The first two lights illuminate in the gantry over the start line. As the third red beam flicks on, the engine notes rise around me. With the fourth light the vibrations begin, rattling the car and me inside it. By the fifth my sight is becoming blurred, my eyes moist as my focus tightens on the spots of red, and on them alone. The lights hold. I draw in a steady stream of air and hold my breath. My hand tightens its grip around the wheel. It is the calmest I’ve felt all week.
The lights extinguish, my left foot leaps from the clutch, the rear tyres squeal and squelch around for grip and I’m off, past the white car in front and to the right of me and tucking under the wing of the blue car in front.
For the first time in my life, I’m watching a race from inside the cockpit. And what’s even more astonishing… is that I’m completely silent.
This whole story began at the Indian Grand Prix last year when Ferrari’s chief of F1 PR Renato Bisignani explained to me his team’s concept for a new winter racing series. It was due to take place in the United States in early 2014. Would NBC Sports be interested? I said I couldn’t see why they wouldn’t be, and thereafter I may have made a little joke that I’d just passed my race license so if there was any way they could jump me into one of the cars I’d be pretty OK with that. Well, if you don’t ask…
Fast forward to the first week of the year, and a phonecall from Renato. He’d been talking to NBC Sports’ Motorsport Producer and my boss Rich O Connor about the winter series, and asked which race I would be interested in. I looked at my dates and figured that the second race event in Palm Beach made the most sense. Renato agreed. We ended the conversation and I went about my day, looking forward to getting out to the States to report on some of the world’s best up-and-coming young racing talent.
And then it dawned on me. And I had to call Renato back. Just to be sure.
What followed was me joining a gym, getting a personal trainer and then actually going to the place every, single, day. I had last set foot inside such an establishment in 2006 when I had joined the one under the GP2 offices in Geneva. I had attended said gym precisely twice during my annual membership. But now I had a focus and a goal. And a desperately unhealthy Christmas of red wine and cheese to get over. OK, an unhealthy past decade would be a fairer description. My diet changed immediately and so too did my shape, my strength and my stamina. James, my PT, pushed me every day. We worked on core strength, arms, legs, neck, balance and reactions. And so, after an intense month, I left for Florida in arguably the best shape of my almost 33 years on this planet.
Autosport’s Ben Anderson had contested the first Round of the 2014 Ferrari Florida Winter Series at Sebring, and I had watched every session online with great interest. Ben is a good racer with a lot of experience in British Formula Ford. He fared well against the field on a tricky and physical track. As for me, with my level of racing experience at zero, I was going out to Florida with absolutely no guarantees that I would even be allowed to compete.
You see, although the series is a private racing championship, I still had to come up to a certain level. Racing remains an intensely dangerous exploit, and throwing some idiot journalist into the mix if he didn’t have a clue what he was doing or was so slow or unaware of his surroundings as to be a danger, was never going to be on the cards.
My judge was to be Luca Baldisserri, the man who engineered Michael Schumacher to the 2000, 2001 and 2002 Formula 1 world championships, and who now heads Ferrari’s Driver Academy (FDA). No pressure, then.
After a good night’s sleep, I arrived bright and early on the Saturday morning at a lock-up in the Florida town of Stuart where I met the team behind the Florida Winter Series. Rene Rosin and the Prema Powerteam boys are the cogs that keep the machine running. They oversee the 12 cars and ensure that every minor detail is taken care of. And for me, the first order of the day was my seat fit. I’ve seen hundreds of these things done in the GP2 and GP3 paddock over the years, but until now had never grasped quite how tough they are to do.
You have to figure out your driving position and then remember it. This was easier said than done considering the only single seater experience I had was half a day testing F4 last year. What was my driving position? How would I be most comfortable with the pedals? And all, of course, has to be done within the constraints of the regulations. You can’t sit too high or your helmet will be outside the maximum height to protrude. Sit too low and you lose your reference points. And all the while, you can’t lean on the back of the tub. Just as well I’d been building up all that core strength in the gym.
The other thing I hadn’t been expecting was just how hot it gets when that empty plastic bag is filled with quickly expanding foam. It’s an odd sensation, neither nice nor nasty. But heavens, it’s warm.
Seat made, I was then given a tour of the facilities and introduced to Francesco Pon, known as “Franz,” Sporting Manager at FDA. Franz showed me the classroom, the enormous touch screen “whiteboard” and the Ferrari simulator. The Florida Winter Series, he explained, was not a racing championship like any other. It wasn’t about scoring points and winning races. It wasn’t about spending your money to win meaningless trophies in championships that nobody even knows exist. It was about education. It was about setting individual goals, unique objectives, and reaching them. Your challenge was not to beat the other drivers, but to better yourself.
Starting from the basic level that I was, this was music to my ears.
I spent 30 minutes on the simulator and jumped out. Luckily I had some advance knowledge of the track having been invited to use my friend and Peugeot 208GTi 24hr racer Bradley Philpot’s home hub, but it was clear from Franz’s reaction that I was quite some way from the pace of the drivers who had been driving the sim the day before. We went over the data for my best lap. This was going to be a hell of a hard slog.
I had the rest of the day off and the whole of the next morning. Usually when faced with a sunny afternoon and morning in Florida I would have sat by the pool and filled myself with beer. Instead I hit the gym, then had an orange juice at the pool and an early night.
Sunday was the first day at the track. Blair Soden, who rocks Original Programming and Development at NBC Sports, had left a very chilly New Jersey and the Super Bowl to come and oversee and film my progress on track. We’d only met at Austin last year but in a short pace of time Jason and I had managed to turn Toni (as we dubbed her… after Tony Blair) into a petrol head. I spent the entire thing in meetings and embarking on a track walk with all the other drivers, Franz, and other members of the team including racer Mihai Maranescu, FDA trainer Andrea Ferrari and Winway driver manager and coach Nuno de Sousa Pinto. Toni realised early on that this wasn’t going to be like a normal weekend at the track, and that the usually bubbly and bouncy Will would be armed with a steely focus on something other than playing to the camera.
Each driver is given an iPad and a training manual including tech specs and operating advice for the Tatuus Formula Abarth car and track maps. The corner by corner guides allowed space for note taking, and on the ipad a tool for marking out ideal lines, drawing reference points and brake markers, and of course receiving any updates from the championship organisers.
While the technology was fabulous, and seeing the asphalt for real a great chance to note unforeseen camber, the track walk was also a great opportunity to get to know the other drivers.
Ferrari had sent along their 2014 leading lights of the FDA to compete. First there was Raffaele Marciello, known as “Lello.” Tall and skinny, with a new military grade haircut, the F3 champion was the man everyone wanted to beat. Bound for GP2 in 2014, first impressions would assume he was quiet and moody but he couldn’t have been nicer. Watching his onboards you’ll know why he’s the jewel in the FDA’s crown. He’s flat out, maximum commitment. Hugely impressive.
Antonio Fuoco must be at least a foot shorter than Lello. One of those horribly good looking young Italians who you sense sort of knows it. At 17, he is the 2013 Formula Renault ALPS champion and very quick. Again, a nice guy and consistently on the pace. Following the first weekend, along with Lello he was the man with the largest target on his back.
Lance Stroll. My garage mate. And on first impressions of him being late for every meeting, playing with his phone, goofing around, I presumed was going to be a cocky karting graduate nightmare. How wrong first impressions can be. A genuinely lovely guy, still so young at 15 and blisteringly quick. Supportive of his boys in the garage, a smart brain… and ever so confident. Confident to the point that if you don’t know him, you’d think he was being arrogant. Just as I had, before I really knew him.
And then there was the rest of the grid, those who weren’t part of the FDA and who weren’t yet permitted to wear the red of the Scuderia.
In the #2 car, Ed Jones. 2013 Euro F3 Open champion, 18 years of age, a great overtaker, naturally fast and a very tidy pedaller. Tended to hide and bunk out of the warm up running sessions.
In the #4, Dennis van de Laar who celebrated his 20th birthday while we were racing. A really nice guy and, again, quick. The kind of guy who, with a decent team, you feel could have a real shot at F3 honours this year.
In the #7, Tatiana Calderon. Already a race winner in Florida by the time I arrived, the 20 year old Colombian had endured a tricky season of F3 in 2013. But you could already see that running in a series at the same pace or often faster than the likes of Marciello had given her the boost she needed. Not just quick for a girl. Quick. Full stop. Incredibly sweet off track, hard as nails on it.
In the #11 and #17 cars, the two quiet and unassuming boys from the East, Alex Bosak and Vasily Romanov. Romanov at 17 was just jumping out of karts, while Bosak had the mega Marco Asmer along for support.
In the #18, the very likeable and very fast Nicholas Latifi. I met Nicholas, briefly, last year when he was banging around Fiorano in a Corsa Clienti F2004 (I think). I was impressed then by his handling of the car. Having driven alongside him and tried to keep up, I’m even more impressed now. His career is being watched over by Anthony Hamilton, and it was good to catch up with AH again.
In #23, Takashi Kasai. Straight out of karts, very little English vocabulary, and the driver whose times I was to get the closest to all week. Considering his laptimes in Sebring, Palm Beach was to be a big step forward for the young Japanese racer.
And finally, but only finally out of building up expectations, in car #3… Max Verstappen. Son of Jos, European KF and KZ and World KZ karting champion, and from what I saw on track, sickeningly talented… Max appears to have a very bright future ahead of him. At 16 years of age he already has the maturity of a driver in his early 20s. There is a lot of talk about Max already, and after a week with him it is obvious why. It’s hard not to be impressed by him.
To be fair, it was hard not to be impressed by all 11 drivers. Each of them, as I, had their personal goals and objectives. For some it was a first step into single seaters. For others it was to put a disappointing 2013 behind them. For a few it was about perfecting their art.
For me, it was simply about not screwing up.
Coming up in Part 2… spins, stress and the pursuit of speed. CLICK HERE