Call off the Search – Why Simona is what F1 has been looking for.

Simona joins Sauber 14.02.2014 c/o Sauber F1 Team

Simona joins Sauber
14.02.2014
c/o Sauber F1 Team

Today’s news that Simona de Silvestro has become an affiliated driver with the Sauber F1 team is fabulous news for the Sauber, for Simona and for the Sport. Anyone who sees this as a gimmick needs to look again. It is so much more than that. I have long been a champion of Simona’s merits as a racer. Regardless of gender. Last year, before its untimely demise, I wrote an article for GPInternational Magazine on why Simona was exactly what Formula 1 needed.

I hope it gives some insight into the excellent driver Sauber intends to give an F1 debut in 2015.

……………………………………………………..

Women in Formula 1. It’s the topic that has created as many column inches in the paddock this season as Pirelli’s tyres and Lewis Hamilton’s dog. A few choice words from Sir Stirling Moss lit the blue touch paper of controversy, but the simple fact remains that a woman has not taken to an F1 grid in two decades. The well trodden response in the argument as to why that statistic holds true is that, in all that time, there simply hasn’t been anyone good enough.

Rubbish. There has. And at 24 years of age, she’s at the perfect stage of her career to step up to the top table. The problem? Simona de Silvestro is doing rather well in Indycar thank you very much.

The Swiss racer began her racing career in European karts, just as her F1 counterparts, but after her first season of single seaters in Italian Formula Renault in 2005 she shifted her focus Stateside.

“I didn’t have the budget to stay in Europe,” she confides during practice for the Indy 500. “But I found an American sponsor who wanted me to come over here and do Formula BMW. There were opportunities to go back but we never had the funding to do it. We found a sponsor over here who embraced who I was and wanted to help me in my career and so we stayed over here.”

Simona tests GP2 1.11.2007 c/o GP2 Media Service

Simona tests GP2
1.11.2007
c/o GP2 Media Service

One of those opportunities to step back to Europe came when she tested GP2 at the tail end of 2007 for the mid grid Campos team. With only half a day in the car and against drivers who had been competing in the GP2/05 all season, she ran impressively well. She was just over a second off the pace of eventual champion Davide Valsecchi and current F1 racer Giedo van der Garde.

I watched her working in the garage and stood trackside that day. She was desperately impressive. I spoke to the Campos team and her afternoon team-mate Vitaly Petrov. All were in no doubt; she was the real deal. She could have made the move back across the pond. And she would have been fast.

“The biggest thing was not to over step things,” she reflects today. “I think I did that mistake in go karts when I went from juniors to Formula A without doing ICA and I thought about that. I could have had so much success doing ICA and winning races, but I didn’t and so Formula A was much tougher. When I tested GP2 I’d only done one season of Atlantics over here and it wasn’t a great season. I think going into GP2 would have been a little bit too early, and really taking our time to do Atlantics for three years allowed me to grow so much, and having that final year in 2009 where I was running up front, leading the championship until the last race, it gave me so much confidence that yes I really am able to do this, to win races and run with the best guys out there. That was the key. Going through those steps and not going too fast.

“Racing can be over so quickly. When you have something going for you, you have to realise it. Of course you want to go to F1 or Indycar as quickly as you can, but there is so much learning that happens in the smaller categories that personally gives you the confidence. You can look back and say ‘I beat these guys there so I can beat them here too.’ It gives you that confidence.”

It is confidence which is well established. As de Silvestro herself admits, moving to Formula Atlantic (the equivalent today of Indy Lights) gave her the foundation she required. She was winning races from her second season, and fought for the title in her third. It was only a matter of time before Indycar came calling, and so it was that, at just 20 years of age, she made the step into the biggest single seater championship in the world outside F1.

As she says herself, “It was pretty remarkable,” but there was never a hint that Simona de Silvestro had made it to Indycar because of her gender.

“I think the biggest thing is that in Europe you have so many categories that whether you are female or male it is hard to find a path. Here it makes so much more sense. You have Star Mazda, Indy Lights and then Indycar. You know that if you are in that you work though. In Europe, there are so many series that you don’t know where people are racing, the budgets are crazy and that’s what is so hard when you go from karts to cars.

“So many awesome drivers can’t find the budget and I think that’s a shame. It is how it is. You have to have the whole package coming together. Two million Euros for GP2 when you have no practice, run around and then maybe you have a chance… it’s crazy. Over here the two guys who have won the Indy Lights in the past two years made it to Indycar. Over here I think there is more hope. It’s not just because you have money that you get somewhere. People look around, they embrace what you have done in the past and the budget is way less. The amount of money in Europe is crazy.”

Long beach 2013 c/o Simona de Silvestro

Long beach 2013
c/o Simona de Silvestro

That said, racing remains a heavily male dominated world. But, perhaps because of the way Americans view their racers, perhaps because the focus was already on Danica Patrick, or perhaps because of the way in which de Silvestro’s team have intentionally protected her from the gimmicks of being simply seen as a “female racer,” she never felt the burden of her gender.

“It’s hard to say if it was harder for me or anyone else. I think everybody who gets to Indycar it’s a really tough path with a lot of years of commitment to get here and for me I never felt that it was more difficult. I’m a girl and I’ve always been racing against guys so it’s just normal. I’ve never been racing against other girls. This is what I do. I have respect from the other drivers because I have had the results in the past and I’ve earned my stripes. I came into Indycar not with the best team and I’ve had to work. It is hard anyway, but you just have to work through it.”

It hasn’t always been easy for de Silvestro however. She suffered burns after a frightening crash at the Texas Motorspeedway in 2010, and fell victim to an enormous accident in practice for the 2011 Indy 500 which saw her confidence tremendously shaken.

“I got out of the car and was like, ‘OK I’m done. I don’t want to do this any more.’ But by the evening I was thinking that this is what I’ve lived for and it would be a shame not to get back in the car. The first thing was to get back in as quick as I could because if I didn’t it would become harder to get back into it. And then I told myself that if I get back in and I’m scared and not having fun then I shouldn’t do this. But I got in, I had fun… sure I was a bit sketchy, but I had a big smile when I got out and I proved to myself that this is what I was supposed to be doing. It was something that builds your character a little bit and builds your respect for your sport. As a racer you go for it, you don’t care, but after something like that you look at it all a bit differently. It’s a dangerous sport and something like that matures you.”

She’s not called “The Iron Lady” for nothing.

Of course, having the right team around you is key to the development of any driver, and for Simona de Silvestro that has been critical to her success. Pivotal to her career has been Imran Safiulla, who speaks passionately about the manner in which Brand Simona has been built Stateside.

“Racing is one of only two multi gender sports where girls and boys compete at the same level. It’s not like anything else. Tennis, football, volleyball, even darts, the boys play with the boys and the girls play with the girls. Most products, most ad campaigns are targeted towards the male demographic which is why you see tennis players’ skirts getting smaller and volleyball players in their knickers, and this situation was ripe for exploring. But if you were able to create an ambassador on the back of performance, integrity and a genuine image and leave her gender out of it in the short term, have it merit based so almost a gender neutrality, then when you bring the gender back into it once you have established the merit parameters, you have a huge value proposition. I think that is what Simona represents: a change in paradigm.

“Through Simona’s evolution we have focused on that and I feel that we have achieved that and now the companies that are around her are those who want to exploit the strength of her gender, not the sensuality or the sexuality of her gender. That’s where I truly believe the future lies from a marketing perspective. It is all result based. It has to come from performance. From an advertising standpoint you are not going to resonate if the ambassador cannot live up to that basic parameter in their own discipline. It isn’t genuine or wholesome and so it is fake and will fall short. It doesn’t work. It definitely doesn’t work to the female populous. It might work through exploiting sensuality and sexuality and creating a wow factor towards a male populous but that’s not what we are trying to do. If we do what we are doing we will get resonance from both sides of the gender divide, because the male populous will be forced to give credit where it is due and that is what we have focused on.”

c/o Simona de Silvestro

c/o Simona de Silvestro

And this is where Formula 1 has got things wrong. In searching for a female racer for the sake of it, that most important parameter, ability, can all too easily be lost amongst the gimmick of that racer’s gender. Today, Simona is backed by one of the world’s largest automakers in GM, and has, for a long time now, been backed by the energy sector, an as yet untapped revenue stream in F1.

It’s why Simona de Silvestro is such an attractive prospect for the sport. She’s marketable. Not because she’s a woman, but because she’s fast. But does F1 even interest her?

“Yeah,” she beams. “For sure. It is a dream. I think if you ask any driver they would love to drive in F1. Is it going to happen? I don’t know. But it is a dream.

“I think it has to be the right circumstance. I don’t want to go to F1 and drive a year and that’s it. I want to be given the right chances to be competitive. It’s hard nowadays, but if the right opportunity comes then maybe, yeah. Why not?”

To leave behind the foundations she has established in Indycar would be a huge leap of faith. To sacrifice what could be a hugely successful career for the F1 dream is a gamble which might not be worth taking.

“I think I can win races over here. I think I can fight for the championship. So F1 has to be right. You have to be in control on a lot of things to be successful in F1. I think it is hard to say right now if I would make the switch. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It has to be the right opportunity.”

But it is an opportunity which may yet fall in her lap. Formula 1 teams are, covertly, courting her for a trial run in the rookie tests. Her management team have been at recent F1 races, Bernie is aware of her results and her potential, and she herself still dreams of that F1 shot.

Simona de Silvestro could be just what Formula 1 is looking for. A fast, committed and successful racer, the fact she’s a woman is simply a pleasant coincidence.

And, refreshingly, the least important aspect of all.

Florida Winter Stories – Part 4

Let's do this

Let’s do this

My final day in Florida began, as had every day, with a briefing in the classroom. We’d been debriefed after the first race and so the morning session was more of a revision class, but with me still on a steep upward learning curve it was useful to sit and listen without the post race adrenalin.

Ed Jones had pulled off some pretty great passes in Race 1 up the inside of the long right at Turn 9. He’d sold the dummy on the outside, switched back inside and then cut off the final flick left at Turn 10. In showing us his moves, the organisers had intended to show us that on one occasion, Ed had actually forced the issue at Turn 10 to the extent that his rival (Nicholas I believe) had to take to the grass and back off to avoid a collision. Such a move from Ed we all agreed was borderline. Yes he had the line, but enough of Nicholas’ car was alongside that Ed perhaps didn’t have the right to shut the door.

It was impressive tutelage for the youngsters, explaining the finer points of racecraft and respect and that the two concepts did not have to be mutually exclusive. Ed accepted he’d been a touch aggressive, but was more worried that everyone now knew his “up and under” tactic at Turn 9.

As for me, I could only dream of being in a position of pulling off such moves. While I had reached the flag yesterday, there was still a long way to go before I was even close to the pace of the front runners. And yet, with the reverse grid for Race 2, I was due to start from pole position.

Mario and I had discussed this matter the night before and had reached a very swift conclusion which we relayed to Luca. We wished to start from the back, in P12 again. Takashi also requested to start from his regular P11 slot instead of P2. For me, accepting pole would have been a vanity, ego-driven project and nothing more. Great for a photo and a memory of starting a race on pole, but meaningless in the real world and potentially dangerous for me and everyone else.

For a start I was still braking too early for Turn 1 and carrying less speed than the other drivers through Turn 2. On a first lap, with everyone bunching into the opening corners, it had shunt written all over it. Not only could I potentially ruin someone else’s race, but crucially for me it could signal the end of my race. I was here to learn and starting from the back meant I would stand a better chance of improving on my Race 1 performance than getting nerfed out and having to watch from the sidelines.

The other drivers were grateful. Lance poked me in the side. “See man, I told you you were too nice.”

I had my newer set of tyres bolted on for Race 2. With rain expected in the afternoon there seemed no sense in saving them. And besides, with everything I had learned in the opening race, I wanted the fresh rubber now to take the initiative and push like hell.

I was getting ready when I received a call from Gil de Ferran. He’d raced here before and wanted to throw a few tips my way. They made a lot of sense. And they would make a huge difference.

Objectives for Race 2: nail the kerb on entry to Turn 4 and create a V shape, braking later and getting on throttle earlier. Run high on entry for Turn 5, slight lift, use the camber and take 20kph more through, using kerb on exit. Don’t screw up. See the flag.

I pulled my visor down and left the pits. Yesterday we’d done one lap, through pits, practice start, drive to grid. Today was the same. At least, it was supposed to be. On newer, cold tyres I lost the rear at Turn 6 and spun into the wet, muddy grass. I felt like a complete idiot… again. I got on the radio and Mario told me to just drive straight to the grid. The guys checked the car over for damage and looked in the sidepods for mud or grass. The car was fine, but I had a slight flat spot on my rears where I had locked up.

Focus c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Focus
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

I fist bumped Mario and Paolo, and from the 5 minute board I shut my eyes and relaxed. I wanted to get that stupid mistake out of my mind. I drove the lap three times in my head. I’d been running Turn 6 well all week. OK, my turn in was often coming up a bit early, but I’d been on top of the corner and I could keep pace with the other drivers through 6, 7 and 8.

One minute. Eyes open. Thirty seconds. Engine on. Green lights. Formation lap.

I pulled into P12, eyes focused once again on the red lights in the gantry ahead of me. As they extinguished I got an even better start and I knew I’d got the jump on Takashi again. But I turned my wheel to the right too soon and felt the rear start to come round on me. I lifted for a split second before planting my foot down again. I was up alongside Antonio now, carrying more speed down the straight. But my braking point was still too early for Turn 1, so I slotted in behind him and followed him through Turn 2 and 3.

Into Turn 4, I braked later than I’d ever dared, following in Antonio’s wheeltracks and getting on the power early. I followed him into 5… running higher than I thought possible and I lifted and turned in. The car stuck to the track but in Antonio’s dirty air I started to understeer. Correcting through the corner I got a bad exit. Takashi was looming large in my right mirror, so I moved right to cover him, switching back to the racing line for 6, 7 and 8. Down the straight he had the slipstream. Again, I moved to the right to cut him off, swinging back to the racing line for the heavy braking. But with a full tank I outbraked myself, slightly locking the front right and running deep. Takashi pulled an Ed Jones special, sliding up the inside. I got back on the power and ran side by side through the exit and towards Turn 10.

I looked right. Takashi looked straight ahead. If I kept my foot stuck in, we were going to touch at the final corner. I lifted, he passed me. “SHIT” I screamed at myself. Just for one lap, I could have been classified in a position other than last. I was annoyed, but exhilarated. Now I just had to get my head down and drive as hard as I could.

My view on lap 2 c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari / GoPro

My view on lap 2
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari / GoPro

Lap 2 was a 1:19.3, lap 3 a 1:18.7, then a 1:18.0, 1:18.4, 1:18.0, then on lap 7 a 1:17.523…

“Incredible William. Keep pushing. Three tenths and you have the same pace as Takashi.”

I had never seen clearer. Everything was now making sense. I had stopped over thinking what I was doing and it had just started happening. The laps started to seem longer but were taking less time to complete. If that sounds counter intuitive that’s because it is. As I relaxed, as I found a rhythm, my brain was processing more information in a shorter space of time. I was picking out greater detail of the track, from the length of grass to a slight change in the colour of the asphalt, each time past seeing how much later I could brake or how much more speed I could take through the corner without feeling too loose. My hands were working the wheel to catch the rear as it stepped out through the fast stuff, my left foot could feel when I was about to lock up and would ease gently back, my right foot now working in collaboration with my hands to ensure I could correct a slide if I gave it too much too soon.

It. Felt. Glorious.

And with Mario’s words of encouragement I felt emboldened. I could get a 1m16, it was there for the taking.

And then I spun. At Turn 6. Precisely where I’d lost it on the formation lap. Too much speed, too early a turn in, rear end snapped around and that was that. Drop to second, keep the rears lit up, grass and mud flying everywhere, spin it around and get going again.

I was fuming with myself. And it showed.

My next lap was a 1:18.9, then a 1:23.7, 1:21.1, 1:18.8, 1:20.6.

I was all over the place. My concentration was shot and I was making stupid mistakes. I wouldn’t brake as hard as I needed to or I’d brake harder than I needed to and lock up. Turn 6 was now my Achilles heel and I simply couldn’t get it right, which lost me time into 7 and messed up my entry for 8 and the long back stretch.

The leaders came up behind me, I let them all through.

“William, be calm. Be calm. You can do it. Concentrate. Now let’s get back into the 18s.”

1:18.760

“More cars behind William, let them go.”

I settled back into a groove but by now my tyres and my arms were gone. I was fighting with the rear through Turn 5 which drained energy and confidence that I could take as much speed as I had been in the early laps. I finished with a steady run of 1:19s until Mario told me it was the last lap of the race. A 1:18.8 to finish.

“Well done William, well done. The first part of the race was incredible. Incredible,” Mario laughed over the radio. “Without the spin you would have been on the lead lap. Bravo William P10, P10!!”

Alex had failed to finish. Antonio had suffered throughout the race with wing damage and had needed a pitstop. I’d finished on the same lap as the Italian, one down. But I had a top 10 finish and a new best lap of the week… a 1:17.523, 2.9 seconds off the best lap of race winner Nicholas Latifi. The Canadian had taken the spoils from Lello and Lance.

It was another massive result for me, but I couldn’t be overly happy. I knew there was more to come. I knew I could have finished on the lead lap. Just that damned Turn 6. I was delighted and gutted at the same time.

No time to rest though… more debrief, planning for Race 3, and the small matter of doing my day job too.

Interviewing Luca

Interviewing Luca

For the final day, Blair had brought along a full camera crew to shoot track action and some interviews for NBC Sports. We rounded up Nicholas, Tatiana and Max, Luca and Mario. Questions asked, answers given, time for a speedy lunch. Race 3 was being brought forward by an hour. A massive rain storm was about to hit Palm Beach.

Straight into the car, one lap, through the pits, practice start, drive to the grid. The clouds were looming large now, it was only a matter of time before the rain arrived. I couldn’t wait to get the race started.

This time though, Takashi got a good start. I lit the rears up too much, got sideways again, but this time stuck to my line. Running down the straight three wide to Turn 1, I went into the corner last but right on Takashi’s tail. Just as in Race 1 he went deep into T4 and I tucked in underneath him. This time we exited the corner together and I stuck with him through T5 and on the straight towards Turn 6. I hit the brakes and turned in following Takashi.

“No, no, no, NO!” I screamed, spinning in my now regular spot. Once again, I kept it going, got back on track, but by now the field was the length of the back straight away. That was it, race ruined.

My consistency wasn’t too bad in the remainder of the race. 1:21s became 1:20s, became 1:19s. I survived until lap 14 before I was lapped. Two laps later, I could smell the asphalt. I knew what was coming.

“I’ve got rain,” I radioed back as the first spots hit my visor.

“Keep pushing William. Track is still dry. You have grip. Keep pushing.”

And so I did. But the rain started to get harder, water droplets streaking across my visor. I rounded Turn 4 and saw Nicholas facing the wrong way. And then through Turn 5, Lello loomed large in my mirrors.

In the wet on slicks c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari / GoPro

In the wet on slicks
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari / GoPro

“Lello is on the same lap” Mario shouted. “You are racing him.”

And so I did, holding a defensive inside line at Turn 6 and into 7. Double waved yellows at 8 meant Lello sat behind me, before trying a run down the straight. But with yellow flags still present down at 9 he pulled in behind me.

“Safety car. Safety car.”

The rain got heavier still, as the track became engulfed with thick black clouds and on slick tyres we were driving through a clear centimeter or more of water in places.

“Red flag, red flag. Drive straight into the garage.”

I did as I was told, and jumped out of the car. Nicholas was out. Lello was behind me. I had my second top 10 finish of the weekend.

I’d survived the rain, and incredibly had spun more in the dry than I had in the deluge. Admittedly they came as a result of some bad luck for my fellow drivers, but I had two tenth place finishes under my belt. I was delighted.

I embraced Paolo and Mario and thanked them for all their hard work.

Max had won the race, his first ever win in single seaters, from Antonio and Dennis. Max would keep this trophy, having given the one he won in Race 1 (his very first single seater trophy) to his mechanic for fixing his broken car that he shunted in Sebring.

There was time for one final debrief and some cross words between Max and Antonio over driving etiquette. Shall we say a bit of karting tactics might have been employed in a few corners and Antonio was far from impressed. Lessons learned for next time, and for life.

Luca thanked me for coming and said he hoped I’d enjoyed myself. I thanked him, and told the drivers it had been an honour sharing a track with them. Because it really had been. I can’t claim to have raced them, but to have driven with them and seen their skill, the way they’d driven, the commitment and talent they possess, had been a joy.

I thanked Rene, Franz, Nuno and Andrea for their guidance and help, and then it was time for a final goodbye with Mario and Paolo. I had a flight to catch. Rene walked over and handed me a red Florida Winter Series, Ferrari Driver Academy Jacket. He smiled and we hugged.

With my team: Mario and Paolo

With my team: Mario and Paolo

I can honestly say I loved every moment of my time in Florida. But more importantly I learned so much. And ultimately that is the purpose of this championship. In the days after I left Florida, the drivers would engage in media training sessions followed by days working on maintaining and rebuilding their cars, driving the simulator and more theory lessons. It isn’t simply a racing championship. The Florida Winter Series is a type of summer (OK, winter) school for racing drivers. I am positive that every single one of them will enter the 2014 season better prepared both mentally and physically than they would have been without it.

To have the opportunity to learn from one of the best teams in junior racing in Prema, to work with the Ferrari Driver Academy and the likes of Luca Baldisserri and Francesco Pon, to have guys like Nuno and Mihai around for advice, to make friends and learn from the driving style of other racers, and all in the glorious surrounds of Florida… it doesn’t get much better.

Luca told me the 2014 Series was fairly last minute and that for 2015 he hopes to have an even larger field of cars. On the basis of what I saw, I think he’ll have no problems being over subscribed.

As for me? I have got the bug. And I genuinely surprised myself. I completed 144 laps and 288 miles in a single seater. I improved my laptime from a 1:34.353 to a 1:17.523. I started three races and saw the flag three times. I had two top ten finishes under my belt. Perhaps most importantly, I’d brought my car home without a scratch on it in every session. Oh, and I even have my own page on FORIX now! Amazing times. (d.o.b. is 14.02.1981 by the way.)

I achieved my objectives, and learned more than I ever imagined: things that will make me a better journalist and broadcaster of the sport that I love. Things that I hope to put into good use in the not too distant future on other racetracks, too.

I’m very proud of what I achieved, but most of all just incredibly grateful for the opportunity I was afforded by Renato Bisignani and Luca Baldisserri, Scuderia Ferrari, Ferrari Driver Academy, Florida Winter Series and Prema Powerteam.

Considering how much I, as a rookie, learned in four short days, just imagine what running the entire Series does for real racers with real talent. It’s a great concept, professionally executed, resulting in a sublime education.

Bravo Ferrari. Bravo.

c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Florida Winter Stories – Part 3

Pre Match Warm Up c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Pre Match Warm Up
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

The morning warmup went by faster than it had the day before. A run, press ups, squats… all essential to limbering up and getting the body working before getting strapped down inside the cockpit again. I felt ready. But worryingly, in pain.

Andrea took me inside for some neck exercises. But my neck was fine. I’d been working on it in the weeks leading up to Florida and the G hadn’t yet made my head feel like an orange on a toothpick. It was my right shoulder. He went to work, pressing his thumb into the tissue and finding the enormous knot.

“Were your belts tight yesterday?” he asked.

“Very.”

“Too tight,” Andrea confirmed. “I think you have some damage from HANS. Don’t let them pull the belts so tight today.”

I thanked him and walked to the pitlane. Red 9 was already waiting. Mario and Paolo were both ready. I slid my earpieces in, balaclava on and zipped up my suit. HANS drawn into place, helmet pulled down and strap secured. Hand in my pocket. My daughter’s baby toy rabbit was still there. Stepping in from the right side of the car as I had all week… no idea why but something had told me from Day 1 not to get in from the left. Belts pulled tight, but not quite as tight as yesterday.

I focused on the end of the pitlane. As the other drivers were still arriving in the pitlane and getting their kit done up, I was ready to go. I’d lost enough time already. Every lap counted now.

The session began and only myself and Takashi were on track. One recon lap to check the new shaft was OK and the car was working properly, and I was on my way for my first run. I was still on old tyres and on a cool track which had been doused with rain and dew over night, but the car instantly felt better. The gear changes were smooth and crisp. A good night’s sleep dreaming of nothing but the track had embedded it all in my mind. My first lap was a 1:23, my second was a 1:22. I kept dropping… a 1:20.1, then a 1:20.0 and finally a 1:19.331 on my last lap before pitting. It was my best lap of the week so far.

My second run saw no improvement before a red flag came out. I rounded Turn 8 and saw Lance facing the wrong way, his front wing gone and left front wheel and suspension annihilated. The tyre barrier was mashed. He had gone in hard.

My 1:19.331 stood and put me an unsurprising last on the grid. I had found a third of a second but it wasn’t the leap I had hoped for. Despite feeling great in the car, I was still 5.4 seconds off Fuoco’s pole time of 1:13.920.

Lance was going over his crash, and we all sat down and watched the GoPro footage. He’d turned in just a touch early for Turn 8, a slight lift and then full throttle. The early apex had drawn him out to the edge of the track too soon and his front left had touched the grass moments before the kerbing started. On the slippery green stuff, and at that speed, he was a passenger for the five metres or so before the tyre barrier. The hit was recorded at 5.2G.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Yeah. My knee hurts a bit but I’m OK. I’m just pissed off because if I’d got the turn in right I reckon I could take it flat.”

This was another moment where I realised how much I liked Lance. A big shunt, and he was already thinking about taking the corner faster next time out.

Ready to Go

Ready to Go

Second quali was upon us in seemingly no time, and with new tyres on the car I wanted to get out there early and see what I could do. I used my first flyer to warm up the tyres, and followed it on lap 2 with a 1:21.3, then on lap 3 a 1:19.8 before a 1:19.4 next time through. My next first sector felt great. I was braking later than ever for Turn 1 and carrying the speed through, cutting the flat inside kerb before getting on the power and riding the raised kerb in 2. Flat through 3 and late on the brakes for 4. I was braking for the long right at 5, then holding it in 4th through 6, 7 and 8. Onto the back stretch and Mario jumped on the radio.

“Best sector 1. Great sector 2. Keep it going William.”

I waited for the final brake marker, turned in, straightened up and hit the anchors. Everything was coming together, and with my best final sector of the day I crossed the line with a 1:18.579.

Mario was delighted and back on the radio.

“Great lap William. Be aware, Lance is behind you.”

Incredibly, the boys had rebuilt Lance’s car in the short break. I checked my mirrors, saw Lance a good distance back, but pulled over and waved him through. He gestured his thanks and sped off into the distance.

I came in and sat in the pits for a few minutes. Mario was back on the radio.

“You can still brake later for Turn 1 and hold more speed in Turn 5.”

I nodded, fired up the car and went back out.

One flyer to get the tyres in, then bang straight into the 1:19s. Then a glorious sector one and two. It felt brilliant. But I ruined the final corner and came through on a 1:18.665 having lost almost half a second in the final sector. Next time another 1:19. Then it all came together and with my final flying lap I set my best lap of the week so far, a 1:18.550. And without a single green sector.

Had I strung my best sectors together, I’d have had a 1:18.246 and been just 2 seconds off Takashi. As it was, that pesky Verstappen kid had gone quicker than anyone had managed all week, lowering the pole time to a 1:13.626. But I was now less than 5 seconds off pole and I could at least consider that to be a small victory.

I wasn’t done yet though. Two practice starts were next on my check list.

Luca Baldisserri was waiting at my grid slot. I rolled into place and clunked into first gear with the clutch fully in. One light on, then two. On the third, full throttle. Hold on four. Hold on five… I lifted the clutch.

“Twat!!” I shout in my helmet, as I committed a walloping jump start. I pushed the clutch back in just as the lights went out and I was forced to immediately lift my foot again and shoot off, shaking my head.

How many race starts had I watched and commentated on in my life? And the first time I try one out, I leap as soon as they’re all on instead of when they’re all off. Idiot.

One more try. This time I wait for the lights to go out, jump off the clutch, light up the rears, and gun down the straight. Not so hard afterall.

We go over qualifying in debrief, and look over the data. My braking is getting better but it is still nowhere near where it needs to be. Nuno comes over and gives me a pep talk, saying my line is getting better in Turn 1 and 2 but I can brake later. Similarly in Turn 5, I need to be much further towards the left edge of the track, later turn in, use the camber and don’t brake… just lift. Those would be my two race objectives on a lap by lap basis. Other than that, my goals were clear… don’t jump the start, stay out of everyone’s way, see the flag.

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I’d become to feel quite at home in the cockpit by now. There’s a wonderful calm that passes over you as soon as you are strapped in and left by yourself. It’s a sense of freedom that I have never experienced anywhere else. You are completely alone, in your own space. The close proximity of the helmet padding softly squeezing your face almost seems to condense your thoughts and emotions. With the visor shut, your view is limited to a narrow letter box. All you can see is the track and your rivals. Your focus is completely channeled.

As the formation lap began, I felt a telling throb. Climbing into the car in the pitlane, I had done everything I’d usually done… but I suddenly realised there had been one exception. I hadn’t sorted my balls out. And my harness was pressing down hard against something it shouldn’t have been. As I rolled off the grid, I had visions of doing a Ferdinando Monfardini in GP2’s Bahrain races in 2005, where the poor chap ended up in hospital after trapping his crown jewels.

There was no time to dwell on the dull pain, I had to keep up with the field. Even on a formation lap, the gap in performance was obvious. I was having to drive a pretty regular lap for me to even keep with their moderate pace. We pulled onto the back stretch and the field bunched and weaved to get heat into the tyres. Many of the guys were taking wide arches, but there was so much clag off line I tried to stay as much on the racing line as possible.

Around the final corner, into grid position, clutch in, shift down to first. But I pulled up to third. Clutch still in, shift down to second, then first. First didn’t engage. Try again. Clunk. First slotted in.

I looked up. The first light is already on. The second instantly arrives.

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 wet 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.

Incredibly, 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 of me and tucking under the wing of the blue car in front.

Through Turn 1 and 2, I hold 11th place, with Takashi all over my rear wing. The field is already three quarters of the way through Turn 4 when we arrive, Takashi on my right hand side, me on the inside. He brakes late and goes deep, I brake early and try to hold more speed through the corner. We run side by side, but he has the advantage, pulling forward with his rear left alongside my front right. If I open the throttle and take the racing line I’m going to run straight into him and so I graduate my right foot down, allowing him to shoot past. I’m last again.

The car is heavy with fuel, on old tyres, and feels so different to the last qualifying run. My first lap is ten seconds slower than the leaders on a 1:29. Lap two is a more steady 1:22. From that point on, I’m running 1:21s and 1:20s, consistently. It’s still 6 seconds off the pace.

Getting there c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Getting there
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

By the 11th lap, the leaders are coming up to me on this short 2 mile track. I pull as far off the racing line as I can, allowing each grouping through as one. I’ve seen enough shoddy blue flag etiquette and watched enough races ruined by people not looking in their mirrors to even risk getting in anyone’s way. I pull back in and try my best to keep with the pack. Incredibly, it’s the first time I’ve actually been able to really run behind any of the other drivers and I finally get a clear view of the lines they are taking, and watching how quickly they pull away in the corners, I can actually see how much more speed I could and should be carrying. The one sector where I’m apparently not too shabby is the third sector. A long straight, but my braking at the final turn isn’t too far off and it’s just getting back on the power earlier and the final flick left that needs more determination to go flat.

The problem now is that I’ve picked up so much crap on my tyres that they’re vibrating like hell on the straight. Not only that but they’re greasy on throttle application, with even less grip in the corners. It takes a good few laps to even get close to getting rid of the pick-up from the tyres.

With everyone past me on lap 15, I settle back into the 1:20s. The dull ache from my nether region is still there, but my concentration is locked so tightly on not messing up that the pain doesn’t register. My forearms arms are starting to burn. Lactic acid is now coursing through my upper body.

“Come on William, you can go faster than this. I want to see a 1:19.” Mario shouts as I come across the line.

Next time by I give him a 1:19.838

But my energy is failing me. Next lap I hit a 1:20, then a 1:21.

“Come on William, you can do it. Keep pushing.”

1:19.439

“Push William, push! Now a 1:18!”

1:18.450. My best lap of the race. And of the week so far.

Lap 23 is a 1:19 again, and then the leaders are back on me. I pull to the side and let them through, before pushing out one final 1:19.416 to the chequered flag.

Job done

Job done

“William, you did it. Great drive. Great final laps.”

“Thank you guys,” I shout back, “thank you.”

“OK, straight to garage. Straight to garage. Temperature check on pit entry. Watch pit speed. Straight to garage.”

I couldn’t believe it. The final 10 laps of the race had been like a revelation. Ever since the other drivers had swarmed past and lapped me the first time and I had been able to follow them and watch what they were doing, it had started to make sense. The laptimes were coming to me, even as the pain set in my arms, the laptimes were getting better. I felt more relaxed, calmer, and like I could carry on driving forever.

I climbed out of the car and hugged Paolo and Mario. Blair was still shooting, but put the camera down for a moment and gave me a squeeze.

As I pulled off my helmet, balaclava and removed my ear pieces, I turned around to see a smiling bespectacled face.

Bravo from the Boss

Bravo from the Boss

“Bravo Will. The last laps were very good. Did you enjoy?”

“Very much Luca. Thank you. Can we have the second race now please?”

“Now podium. Then rest. Believe me, you will need it.”

Franz, Rene and Nuno all come over to say well done.

“Was I OK with getting lapped?”

“Perfect,” smiles Nuno. “Perfect. Almost too courteous to the other drivers.”

“Yeah man,” laughs Lance. “You’re way too nice. You could have held the other guys up so I could have had a run at them!”

Antonio had won the race from Max and Ed. They stood on the podium, and with the adrenalin still running through my veins I felt hugely proud.

“Was that your first ever race?” Anthony Hamilton asked.

“Yep,” I grinned.

“That’s it now,” he laughed. “New career. Well done.”

As I picked up my phone and saw messages from family and friends, both in my inbox and on twitter, I’ll admit I got pretty teary. I’m an emotional person at the best of times, but some of the messages, from some unexpected quarters, were amazing.

Yes, I came last. Yes I got lapped… twice. But I had started, and more importantly finished my first ever race. I didn’t get in anyone’s way. And I had set my fastest lap of the weekend so far. I couldn’t really claim I had raced anyone other than Takashi for three corners, but it was a massive milestone for me.

It was more than a mission accomplished. It was a lifetime’s dream realised.

The thrill, the adrenalin rush, the emotion of the entire race… from leaving the pits to the race start, from pushing through the pain to seeing that black and white chequered flag… it was one of the greatest buzzes I’d ever felt.

And tomorrow, I had the chance to do it all over again. Twice.

Coming up in Part 4 – In the zone… and in the rain. CLICK HERE

Florida Winter Stories – Part 2

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Monday morning arrived along with a fair amount of trepidation and excitement. This was the day when I’d get to measure myself against some of the best young racing talent in the world. Although to be honest that thought could not have been further from my mind. My engineer Mario and I had fairly clear objectives for my first ever competitive session. Get out there, learn the track and make the most of the time. The practice day was split into three one-hour sessions, one fewer than the four hours allotted at the first event, as the tight ship run by Rene and Prema meant that the faultless running of the cars had seen higher mileage than anticipated. Even three hours though is an insane amount of time. When you think about it, that’s the equivalent of half a season of GP2 practice. It should have been ample time to learn and improve.

The Formula Abarth I would be driving is a good little car. Sequential gear shift lever by your right knee, six speed Sadev gearbox, 1.4l turbo FOT 414TF engine with 190hp, adjustable front and rear wings, Hankook tyres, and all constructed to FIA F3 safety standards. The only questionable part was the soft squishy bit between the engine and the front wheels.

The proper drivers were up to speed quickly, lapping in the 1m15s and soon into the 1m14s on the 2 mile Palm Beach International Raceway. I was nowhere near. Im30s were my opening gambit as I tried to take in my surroundings and not get in anyone’s way. Through the tricky first two corners I saw two cars bearing down on me, I looked in my mirrors and before I knew it felt the front left go as I spun off track. I’d taken too much kerb and run onto the grass. Firing the engine back up I brought the car back to the pits. I felt like an idiot. It wouldn’t be my final spin of the weekend, but it had cost me time and confidence and most negatively of all, although I didn’t realise it until much later, I would be tentative towards the kerbs for the rest of the weekend.

I was soon dipping under the 1m30s, but my consistency was nowhere near good enough as I struggled to maintain regular braking and corner speed. That said, the laptimes did start to come down. My penultimate run saw a relatively steady stream of 1m26, 25 and 24s. And with my very last effort, I dipped down to a 1m22.565, my best of FP1. After 18 laps, my best time was 8.485 off the session leading time of Antonio Fuoco, a 1m14.080. It wasn’t great but it was a start.

Lance and I c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Lance and I
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

After each session, Lance would sit with me briefly and ask how my session had gone and advise on where I could find some time. After FP1 he handed me a tip that served me impeccably.

“Have you got a tinted visor?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Use it, man. The glare out there is so bad, you’ll tidy right up with it.”

And so I did.

I sat with Mario as he overlayed Lance’s lap with mine to give me an idea of how much later I could be braking, and even how I could change my style of braking. I was hitting the brakes early and with about three quarters of the pressure of Lance, pressing on them and then coming off almost completely in a square shape. I was holding a slightly higher minimum speed in the corner, but only because I was squaring the corners off and gurgling around them for far longer before getting back on the power. I was losing at least a second a corner with my technique. The idea was to brake later with an immediate hit, then graduate off, bringing the throttle back in as soon as possible.

I started acting on the new objectives in the second session, focusing on the left right sequence of Turns 1 and 2, and the final long right hander. Franz and Mario had told me to only ever think about two points for improvement, as trying to improve everything at once would not work. Pick two places to improve, and when we’ve got them nailed, we can move onto two more. Small steps, but crucial steps.

Practice Day c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Practice Day
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

I started to gain confidence in the car and with my braking, and the laptimes soon started to drop. I spun on the exit of the final corner by getting the power down too early. I spun at Turn 1 when I got on the brakes too late and shifted down to second instead of third gear, locking the rears. But with each screw up I was learning what not to do as much as what to do, and most importantly I had kept it out of the walls.

By now I was starting to feel far better with the car and with the track. So far we’d been running on old tyres and my slightly incorrect lines in the corners, coupled with trying to keep out of everyone’s way, had only added to the amount of pickup on them. The vibration on the straights from the old and now flat spotted tyres was insane, to the point where trying to decipher between the 3 and the 2 markers at the end of the back straight became almost impossible.

My best lap of FP2 was a 1m19.603, just under three seconds faster than FP1. But it was set on my 8th lap of the 25 I had completed in the hour. It put me 5.685 off Ed Jones’ session topping time of 1:13.918. I was happy to see that my improvement was real, as the overall fastest laptime had only improved by a tenth of a second. I still had a long way to go. But I had a set of fresh tyres to help me out and a final hour of practice.

I sat down at lunch, and a heavy rain shower drenched the track. Conditions were going to be more like Snetterton than Sebring. But being Florida, the sun was soon out and the final practice session began on a damp but drying track. I went out early on wets, completed my outlap and, with the car feeling great underneath me, started pushing on my first flyer.

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My gear changes had felt clunky all day, but having never driven a car like this before I had no idea if that was how they were supposed to feel of not. I was about to get my answer. Coming out of Turn 4, shifting from third to fourth gear, my right foot went flat, the revs screamed and the car started to slow. I looked at the dash. Fourth gear was engaged. I tried the throttle again. Screaming revs but no drive. I shifted down to third. Still no drive. Second… nothing. First… nothing. I pulled offline, high into T5 and got on the radio to Mario.

“No drive,” I said, as calmly as I could.

“What do you mean, William?” came the reply.

“I mean I’ve got nothing. No drive. I’m high in Turn 5. The car is in neutral and in one piece.”

“OK William, sit in the car, they will bring you back.”

The huge truck turned up and attached the metal cable to the rollhoop. I sat behind it as it dragged me back to the pits, wondering if it was something I had done wrong. I felt like Taki Inoue being pulled around Monaco, waiting for Jean Ragnotti to drive into me. I stopped at my box, clambered out and explained everything that had happened. My day was over. And crucially, I’d lost an hour in which I had hoped to make the greatest leap forward with my driving and competitive laptimes.

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I debriefed with Mario. Unsurprisingly, it was pretty quick. So we worked out our strategy for the second day. It was supposed to begin with two half hour qualifying sessions but you had to fuel your car for both sessions at the start of the day. No refueling is permitted between Q1 and Q2. As such we decided we would use the first session as practice with two six lap runs. Then we would use the second qualifying session as more of a qualifying session. At least we would if I was allowed to take part. I still hadn’t spoken to Luca.

I walked back to the garage and asked Paolo and the boys working on my car if there was anything I could do. They smiled and said no. Hell, I was having a tough enough time getting a competitive lap out of the thing, let alone taking it apart. I went and got the boys some chocolate and a few bottles of coke and went back to watch lap videos with Mario and look over the data.

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The day finished, as every day finished, with a classroom session in which the two best laps of the day were run side by side so that everybody could get an idea of how the fastest drivers were attacking the track. I sat there in wonder, looking at how late the guys were braking, how late they were turning in and how fast they were taking the quick stuff, especially Turn 5. But rather than being disheartening, it told me that it could be done. I could brake later, I could take more speed through. The car could do it. The proof was there, on screen and in the data. I just had to believe and trust that it was going to do what I asked of it. And then pray my talent didn’t run out.

We finished the debrief and I saw Luca. I told him of our plans for qualifying. He smiled and said it was the best idea to run that way, and he was sorry to see me miss the final practice session. I’d improved by three seconds between FP1 and FP2 and he’d been looking forward to seeing me improve again. That was that. Not even a question over qualifying. It was happening.

“Oh and Will,” he called back to me. “At the end of the second qualifying we will give you two practice starts so that you will be OK for the race.”

“OK Luca. Thank you.”

That was that. I was racing.

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I made my way back out to the garage to see the boys. They smiled at me.

“What was it?” I asked.

“Primary shaft. It snapped in two pieces. It just happened. Not your fault.”

I went to bed that night feeling a range of emotions. In the first instance I was frustrated. That last hour of practice could have made a huge difference on a day when my learning curve had been set on an incredibly steep gradient. I was relieved not to have dinged the car and that the drive issue wasn’t of my making. I was annoyed that I wasn’t faster. I was relieved that Luca had seen enough to believe I would make a considerable step the next day and was competent enough to race.

Exhilarated and exhausted, I stood in the shower before bed, letting the day wash over me. I started laughing to myself. Uncontrollably.

Tomorrow I would be starting my first ever race. In a bright red car. A bright red car with a prancing horse on it. Whatever dreams were due to come my way that night, my realities were going to take some beating.

Practice Day c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Practice Day
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

Coming up in Part 3 – From lights to flag. Things get serious in Florida. CLICK HERE

Florida Winter Stories – Part 1

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Palm Beach Drivers' Photo

The Palm Beach Drivers’ Photo
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

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.

Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen
c/o Florida Winter Series / Ferrari

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

A Piss-Up in a Brewery

Jerez awaits the first day of testing c/o James Moy Photography

Jerez awaits the first day of testing
c/o James Moy Photography

It’s funny how quickly we forget the past. My over-riding feeling today watching the tweets rolling in from Jerez was just this, as the eight teams to hit the track amassed a paltry 93 laps of running.

For the first time in a few years, I opted not to go to the first test of the year. Jerez was always going to be disrupted at best. At NBC, we decided to miss Jerez and attend Bahrain in the hope that by then the cars would have some miles on them and the drivers be able to provide slightly better feedback on their aspirations for 2014 than they would after a couple of outlaps, a blown engine and a rain delay.

It isn’t that the F1 teams and engine manufacturers have forgotten how to do their jobs. It is simply the fact that the technical regulation changes for 2014 represent one of the biggest shifts in the sport’s rules for a generation. Not only do we have a total shift in engine and power philosophy, but we also have badly worded aerodynamic regulations to contend with.

So it wasn’t surprising to see that the day was filled with negativity towards ugly noses, and bewilderment at the low level of completed laps. Indeed, last minute hitches meant that Marussia only sent their car to Spain today and Red Bull got just 3 laps completed on Day 1.

But should we be surprised by this?

It wasn’t so long ago that testing was conducted pretty much wherever and whenever teams wished. A few of them would gang together and take over a track for a week and pound around with as many drivers as they wanted. The peak probably came in the 2006 pre-season. According to the excellent FORIX website, there were 63 sessions of pre season testing at 21 circuits over 192 days. Sixty-one drivers turned out 91,568 laps and amassed 411,012km in running. That’s an awful lot more than one car per team and 12 days of group testing at the two tracks permitted for 2014.

But if we look back to that very first day of pre-season testing for 2006, on November 28, 2005 at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, Nick Heidfeld ran 28 laps for Sauber and Alex Wurz just 11 for McLaren. The other car that day was McLaren tester Gary Paffett who ran 58. But nobody turned their noses up at Wurz’s 11 laps that day. Quite simply, it was testing. And whether you ran 11 laps or 111 laps, testing was testing and you’d have good days and bad days. That’s what testing was for. 97 laps were run on November 28, 2005. Only four more than today.

The problem today is that everything is condensed and put under the microscope. By limiting testing and grouping it together, the world’s media, now emboldened with the ability to report news in real-time via social media and scrolling live updates on their websites, can pounce on everything.

Lewis Hamilton before his front wing failure c/o James Moy Photography

Lewis Hamilton before his front wing failure
c/o James Moy Photography

Lewis Hamilton suffered a wing failure. That will be the lead story on Mercedes’ first day of testing. Never mind the fact they were ready to hit the track when the clock hit 09:00 and should quite comfortably have set the most laps of the day without that issue. The failure of the wing is the news. In the past, it would have been shrugged off as just one of those things in testing. Not now. Because now there are only 11 more days for “one of those things” to further knock the team back.

By far the biggest talking point thus far however has been the new generation of F1 noses. Although I am yet to see them in the flesh, I’m already getting used to them. And I must say that I absolutely love the fact that this shift in regulation has given us a field of completely unique cars, each one with their own individual interpretation of the rules. Of course, whichever car ends up being fastest will be the design around which we see the field converge before the regulations are hopefully reworded for next season, but for now at least it is great to see the thought process of each design team in the open.

It doesn’t take away from the fact, however, that the cars look stupid. They are not aspirational creations, and that is something which Formula 1 must address. The technical regulations were made with good intention but they were badly worded. And now we have a situation in which the teams are openly calling their cars ugly, questioning their safety, and decrying the governing body for letting things get this far.

They are right, of course, but the teams are utterly hypocritical in being so upset. The Technical Working Group, now replaced by the controversial Strategy Group, was integral in the formulating of the new rules. At what point in these discussions was the question of safety raised? At what point was the wording raised? At what point did somebody suggest that this was not the route the sport should be going?

I asked Caterham’s Mark Smith recently why, with regulations forcing teams to adopt low noses, we weren’t going to see glorious creations such as the 1980s and early 90s low nosed F1 cars. The answer was simple. We know more about aerodynamics today than we did 30 years ago… so much so that if the 1980s F1 regs were in place today, we probably wouldn’t see such simple and graceful designs as we did back then.

Those hoping for MP4/4s in 2014 will be disappointed c/o James Moy Photography

Those hoping for MP4/4s in 2014 will be disappointed
c/o James Moy Photography

It’s a fair point. But it also reinforces the fact that a bunch of supposed design and technical geniuses got together and bashed out a set of regulations that have resulted in these… things.

And ultimately, this is what has me worried about the future of F1. The teams, by their very nature, are competing entities. They are so focused on maintaining their own competitive advantages that when looking at the manner in which the sport is taken forward they lose sight of the bigger picture. Their focus is on their interests and their interests alone.

Why hasn’t FOTA worked? Because a group of competitors will never agree on everything all the time. There will always be fractures. Sadly, the teams couldn’t keep their focus away from their own interests for long enough to keep their collective will in tact. That is why FOTA splintered. That is where FOTA failed.

Now we have ugly cars, and a stupid double points rule for the final race of the season. Team discussions have recently taken place. The double points rule was not reversed. Despite dissatisfaction from fans, the media, and even the reigning four time world champion…

The teams are as much to blame for the ugly cars as the FIA. The teams are as much to blame for this stupid double points rule as Bernie. And the teams, by not pulling together and agreeing on a resource restriction or a cost cap are to blame for such limited testing, because they’ve had to have cost cutting measures thrust upon them.

Frankly I don’t know what the answer is. Bernie has always acted as a benign dictator, and one worries about who will smack the teams’ heads together when he is gone. Somebody has to do it. Either that, or the teams must realise that in the interests of the sport they need to remove themselves from having any say at all in the direction in which Formula 1 is taken.

Because sadly, it seems they’re too busy staring down their now globally mocked noses to see that a bigger picture even exists.

New Teams and Customer Cars

Yesterday was a pretty big day for news in motorsport. It began with Robert Kubica leading the Monte Carlo Rally and was quickly followed by Bernie being indicted on criminal charges in Germany. Mr E then stood aside at CVC, just as the Oscar nominations were read out and Rush was somehow snubbed in every single category. And at the end of a day of huge news, Ron Dennis announced to McLaren employees in a 20 minute speech (so, about three sentences) that he was back in charge. What impact this will have on the team and on the future of Martin Whitmarsh is sure to be a storyline that carries immense interest.

But hidden amongst all the power politics yesterday, came the leaked news via Auto Motor und Sport in Germany that three teams were being viewed by the FIA for final consideration of the last remaining place on the F1 grid for 2015. The three interested parties were StefanGP, an entry from former F1 team boss Colin Kolles, and a new US venture run by Gene Haas.

The last time we saw new teams enter the sport was back in 2010. It is worth remembering that the initial three parties granted a place on the grid by the FIA were Campos, Manor and USF1. Campos became HRT, Manor became Virgin (later to become Marussia) and USF1 failed to happen at all. When BMW Sauber pulled out, the team we now know as Caterham entered the fold. HRT folded, and neither Caterham nor Marussia has scored a point in its four years of existence. Nor, if we are being brutally honest, have they ever realistically looked like doing so.

It does seem odd, that with such a poor recent history for new teams, coupled with the top-heavy, arguably unfair financial structure of the sport and a world economy in the midst of a drive towards cost-saving, there would be any interest in setting up a new F1 team at all. But apparently there is, and that’s great news for the sport.

Of course, Colin Kolles knows Formula 1 only too well and one supposes that an entry from him would not have been launched had it not sufficient support and infrastructure to make a decent run of things.

The American entry also looks interesting. Gene Haas is a NASCAR team owner and runs the Windshear windtunnel out in the States, which has been used by many F1 teams. Although based in California, Haas does have European interests and could possibly use a European base for his team. The entry supposedly has a deal to run Ferrari engines, will start life with a Dallara designed chassis and Guenther Steiner has been mentioned as Team Principal. Not a bad little line-up when you think about it.

And so to StefanGP. The story of StefanGP is long, complicated and thoroughly messy, but a good run down of its F1 interest can be found here.

The last time I saw Zoran Stefanovich was underneath the podium in Monza in 2012, cheering for Luca Filippi as he took the win in GP2 for Coloni. There was talk at the time that Stefanovich had bought Coloni’s GP2 entry. The only issue was that Coloni no longer had a GP2 entry.

With such a tumultuous history, including filing a complaint against the FIA with the European Commission, one wonders how much realistic hope StefanGP has of being taken seriously. But that is for the FIA to decide.

What interests me most, however, is how any new team would fare in 2015 and beyond. As already stated, no new team has scored a point in four years. Perhaps the massive shift in technical regulations will allow scope for the gap between the “new” and established teams to shrink. Perhaps the gap will merely increase.

What, then, is the answer for a new team?

For my money, the answer is customer cars. Just hear me out on this.

What I am not proposing is the opportunity for anyone to come in and buy a 2015 chassis and stick an engine in it and go racing. I don’t like that idea and I don’t think there would be any appetite in the sport for it either.

At the Indian Grand Prix last year I asked the Team Principals in the Friday press conference for their views on Customer Cars. There were a wide range of opinions from positive to overwhelmingly negative. This is the Reader’s Digest version of what they said.

Christian Horner: It’s an interesting debate, really, because if you look at costs and the cost drivers in Formula One, the necessity to have four or five hundred people in order to even compete is, in all reality, too high. Now if you’re just looking at it from a pure cost point of view, the most logical way to take out a huge amount of cost would be to sell a car or a year-old car in its entirety. Now whether that goes against the grain of what a constructor should be and is in current Formula One is a separate debate. But if you are absolutely transfixed on saving costs, it is, without a shadow of a doubt the most effective way to reduce costs. Whether it’s the right thing to do is obviously another questions. Inevitably there is going to be a lot of debate about it and it’s something that, as a sport, we need to be open-minded to.

Ross Brawn: I don’t think we, as a team, are particularly enamoured with the idea of customer cars. I think we are more keen on working towards reducing the base cost of the cars for all teams. And perhaps finding ways of sharing parts that are non-performance differentiators. I think there is some progress that can be made in those areas without damaging the DNA of the sport at all.

Vijay Mallya: We are completely opposed to the even the concept of customers cars. To try to address lowering of costs through a radical customer car concept is ridiculous in my view. What happens to the smaller teams that have factories, that employ hundreds of people and who are effectively running companies. You can’t just discard everything and just buy a one-year old car from an established team and go motor racing. I think that affects the total DNA of Formula One from the day it was started.

Monisha Kaltenbourn: I absolutely agree with that. Sauber’s been in motorsport now for more than 40 years and our core business is making race cars in different series, so we are absolutely against this concept of a customer car because we’re ruining our own business here. When you introduce these kind of measures you’re changing so much. This will not lead to any cost reduction because you might have four teams in there that are capable of putting in that much money, but at some point in time – they are all in their to win – when they don’t do that and maybe just end up with a few points they leave the sport as well. So it’s a very dangerous route to go down.

Eric Boullier: I think that customer cars are against the DNA of Formula One personally. But I think obviously there is a cost restriction that needs to be in place in Formula One. So if you want to avoid the customer car… we can maybe run three cars in the near future to keep a decent grid but still it’s more money and it’s against cost saving, so we need to think and think cleverly about it.

The one interesting thing that kept being said was how the concept of customer cars was against the DNA of Formula 1. Any student of the history of Formula 1 knows this to be complete rubbish. How many teams started life in the 60s and 70s buying a chassis and engine in order to go racing?

But if you want a modern example of how customer cars can work, I would still use the example of Super Aguri. If ever a team showed what can be achieved by allowing a newcomer to the sport the leg-up that a customer car could provide, it was this team.

The team made its 2006 debut with the SA05 which was, to all intents and purposes, the old Arrows A23… a car which was not a championship winner even in its 2002 heyday, let alone a further 4 years down the line. But not only did it get them through their debut season, with a fabulous design office, the upgraded SA06 actually impressed in the latter half of the season.

But it was in 2007 that the team made its greatest leap forward. There were arguments over its legality under Concorde, but the modified 2006 Honda works chassis put in some incredible runs. Takuma Sato scored points in Barcelona, and the Japanese driver put in one of the performances of his F1 career in Montreal to pass reigning world champion Fernando Alonso and finish sixth. But for a botched pitstop it could have been even higher. Crucially, the team finished above both works Honda cars in the race with a car that was a clever development of one the works team had discarded.

Ultimately Super Aguri folded in 2008, but the focus of the squad had always been on designing their own car for 2009. The design team at Super Aguri were incredible. Fascinatingly, the team had designed a nose hole for the SA07 almost identical to the one later seen on the Ferrari F2008. If the team had been granted more budget, there’s a chance Super Aguri could have run the concept in 2007, over 8 months before we saw it on a Ferrari.

The basis of the 2009 Super Aguri went into creating part of the 2009 Toyota, and was hugely influential on the car that would become the BrawnGP BGP001. A car which won both championships.

My point is this. Super Aguri took an outdated car, and with intelligent use of minimal budget turned it into a car that beat the factory squad. The team was competitive. With better financial management, had the team been able to complete the SA09 by itself, there is every reason to believe that at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix Super Aguri could have been fighting for the podium. If not the win. If not the title.

This is why I believe in customer cars. Not forever. But at the start.

The woes of Caterham and Marussia cannot be ignored, and one hopes that the technical regulation changes offer them the level playing field that will allow them to compete. But in the future, I firmly believe that any and all new teams should be given a two year grace period in which they should be allowed to utilise an old car as a stepping stone, and build their own car from year three.

It is cost effective for the new team. It is a source of revenue for the team from whom they are purchasing.

Does that really sound so bad?

Postscript:

I had a few extra thoughts on this while I was in the gym this afternoon… further to Yeti’s point below in the comments section, I don’t believe it is as simple as Super Aguri having had a great design department. Yes, they did. But the reason that design department was able to do such great things was that it was not having to spend all its time and money developing major parts of the car to eat into the huge chunks of time it lagged behind its competitors. By starting with a customer car it wasn’t starting from zero. The design department could look at ways to improve on a solid foundation, rather than having to build that foundation in the first place, all the while dedicating a large part of their design resources to that all important first car of their own.

This is a problem that the “new teams” have faced. For Caterham and Marussia to get to within five seconds of the front runners came quite quickly. The next challenge is to then find the next seconds. Then the tenths. Then the hundredths. Then the thousandths. And that takes time. Too much time.

If we allow customer cars for new teams, for that limited period of two years, we allow new teams to start from a position it has taken the likes of Caterham and Marussia the better part of four years to achieve. Four long, arguably wasted years. Why wasted? Because all of that effort was for naught. No points. And now a regulation change which puts a great deal of that work in the trash.

But, in order to not reach a point where a new team could simply come in and buy a year old Red Bull and start taking the fight to the “genuine” constructors and teams who have been around for a good few years, I think we would need to put a cap on which cars would be for sale.

I would say that the top five in the championship should be taken out of consideration. As such, if technical regulations were staying the same and a new team wanted to join in 2014, it would have the pick of Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso, Williams, Marussia and Caterham. If these options were then priced on a sliding scale dependent on championship position, a new team would be able to decide what it wanted to do with its funding. It could pay a bit less and go for a Marussia or a Caterham and take a solid but not necessarily hugely competitive chassis… or it could fork out a higher percentage of its budget and plump for a Sauber or a Force India.

In this way, established teams which we know are struggling for budget would be the ones to benefit from any such introduction of customer cars, and in turn could use the money gained from the sale of old IP to ensure their new car doesn’t get beaten by the old one.

Just some thoughts.

If I was FIA President… that’s what I’d be trying to push through, anyway.