The last few weeks have been crazy – as usual. The first race of the season has already taken place and the second race is right around the corner. Mix in a few transatlantic flights and some GP3 testing and you've got a general summary of what has been going on lately.
The first race of the season was in St. Petersburg. I got down to Florida a week early so we could do some final preseason testing at Homestead and Palm Beach International Raceway. I was struggling after the official Indy Lights test at Barber Motorsports Park so it was really important to do a few more test days before the racing started. It was tough figuring out what I needed from the car. My teammate Josef Newgarden was very fast at the Barber test and I was no where near his pace. However, as we tested at Homestead and PBIR I began to really get used to the car and figure out what I needed out of it to go faster. It also gave me more time to work with my engineer, Chris Finch, who really helped me adjust my driving style to suit the car a bit more and make the right changes to help the balance of the car. I felt very prepared for St. Pete.
We arrived to St. Pete on Wednesday night. I absolutely love the St. Pete event. It is such an awesome track and the city really goes all out for the race weekend! I had a busy schedule lined up for the weekend and I was really looking forward to it. Thursday was a busy day with things to do for the Mazda Road to Indy. There were a few seminars to attend, a media lunch, then pace car rides. Yes, this year I'm part of the Indycar Pace Car Team, which has been a lot of fun so far. Josef, Stefan Wilson, Anders Krohn and I all got to scare some people by taking them around the track for some hot laps in the pace cars!
After my pace car team duties were fulfilled, we walked the track. It's always cool to be walking around the track when the IndyCar guys are out there, too, I look up to a lot of those drivers. If you thought the day was done after the track walk, you were wrong! I was then involved in a parade through downtown St. Petersburg! It was definitely one of the coolest things I've done on a race weekend. There was a huge turnout and it was great to see a lot of people out to support the event.
So, after all the events, it was time to get down to business on Friday afternoon. Getting on track that afternoon brought back good memories of the year before when I won the Star Mazda race there. Every time I got on track I was thoroughly enjoying it. I absolutely love street courses and I seem to do pretty well on them. Practice went pretty well but qualifying was a bit depressing. We were P1 almost all session long until four minutes left. There was a final mad dash for the pole after the session was yellow flagged to pull someone out of the wall. My teammate Esteban Guerrieri went out just in front of me and we were both pushing very hard. He ended up getting the pole by something like a hundredth of a second. It was unfortunate because our beacon was setup on the front straight so that's where I saw the lap times but the official timing line was before the last corner. On my dash I had a lap good enough for pole but not according to the official timing line. It sucked but it was still really good to have the Sam Schmidt Motorsports cars P1, 2 and 3!
I was quickest in the morning warm up and was really happy with the car. It was going to be tough starting outside pole though. The outside of Turn 1 at St. Pete is not the place you want to be unless the circumstances are well in your favor. As we came to the green flag I thought I could get just a little bit of a jump by being in second gear instead of third. However, I was wrong. As soon as we all hit the throttle I was on the limiter and everyone just jumped a little ahead of me. I braked very late into Turn 1 but my teammates Josef and Esteban were already side by side which meant I was on the outside of a three-wide situation. I got the worst of it and ended up coming out of Turn 2 barely holding on to fourth position.
I had a great car though so I was able to catch the cars in front of me slowly but surely. It took me two tries to get by Peter Dempsey into Turn 1, but I got him and then I had to work on catching Esteban and Josef. With only a few laps remaining there was a full-course yellow. This gave me an excellent opportunity to pass my teammates. I got a really good restart and was able to get alongside Esteban. We both braked a bit too late into Turn 1 but he went a couple feet deeper than me and overshot the corner. I seriously don't know how I didn't hit Josef going into Turn 1. I've never seen the gearbox of another car that closely before! I could have sworn my front wing was damaged but sure enough, into the next two corners the car felt fine! Unfortunately, I didn't get an opportunity to make a move on Josef for the lead so we ended up P2 with the fastest lap of the race. I learned a lot from that race and now I'm looking forward to Barber! But wait, there's more…
As soon as I was done with post race interviews and matters of that sort, I had to run to the team truck and throw all my smelly driving gear at my mom for her to take home (Mom is fantastic!) and take another set of driving gear to the airport! I was headed straight to England that night and needed to catch a flight out of Tampa. So Dad and I loaded up the rental car and left for the airport right as Marco Andretti ended up on his lid in Turn 1 of the IndyCar race.
I won't go into detail, but I wasn't able to shower after the 87 degree race day in Florida so the airport and overnight flight to England was not the most comfortable experience I've ever had. BUT, I got to England Monday morning after the race in St. Pete on Sunday and was ready to be on track Tuesday! The weather at Silverstone was average at best – of course. It was very cold with the occasional rain shower.
I was really looking forward to getting back in the GP3 car, though. I had to completely swap mind sets from race weekend to important preseason test days. It didn't take me long to get back into GP3 mode but it is so unbelievably different over there; it's astounding each time I get in the car.
It was very difficult to figure out the best way to bring in the new Pirelli tires. They seemed to be graining quite a lot after about five laps and then they couldn't be used anymore. So, after the first full day, we went through every driver's sector times and lap times to see if there was a pattern to how the other drivers warmed up their new tires. Sure enough, it seemed as though the quick guys were doing two to three slow laps with a lot of weaving and braking to try and generate a lot of heat in the tires before making a run at setting a quick lap.
On day two there was a lot of rain but we were able to get a few laps in the dry to test out our new tire-warming strategy. Immediately it seemed to help the tires and get a bit more time out of them. It was very hard to be patient enough to go out on new tires and scrub them really hard for two to three laps before letting loose and trying to get the best out of them.
On the third and final day of testing, it rained again for the full morning session. It was a very encouraging session, though, because we never found ourselves outside the top 5. I was P1 for quite some time and I was really enjoying the conditions.
But, the session started to get really annoying because there was literally a red flag every two laps. Out of the pits, one lap, red flag. Over and over and over again cars just kept spinning and stalling and crashing – it was pretty crazy. By the end of the session, the track started to dry out and, in the last few minutes, it was a mad dash for dry tires. Luckily I got some good laps in and ended up P5.
The full afternoon session was dry and it was quite a challenge. Even with how we were warming up the tires we couldn't seem to set a competitive time. There is still a lot to be learned about this car and I'm trying to get on top of it as quickly as possible. The Carlin guys are doing a great job and we'll work together to try and figure out what we're missing on the dry setup. We've got another three days of testing in Barcelona right after my race in Barber and right before my race in Long Beach so we've still got a good bit of time to get things sorted.
Just to give everyone a preview of what is to come: after the Barber race this weekend, I'm leaving straight after the race to head to Spain, as soon as we're done there I head straight to Long Beach for the Firestone Indy Lights race and then back home to Indy for a short time at the end of April. I need an airline sponsor…