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TG.com join a Britcar 24 pitcrew

  1. A warm and slightly damp welcome to Silverstone, where for the next sleepless hours TopGear.com is following Mission Motorsport as they attempt to conquer the Britcar 24 Hour with the help of Nissan and RJN Motorsport.

    If you saw Jeremy, James and Richard’s attempt at the Britcar in 2007, you’ll already know Britain’s biggest endurance race is a grueling and emotional test for the most resolute of teams. But for Mission Motorsport, it’s something more. Mission is entirely crewed by serving and former service personnel, many of whom have suffered life-changing injuries in the line of duty.

    Well, we say entirely. This weekend they’ve made their job even tougher by inviting TopGear.com to join their pit crew. That’s me. Following TG’s somewhat emotional TV film in which the boys, supported by the Stig (some say that where he comes from, “days” are two weeks long - so a 24hr race isn’t exactly a hardship…), achieved their third-in-class result after a clutch of turbulent hours, they’ve got high hopes I might be some use. Unfortunately, my mechanical knowledge hovers between ‘dangerous’ and ‘non-existent’.

    Unlike the Mission guys. The team are using motorsport as a catalyst for the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen. Mission was started by Major James Cameron, a petrolhead who wanted to do something for his lads who’d been severely wounded in the line of duty. If there was such a career as “professional great bloke”, Major Jim would be a shoe-in. He thrives on finding opportunities for his beneficiaries - and if his current successes are anything to go by, British motorsport will be entirely militarized by 2020.

    And with the Britcar, Mission are definitely diving in at the deep end. The charity didn’t even exist a few months ago, and three of the five drivers only received their full race licenses - necessary for them to compete at a professional level - a month or so ago. And one of them only has one leg.

    So let’s meet the team. 23-year-old Tpr James “Jimmy” Gillborn stood on an IED in Afghanistan in June 2011. After doctor’s advice, Jimmy’s right leg was amputated below the knee. Though he’s able to drive the team’s unmodified 370Z, he’s unable to roll his ankle, which means switching from the accelerator to the brake requires a deliberate and time-consuming effort. L/Cpl Martyn “Copey” Copleston’s vehicle struck an IED towards the end of his first tour - leaving him a severe laceration to his right leg. Now declared fully fit, at only 22, he’s Mission youngest pilot. Sgt Gary “Gaz” Dunning started his military career in 1991, and has toured the Falklands, Iraq and Northern Ireland. Gaz suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder, although he’s regaining confidence quickly with Mission’s help.

    If they’re showing any pre-match nerves, I can’t detect them. Unlike me. I really don’t want to let these guys down…

    Words: Tom Harrison
    Pictures: Tom Harrison / Mission Motorsport

  2. 17:40, Friday 21st September

    Silverstone is oddly quiet, empty of fans - the good stuff starts tomorrow. I’m given an “all-access” parking pass, so immediately attempt to discover just how far it’s possible to get wearing jeans with an un-liveried car. Just behind the pits, it turns out.

  3. 17:50

    Heading down the paddock, I spot Toyota’s F1-style hospitality unit. Overkill among the aging tour buses. Mission’s base, however, is a coach once used by Aussie rockers INXS, with 12 or so bunks on the top deck for the crew. I resist the temptation to chuck a telly out of the window, partially because it’d land on Auntie Mo’s - one of Mission’s legion of volunteers - catering camper. And it’s got a leaky fuel tank, she tells me, so probably not a good idea.

  4. 18:20

    I’m handed a (oversized) flame-proof suit, balaclava and goggles. I’m the fireman, Tony Compson, our ex-Marine Crew Chief, tells me. Tony’s an intimidating bloke, a war hero who is now missing most of his leg below the knee. I’m wearing loafers and sporting floppy hair.

  5. 16:40

    Tony shows me the drill. As the team 370Z pulls in during the race, my first task is to cap the exhausts, before standing by with a fire extinguisher should anything spark. I’m told to ignore the car: my job is to put out any men on fire, most likely Matt and Jason, the guys responsible for fuel. After 16 years service, Jason suffers from bad arthritis. His first knee operation came when he was only 23, he tells me. After the fuel’s been loaded, I’m to uncap the pipes and retreat into the garage to receive any tyres, drills, pieces of car that may be thrown my way.

  6. 19:00

    Night qualifying’s been delayed due to a “technical fault”, the marshals tell us. “Probably ‘cos it’s not dark yet…” quips Sgt Gav Harvey - one of the most grievously injured servicemen to have returned from Afghanistan alive. He lost both his legs and part of his pelvis when his truck struck a roadside bomb. Now he’s one of Mission’s patrons, and is here supporting the team in any way he can.

  7. 19:30

    We’re on. Major Jim’s first out, on fresh slicks, with cold brakes. Our representative time was done earlier, in the daytime session, so this is really just for a bit of practice. It starts raining as Jim rolls out of pit lane. A few minutes later, he’s back. I ask him how it went. “Effing exciting,” he replies.

    Next up, it’s Jimmy, Copey and Gaz’s turn. All of the guys are looking surprisingly calm, considering none of them have ever completed a lap of Silverstone in the dark, or in wet conditions before. I suppose that’s a consequence of being a military man. A bit of greasy tarmac doesn’t look like it’s phasing these guys unduly.

  8. 20:35

    Qualifying over and done with, and we’ll start 24th. “We’re sandbagging,” Jason tells me. “There’s more to come”. So far so good, and the mood in the pit lane is excellent. Jason, Matt and I set about refilling the fuel drums, ready for tomorrow. Then I absent-mindedly lean on a fire extinguisher, sending a small cloud of white powder in the lads’ direction. Cue en extended ribbing for my “premature release”. I think my loafers and hair have been forgiven…

  9. 09:00 Saturday 22nd September

    We open up the garage. Britcar’s unique in that spectators are basically permitted to roam wherever, whenever they please - even among pit garages. Even now, hours before the start of the race, there’s a surprising number of people milling around - more so among the Mission lads than anyone else…

  10. 10:00

    Major Jim takes me for a squirt around Silverstone’s infield on a motorcycle, to show me the track in all its glory. He knows exactly what he’s talking about: all the knowledge of a racing driver without any arrogant bravado.

  11. 11:10

    Paralympic rower and gold medalist Pam Relph turns up for a quick photo call. She’s a keen supporter of Mission, having planned to join the Royal Engineers as an Officer before early-onset arthritis brought an end to her military aspirations.

  12. 13:15

    Zero-hour is approaching. There are hoards of people now, cramming into every corner of the garage. Major Jim gets stuck into media interviews. For the world’s busiest man, he makes a remarkable amount of time to speak with people - anybody - about Mission. The whole team, considering they’re about to tackle their first-ever endurance race, are incredibly accommodating.

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    14:00

    Jimmy drives the team 370Z to the grid. He’s doing the first stint. We’re mobbed almost immediately, by far the most popular car on the track. The amount of support from everyone is overwhelming. Members of the public offer their support, even a group of marshals. “Does that mean we can speed down the pit lane?” asks Will, my fellow crew member, not entirely joking…

  14. 15:30

    We’re on. The race is underway. The team retreats to the garage to watch the action unfold…

  15. 17:45

    The first couple of hours pass without incident, as does our first competitive pit, when Gaz takes the wheel and I manage to avoid letting off any more fire extinguishers. Jimmy did an excellent job among the early traffic, and Gaz is putting in some decent lap times until he picks up a puncture. He manages to drag the 370 around the remainder of the lap without doing any damage to the car whatsoever - the tyre’s a bit of a mess, but we’ve got plenty of those. At first we think the rim may’ve taken a bit of a beating - crucial as we’ll need to return it to Dunlop to get it re-tired - but all’s well.

    Jason and I head down the paddock to the fitting facility. Each team has a limited number of rims, and has to haul them down to Dunlop to get new tires put on. Jason’s arthritis, my status as a novice and our broken buggy make everything time-consuming, but we get the job done.

  16. 16:25

    Copey’s first stint. I catch Jim’s briefing, where he tells Copey to go easy on the tires. We can’t afford too many spins as we’d run out of rubber later in the race. As with each of the drivers, Copey’s inexperience is offset by Jim’s reassurance and clear head.

  17. 22:25

    Jim’s back after a double stint. We’ve reached 17th position overall, an incredible placing at this stage of the race. Turns out the other teams have been a-tweeting, and they’re getting worried about the professionalism of our stops. Remember, many of them are well-funded, legitimate teams, but we, a group of soldiers and a mechano-phobe hack, seem to be making them nervous…

  18. 04:00

    We’re steadily gaining on 1st in class when disaster strikes. A Marcos floors it out of the pits, spinning into the middle of the track just as Major Jim rounds the first corner. Contact. Severe front-left damage to the 370.

    With the help of John and Phil from Nissan, the team leaps into action as the 370 arrives on a low-loader. The front-left hub assembly’s been ripped from the car’s body. Out of nowhere, a road-going 370Z appears in the garage. Over two hours, in an astonishing display of team work and camaraderie, the crew cannibalises the road-car for parts. Jim tells me it belongs to Bob, the boss of RJN. Apparently he has no idea we’ve taken it.

    Our racer is complete no more, it sports an unpainted front bumper and silver wing, but who cares? It works, and that’s all that matters. The Marcos boys accept responsibility. Probably don’t think it wise to annoy a bunch of ex-soldiers…

  19. 08:30

    I can’t remember the last 40 minutes. Must’ve been asleep. Anyway - since the accident, all’s been going swimmingly save for the odd trip across the gravel.

  20. 13:30

    Rain! Cue a sprint down to Dunlop for a set of wets.

  21. 14:30

    The black Bimmer two doors down out-brakes itself into Brooklands, smashing our passenger door. Luckily, no serious damage is done and the car’s able to continue as normal.

  22. 15:25

    Major Jim gathers us round as the race nears its conclusion. We’ve fought back up to 17th place, and 8th in class, he tells us, before revealing his plans to head down to the podium to witness Jimmy cross the line. I think I hear his voice crack at one point, though I can’t be certain…

  23. 15:30

    We brave the rain and head down to the podium. We lean over the fencing as Jimmy crosses the line, fists raised, after 447 laps and 24 hours of racing. We’ve made it. 8th in class, and Jimmy wins driver of the day, too. Tony gives us a pat on the back. Good bloke.

    On an emotional day for all involved, it’s impossible to overestimate the impact Mission has had, and will have on the lives of injured service personal, and consequently British motorsport. Even though many of the lads only met each other for the very first time days before the race, the sense of companionship typical of service personnel shone through. Even Sunday’s heavy rain did little to dampen their spirits. The future’s bright with this one.

    As for me, I’m tired and achy. But as Sue, Mission’s charity co-ordinator puts it: ‘At least you weren’t embedded with a unit on the Afghan front-line, being shot at…”

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