Pen y Fan
This is a new departure; I have only recently decided to take this up and have obtained a Formula 3 racing hovercraft and a driver licence (N116 - the N is for Novice).
I suppose there is a joke hiding in here about low flying,
or about lots of air and little progress, but really it is all
part of a well hidden ambition. When I grow up, I want to be an
eccentric. On the other hand, those of my friends with O-level
Physics might say that I have, after all, finally lost my grip.
23 to 25 May 1998
The second round of the national championships was at Gang Warily, near Fawley, over the Whitsun weekend. We finally got our act, and the skirt, together in time for the second novice race. After scrutineering and a briefing from the Chief Marshal "have you ever been on water before - just use full throttle", I lined up on the grid without time for practice.
Three laps into the race, I was forced to retire with a damaged skirt (hit a post) and, though I didn't know it until later, a disintegrated big end.
The whole of the next day was spent in the paddock rebuilding the engine. I am extremely grateful to all the fellow racers who helped, even to the point of lending me a new crankshaft. On the third day, we were ready to try again. In the first race, I won the class. But I failed to complete the second race, being black flagged for making too much noise after the baffles blew out of one exhaust system on the hairpin bend. Nevertheless, others dropped out after fewer laps and I accumulated enough points to come away with a small trophy.
Daddy, do all these bits really go back together again? Click for a better view.
27 & 28 June 1998
By now I had learned a few things and even modified the craft to incorporate a secret weapon. Also the rest of the skirt was finished, thanks Mum, so the whole assembly, both craft and driver, was riding a little bit higher.
In the first race I started two thirds of the way down the grid but still managed to come in ahead of some of the F1 and F2 craft. I knew at the time I had won because I had passed all the F3 ones who started ahead of me.
There is an unusual system in that the novice races last ten minutes plus one lap; I haven't quite worked this out, but it means that craft will be given the chequered flag and pulled over having completed different numbers of laps. The upshot is that the winner is not necessarily the one who is flagged first. In the second race I had some extremely close racing with another machine, one in even more lurid green than mine. At the end I thought I had come second and it was not until the next day that I discovered I'd won again.
On the Sunday morning, everyone was having trouble with the lake. Every lap there seemed to be yet another sinking craft to avoid. Even the secret weapon had to be exercised. I had reinforced a critical corner of the hull and mounted a special plate on shock absorbers. So when I went off course on the lake entry and hit a post with much violence, I just bounced off and careened across a reed bed. OK, I had lost part of the skirt but instead of being out on the water with structural damage I was able to carry on and win the race. I fixed the skirt and won the fourth race too.
18th & 19th July 1998
Not so successful this time, I failed to finish two races, due to suspected fuel starvation. The second time the engine stopped I was on the lake and, with little airflow over the rudder, lost all steerage. But instead of investigating Archimedes' principle I coasted to a reed bed and a dry rescue. Skipping almost two millenia of intellectual progress, I moved on to Newtonian mechanics and the conservation of momentum. These are the mathematics that explain why, if the hovercraft stops suddenly, by the influence of a large straw bale, say, the driver will tend to continue on the established course. But the mispent years as a trampoline artist have taught me to roll. In the races I finished, I came 2nd and 4th, each time starting from way back on the grid; both were exciting, interesting races, with the running order changing constantly. And my shock aborbing plates are almost completely destroyed from the repeated impacts, but the hull and the skirt beneath are unharmed.
29, 30 and 31st August 1998
Six novice races to enter this time and I managed to complete them all, but only just. One of the other novices, Fred Wilson, says he has been working on his craft and made it go faster. He also swapped with his son Wayne which, shall we say, yielded a certain reduction in total mass. I just could not catch Wayne, he could out drag me from the start line and pull away on the straights. And in each race, trying perhaps too hard to catch him on the corners, I made silly mistakes and crashed, at one time demonstrating again my human cannonball act. With a string of second and third places I came second overall.
The good news is that on the last day, I qualifed as a full driver and was allowed into the National Formula 3 race, where I did not come last.
(Remember this is only the Novice Formula 3 section)
Failed to turn up at the start : 15 Started : 17 Failed to finish : 3 Seriously failed to finish : 1 Won : 5 Not won : 8
12th & 13th September 1998
The last race race meeting of the season, at a reservoir in south Wales. If anyone tells me that it is also traditionally the coldest and wettest, then I will believe them. The course is mostly over water and an evil wind was blowing, giving me at least a lot of trouble on the downwind leg. Almost every time I tried to turn away from the downwind I would plough in, the technical and descriptive term for smiting the hull into the water. Sometimes this would just lose me momentum, sometimes I would spin right round, but every time I would collect water inside and probably accumulate a little more damage.
I wasn't really doing very well. Between practice and the first race I decided to investigate the poor performance of the engine and ended up (with Reg Turnbull's help again) replacing a piston and barrel. We were bolting the head down just as the five minute board went up. Every race I was losing more skirt attachment points from the base of the hull. If you lose skirt segments in the wrong pattern the escaping air exerts a torque on the craft and in one race I had to retire after losing the ability to turn right - not a good feature on a clockwise course. Moreover, an ancient fibre glass repair on the hull was growing a crack.
At the end of each race, we would park up on a marshy spit before transitting back to the paddock. After the final race, I must have chosen a spot more water than land because as I settled onto it, there was a collection of small fountains around me inside the cockpit.
One of the juniors from my area of the world had a broken craft and despite my lack of success (14th overall) he was still keen to borrow mine for his last race. We had some engine trouble and he got away late from the start. Almost immediately after striking out across the water, he turned back because the steering had suddenly gone funny. He had made the right decision because just as he reached land, the bottom section of the hull disintegrated, dumping the fuel tank and assorted glass fibre and plywood sections on the shore line as he coasted into the paddock, trailing wires and cables. Some kind of end of season silence and resignation began to settle around us.
So endeth the first season. I think I have acquired another winter project. Which aerodynamic texts should I read before designing the ultimate F3 hovercraft? Is kevlar really better than glass? Do flow straighteners really work or are they just there to stop you putting your arm into the fan blades?
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