The past few seasons have been a roller coaster
I'm writing this from Lounge no 21 at the Nürburgring paddock. The 24h Nürburgring Qualifiers are well underway and while I'm not expecting to partake in the big race in three weeks' time, I'm here to complete my Nürburgring A-License. Two times three-hour races should be plenty for that. And learning the ginormous 25.4km track in a BMW 330i is a fun experience indeed.
But let's rewind a bit...
March 2020, testing at Sepang with Absolute Racing, just two weeks away from the GT World Challenge Asia opener. Having been away from home for almost all of the previous season, I decide to grab the opportunity for two weeks in Tallinn, Estonia. Off I go, on a usual 3-flight journey from KL with transfers in Bangkok and Helsinki. The epidemic situation was already becoming a thing in Europe, yet everything was still quite vague. I took the risk in hopes of seeing family and friends before the season starts, meaning I would then I be predominantly in Asia.
On the Helsinki plane, I'm online watching the Estonian parliament seating, where PM Jüri Ratas is giving a speech about upcoming covid regulations. Not much clarity there, so I remember thinking to myself, seems nothing too serious... Still on the plane, my dad calls, of course not through cellular but wifi. We've received information that the government plans on closing the borders tomorrow. In other words, if I want to be sure to make it to the season opener, I ought to not fly back home as it may be lock-down soon in Estonia. So, by the time I land in Helsinki (originally my final transfer), I've already secured another pair of flight tickets back to KL. Directly after disembarking the plane in Helsinki, my conversation with the airport staff is quite the spectacle. After a few good minutes of explaining my peculiar situation, I manage to get my check-in luggage re-routed to board the same plane I flew in with. This means that I can stay inside the airport area, not worrying about my luggage, and instead go and find myself a new set of underwear. After all, the ongoing expected travel time had just doubled from 20h to 40h! After some hours of strolling around the airport shops and chilling at the Finnair lounge, I board my flight back to KL with another transfer in Bangkok. I watch some more films I probably won't remember watching.
Arriving in KL, I realise it's morning again. I make my way to the same hotel I checked out from not so long ago. This is where I'm going to stay for the next two or so weeks until the race. Checked in, I go and put in a workout, and think about going to see the team at the workshop later. Suddenly, I get a message from the team. I'm told that there have been recent developments in local regulations regarding Covid-19 in Malaysia. I'm told to stand by. A bit later, I get a confirmation that the upcoming race is suspended with no further notice. And the best course of action is to fly back home and return when or if the season is set to continue. So, another 3-flight ticket to Tallinn it is, this time with transfers in Singapore and Helsinki. To be honest, at this point it didn't even matter to me where or when. I take off from KL the next morning, and arrive in Tallinn by midnight, 9 flight tickets later...
The following year was a mess. I believe it was for most of us. For me, it consisted of a lot of waiting – races were ''postponed'' and cancelled in Asia through the rest of the year. And even if there had been events taking place, the travelling there part would've been virtually impossible with ever-tightening regulations as the pandemic grew in numbers. Through this time, I trained a lot, making the best of my time which I now had. Also, training was key in getting my mind off the mess of things career-wise.
While I felt it was best not to make big side plans in case I suddenly get a green light to go racing again, I did do a few other more flexible things still. For example, I joined my old go-kart team as a racing coach and mechanic. This proved to be such a rewarding job indeed, and to this day, I'm still doing it in between my own races. Furthermore, I got a motorbike license. Then, as the wait extended through the summer, I decided to also get a pleasure craft operator license and a weapons permit. By that time, racing had well resumed in Europe yet not in Asia. Finally, the Asian racing series were pretty much cancelled entirely.
Though that hardship, I found an opportunity to race on home soil after a few years' break. It became possible thanks to a helping hand from Kat-Metal and Oleviste. First time racing a FWD in Audi RS3 LMS TCR, the challenge was Pärnu Summer Race of 6-hours. We won it outright. It was amazing to do it at my home track with friends and family around. This special victory healed some wounds of an otherwise terrible year in terms of my racing career. All eyes were forward to a better 2021.
During the off-season, my dad and I partook in a XC-skiing marathon in Tartu, Estonia. We raced together for 63km from start to finish, coming in at 270th and 271st in a total of 3000-some participants. It was his 50th birthday that same day, and a really special one indeed. The beer the organisers give at the finish had never tasted better...
As spring 2021 approached, news had got out that 2021 may be not a lot different to 2020 in Asia in terms of restrictions. There were racing calendars in place and or pending, which had later than usual starting dates. Then, there were a couple of changes of season calendar for later dates, much like in 2020. In April, seeing the ropes slip out of my hands, I made a few calls to teams in Europe. I received an offer to do a two-day test in Vallelunga in a Lamborghini Huracán GT3 with team VSR. The test went well in spite of some rust I felt I had to brush off. Still, there was a factory supported opportunity on the table to do the most prestigious GT3 race in the world – 24h of Spa.
Thanks to efforts from Dynomax, Kat-Metal, Levin and a few more, we made Spa happen. What an experience it was to see top car manufacturers battle it out for 24h! Although, the race itself ended up to be a mere 10h of Spa for us. A rock from gravel bed punctured the car's radiator during the night during a teammate's stint, which, not reacted to quickly enough, caused the engine to blow after a lap or so. During that time, I had my helmet on as my second double-stint was due in 10mins. Instead, I watched our car stop on the timing screens at sector 1, top of Raidillon. I was absolutely devastated. But that's racing.
Another opportunity came up in 12h Hungary as part of the Creventic 24H Series. Audi Sport offered me to go and take part in development of the new Audi R8 LMS GT3 evo II, which was to be released for sales in the following year. At Hungaroring, everything went smoothly and I had plenty of fun next to teammates factory driver Nathanael Berthon and gent Martin Lechman. Working next to 7-8 factory engineers that were constantly noting everything down, in addition to the usual amount of team staff, all plugged into the radio traffic and live-telemetry, was a cool experience and made me feel in my element. Mind you I've Mechanical Engineering education myself.
Any chance of travelling to China was still incredibly difficult. To maximise the possibility of getting a visa, I found help in Henk Kiks and B-Quik, who agreed to get me vaccinated with a Chinese vaccine in Thailand. So, I arranged two trips with sandbox quarantines, one in September and one in October. Phuket, not a bad place to ''quarantine'' at. Basically, I had to measure my vitals daily at the hotel and go to three PCR tests during the time period. Other than that, it was like two weeks of holiday on the island. I used the time mainly for training and hiking in the beautiful nature which Phuket offers. And I got a slight tan.
For the second trip, I packed my racing essentials just in case. A compressed Thailand Super Series season 2021 was about to start, and I'd kept close contact with B-Quik about it during the previous couple of months. I went from having a seat to not having one for a few times. It seemed that I probably wont race in the end. All of a sudden, while boarding the plane from Helsinki to Bangkok, I received a message – ''Confirmed. You're racing with Daniel Bilski.'' That was great news indeed! I had known Dan for a while. We'd been teammates in a few series and I'd been his instructor at Audi R8 LMS Cup events in the years prior. Also, he was the reigning Thailand Super Series Champion, so I knew our collective package would be a strong one to go for the 3rd consecutive Teams' Championship as well as Drivers' Championship.
I had booked the trip with all its documents and procedures a few days before the Thai government reduced their mandatory sandbox quarantine from 14 to 7 days. Lucky that I did book for the lengthier option, because upon arrival at Phuket airport I tested positive for Covid-19. Then, followed a 14-day quarantine, which I had time for, exactly. An ancient looking local ambulance car took me to a quarantine facility, where I stayed until the day before planned departure from Bangkok to Buriram. Buriram's where the race would take place. Getting through covid, its peculiar symptoms such as loss of smell and constant tiredness in spite of relatively light symptoms I experienced was not so nice but I could manage. And soon after getting well, training in the quarantine room was another challenge I had to take to be fit for the race. All good in the end. Two days after the quarantine, I was in an Audi R8 LMS GT3 rolling around Chang International Circuit in Buriram.
Dan and I secured 3rd and 1st place finishes that weekend, despite the challenges that our rather unfavouring BoP (Balance of Performance) posed. The team did an incredible job, and we extracted the result from the team work. This is even more impressive given that our race engineer worked from Austria online, where the time difference must've been 5 or 6 hours.
I stayed in Bangkok until the season finale during Christmas. Among other things, I took up Muay Thai, and I'm so happy I found the courage and motivation to do it. In Thailand, it's common to walk up to a Muay Thai gym and see a legendary ex-fighter coaching somebody. But I didn't really realise that then. I went to Kru Dam Gym at Sukhumvit 36, and trained there for the rest of my stay in Thailand. First at group sessions, then private lessons with Kru Suriya, whom I first thought was just another coach there. Quite a nice guy too! Later, it turned out later he's Olympic Bronze among other titles in boxing and Muay Thai. What was I thinking!
The second TSS race weekend didn't go quite as planned. To be honest, it was damage control from the get go. Audi's BoP was further worsened from the already difficult BoP of weekend 1. Basically, they added another bunch of minimum weight for us, making the car even slower and harder on tyres. An incredibly challenging weekend saw Dan and I managing a 6th, 2nd and 4th place finishes as the top Audi. We squeezed out what was possible that weekend. The end result, Vice-Champions in both Drivers' and Teams' Championships – a well done team effort!
With 2021 coming to end, 2022 plans were a work in progress yet still very vague. And little did I know what was coming up next...
Here, I think, it's good to end this post, and leave something for the next one. Welcome back to my racing blog, which I'll try and keep posted a bit more than during the last few seasons. Stay tuned for the next one, and feel free to join me on my journey at:
Until next time!