Ten o’clock last Saturday morning marked a particularly significant moment in the history of the British Touring Car Championship. While the start of every new season is eagerly awaited, the green flag that waved at the end of the Brands Hatch pitlane also marked the official début of a ground-breaking new team, the like of which has never been seen before in the championship.
As Derek Palmer Jr trundled down the pitlane in his Infiniti Q50, in doing so he clocked his first official bit of mileage as a BTCC driver.
“Probably the moment where you feel the butterflies the most is when you’re putting your helmet on,” he said. “As soon as you get in the car you’re speaking to your engineer and you start going through the motions of what you’re supposed to do as a driver so after that you don’t really get nervous because you don’t have time to think about it.”
But while that first lap marked something of a realisation of a dream for the 27-year-old, his taking to the circuit was part of a much bigger project; Palmer, from Lanark, was making his debut for the Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing team.
Having recruited injured ex-servicemen to develop and build a pair of Q50s, the team is unique in that it is the first of its kind to employ such a policy, with the eventual aim of training an injured Paratrooper to drive one of the cars in the series. Classed as a manufacturer, the team announced its participation in the BTCC as far back as October and will make no profit from its racing activities, with all funds raised being passed on to the charity whose name it bears –Support Our Paras – while also raising awareness of the cause.
But building a touring car outfit from scratch is no easy task, and the team’s journey had already endured its fair share of setbacks before the Brands weekend. Neither car achieved any running during the series’ season launch test session at Donington Park, and while a milestone was reached when one of their cars was successfully shaken down at Mallory Park on the Wednesday before the opening rounds, the team were then forced to withdraw their second entry after a late technical problem with Richard Hawken’s car.
“It’s really tough to have to sit here and see the whole team and the car working and to not be behind the wheel,” admitted Hawken, who will now make his BTCC bow at the second round of the season. “We took it as a team decision that having not driven the car prior to this weekend it would be better to hand the reigns over to Derek who had at least driven around Mallory Park.”
To say that the project is the toughest that the team’s mechanics have faced would be an overstatement; these are men who have served their country and paid a price for doing so.
But to have suffered their individual setbacks and to then have the determination to learn an entirely new trade and pit themselves against teams with decades of experience in Britain’s highest national motorsport category made their feat of preparing a car all the more remarkable.
That’s not to patronise the staff, though. The team were clearly disappointed to be one car down for the weekend, and with first practice itself offering little more than an extension of the shakedown that they had undertaken just three days earlier, the weekend looked as though it might be a long one.
However, fortunes improved drastically in practice two as Palmer completed a respectable 25 laps, and by the time that qualifying had finished, the Scot was already speaking with disappointment that he had not qualified higher, having been forced to abandon his fastest lap with a red flag on track.
“I’m extremely proud of what the guys have done,” he said after qualifying. “We could have gone quicker, we were on a better lap but it got a bit spoilt by someone going off at Druids.
“I think the optimum lap would have been six or seven tenths quicker than that which would have put us a fair bit higher but I’m happy with it.
“It was definitely emotional when I got back in, to see everyone congratulating each other and slapping each other on the back.”
With the camp now in a buoyant mood, the team were nevertheless forced to test their mettle a day later.
In the team’s first BTCC start, Palmer had managed to stay with his closest rivals in the opening laps but was forced to pit and eventually retire the car as a power steering issue became progressively harder to work with.
“We could turn the car right but we couldn’t turn it left,” he said. “It was really hurting us coming down the hill and down the back straight into the left-hander there, I literally couldn’t turn the car in and it was getting progressively worse.
“The decision was taken to pull in, change the mapping to see what that did and then head back out but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to do that.
“[But] I think ultimately we’re faster than a fair few guys in front of us,” he insisted. “The car is there [and] the balance is good, so if we can get that sorted I’m feeling really confident for race two.”
And that confidence was not falsely grounded. With the errant ECU part replaced, Palmer made the top 20 in the second race as he held off Stewart Lines on the final lap, and went one better in the third race of the day as he finished in 19th.
“We’ve come here and done exactly what we wanted to do,” said Palmer after the final race. “It [the feel of the car] was getting better and we’re starting to get to know the car and feeling more comfortable in it. I’m really happy, we’ve made consistent progress throughout the weekend with the car – I’m over the moon.”
Having accomplished his opening weekend goals, Palmer made no effort to hide his ambitions for the second round of the season at Donington Park.
“Obviously, it’s touring cars, you never know what’s going to happen but our next goal has got to be to get in the points and get something on board for the team and Infiniti and see how we go,” he said.
But along with his excitement, the overriding emotion was one of pride.
“[I’m] immensely proud,” he continued. “We’re not Paras but the car has a maroon beret and they built it and you see them working in the garage and how professional they’ve been this weekend. They’ve not looked out of place at all, they’re at home.
“Where we were six months ago and where we are today, how far we’ve come, is testament to the guys and the work they’ve done; they’ve put their hearts and souls into the project and I’m so proud of them and what we’ve achieved.
“It’s the first weekend and all eyes were on us; a new team, a new car and a very different concept to bring to the British Touring Car Championship and I think they’ve utterly excelled.”
“I would echo exactly what Derek has said in terms of us being proud and what we’ve achieved with these guys,” said Hawken. “It makes you feel good when you’re out doing something you enjoy, but you’re actually out doing something for other people as well.
“It’s an amazing feeling and to think that the money we will raise from donations from the general public as a result of this programme will see that go to welfare and support of serving soldiers and those who were injured in battle.
“It makes us feel immensely proud and really to see the guys pick up their craft so quickly over the last few weeks is testament to how well these guys perform as a team. They’ve switched their riffles to ratchets and they really have excelled and we’re all extremely proud of them and grateful that they’re part of our team.”
The team won’t be fighting with Triple Eight, Team Dynamics or West Surrey Racing for the Manufacturers’/Constructors’ title, and are unlikely to challenge for victories this season. But what was striking, given their problems, was the unequivocal sense of both determination to resolve their issues and the subsequent satisfaction in having done so from the team throughout the weekend.
Witnessing the car being sent to the grid for the first time, the delight of the team was evident – and contagious. You’d be hard pushed to find anyone in the paddock who was not endeared to Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing at that moment.
The old adage says that it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part. Victory, by the word’s traditional definition, is an incredibly hard thing to achieve in the BTCC, and yet at the same time it is a phenomenon that remains completely open to interpretation. In realising their ambition of competing in the BTCC and by giving a significant boost to the profile of the Support Our Paras charity, the team have already won their first battle.