Soon after my weekend in the sun I was off to another warm place, India. I was off to finish the MRF Challenge Championship. It's a winter series I had been competing in since the Indian Grand Prix weekend late in the 2012 Formula 1 season. It was cool for me because I'd never done a winter series before so it kept me a lot busier than normal through the offseason.
I was heading into the weekend 5 or 6 points behind the championship leader Jordan King. It was going to be a difficult deal to win without a doubt. I needed things to go my way which at first they were going the opposite direction! Qualifying was going to be incredibly important since the circuit in Chennai was extremely difficult for overtaking.
I was enjoying the circuit quite a lot but when it was time for first qualifying we were running around two seconds off the pace and the car was horrible – I had no idea what happened. We were quite strong at the end of the practice sessions and qualifying everything had changed. All went wrong and we ended up P13. I could have sworn something on the car was broken but after checking the car over and over it came down to being one of those 1 in 1000 "bad" sets of tires. Sometimes things like this happen because as soon as we put on another set for second qualifying, the car was back closer to normal but unfortunately we were still a session behind after somewhat missing out on the first qualifying session. This time we ended up eighth.
Now I definitely needed the good Lord's help more than ever because Jordan was starting 5th and 2nd for races one and three. There were four races total during the weekend, the first race we qualified for and the second race was inverted top six order. The same went for races three and four.
I got a mega start for race one and got myself several places up the order and after the first two laps I found myself in seventh or eighth, which was very near the coveted 6th position which would be pole for race two. I started to get quite frustrated though because of how difficult it was to overtake. I was stuck behind another car for most of the rest of the race until I finally forced him into a mistake handing me sixth position. I didn't know I finished sixth until after I finished and got out of the car because another car in front of me had a mechanical failure or something.
So things were starting to look up, I needed to win race two to really put myself back in the championship fight and sure enough I was able to do that. I got a chance to prove that we really did have good pace that weekend by winning by almost 10 seconds and setting fastest lap of the race. That race put me in the championship lead by two points.
I then had to start race three on Sunday from eighth position and King started on the front row. The race was again quite boring because of the lack of overtaking but I was able to get another good start and jump up to 5th position which is where I finished putting me again on the front row, P2, for the final race of the championship. I basically had to win the race no matter what. Jordan had the championship lead and if I won he needed to finish 4th to take the championship and he was starting sixth. As soon as I left the pits to go to the grid my clutch started going away so I was thinking it was already a disaster and the race hadn't started.
When the lights started to come on for the standing start and I put my car in gear and immediately had to hit the brake because I started moving. I tried to then time it right to slam the gas, release the brake and drop the clutch (working three pedals with two feet must look funny inside the cockpit) when the lights went out to get a decent start and sure enough, I didn't. I fell to third from second until my luck started to swing to the good position.
I watched the two cars in front of me go side by side into the corner at the end of the first straight and one of them spun putting me in second position. That was nice but I knew I still needed to win. I was pushing very hard to catch the leader when nearly halfway into the race he had a mechanical problem putting me in the lead. I couldn't believe it, I'm usually known for some horrendous luck but that day was pretty amazing. From then on I just pushed to try and keep the lead and won the race and championship. When I finished the race I was told King went off in Turn 1 or something, putting him pretty far down the order which is exactly what I needed to have happen.
In the end, yes, I was very lucky to win the championship, I will admit it. But we kept fighting the whole weekend and I never became impatient in the four races and was able to put myself right where I needed to be.
Now, I say this because I saw King's press release about his weekend and I'll be honest it was pretty shady. It basically said I did nothing but drive around and everyone in front of me crashed or broke down, which is actually not true at all. I was definitely lucky and Jordan out qualified me both sessions but my mechanics and engineer worked hard with me to get the car sorted and that gave me the ability to position the car where I needed to in all the races. At the end of the day luck is indeed part of the game and thankfully all things went well for me during the races. I've had it go the opposite way for me plenty of times so I know how it is.
The people at MRF put on a great championship and I enjoyed being a part of it. I learned a lot and got a lot of “cultural” experiences in India! They also put on a fantastic championship awards ceremony which was pretty funny. There was even a comedian who asked me to go on stage and propose to fellow driver, Vicky Piria. That didn't go well, at all. I'm still learning to chat up the ladies... I've been trying to learn from James Hinchcliffe because he managed to trick one of the most beautiful Australian women in all the land to date him. Well played Hinch, well played.
After the festivities in India it was time to head back to England to get prepped for the beginning of GP3 preseason testing. I was looking forward to getting in the new GP3 car with my team from 2012, ART Grand Prix. The new 400hp V6 was sounding pretty mean when we first started the bad boy up at the track. It's always nice getting more power! We had an interesting few days working through some normal issues with a new engine package but for the most part it ran really well and reliably. I've really learned over the last two years to only focus on working on developing the setup of the car and trying to improve the balance and ignore the time sheets.
It just becomes distracting when looking at the time sheets knowing where you might have been able to be had there not have been 26,000 red flags on every single new tire run you did (OK, that was an exaggeration but it felt like it). I learned to not worry about things that are out of my control from my friend Jacques Dallaire. We did a lot of good setup development over the three days and got to run in a lot of different conditions rain and dry. It's going to be very interesting this season because of tire wear with the Pirelli's. Now that the cars have a lot more power the tires last two to three laps in qualifying trim.
Pirelli has definitely put us on the same sort of program as F1, which certainly gets us learning tire conservation early in our careers. I hope to continue working with the team at the next test in Barcelona should I get the opportunity. We are really trying to put together a program to run GP3 this year. It would be a really good fit with the new car and the same team I drove for last year. We'll see what we can pull together!
I must say, things are looking really good for this year at the moment. I know how quickly things can change in racing but for now I will tell you to stay tuned for some pretty cool announcements should we get everything signed on the dotted line (the hardest part to get to usually) in the next few weeks. I really appreciate all the support from people all over the social media world and I hope to keep people entertained again this year! I'm thankful every day for the dreams I'm getting to pursue. Stay tuned...