|Tuesday, October 18, 2011 1:02AM|
My dear friends,
I write this blog with a heavy heart as I head to Barcelona, as motorsport has lost a champion and I have lost a fellow racer and someone that I deeply admired and looked up to. Dan Wheldon was an inspiration to many on and off track and while he passed on doing what he loved, one can’t help but feel a sense of apprehension about this sport that we have all come to know and cherish. The past twenty-four hours have been a true eye-opener for me as the realization that motorsport is still dangerous and the drivers are not invincible becomes clear in the most tragic of circumstances. As we continue to push forward chasing perfection and continually finding the limits of speed and performance, the memory of Dan and his talent will shine through and while he is no longer with us, he will never be forgotten.
As I mentioned before, I am currently on the way to Barcelona for what will be my second GP2 test of the year with Caterham Team Air Asia. The first test was also in Spain, albeit Southern, it proved to be a learning curve on the specialist Pirelli tires. As I rolled out on track, I had an idea of what to expect about the tires based on information I had gathered throughout the year. The driving style and car set-up required was different then anything I have previously driven; however, by the end of the day we managed to pull ourselves to P6 and after one day of working together, the team and I were very pleased with this result. Now we go to Barcelona with a firm foundation looking to build on what we already learned and will be pushing to be at the top of the time sheets.
Now prior to the GP2 testing, I obviously had to finish out my campaign in World Series by Renault with Fortec and where I last left off, we had come off a challenging weekend in Silverstone. While we had managed a double podium, the latter of the two got stripped away due to a technical regulation that was later appealed and denied. So instead of entering Paul Ricard P3 in the championship, we entered in P6 with quite a gap to close down to the cars in front.
While this was a frustrating setback we knew that we would carry forward our strong pace into the event and this became clear during Saturday morning qualifying. We spent all of Friday finding the perfect balance instead of proving ultimate lap time and it proved to be a good strategy. We qualified P5 for the first race only 0.1 off the pace and we were able to do this with having to drive off on the quickest lap to avoid a much slower car. I was quite annoyed with the fact that we had missed out on pole because of such a silly reason, but such is motorsport and the task now was to drive on. I got a decent start and held my position into the first corner before quickly moving into fourth after getting around Hartley by the end of the first lap. I then set my sights on Robert when disaster struck. I suddenly felt as though the car was seriously damaged (i.e. flat tire, broken damper/suspension) as the performance dropped off about two seconds per lap. I quickly lost sight of the leaders as I fought tooth and nail to keep the rest of the field behind me. After 90% of the race this would prove to be futile as I slipped back to 17th and crossed the line with no improvement. It turned out them someone else’s front wing had literally gotten lodged underneath my car resulting in a 20% loss of overall downforce and increased drag.
This was very upsetting (and unbelievable that it never fell out the entire race) for the entire team as we knew that we had the pace for a podium and to say we were hell-bent on redemption for Sunday would was a bit of an understatement. We awoke Sunday morning to a very wet and cold Paul Ricard and this caught everyone a bit off guard as the “all-knowing” weather sites did not give any forewarning for such a change, but again this is motorsport and we quickly adapted as a team. We had a new approach to the wet set-up for the car and I was determined to fight back after the roller coaster ride that we all had been through. When the lights went green we immediately went to the top of the time sheets and remained there until three minutes to the end when JEV put in a phenomenal lap to put him on pole by 0.8. I could do nothing to respond and we ended the session P2, 0.7 clear of P4.
It finally felt as though a bit of momentum was coming our way and as it was a pit-stop race, we were ready to go to work. Our best start of the year came when the lights went out, however, I was not able to out-drag JEV going into Turn 1 and had to concede to following him round. What I neglected to mention was that rain started to fall in the second and third sectors on the circuit when we were doing our formation lap to the grid so when we reached the damp parts of the track it was a massive challenge to just keep the car pointing in the correct direction. The organizers called a full course yellow and this was a relief as it gave me an opportunity to test the grip of the track in a non-pressure environment. When the track went green again I immediately started to try and force the issue to take the lead as I knew that we were quicker and that we had the opportunity to break away if we could get clean air. As Ricciardo pitted from P3 when the pitstop window opened, we were put in a position to stop early as well to defend against his advances in clean air on fresher tires. However, this strategy got quickly dismissed when JEV pulled into the pits on the same lap that we were preparing to stop. I made a last minute decision to stay out in clean air and push for some qualifying laps even though my tires would not be as fresh as the cars that had already stopped. I had an amazing car underneath me and we not only were able to match the times of those behind, but set and reset the quickest lap so that when we pitted and rejoined with fresh rears, I had a 2.2 second lead on the two Red Bull cars behind.
Everything seemed to be going well until I got about 6 corners into my outlap when the alarms came on in the car and my water temperature soared 30 degrees above standard operating temperature. My heart sunk as I knew there was 12 laps left and I immediately went into engine conservation mode the only way I know how – short shifting. I was shifting 1,200 rpms early on the upshift and saving the downshifts for very late into the braking zone in order to keep any and all stress out of the engine as possible. Somehow the engine held on and we crossed the line with the same 2.2 second gap on the cars behind and the relief exceeded the joy on everyone’s face. It was a challenging race with changing strategies and varying weather conditions, but we stood on the top step of the podium again and that is what we wake up each day pushing and striving for.
With the weekend finished and our championship revived moving back into P4, narrowly behind P3, I got on a plane to Signapore for the only night race on the Formula One calendar and the focus of the weekend was to observe and learn as much as possible working directly with Team Lotus and their drivers. This was one of the most enjoyable weekends I have had and I was thrilled with the opportunities presented to me while I was there. I even had the chance to walk in the legendary Amber Lounge fashion show on Saturday night. I was able to demonstrate a Zoolander Blue Steel attempt, which was far from perfect, but great fun to be with the other reserve drivers back stage panicking about how and where to walk and what classified as a “pose.”
After Singapore and my time with Team Lotus the focus became the season finale in Barcelona. The best that we could achieve in terms of the championship was third, so this is what we set out to do…no matter what it would take. When Friday came to a close we realized that we did not have the balance, nor pace that we had come to expect from the previous rounds and going into Saturday morning, we knew that anything less than maximum attack was not going to be good enough. The first qualifying session was severely interrupted with a red flag followed by a 30-minute delay because of an oil spill through the second and longest sector on the track. At this point of the second red flag, I was sitting P14 as I never had the opportunity to put a complete lap together due to traffic and tire warm up procedure, so I was quite disappointed that we would not be able to improve our time based on the condition of the circuit. When the session resumed, we held back in pit lane for a bit waiting to see how the laptimes would reflect the condition of the track and it was quite discouraging to see that no one was improving. Without much choice, we bolted the second set of tires on and I went for one final go to try and gain at least a bit to get us into the top 10 and a points scoring position. The lap that would ensue was without question a good one and I improved 0.7 to go P3 overall when the checkered flag flew. It was one of those laps where you know that it is messy, but if you can hold it together, then its guaranteed to be quick and fortunately I was able to hold on, albeit went two wheels in the gravel on the fastest corner on the track when I hit the oil dry. Whew!
My chief championship competitor for the weekend was Albert Costa and as he starting P2, I was quite content to bring the car home on the podium and not take any unnecessary risks as we knew that the ultimate pace was missing a bit. Off the line, I immediately had a run on Albert and tried to go round the outside of him into turn one which resulted in me getting pushed slightly wide for turn two, which then saw me wide for turn three and a chain reaction that caused me to go from the offensive to the very defensive in order to not lose too many positions to my main points rival. Unfortunately, while defending I flat spotted my tires to an extreme, which plagued me later on in the race. Despite my best efforts and damaged tires I could not keep pace with Vergne behind me and I slipped back into P4 where we finished. While it was not an amazing result, it was solid points going into the final race of the season.
My championship position was as follows: if Albert won the race, then I would have to finish no worse then 10th to clinch third overall. If Albert did not win, then it would not matter where I finished to still clinch third.
This seemed like fairly good odds to me as we arrived at the track on Sunday morning, but after qualifying which saw Albert on pole and me in P7 by nearly a second, I did think about the potential outcomes. This was soon a mute point as there was a massive shunt with the two championship contenders at the start. Obviously a safety car was immediately brought out and when I crossed start finish I saw that I was in P9. When the track went green again, we pitted immediately and unfortunately the timing was not to our advantage as it had been in the past and I came out behind another car, which did not allow me to maximize the fresh tires to the extent that we have become so good at this year.
However, the team still did a brilliant job at getting the car out quicker than most and I was able to gain one spot when the sequences all sorted themselves out to P8. I was closing down on the car in front of me and immediately started to look for a way past. After a few laps of pressure, I was able to slip by entering turn four for seventh place and that is where I would cross the line. This was a less than superb result, but allowed me to score third overall and rookie of the year, all the while giving Fortec Motorsport a second place in the team’s championship.
Not unlike any other year in motorsports, this one had moments of great success and bitter disappointment. Through it all everyone has continued by my side, pushing me forward with your support and encouragement. 2011 was another great year for me, racing in Europe and opened many doors in Formula One and my relationship with Team Lotus. I extend a big thank you to my personal investors and sponsors who have stayed committed and my friends and family who continue to motivate and inspire me to never give up and keep on fighting. I owe the results of this year to GOD who has given me the strength to believe in the big picture and for keeping me on the straight and narrow.
As this blog comes to a close, we need to realize that motorsport and life in general is entirely unpredictable and it is important that we don’t get caught up in the small hiccups, but continue to realize that there is a plan beyond all of our understanding already in place. Dan’s life and death has inspired me to fight for what I love and believe in and never give up on my dreams because you never know when your time will come.
I look forward to moving forward with you all and can’t wait to see what is in store. Never stop pushing. Let it ride.