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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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 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