Motor Racing: First night - Iain Morton: Fantasy on the starting line

His hobby drove everyone up the wall. Now a boyhood dream will be fulfilled
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The Independent Online
Today, at Thruxton, the fastest motor racing circuit in Europe, Iain Morton will become the ultimate boy racer. At 31, he should know better. He really should understand that the land of the thirtysomething is fenced round with mortgages, pushchairs, job worries and babysitters, a Colditz of responsibility which allows no room for the sort of reckless passions Morton will pursue round an airfield in Hampshire this afternoon. How dare he? What right does he have to indulge his fantasies when the rest of us have to confine our dreams to traffic lights, Scalextric and the outside lane of the M25?

As befits an information technologist, Morton has an ordered, logical, mind which is still wrestling with the sheer self-indulgence of his venture. He will admit to an element of fantasy. The donning of the overalls, the drivers' debriefing, strapping on his helmet, climbing into the cockpit of his purple-and-black single seater, recognisably the rituals of a thousand grands prix. But pounds 15,000 is a lot to pay for seeing your name on the side of a car and Morton has at least some grip on the realities dictated by his bank balance. Yet, here he is, lining up in car No 96 for round one of the BARC Formula Renault championship, the first car race of his life.

Quite where a soft spot for speed turned into a serious tilt at single- seater racing is hard to pinpoint. Morton would like you to believe that one thing led to another and, hey presto, glory's finger beckons. His wife Yvonne has to take a share of the credit for not putting her foot down long before her husband's. There was some self-interest involved. "Yvonne says she can always tell when I've not been out in the racing car because I start driving much faster," he says. But when Iain arrived home with a bunch of red roses in one hand and a budget for a season's racing in the other, she did not immediately fear a premature outbreak of the male menopause. There, there, dear, the lawn needs mowing. A deal was struck: first, he would try not to use up all the housekeeping money and second he would try not to kill himself. The third unwritten law, regularly broken so far, was that dinner conversation would not exclusively centre on rear suspension struts and the correct racing line through Copse Corner.

"I passed my test when I was 17 and had always driven hot hatchbacks," Morton says. "I suppose the thought of actually racing came from doing test days. Originally, a group of us went down, but the others haven't taken it on as far as I have.

"I am very competitive and the thought of going out there and trying to be quicker than everyone else does appeal to me. To compete on the track, the whole excitement of being out there and doing it. But I still question what I'm doing even now."

The Formula Renault championship satisfied most of Morton's criteria: competitive, not too costly and, because the cars are identical, hotly contested and terrifyingly exposed. There are no excuses for being slow. Morton bought his car for pounds 8,000 with a spares package, roped in a couple of mates as mechanics, bought a copy of Autosport's guide to the racing circuits of Britain - complete with reference points for braking, apex and exit for every corner in the land - and went testing at pounds 150 a day. There, for the first time, he learned the rudiments of driving a car with his backside about half an inch above road level and without the inconvenience of speed cameras, cops and cars coming in the opposite direction.

"Going down the straight's no problem," he says. "But driving a racing car through a corner goes against all the logical thinking of driving a road car. I mean, I would go into a corner thinking there's no way I can get round going this quick, then the next thing you know, three other guys have passed you and you think `blimey, I could have taken that twice as quick'. The secret of being quick is to get the power on as early as possible, but it's a totally alien concept.

"At the moment, I'm miles away from finding my limit, but I've deliberately gone gradually. The alternative would have been to chuck it off the circuit and then work back from there. That's the expensive way of doing it. To be honest, the fear is more financial than real. Potentially you can hurt yourself in one of these things. They're capable of doing 140mph, but it's the fear of having a big repair bill that's uppermost in my mind. Once you're in the helmet and been strapped into a six-point harness by a burly mechanic, you can't move anyway. You feel very safe." He had anticipated the forces on his wallet, though, not the G-forces on neck and shoulders. "After the first test session, I got out of the car feeling as if I'd done 12 rounds with Mike Tyson."

Already Morton has enjoyed a lifetime of experiences. He passed his ARDS safety test at Thruxton and just sneaked past the compulsory multi-choice questionnaire. What is the most significant quality of your racing overalls? a) lots of space for logos; b) they match the colour of your car; c) they are fire resistant. What do you do when you pass the chequered flag? a) Take both hands off the steering wheel and punch the air; b) Slow down and return to the pits. Taking his driver's licence to his local GP for the medical gave him a kick, ordering a new helmet in his company's colours, loading the car on to the trailer, having his photo taken by the press. But nothing proved quite as uplifting as his first encounter with a high- speed grand prix corner, the Maggotts-Becketts complex at Silverstone. "Going through and then pulling out on to Hangar Straight, that was an incredible feeling. I really felt like Damon Hill."

Otherwise, his progress has been a tribute to his discretion. "On my first test day at Silverstone, some of the bigger teams in the championship were there and I'd never driven on a track with a load of other cars before, so my heart was going like crazy. I barely took the thing out of third gear, I just didn't want to make a complete prat of myself."

Today will be a similar exercise in self-preservation. His car is now being run by DLE racing, a Midlands-based team, more expensive but easier on the mind. He just has to turn up and race. Twelve laps, one and a half minutes a lap. "My goal is to qualify and just keep the car on the road." It is unusual for a novice, let alone a 31-year-old novice, to surface this high up the scale and the fear of embarrassment is paramount. And rightly so. The more basic search for fulfilment can wait.

"If only I'd started younger, I could be a Formula One driver by now. Everyone who gets into a race car has that feeling," says Morton. "I'd like to say I would have been the next Damon Hill, but to be honest I don't think so. I would say I'm above average. An average driver would spin off at the first corner." But then, he adds, he would like to win the championship one day. "That would mean buying a more competitive car, getting some backing, doing some more testing. The winner of this championship and the next one up automatically gets a test drive in a Williams F1 car." Getting it out of your system, my mother used to call it. The difference with Iain Morton is that he's reached the starting line. The rest of us just dream.

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