Festival of Speed, June 2013: as the cars streak up the hill behind them, two motorsport-mad enthusiasts both by the name of Palmer shake hands on the deal they have just agreed.
One is Andy, top-flight motor industry exec who at that time was Nissan’s chief planning officer and who today is CEO at Aston Martin.
The other is GRRC member Derek Palmer, racing driver turned touring car team boss with half a century of experience in competitive motor sport.
And the deal? To create a new racing team to take part in the British Touring Car Championship in 2015. It would use the new Q50 saloon from Nissan’s premium brand Infiniti as a starting point, and all funds raised would go to Support Our Paras, the Parachute Regiment charity that supports injured paras and their families.
Oh, and the race team would be manned in part by injured former paratroopers. With the aim, one day, of having an injured ex-serviceman behind the wheel.
‘It only took a handshake. Andy Palmer got what we wanted to do at once,’ says Derek, team principal of what was to become Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing.
Over twenty months on and the newest and most unlikely BTCC team is readying the cars at its Mallory Park base so testing can begin. Time is short: the first race is at Brands Hatch on April 5.
‘We are paratroopers, we are not used to coming second. We will do whatever we have to do to win.’
The aim of the exercise? Team leader Daz Fuller says first and foremost the objective is to raise awareness, and money, for the charity. And after that?
Colin Turkington et al watch out, the paras are about to drop in on you…
BTCC better than ever this year?
Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing will be the fourth manufacturer-backed team in the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship for 2015, taking on the likes of Honda, MG and BMW as well as a host of ace independent racing teams.
Now entirely populated by Next Generation Touring Cars – all 2.0-litre turbos with common racing chassis, suspension and gearbox under their saloon car bodies – 2014 was the most thrilling and successful BTCC season for a decade, and record TV audiences lapped it up.
This year the racing promises to be more edge-of-seat than ever.
Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing will field a pair of Q50s, Infiniti’s rival for cars like the BMW 3-series and Audi A4 and a machine that appears more showroom standard than some. For good reason, since Infiniti is also out to boost its awareness of the Q50 with the British public.
Incidentally there is no connection between Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing and Infiniti Red Bull Racing – though the paras do admit they might ask the ace F1 equipe for some tips on how to achieve the 2.5-second pit stop…
‘These guys are an inspiration. To watch them working and overcoming any issues is incredible. They are the best rookie team I have had by miles.’
For a rookie team there are two rookie drivers, rookies as far as the BTCC is concerned anyway: Derek Palmer Jnr, touring car, GT and historic racer; and Richard Hawken, triple club level champion who tested for Speedworks in 2013. Both drivers have been racing in Super Touring Cars in recent years.
Half a dozen former paratroopers, from across the regiment’s three regular battalions, have full-time jobs at the team, with others working part-time. They are all motorsport fans but it’s still a world they have never worked in before. Showing them what to do in the pit garage is crew chief Les White while Derek Palmer Snr is team principal.
Derek Snr, who dates his first motor sport experience to helping Tom Walkinshaw race a Triumph Spitfire in Scotland in 1962, tells us: ‘I was told that using injured servicemen for such a high-tech, high-pressure job would be impossible.
‘But these guys are an inspiration. To watch them working and overcoming any issues is incredible. They are the best rookie team I have had by miles, because they are Army. I think as our story unfolds the public will really get behind us.’
Support Our Paras? How could you not. So Goodwood Road & Racing went along to a special preview to meet the paras and find out a little more about their leap into the unknown…
We spoke to team leader Daz Fuller, former Parachute Regiment Colour Sergeant who was medically discharged from the Army after losing his lower right arm in a mortar incident in Helmand Province in 2008.
What can the Army bring to the world of motor racing?
Discipline, teamwork, our outlook on life. We look for the best in everything. We are no good at sitting around moping.
What do you and your colleagues have in common apart from experience in war zones?
We’ve all been medically discharged from the Army for a variety of injuries, some visible some not. But we are still a team and we don’t like to lose. Plus we are all motor sport fans of one kind or another.
What’s your job in the team?
To lead the soldiers and be Derek’s right-hand man, which is a bit weird because I haven’t got a right hand.
You will be manning the pit garage during the races, how will that work?
Each person in the garage has a core job which takes into account their injuries. And all of us will have learnt one job above what we need to know, so we can always step up into a higher role if we need to. That’s Army practice. It’s a massive learning curve but I think that it helps that we haven’t done any of it before.
How seriously are you taking the actual motor racing?
We are not here just to make up the numbers. Yes we want to raise awareness and funds for the charity but we are a race team and one that wants to win, which we are confident we will do. I think we will surprise people at how quickly we progress.
Parachuting or motor racing for most thrills?
I think racing will be like parachuting in one regard – some apprehension before you do it and then afterwards you just can’t wait to do it all again.
How will you feel at the first race?
When the idea of the team first came up we all thought, is this for real? So it will be massive for us to be there on the grid with the other teams. It will be fantastic, not just for us but the whole of the Parachute Regiment.
And when the lights turn green…?
All of us have been in battles at some point and in some ways this will be another battle for us – same team but just different weapons. That’s the way we are looking at it.