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‘You are clear! Go! Go! Go!’

A behind-the-wheel account of endurance car racing

Do you have what it takes to drive consistently fast over and over around a circuit? PHOTO BY DOMINICK GALAURAN

It starts with two simple words, spoken by the team manager: “You’re up.”

That’s when the pulse quickens, senses heighten, and everything else leading up to this moment dissolves into the background. It’s time to put in the work.

Every driver has his routine. I start by taking off my watch and my cap, and removing anything from my pockets. I put on my socks first. Then my suit, then my shoes. I have to set aside my eyeglasses and then put in my earpiece. I don the balaclava, then the HANS (head and neck support) device and then the helmet. My gloves go in my pocket. My glasses go back on.

It's your turn to race the car, and you don't want your team to fall behind during your stint. PHOTOS BY NICKOY BAUTISTA

When the car comes in, it’s a bit of a blur. Driver goes out. I put my water bladder in the car and thread the hose through the seat. I get in, and the outgoing driver helps me belt up and plug in the comms and water. He gives me a few words about track conditions, or how the car is behaving. All the while, mechanics are refueling and the team manager does a visual check of the car.

The few minutes in the car waiting for refueling to end are the longest few minutes ever. All the anxiety, all the nerves, all the adrenaline are balled up tight just waiting for release. There’s a slight reprieve when the instruction comes to start the car and get rolling. And with a pit lane speed limit to watch out for, I still can’t let loose.

The most stressful moments in an endurance race are possibly those when you're about to take off. PHOTOS BY DOMINICK GALAURAN

Crossing the white line at the end of the pit lane, a message comes over the intercom: “You are clear! Go! Go! Go!” When I get on the throttle, it feels like an explosion of noise and power, and finally all that anticipation turns into action. At this moment, everything else in the world just ceases to exist.

And that is just how it starts.

You spend your first few laps trying to get comfortable in and with the car. PHOTO BY DOMINICK GALAURAN

This is the 2017 8-Hour Philippine Endurance Challenge, in which I’m competing together with my team, BMW AutoPerformance Motorsport. I drive a 1995 BMW M3, which is now essentially a stripped-down race car. And this is race day in the eyes of a driver. My eyes, to be exact.

The first lap or two are all about getting comfortable in the car again. It’s about feeling out how it wants to be driven. How sharp is the turn-in? How are the rear tires responding to the throttle? Are the brakes up to operating temperature? I can’t be too aggressive here, or else I risk making a mistake and upsetting the car. In fact, I once nearly spun out by pushing too hard too soon. It probably was a very impressive-looking slide, but the car behind me could have easily rear-ended me if he hadn’t been alert. (If you were that guy behind me…sorry about that, and thanks for avoiding the contact.)

Once things have settled down, that familiar rhythm of the racetrack takes over. Some say they are in the zone. Others describe it as going on autopilot. I call it my instant replay. The whole time, I’m instinctively moving my body the same way over and over again like it’s on instant replay.

The only difference is that I am constantly scanning the track, checking the mirrors and listening out for any noise that would trigger a change in the film playing in my head. It could be the sight of debris on the track, the reflection of a car on my tail that I have to keep behind, or the sound of the engine telling me how much more it can give.

When you're racing, you're technically multitasking. Because while you're trying to overtake the car in front of you, you're also fending off the one chasing you. PHOTO BY DOMINICK GALAURAN

If the challenge on the early laps is to find that sweet spot driving the car, the middle laps are all about keeping my composure. It’s easy to get sucked into a hard wheel-to-wheel battle. It’s what all competitors live for—to test their skills against someone whose pace is somewhat similar to theirs. But in this setting, I can’t indulge myself. Judgment calls have to be made: Should I concede the position for the sake of the long game, or should I fight for position and push for a while to create a gap?

I have a short battle with another car, and the driver is trying to pressure me into a mistake. The excitement of the moment gets to me for just a second, and that’s all it takes for me to nearly lose the position. As soon as I regain my composure, I calm myself down, push hard for a couple of laps, and create the buffer I need to keep that car at bay permanently. Once I feel that he is far enough behind, I go back to my normal pace.

The final few laps are the most difficult. The heat and the g-forces and the mental strain you’ve endured for over an hour exact a toll on you physically, mentally and emotionally. Our team manager knows when we are tiring out by looking at our lap times, and helps us out by talking to us with words of encouragement. It’s up to the driver, though, to dig deep to keep not just his pace, but also his concentration, especially at this crucial junction.

Different drivers cope with this differently. I’ve developed several ways to keep my head in the game, and I use a different method depending on the situation.

No pressure! Just step on it! Because you're losing time! Come on! PHOTO BY NICKOY BAUTISTA

If I have clear air in front of me, I’ll choose one or two corners—usually the ones that are most difficult—and challenge myself to a little game. Each time I navigate that corner well, I score a point. Each time I’m off even just a little bit, I lose a point. This way, I’m still engaged even if I’m not going wheel-to-wheel with anyone.

When I feel like my mind is slowing down from fatigue, I start to sing a song out loud to inject some energy into my system. The tune changes from time to time, and in this race, it’s Blur’s “Song 2” that’s playing in my head.

Sometimes, my emotions can start to get the better of me. In times like this, I break out my secret weapon. It will sound strange, but it’s my way of restoring that inner calm and self-control: I say a prayer to thank God for this gift of racing, to thank Him for blessing me with the opportunity to do what I love, and to thank Him for keeping me safe.

In times like this, I break out my secret weapon. It will sound strange, but it’s my way of restoring that inner calm and self-control

If two words start the cycle, three words signal the end: “Box this lap.”

It’s my cue to enter the pits and prepare to hand over the car to the next man up. But when I hear this message over the comms, I can’t allow myself to relax just yet. I’m still in the race. And I need to maintain my pace until I get to the pit lane entrance, and then maintain the pit speed limit.

When I get to the pit box, I wait for the signal to stop. Switch the engine off. Then, finally, I can remove the harness and get out of the car. Unplug the comms and remove the water supply. Help the next driver into his seat. Secure his harness. Plug in the comms. Help with his water. Give a few words about track conditions, or how the car is behaving. All the while, mechanics are refueling and the team manager does a visual check of the car.

At last, back in the garage, I can take my gloves and helmet and HANS and balaclava off. Unzip my suit to cool off. Drink some water and catch my breath.

Once I’ve recovered a bit, I look for our team manager to ask where we are as a team. Are we on target with the pit stop strategy? Are we where we want to be in relation to the competition? Was I able to do my job and put in the laps I needed to put in along with the pace I needed to maintain? Even if there isn’t much I can do to remedy any problems or shortcomings that may have occurred during my stint, I want to know so I can improve my performance next time around.

Time to assess what you did right and what you did wrong. Always strive to do better next race. PHOTO BY RISA AGUILA

After that, it’s just having faith in my team to bring home a positive result. So far, they haven’t let me down. In three endurance races, we’ve scored three straight podium places, including class and overall championships in a four-hour race earlier this year.

When all is said and done, it really isn’t about the wins and the losses (although they certainly make the racing more rewarding). It’s the thrill of the competition that drives me. That intense rush that only comes with pushing myself beyond my fear, pushing to my absolute limits, and finding out that the limit was never there to begin with.

Endurance car racing is all about the satisfaction I get when I have given everything I have, because every member on the team—from the drivers to the mechanics and the crew—has done the same.

Francis Aguila

Francis is an affable lover of watches and cars, particularly BMWs from the '80s and the '90s. He represents Brembo, Sabelt and Alpinestars in the Philippines.