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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
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.