Just got back to my place in Italy for what seems like the first time since February! As you know from my last couple of blogs, the schedule has been quite jam-packed and only now does it show a bit of reprieve over the next couple of months. While it has been massively busy, I have very much enjoyed the year thus far and look forward to what the future has in store. While we are approaching the halfway point to the championship, there is still a lot to be done and accomplished by season’s close in October.
My journey after Spa began with the next race at the “Cathedral of Speed” in Monza, Italy. This is for sure the fastest circuit on the calendar and while I have some experience there in GP3, I was really looking forward to getting on track in a full size, big power car. Needless to say I was very excited for this event as the track carries so much history it is even a thrill to simply walk the circuit with the engineers before free practice. With that being said, we had quite a bit of pressure on us to deliver after the setbacks experienced in Spa and putting the car P2 at the end of Friday was a great confidence boost heading into qualifying on Saturday morning.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out at all for us as we ended down in P17 as the car had a mechanical failure halfway through the session, before we got a chance to put in a lap on the second set of tires. This was obviously extremely disappointing and I knew that a points scoring drive was going to require a big push. Our pace at the start of the race was quite good and we looked set to move substantially up the order; however, I made the classic mistake at Monza of flat-spotting the tires midway through the race. Because we were not the headline event, as is usual for World Series by Renault, there were no pit-stops to help me out so I suffered with a constantly changing car balance and finished just out of the points in 11th.
While we were not pleased with this, we had to reset our mindset very quickly and focus on the second qualifying, which occurred only three hours after the race finished! Saturday was a jam-packed day and something that was a bit strange from the driver’s perspective as the car balance/performance obviously changes drastically from race to quali trim so it required quick thinking to adjust the driving style and approach to the lap in between sessions.
Qualifying two went much better than the first as we led quite a bit of the session only to slip back in the final three minutes. The top seven cars were separated by only 0.15 second and yes, you guessed it, I was P7. This was more annoying than anything else as when you look at a lap with so little time difference to the front, every little blip or error over the lap equates to the result.
As Sunday morning rolled around, I was excited as I knew we had the pace and were in a good enough starting position to challenge for a podium, if not a win. We took everything that we had learned from Saturday and applied it, which resulted in big dividends. I finished second behind Ricciardo and ahead of Vergne, just missing out on the quickest race lap by a few 1/100ths. This was a great way to fight back and we exited the weekend moving up to P2 in the World Series by Renault championship.
Immediately after the celebrations and waves of relief passed on Sunday evening, it was time to get on a plane to Austria for the next installment of the FIA Young Driver’s Excellence Academy in a small town outside of Vienna. I was very much looking forward to this as I had missed the second workshop due to my commitments with AirAsia Team Lotus in Malaysia. This workshop’s focus was on technical understanding and vehicle dynamics which resulted in a very interesting and fun filled week of drifting, sliding and pushing rental BMW’s on variable surfaces, inclines, and through multiple obstacles. Each time we were on track, we got to ride with a fellow academy member, which was the sight of a lot of laughs and fantastic memories. I spent most of my time riding “shotgun” to Albert Costa a fellow WSR driver, so we had some very entertaining experiments to try that neither of us would be brave enough to unleash in our respected race cars.
The final day was focused a lot on fitness and we had a 3km hike that climbed over 1,000m and in typical racing driver fashion, there was a bet placed on who would get to the top first. The stakes were quite high as the winner received an iPad and there was plenty of strategy, preparation and mutiny the evening before. I am proud to say that I made it to the top with the quickest time; however, I still need to push a bit more to be on pace with Alex Wurz. One day at the end of the year, we will have to schedule some sort of re-match.
Now getting back to the next race, it is one that everyone is always very excited about. The crown jewel of the World Series calendar takes place in Monaco as a support event to the Grand Prix. I went into this event with very high expectations based on my one-off performance in 2010 as a guest driver with ISR. I entered second in the championship and I had every intention of winning and felt that we had a very good opportunity to do so. I took my time in practice, getting used to the circuit and grip levels again with the primary focus of getting as many laps under my belt as possible and developing a good baseline with the car. We accomplished this and I was confident with our pace going into qualifying; however, we would have to wait nearly 48 hours to find out for sure as the Monaco timetable is a special one with no on-track events between Thursday morning practice and Saturday morning qualifying.
Because of the nature of the circuit and how many cars WSR has in competition, it was decided that the session would be split up into two groups in order to minimize problems with excessive traffic. I drew lucky and ended up in the second group which was an advantage as I would know what was necessary to accomplish in order to put the car on pole. As expected, Ricciardo was quickest in group one and I knew that I would have to pull everything out in order to get on pace with him. I ended up 0.04 off of pole, which actually put me P4 as I was second in my group 0.005 off Brendan Hartley. Believe it or not this was the most disappointing qualifying of the year as it was so close, but at the same time quite far away. It was a similar situation to Monza and it forces us as drivers to be absolutely 100% on the limit without exceeding it and this is perfect preparation for Formula One…it’s thrilling to be competing in a championship with so many top level guys and it just forces me to push it that much harder on and off track.
As race day rolled around, I didn’t know what to expect as I knew that our pace was fast, but I also knew that the guys around me were just as fast and with overtaking being virtually impossible, it was going to be all about the start. I would soon find out, however, that this was a double-edged sword. I got my personal quickest start of the year and was alongside Hartley and Wickens off the line, but ran out of road as the track narrowed on the approach to T1. I had to back off and concede which caused me to lose a position to Costa (who was later determined to have jumped the start). This put me P5 at the end of the first lap and immediately I was working at every opportunity to find a way around Costa and it finally came after a restart two-thirds of the way through the race. Once getting around Costa, I focused all of my effort on P3 and was determined to get a step on the podium.
This charge ended up being very short lived as we came up on a lapped car over the blind crest on the run into Massinet, before Casino. With clearance being as it is at Monaco, there is very small margin for error on both sides and the left front of the lapped car and the right rear of my car ended up connecting which sent me into the wall at over 200km/h. Was quite a big hit to the car and to my points run as we would have closed the gap to the lead to only 4 points. Instead we left with the same gap as we entered the weekend with – 17 points from Vergne. Wickens’ second place drive dropped me to third in the championship.
I was obviously gutted with this situation as it was such a silly way to DNF a race. A small sidenote here, but J.R. Hildebrand and I started our racing career together as karting teammates in California and when I saw what happened on the final lap, in the final corner of the Indy 500, I realized that this is a part of motorsport and we must accept the good with the bad.
Now it is less than two weeks before the next event at the Nurburgring and while I have not turned a wheel on this circuit yet, I am massively excited and can’t wait to pull back the points that have slipped through our fingers in the past two events. While, I do not know exactly what to expect, I am surrounded by a team of amazing individuals at and away from the circuit and my focus and confidence is fully intact. My goals at the Nurburgring are to win and my motivation to get back on the top step is at an all time high. Let’s see what we can do.