position a handful of seconds ahead of the fourth-place Aston Martin of Tom Black and Alan Bonner.
“When you’re in the simulator it teaches you what to expect on track.” — Chris Partridge
With his tentative opening laps under his belt, Partridge fell into a groove, as he successively improved his lap times to hit 54 seconds within ten circuits of joining the race (prompting one team manager to share how impressed he was at the performance). By this time, the No.24 Aston Martin had moved onto Partridge’s gearbox, but despite his relative inexperience, the tenacious Brit put up a good clean fight to keep the Vantage Racing Team car at bay for several laps, before succumbing at Paddock Hill bend.
However a lap later (76) with twenty-minutes remaining, Partridge’s race was to come to a premature end, when the Lagonda Aston Martin suffered a suspected gearbox and subsequent prop-shaft failure that saw the No.77 Vantage grind to a halt just after Graham Hill bend.
“The car felt really good and it had loads of grip,” he explained post race. “I was coming up the hill [to Paddock Hill bend] and changing gear, when I suddenly lost drive. I couldn’t get any gears, so I coasted around Druids and pulled it over to the side just before Surtees.”
Although the BBC producer was unable to fulfill his potential and achieve ultimate closure to his experiment, following his race retirement he was able to glean some positive aspects from his performance.
“Obviously the ideal scenario is to finish the race, irrespective of where you finish,” he told inRacingNews. “However, I think the experience I’ve learnt from this weekend has been extraordinary. At the end of it, I can’t help but have full admiration for the guys that do this for real – working on the cars and driving the cars.”
A long-time fan of sim-racing, Partridge was keen to stress how the use of simulators and programs like iRacing are vital tools for any aspiring race driver.
“The simulation training was very important in that it helped me prepare for the position of the track,” offered the Englishman. “It helped me determine my lines and really the layout, that was the most important thing; I could predict which corners were coming up, and when things were happening, how to keep moving forward. That’s where simulators come into their own – it’s obviously very different when you’re in the car, but when you’re in the simulator it teaches you what to expect on track.”
Despite Partridge setting on his journey with the aim of competing in just one race, he hasn’t ruled out a return to racing in the near future.
“It’s heartening that the team afterwards said they wanted me back … so the story isn’t entirely over just yet!” he coyly said this week.
You can see Chris’ race report on Sunday’s BBC Breakfast Show (BBC1 One, Sunday September 4th 6am – 9am, available later on the BBC website), and follow his rise to the ranks of race driver via the following links on the BBC News website.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11117061 (Anthony Davidson comparison)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11701657 (F1 and motor sport simulators)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13828585 (The GT4 project)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14175879 (First time testing the GT4 Aston Martin Vantage)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14731045 (Taking the ARDS licence exam)
Photos by Xynamic.com