By Simon Pullan - Special to Mortorsport.com
'It's snowing!' I exclaimed 'and it's Easter'. Not exactly the best way to start the year. But this was no ordinary place to be at Easter time. We had been warned to expect the worst of the weather, but what hit us as we approached the Nürburgring was astounding.
The experience of driving in the snow at the Nürburgring is pretty special and not one that I will forget in hurry. It was so soft that it would drift gently down onto the track in front of me and then get blown to the side as I drove past leaving the track bone dry whilst snow built up around.
The whole weekend was pretty awe inspiring to say the least. It was the first time I was to race in Europe, and I had barely ever driven a Caterham Superlight. Still, I wanted to make as good an impression as possible because I knew that I would be missing the next round of the championship at Spa.
After being the fastest Superlight driver in free practice I qualified only fourth, which was disappointing. And ahead of us four was the German Championship driver, Joachim Westermann. He was going to be tough to beat on account of him having 90bhp more than a Superlight.
It was dry for the first race and it went fairly smoothly. My team mate Howard Redhouse, Clive Richards and I managed to break away from the rest, even Joachim, after a few laps. But the fighting meant that Nigel Taylor joined in for the end. Going onto the final lap, Clive was leading from Howard with me third and Nigel fourth. It was to be a cracker.
Nigel made a lunge at the Ford Kurve resulting in us two dropping back slightly. By the time we were climbing the hill to the Shell Kurve we were back on terms. Clive had slowed down to try and entice Howard to go past. This was so that he could be in the best position leading onto the long Hatzenbach straight. Howard declined the offer and due to their little game Howard didn't notice me sneaking inside him into the RTL Kurve. I was now in the prime slot and used Clive's tow to breeze past along Hatzenbach. I took Howard with me and into the long final corner he tried a move around the outside. It didn't come off and it became a drag race to the line. I won it, but nearly didn't when my throttle cable snapped just yards from the line. Howard came over the line three tenths back, with Clive a further two tenths behind him.
We couldn't have asked for a better first race. And with another race due the next day, anything could happen. It did! It snowed and snowed overnight and when we arrived at the circuit on Sunday morning the day had been cancelled. They gave up all two points for the privilege. It was a shame but it had been a fantastic weekend that would be hard to beat.
Championship positions: 1st Simon Pullan 22 points; 2nd Howard Redhouse 20; 3rd Clive Richards 19.
It was now time to get down to some studying. No racing until after the A-Levels and that meant my next race would be at Zandvoort in July. Rather than take it on the chin, I set about convincing Dad that a trip to Spa would calm my nerves before the exams started. It took me two weeks and lots of promises of extra revision but it worked. I was to race at Spa.
What a venue! I couldn't believe my luck. It was everything people had made it out to be and more. Just to get the chance to race there was breathtaking and hopefully this weekend we would get both races. This time I went one better in qualifying with fourth. Once again I was the only front-runner with no previous experience of the circuit so I was fairly happy. As ever, there was a serious amount of overtaking during the race but this time it was a five car group comprising, Joachim, Clive, Nigel, Chris Cooper, and myself. Into the bus stop on the penultimate lap Joachim spun out of third. With myself and Nigel behind him, it felt like déjà vu when we got delayed and dropped a small way off the front two. Luck was to go my way that day as Chris ended his race in the gravel at the second Rivage on some oil. The oil also delayed Clive and it was left to Nigel and I to fight it out to the flag. I came out on top to make it two wins out of two. I was over the moon.
In the second race, I finished fourth. Chris had a stormer coming from twenty-second on the grid to win on the last lap. Going down the Kemel straight for the final time saw us five abreast. Amazing racing.
Championship positions: 1st Simon Pullan 58; Clive Richards 54; Nigel Taylor 53.
Next stop, Zandvoort. There was glorious sun all the way to the seaside in Holland, but when we arrived we were greeted by powerful wind. From my hotel room I was able to watch people being dragged along the beach by their kites it was so windy. In Holland though, I found my favourite circuit. The sweeps through the dunes of Zandvoort are like nothing else. The demanding Sheivlak corner is possibly the best I have driven.
After once again being fastest in practice, I qualified a disappointing third. It's definitely something I need to work on! I was hoping for two top results on such a fantastic circuit, but I knew it wasn't going to be easy with Howard wanting revenge for his Nürburgring defeat and Clive seeking his first win. The first race was a three-way battle. Pole sitter Howard, Clive and I drove away from the rest of the pack and the lead changed between Howard and I many times, with Clive sitting in third waiting for a mistake. It didn't come, and on the final lap he got tagged by a back marker, bending a wheel in the process and forcing him to limp over the line in fifth. The battle between Howard and myself was resolved at Tarzan on the last lap when I managed to make a move stick. The gap at the flag was just two tenths of a second and I was ecstatic.
I had it all to do again though, but fortunately by this point in the season I was beginning to think I was having all the luck that had eluded me in 2000. A fantastic start by Howard saw him pip me into the first corner and for the first four laps we pulled away from the rest. Clive unfortunately retired on the second lap after puncturing his radiator. However, on the fifth lap I noticed that the water temperature was starting to rise slightly. I knew that I needed to finish the race for vital championship points and so backed off slightly along the straights in order to preserve the engine. This allowed Howard to get away and Nigel Taylor to catch me. Still, third wasn't bad so I remained content. That is until Francois Salhien, the rapid but erratic Frenchman began to catch me. I couldn't race him on account of the engine, so I let him go. What happened next confirmed my belief that my luck had finally returned.
With just two laps left, Francois caught Nigel and made a lunge into Tarzan bend. They touched and spun. Their delay was enough for me to get back into second and stay there. I couldn't believe my luck. Howard took a fully deserved win with Francois third and Nigel fourth. We traced the engine temperature problem back to a small hole in the radiator probably caused by a stone flicked up by Howard's car early in the race, which had also broken the cooling fan.
Championship positions: 1st Simon Pullan 96; 2nd Nigel Taylor 86; 3rd Malcolm Cook 71.
So, a 10 point lead, but 80 points up for grabs from the remaining 4 races. All I had to do was keep my head and title would be mine. A long break over the summer was next, before heading to the burgundy region of France and the Dijon circuit. Home of one of the greatest Grands Prix ever, featuring my hero Gilles Villeneuve, I desperately wanted another win. The pressure from the team was to keep the car on the track and take points away from the weekend, but I wasn't going to settle for that.
The first race was fairly normal by Caterham standards. Frantic action and a four way battle for the lead. Francois broke a second or so clear while Joachim held rest of us up early in the race. However, once past him I was quickly on terms with the Frenchman. We had a great battle and I was amazed by his car control. The angles he could put the car at and bring it back were amazing. I was aware though that I didn't want to tangle with him and ruin my championship chances. When Clive and Nigel joined in the fun, I was happy to sit in fourth and watch.
Onto the last lap and with Nigel right ahead of me and my main championship rival, I decided to go past him and finish on the podium. Clive won from Francois and a great showdown was set up for the second race when at least four of us were gunning for the win. Francois wanted to win at home, Joachim knew this was the last chance for his powerful but heavy German car to outpace the Superlight crew; Nigel had to win to realistically keep his championship alive; and I for already stated reasons wanted the top spot.
What was to follow was amazing. Francois was the first to go when he retired after damaging the car on a plastic bollard on the first lap. Joachim used his extra power to good effect to grab the lead but I could just stay with him if I stuck my car right in his slipstream. We had an amazing duel. Due to having a lighter, more nimble car I could beat him on the brakes every time into the long Villeroy corner. But every lap, he would drive past me on the long start straight before we reached the line. This meant it was going to be difficult to win. I passed him into Villeroy on the last lap and got my head down. I tried not to make any mistakes and what would happen, would happen. The pressure probably got to him slightly and he made a couple of small mistakes. I took the win, by less than two tenths of a second. Unbelievable. Clive finished third while Malcolm Cook passed Nigel for fourth on the final lap. It was the best result I could have asked for.
Championship positions: 1st Simon Pullan 133; 2nd Nigel Taylor 118; 3rd Clive Richards 109.
This was it. The final weekend and, for the first time this season, at a circuit I already knew. On home turf at Brands Hatch for the Caterham finals. Both Eurocup races were to be on Saturday, with the UK championship deciders on Sunday. I was as nervous as it was possible to be. Not that qualifying helped at all. The conditions were changeable so no one knew which tyres to use. In the end it didn't matter. I did four laps on wets before the red flags came out due to an accident on track. I had a small misfire coming out of the slow corners and asked Andy (team boss and chief engineer) to have a look at it. He suggested I scrapped the rest of qualifying whilst they had a look at it. The track dried and everyone else went faster. I ended up seventh! It was traced to an electrical problem and the best course of action was to change the wiring loom. This was going to be a tough job and it might not have been ready on time. Very kindly my team-mate, Nick Jacobs offered to let me use his car if mine wasn't ready. Fortunately I didn't need to take him up on his offer because the super efficient Team Parker engineers changed the loom in time.
To the race and I had a job on my hands to make it to the front. I had to finish an average of seventh in each of the two races to take the title but it wasn't going to be easy. I figured that the best way to stay out of trouble was to be at the front. Nigel and Clive pulled away from their front row positions to lead the rest of the field while I only managed to get as high as fifth on the first lap. The two in front were tough cookies, both very powerful German spec cars and without many overtaking opportunities at Brands Hatch I was having difficulties with them. By the time I was through I had just half the race to catch up to the front two. Lap after lap I pulled them in and on the penultimate lap I was with them. A dilemma hit me. Should I sit and watch, or do I go for the win? I decided on the former so when Clive ran wide at Paddock Hill on the last lap I went for the gap to claim second. One down, one to go. This was the big one but the pressure was off since I only needed twelfth place.
Clive's bad season was compounded when he was forced to retire before the start of the race. An oil leak was the cause. Rain was threatening so the race was going to be a touch and go affair with all of us on dry tyres. Nigel and I pulled away to the tune of one second per lap over the opening laps. But then the rain came and I decided not to get any more involved. I gave Nigel a small gap to allow me to miss him if he spun. Then it became torrential. I backed off. I couldn't risk the championship by throwing the car off the track and in the end Joachim and Chris Porritt, his main rival, caught me. I let them go and followed them around for the last couple of laps. When I came onto the pit straight for the final time, the whole team were almost falling off the pit wall. It was their first ever championship and the feeling in the whole camp was hysteria. I didn't stop smiling for over a week. Many a glass of champagne and many a can of beer were consumed that evening.
I can't really describe what it is like to win a championship, but I suggest you try it. It's fifty times better than a race win.
Thanks must go to my family- they are great- and also to everyone at Team Parker Racing, the best Caterham team in the paddock. Also the best F3 team, but that's another story. Finally, thanks to you for reading this, I hope it has been interesting.
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