My first trip to St. Petersburg was pretty damn good! We didn’t get the results we were hoping for, but the car is still in one piece (mostly— still pulling some bits of Audi and Cadillac out of the front..) and we were able to show we have the pace to run strong for the season.
This was my first time racing with the guys at DragonSpeed and we had limited testing before the season started as the Ferrari 458 Italia was being updated and converted from IMSA GTD (finishing 4th at Daytona!) specifications to current FIA GT3 regulations. I’m still getting to know the car and the team, but we’re making steady progress every time we go out on track!
Friday’s 9AM 25 minute first practice session went smoothly. I was able to do a dozen laps and learn the track. Traffic was crazy, but everyone drove well and were giving each other plenty of room. There’s always 1 or 2 drivers that don’t seem very aware of their surroundings, but overall it was good. Driving wheel-to-wheel with full spec GT3 cars is awesome! Even watching the McLarens, Audis, Viper, Mercedes, BMW and other Ferraris from inside my own car was cool! Thomas Enge putting down a 1:14.7 in the first practice session was incredible given the completely green track condition. I know he’s a great driver, but the BOP for the Lamborghini is heavily favored at the moment. It’s the same tub and engine as the Audi R8’s, but it weighs 200 pounds less and has a bigger restrictor (more power). The rest of the cars all seemed pretty close on speed.
Our second practice session wasn’t until after 4PM so I had plenty of time to study video and data with my buddy Ryan Dalziel who was there helping me get up to speed. We were able to make some changes to the setup of the car to get me a little more comfortable and were planning to try a few more things in practice session two if we had enough green flag running. At street circuits you’re always worried about red flags causing lost track time!
Fortunately, we had a full green second practice session. This allowed me plenty of time to get comfortable with the track and for us to make some small but definitely positive changes to our setup on the car. With over a race distance on the set of tires we were using and with all the traffic, we were still able to pull off a 1:14.9 at the end of the session which was 3rd fastest overall behind Thomas Enge (Lambo) at a 1:14.6 and Dane Cameron (BMW Z4) at 1:14.9. The official transponder in the car was having issues so we didn’t show up on the official time sheets for the session, but when they told me over the radio we were 3rd quickest I was surprised to say the least! I’ve spent a lot of time in this off season working on my driving and it’s pretty cool to start getting up there with the fastest of the fast guys!
Our qualifying session was 8AM Saturday morning and we were all expecting it to be wet. GTS was sent out first for 15 minutes, then all the GT cars were sent out. The GTS guys made a dry line on the track for us which was nice and since the rain stayed away we were able to run a full dry setup for qualifying. The track was very cold and grip was pretty low from all the rubber of the previous day being washed away from the rain over night, but it was improving with every lap. We knew the fastest times would be set at the end of the session, so we just cruised around for the first 10 minutes or so. For the last 5-6 laps I really tried to push, but I just couldn’t catch a break with catching other cars on track. There was some very questionable antics from drivers which I hope gets addressed in our next drivers meeting at Long Beach. It took what little self control I have to not DRILL 3 different people during qualifying for ruining laps when they weren’t even up to speed.. and one of them was a Cadillac which I may or may not have gotten into in the race… ;)
Either way, we were unable to set a lap reflective of our pace and would start P11 with a 1:15.1. Lesson learned!
Even with the poor starting position, we all still felt we had the pace to fight for a podium position if I could get through traffic. I haven’t been racing long, but almost all of it has been in multi-class environments so I was hoping to use that to my advantage.
With such an early qualifying session combined with the fact I was still on West Coast time.. I went back to the hotel to take a nap before our scheduled 4PM race. Apparently while I was sleeping all hell broke loose: tornado warnings were issued, flood advisories, etc. I didn’t think there was any way there was going to be any on track action during a tornado warning, but I went back to the track at 2PM anyway to hang out with the crew, talk with our engineers and be ready just in-case they gave us the green light. At around 4PM we were told they were out checking the track and would make a decision if we were racing. A few minutes later Geoffrey Carter came through and told us that the series was given the green light to go by the race organizers, but after he inspected the track he thought there was to much standing water at some of the corners (4-5 inches deep!!!) and declined. Our first race would be canceled but our 2nd race on Sunday would go on as planned with a standing start and the grid set from qualifying times.
I felt bad for the fans but really think it was the rite decision for the series. There’s so many new cars and drivers and after the debacle that was Sebring, we had to be on our best behavior and do everything rite. With the flexibility of a double race weekend we still had a race the next day and a cross country trip to Long Beach 10 days later, it simply wasn’t worth the risk of wrecking half the field. If it was a single race weekend or later in the season I’m pretty sure we would have raced.
Sunday’s weather was back to the normal beautiful and sunny Florida! Track temps were actually 25-30 degrees F higher than we had seen in any of the sessions so we were all a little unsure how the cars would behave. We don’t have much experience with these Pirelli tires so we just had to cross our fingers and do what we could.
Heading out for our recon lap at 11:45PM for Sunday’s race we had a small scare with a TC Failure warning on the dash. The great Michelotto engineers were on hand as soon as we stopped on the grid and were able to plugin and fix the issue. Once lined up on the grid we sat for a few minutes, then followed the pace car out to do our one and only pace lap and came to a stop on the front straight to get ready for our standing start!
During the drivers meeting they went over the procedure and we were supposed to come up to the grid with the FCY “delphi” in-car yellow light enabled. Once that light went out, it would be 5 seconds until the start lights came on. Once the red start lights on the side of the track came on, they would go out within 5 seconds and that would trigger the start of the race.
However, there must have been some sort of issue because when we all got settled on the grid, the yellow light went out and the red starter lights on the side of the track didn’t come on. After about 10 seconds I heard a bunch of cars rev up like we were about to start, so I revved up and then everyone behind me did too. After about 20 seconds (and the car getting close to overheating!) we all dropped back down to idle. In all the confusion I let the clutch out and didn’t realize I was still in gear, so the engine stalled! And of course Murphy’s Law was in full effect, so as soon as the car stalled, the red lights on the side of the track came on and everyone revved their cars for the start! Luckily, just as the engine fired up (and it seemed to take FOREVER!) the lights went out and I was able to get a decent launch.
Now you have to keep in mind, the FIA GT3 cars are not allowed launch control. Some of the cars have a traction control system which can work like a pseudo launch control system by limiting wheel spin (Audi TC worked as pretty good launch control for me at COTA last year!), however the Ferrari is not one of them. We actually need to do our launches with traction control turned off otherwise the car almost stalls, and that is very dangerous on a standing start! Then sometime during the first lap we turn TC back on using a control knob on the steering wheel. This isn’t optimal, but the best we can do at the moment. Needless to say I wouldn’t expect to see us gain many position on the standing starts!
As it turns out, many others had similar issues with stalling or poor starts and relative to them, my start wasn’t terrible. However, I did lose some positions on the run to turn 1 as we avoided a stalled car and everyone parked on the inside entering the first turn. A few cars were able to get around me on the outside of the corner. We must have dropped down to 13th or 14th place on the first lap which was not good.
The car was quite the handful in the first 5 or 6 laps. Probably due to the rubber being washed off the painted surfaces from the rain the previous day and the increased track temp. Once the tires started to come in we had a pretty strong race pace and were closing the gaps to everyone in front of us. I made a mistake entering turn 9 after the high speed kink while trying to make a move on James Sofronas in the Audi and came SO close to wrecking us both under braking! I had to use the runoff and that allowed a couple cars to get under me before rejoining the track. Back to chase mode!
We had our first and only FCY about 15 minutes into the race because of 2 cars that made pretty heavy contact in turn 4. My car was quick and now the leaders were back in sight so I was looking forward to fighting up to the front! When we went back to green I drove as hard as I could, but could only make up a few positions. Over time, cars became stopped on track due to mechanicals or contact and at first I thought they were going to go full course caution… and if they had done that, we’d certainly have finished under yellow. However, after a few laps I realized they were going to let us keep racing and simply keep the local yellows out around the stranded cars — BRAVO World Challenge, great decision! The downside of the local yellows was they were in great passing areas so it made it nearly impossible to pass a car in class for position, but it was much better than finishing under a yellow flag behind the safety car!
We managed to have the 4th fastest lap of the race, was one of the 4 cars that were faster than the tracks lap record and fastest Ferrari in the race, but I was only able to get up to 9th place by the checker flag. Overall it was a good race for us, but it’s always disappointing as a driver to not be able to get a good result for your team when you clearly had a fast car!
Thanks DragonSpeed, Extreme Speed Motorsports, Motegi Racing Wheels, my “super-Sub” engineer Rick Mayer, and Ryan Dalziel for all the support! Next stop, the streets of Long Beach on April 13th… come by and say Hi if you make it out to the race!