(Written by Jeff Barnes)
The 2020 E36 Race Series kicked off with Round 1 on the 9th of February with qualifying and three sprint races scheduled for Sunday at the fabulous Wakefield Park Raceway. It's always bloody windy, bloody cold, bloody wet or all of the above and this weekend was no different! Only the toughest drivers, family and friends would venture out as the rain came down, and I was frequently sideways, almost constantly over Saturday and Sunday!
Since parking up the Conan Racing E36 at the end of last season, I hadn’t given the car any attention. A hasty oil change was performed in the week before the race (upgrading from a ‘name’ brand to the gold standard of oil supplied by our series sponsor LA Racing Lubricants). I also installed a fancy ECUMaster ADU display because #racecar even though it added absolutely no performance!
Oh and the car also got a wash on the Saturday (well it was on the open trailer in the rain at least!). The tyres on the car had run most of last season and as such the outside half of each was basically a slick – given the forecast conditions I decided new wraps for all four wheels was prudent.
Despite being based in Canberra we headed to the track on Saturday afternoon to complete administration and get the car through scrutineering. Chief Scrutineer Mike knows the car now, often has some good advice and is always up for a laugh so whilst it is not the daunting task it once was, it's good to get it done and make Sunday less hectic.
Saturday night we hit the Mercure hotel on the edge of Goulburn right near the Big Merino with a plan for a slap up meal for my only sponsor (love you wifey!). Sunday morning conditions were a precursor to the majority of the day - rain bucketing down and wind howling in. A quick feed of bacon and eggs and off to the track. The first drivers briefing of the year was focussed on safety and driving to the conditions and a big round of thanks to the marshals who didn’t have the luxury of a dry car with a warm seat.
Almost immediately after that it was time for qualifying. Four E36 Race Series cars headed out driven by Club President David Bailey in the LA Racing machine, Matt Thewlis who was debuting as a full-time series driver having co-driven with David last year and Paul Stanbrook in the Hellrot Racer. Not having been in the car on track for months meant nerves were high heading out and the fact I couldn’t see for the rain and spray meant acclimatising took a few laps. However I made the decision to head out last which at least gave me a few clear laps without traffic to build up speed.
As the session progressed several cars headed back to the pits but with each turn down the straight I was gaining some confidence and the 318is was loving the conditions. It felt really stable and predictable and was just a ball to drive. Looking at the timing afterwards showed this progression in confidence with lap times improving. Incredibly, I managed a best lap under 1min30secs which placed the Conan Racing BMW in the top half of the grid in 11th place out of the 22 Super TT machines and best in class by over 3 seconds.
The LA Racing machine suffered an electrical issue during qualifying and returned to the pits running decidedly lumpier on just 3 cylinders. Unfortunately this turned out to be terminal ending a run of incredible reliability – this car having done 2 ½ seasons of racing, including punishing endurance events, without issue.
With fewer categories running on the day Race 1 came around very quickly. A focus on fuel for the car (and me) meant I didn’t notice the rain had stopped and the track dried almost completely. I got the setup fundamentally wrong for the conditions heading out for Race 1 without a change from the qualifying setup and tyres way overinflated. The start of the race and jostling for position of the first lap was great fun however after a lap or two the tyres overheated and despite the dry track things became as slippery as the qualifying session. Fun but not fast. In no time Matt had latched onto my back bumper. Defending would have slowed us both up so I waved him past on the back straight – with so many laps still to go it made sense. Matt disappeared off into the distance finishing almost 30 seconds up the road with a great 1min16sec fastest lap. Paul was battling traffic just a bit further back so I managed to hold a small gap on him and come home 2nd in class. The E36 Race Series cars finishing 10th, 12th and 14th.
Lunch came and went and my rain dance paid off big time. Race 2 saw the return of the wet weather with perhaps the worst conditions of the day. There was plenty of water running across the track. All the E36s got a great start to Race 2 and it was fun rounding up much more exotic and powerful cars. I followed Matts lead as we hunted through the field. A last minute braking effort around the outside of the final turn and I was back to the front of the class and up from 12th to 7th as we crossed the line with 1 lap complete.
Unfortunately the race was red flagged with a complete restart from original grid positions ordered. This meant we all had to do the hard work again. Thankfully the restart was almost a copy with Conan ending the first lap up the field and front of class. The exhilaration of the first lap meant a little too much exuberance through turn 2 and some additional throttle through the water running across the track saw a slow pirouette off the outside and into the dirt. Luckily the cars immediately behind did a great job avoiding me and after a moment to catch some breath it was ‘pluck first gear and give it some jandal!
The upside of dropping back to almost the tail of the field was some great racing and passing opportunities for the next few laps as I pushed hard to try and undo my mistake. I was closing the gap to Matt who was leading the class and running well up the SuperTT field but laps were running out. Eventually the pressure showed with enthusiasm exceeding ability. When a wheel dropped off the outside of Turn 9 I kept the foot down instead of lifting and an increasingly severe set of alternating slides resulted in what I am told was a spectacular, but ultimately costly spin on the back straight. Still 2nd in class was some reward at the end of a race which had it all and was just brilliant fun. Matt was clearly improving his car setup as he showed great pace to battle with some serious cars whilst Paul's car was being recalcitrant – sliding might be fun but it’s not fast and some changes were on the cards for the final race.
Conditions for the third race were still very wet and Conan had great pace again. After a few settling laps I managed to close the gap to class leader Matt. Getting a good run down the back straight I followed another car down the inside of the number 27 into Turn 10. Matt defended squeezing me to the inside of the track. Having had a brilliant day so far and considering the finishing positions for the day would not be changed by the Race 3 results I decided the risk of this game far outweighed the reward especially considering the conditions. The 3 E36 Race Series cars came home in 6th, 8th and 11th.
Overall I had an absolute ball on the weekend. Best racing and fun so far in the #e36raceseries. With many cars starting their season from Round 2 and several new builds rapidly nearing completion things are only going to get better. The little BMW E36s performing brilliantly in the difficult weather and are proving easy great fun cars to drive.
Matt and I were stoked with the weekend. Paul was understandably frustrated chasing a more driveable setup across the races. And of course commiserations to David with an impeccable finishing record marred by what was discovered post racing to be a man-made rather than car issue.
Thanks to all the E36 guys for the support, laughs, and fun, not to mention great racing of the weekend.
Most of all massive thanks to my wife Jen for her assistance with everything - getting to the track, managing the car setup, being the stable voice in the headphones and supporting the madness.