VLN4: Ring of Fire

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Just in case you didn’t see it already on one of the world’s biggest car websites, here’s what went down (or up) at VLN4…

“In all my years at racetracks around the world, there’s one button I’ve never pressed. But this weekend, I pushed it, and I pushed it, and I kept pushing it until I could push it no more.

REWIND: It’s VLN4, the fourth round of the 2016 VLN championship (at 40-years old it’s the 3rd oldest racing championship, losing seniority only to F1 and NASCAR). It’s a big deal here, 10 endurance races on the combined Nürburgring GP and Nordschleife circuits. Top level cars are factory GT3 machines and SP-X wonders like the Glickenhaus SCG-001. At the back of the grid are cars like ours. But the weather at the Nürburgring this weekend is ideal for our mighty Milltek Fiesta ST. Cold for the turbo, and wet for our relative lack of power. Combine that with a bit of local knowledge, and my co-driver Lucian ‘Luke’ Gavris and me are feeling a tad optimistic about the possible outcome of the race. Despite having the smallest motor on the grid, we’re confident there’s a top 50% finish on the cards.

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The first qualifying session starts a little late, just after 9am. Half way around the lap, Luke’s on the radio, asking me how it is.

“F*&#ing GREAT!” I yell at him with excitement ringing in my voice. “This laptime is screwed because of the Code-60s, there are rivers across the track, but the Fiesta’s got good traction and we’re passing the big boys left and right.”

“Nice!” he exclaims. “If you’re comfortable, stay out and try and put down a laptime after the Code-60s have cleared. Go for it!”

After an eventful season, my head is on fire with the thought of putting down a real giant-killer performance with our little FiST. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my imagination that was aflame.

Shortly after passing a Cayman GT4, and just before passing a 911 GT3, a lick of flame emerges from under the hood, then another. Without even looking down, I’m stabbing at the big red button and trying to catch the electric kill-switch with my thumb. In the middle of a round-the-outside overtake, my brain seems to lack the co-ordination to find that button without looking down. Glancing downwards, finally I connect digit-to-button and take a BIG breath in. Push, push, push, until the whooshing of the fire systems drowns out the ambient racecar noise.

I’ve never been in a racecar with the extinguisher pulled, but I know what to expect. Visibility disappears rapidly, the powder is one reason. The condensation from the paint-bubbling flames is another (our painted white floor browned in less than 10 seconds!). I hit the “window down” button and pledge to kill the electrics as soon as I’ve got a supply of oxygen. (This was nearly disastrous, food for though now)

Because pushing the brake pedal has no effect on our velocity (later I’d find that that the ABS controller and a few lines were all melted), my panic level is rising fast. Luckily it’s not a total failure, and pumping the pedal seems to help. I aim at the marshal post 163 (inside right-side, between Brünnchen 1 and 2), bring the car to a halt, and for some reason check it’s in neutral. Not sure why. At this point, much to my later regret, I stop holding my breath and take in a big lung-full of white fire extinguisher crap.

PANIC sets in! I’m retching, I’m trying to get out of the car, and I can feel the heat by my feet. Belts off, key turned off. The next thing, I’m 20 feet away, retching my guts up, and looking for the marshalls. Who aren’t there. I’ve stopped at an unmanned marshall point! Luckily, there’s an extinguisher nearby. And “HOLY F&*% DID I FLICK THE MASTER KILL SWITCH?!” I grab the handheld extinguisher, prime it, run back, reach into the steamy, smoky and overall white interior to kill the electrics again. Luckily, the key had turned off the fuel pump, the standard systems had still functioned. But I’m still an idiot.

The onboard extinguisher systems have done a good job. There are still some flames as I spray the second extinguisher down the gap between the hood and the screen, then when I open up the hood, it’s pretty much all over. Seconds later the ‘staffelwagen’ appears and more marshalls spray a third layer of powder over the engine block.

I take some video of the steaming machine with my mobile phone (because it’s 2016, right) and am ushered into the doctor’s car. It feels like 30 seconds have passed, but it’s actually nearly 10 minutes.

Post-game analysis.

I can’t remember how long I sat in the medical centre, breathing oxygen from a mask until my blood-oxygen, but it was a while. Some small adrenaline shakes subsided, and the realisation that our little white mighty mouse was now horribly damaged. By the time I’m off the oxygen feed and reading in the 90% range again, the team have driven to Brünnchen, checked the car, and declared it game-over.

In hindsight, I’m very disappointed I didn’t kill the master electrics after stopping, but the desire to exit a burning car can be a little overwhelming!

We’re still trying to figure out where the fuel came from. Such is the extent of the damage in the motor bay, several possible locations are equally damaged.

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What next?

That powder is evil stuff, every bare metal surface corroded within hours (the car stood in the rain at Parc Ferme for several hours before we could retrieve it). It’s going to need a bare-metal strip down if we want our little FiST to look good again. And with the wiring loom also irreparably damaged, that’s a no-brainer.

I’ve been in some small crashes, some big one crashes. If I continue driving racecars, I’ve got to accept that I’ll probably be in some more. But holy crap, I don’t want to ever push that button again!

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