Conor recounts starting his second year of GP3 racing in Europe by scoring his first series win in the second half of the Spanish Grand Prix support race doubleheader. -Ed.
It was a very emotional experience hearing the American national anthem being played at a grand prix circuit and, of course, walking out on to the F1 podium in Spain – very cool indeed. My Irish family were at home in Ireland screaming at the television because all GP3 races are live throughout Europe. My mom was in Indy watching some foreign language website and there I was with a feeling that I can't really describe, it was a dream come true!
But let's back up a bit…
The amount of time I've had to sit, watch all the racing on television in the UK without being able to take part and just start getting depressed because of how horrible the weather has been here (yes I know, another person complaining about the weather in the UK, sorry...) was almost unbearable! I was doing all I could to keep myself busy and ready for the first race weekend in Barcelona. It was an interesting feeling, though, because I've never waited so long for a season to start.
I did GP3 last year but I was able to do the first three Indy Lights races of the season which kept me very busy and happy because I was driving something! This season I've been fully committed to the European racing program and have been living in England since just before our last preseason test at Silverstone. So I basically had a month to watch the IndyCar season start, GP2 races, different F3 series, and World Series by Renault, not to mention F1 races.
But eventually the time came to head to Barcelona and the feeling I had leading up to the race is hard to describe. Last year had not gone as well as I had hoped and I knew I still had to prove myself in Europe. Personally, I had the confidence going into the season because of how well the preseason testing went, but since I had yet to get on the podium there was a little piece of me that just didn't know quite yet if I could really achieve it. I knew I had the tools to succeed, I just needed to put it all together.
So when I made it to Barcelona I was loving the fact that the race weekend had finally come. We had to do a series picture to start off the festivities on Thursday, so my teammates Aaro Vainio, Daniel Abt (AKA “The Gorilla” – if you see us using the hash tag on Twitter, that's why) got suited up and tried to look as cool as possible, of course walking out on to the track. Whether or not we pulled that off is certainly debatable (Judge for yourself, ABOVE).
It was very difficult for me to sleep Thursday night because the anticipation was at its peak! I was so happy that I didn't really mind – I just wanted to get on track.
The session was very important since it was the only practice we got before qualifying. The Lotus GP guys prepare some incredible cars, so we played it strategically and waited to go out toward the end of the session for one proper run on our only set of tires for the session. I was immediately happy with the car but since we were the first on track for the weekend, we knew the track would change dramatically for qualifying.
After going through everything with my engineers, we were all quite pleased but qualifying was a whole new ballgame and we had a lot of time to think about. I had to go pick up the head wizard of my management team – my dad! He is busier than me nowadays but he was lucky enough to make it out for the first race weekend of the season. It's always nice to have him at the track (especially if things go well).
Qualifying was where I struggled most last season, so I wanted to prove I had worked hard at my mental approach to qualifying and just doing everything as well as I could to start toward the front of the grid. When the car feels good in a qualifying session it immediately gives you a lot of confidence to push the limit, and my car was fantastic to drive. As we threw on the second set of new tires,I was thinking the pole certainly looked like a possibility.
My first flying lap put me on pole and within 58 seconds I had dropped to P7. My second lap vaulted me back to P2 – unfortunately I missed it by an incredibly small margin of 0.08sec, but to be starting on the front row was a huge relief for me and I was thrilled! BTW, the top three were covered by a mere 0.09sec!
I was really starting to prove to myself that I could run up front consistently. I was in a good position to not only score a podium but to possibly win a race. All I had to do was focus on the start and getting a good one – which I didn't...
As the lights were going off, Antonio Felix Da Costa – who was on the pole – jumped slightly which caused me to release the brake – which I needed to have applied to properly preload the clutch. As soon as that happened my whole procedure and “flow” was off and when the lights went out, my clutch was just slipping for miles so I started to get overtaken. I was a bit surprised to see my teammate Abt come from sixth all the way to the lead and that made me think I must have made a real dog's breakfast of my start.
It wasn't necessarily too bad a situation – I found myself in fifth coming to the end of the first lap until I hit the exit curb of the final chicane. It seemed to lift my front tires off the ground and not allow me to steer until I hit the grass, which threw me sideways and suddenly I found myself in eighth. It was pretty much a disaster until two cars, Abt and Da Costa were given jump-start penalties.
I found myself in sixth and was trying to conserve my tires; but at this track it was incredibly difficult to overtake, so I was hoping to take advantage of some overheated tires at the end of the race until we had the safety car deployed. It then became an all-out sprint to the finish with six or so laps to go.
I was really close to the guys in front but it was just so difficult to try and make a move. Settling for sixth would have to do. In the end it was a good points finish and I was still in a great position for race 2, starting third.
I really beat myself up after performances like that. I was in a position to be successful and squandered it. However, I'm also quite a positive person and enjoy focusing on my next opportunity to make the best of my time on track. I went through the data on the start many times (actually we were still at the track at 9:30 that night) and looked at what I could do to improve and be ready for the race 2 start. This time, I nailed it.
Right before the lights went out, I saw the car of Tio Ellinas, who started P2, jump just like Da Costa did the day before, so I knew he'd be getting penalized. I got by Robert Visoiu, who started on pole, through the grass heading down to Turn 1 and never looked back.
The car was fantastic the whole race and I was able to push, build a gap, then save my tires for the end if needed. I couldn't really believe I was going to win the race as the laps ticked away. I had visualized it in my head for so long, always thinking, “What would I do if I actually won?”
It was a feeling I've never felt before as I crossed the finish line – I felt relieved, honestly. I proved to myself I could win, and that an American could win! I'd proved I can run with some of the best young drivers from around the world. My mechanics handed me an American flag when I jumped out of the car and I was so proud to wrap it around me. (He also got to share the moment with dad Derek – BELOW. -Ed.)
One of the coolest parts of the day was walking around the F1 paddock after the race. It seemed like a lot of people had paid attention to the race that morning. Both Nico Hulkenburg and Paul Di Resta came up to me and said congrats, which I thought was quite cool! I walked into the Force India hospitality center to see a longtime family friend of ours, Bob Fernley, who used to be our neighbor on the lake in Noblesville, Ind. It was great to hear he had enjoyed watching the race. It was then quite cool to have Ferrari's team manager Stefano Domenicali come in and say congratulations as well! That was something that was buzzing around in my head for quite a while.
So, overall, I'd say the weekend was quite a success! I not only learned a lot but I got a great haul of points and left Spain tied for second in points, two points out of the lead. I also left with a HUGE boost in confidence to take to Monaco, which will be an absolutely incredible weekend without a doubt. I thrive on street courses, so bring it on!
I can hardly wait for the next blog as there is a lot of awesome stuff happening right now that I can't tell you about, so stay tuned!