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