It's been a while since I last reported on how things have been going and I can definitely say there have been a lot of ups and downs in the last several weeks. I will also admit it is harder to write about things when they have not been going well. If anyone has seen the results of the first two GP3 race weekends, you know they have not been too great. However, I am here to tell you to not lose hope just yet!
The first GP3 race weekend in Istanbul, Turkey, just did not seem to go my way at all. The first practice session was wet, which seems to always suit me, and we were able to be pretty competitive. However, that only gave me one session of practice in the dry to learn the track before qualifying. I absolutely loved the track and it was probably one of my favorites, but I was really struggling with getting good exits out of the corners. I seemed to carry a lot of speed in but get killed coming out of the corner under power.
My teammate Tom Dillmann surprised the whole team by getting the pole for the first race in qualifying. I, however, had my worst qualifying result of my career in 29th. The positive side to that was that I had Tom's data to look at to figure out where I really needed to find the speed. I was losing so much time everywhere it was hard to process what I really needed to work on first. I had to figure out how I was going to improve but I also had to prepare for my first-ever GP3 race!
Starting from the back of the grid, I was really hoping to take advantage of some carnage on the first lap but, surprisingly, it was a pretty clean start. I gained several positions in the first few corners and thought things were going pretty well but right at the end of the first lap going into the last few corners I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got passed back by several people. There are so many cars going for position that it's easy to get caught in someone else's fight and get slowed down because of it. I won't really go into much detail about the rest of the race because all I was trying to do from then on was learn as much as possible for the second race.
Race 2 started off pretty well, but again toward the end of the first lap I got knocked off the track in the flat-out Turn 11 and it ripped the floor off my car. Once the floor was gone it was impossible to be competitive, because the car just had no downforce. Once again I just had to continue to learn as much as I could throughout the rest of the race with a damaged car.
After the race was over I was not feeling too great. I just had possibly the worst weekend of my career, but it was only the first race weekend and there was a long season ahead. The Carlin guys are very supportive and they know we'll get there soon.
After the disaster in Turkey, I spent a lot of time at the team's workshop back in England to try and figure out what I had to do to make these GP3 cars go fast. It seemed as though when my teammate Tom set the pole time, he didn't really feel that it was a good lap. It's almost like all of a sudden he discovered something and the lap time just came but we couldn't really identify what exactly he had discovered.
The most important thing to try and understand from the weekend was how to try and bring in the tires during qualifying. The drivers who best understood the warm-up procedure for the tires got the best lap times out of them. Not only did I have to try and work that out but I also had to radically alter my driving style. It had become evident that the way I was driving the GP3 car just wasn't working. All throughout my career I have gotten in different cars and adjusted to them, maybe made a few setup changes and it wasn't long before I was on the pace. In this car, however, it's me who has to make the changes and they're not setup changes, they're changes to Conor Daly.
Driving the car the wrong way gave me the feeling that the car was not handling well, so it was difficult for me to understand the fact that as soon as I start driving differently the car will handle better. I mean, of course, I have the most input on what's going on since I'm actually controlling the car but in the past I've just told my engineer what the car is doing and we sort it out with some changes to the setup. At first it was hard to grasp, but I now know that my engineer Matt Callaghan was absolutely right in all that he was telling me about changing my driving style. As I explain the next race weekend and the test following it you'll see how I start to really alter my driving, the car gets better, and we slowly move up the time sheets.
We arrived in Barcelona for the second race weekend of the season and I really needed to get on track. I had so much information in my head about how I should change and how I should attempt to get time out of the car and myself, that I just wanted to get down to business. Practice still did not go well for me. I felt as though I was improving and, looking at the data, we could tell I was slowly improving in a few different corners with a different driving style – but I had not put a full lap together. I also had some new data to look at because I had a new teammate for the weekend – Daniel Morad replaced Tom.
Qualifying again did not go well. However, this time it wasn't just because of a lack of pace. This time we actually had some pace on the second set of tires. I broke into the top 10 early but I think we chose to go out a little too soon on the second set, which meant we had a lot of cars coming out of the pits in front of me ruining several of my quick laps. It was a disappointing result but when we looked at the data we could see that traffic cost me a lot of time and we should have really been close to the top 10, if not in the top 10.
I was very pleased with the fact that I was starting to get this whole driving style change. I was driving the car a lot smoother and not as hard into the corners, and was being rewarded with lap time. However, it was then time to race from the back of the grid again and I knew it would be tough.
The first race I got a bad start and first lap, and fell back a few positions. It was frustrating because the first half of the lap, I had gained positions but got stuck in a traffic jam going into the hairpin and got passed back by several cars. Once the race settled down a bit I started to make some progress. I passed both of my teammates and caught the next group of cars in front of me very quickly. I went to pass the next car in front of me and he decided to try and block me very late in the brake zone and I had to slam my brakes as hard as possible to keep from hitting him. This one lock-up of the left-front tire caused a terrible flat spot all the way down to the chords. I couldn't believe it!
From then on I had a horrendous vibration everywhere coming from the left front and the car would barely turn right. So, I had to just get the car to the finish. It was so disappointing because I knew we had a good car.
Race 2 was a bit of a mess again! I had a fantastic start but there were around five or six cars who stalled and I immediately had to take to the grass to avoid them. I hit a massive mound of dirt and grass or something and I knew the car was damaged because I could see a massive dust cloud coming from the back of my car all the way down the front straight. The race went immediately to safety car and the good news was I had gained several positions. I was up to P16, I think, from starting P21. At that time, I didn't really know if the car was damaged and we rolled through the pit lane a couple times under safety car and the team couldn't see any damage, either. So that meant I was clear to go for it at the restart.
I had a fantastic restart and was the only car able to make an attempt at passing into Turn 1. I braked late but sure enough as soon as I turned into the corner I had considerably less grip than I should have had and ran wide. It was almost the same feeling as Turkey when my floor had been ripped off. It was a struggle from then on to defend my position but, again, I just had to make it to the finish. When we got the car back after the race, sure enough the floor was pretty much destroyed.
So the results were not what we wanted again but overall it was a really positive weekend, because all the hours at the shop and on the simulator paid off – I was starting to change my driving style and get closer to the pace of the guys at the front. I would be back on track next in Hungary for two days of testing which I knew would be very beneficial.
After Barcelona it was back on a plane heading to Indy for the Indianapolis 500. It was going to be my last time at home until early August. I was paying very close attention to everything going on in Indy while I was in England because I could watch practice and qualifying on my laptop. I love everything about the Indy 500 so I couldn't wait to get home and enjoy the weekend.
At home, I was able to catch up with some friends and family, which was nice, but I couldn't wait to get to the track and check things out. My Indy Lights car was being driven by Bryan Clauson that weekend and that was tough because I was really dying to get in a car! The Indy Lights guys were meant to qualify on Thursday before Carb Day but it got rained out...which meant I would be on pole for a race I wasn't even in! I couldn't believe it but I was happy to be able to help my Sam Schmidt Motorsports team without even getting in a car. I was happy for Bryan because I knew he had a good car and it would be good for him and the Mazda Road to Indy machine to start up front.
Carb Day rolled around and I couldn't wait to see the IndyCars on track for the first time in person all month. I absolutely can't wait to have the opportunity to drive in the Indy 500 someday. It's incredible every year watching the drivers on the edge at 225mph+! Every year I get more jealous of the guys on track. This year was even tougher for me because the Firestone Freedom 100 was up next after IndyCar final practice and the guys I had been racing against for the first three races of the season would be racing without me. But I knew my priorities were in Europe and that even though it was tough not racing, I knew it was the right decision.
It was a crazy race with a lot of carnage but in the end it was the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team with a 1-2 finish. My teammate Josef Newgarden scored a great win and I was really happy for him and the team. The Mazda Road to Indy car also had a good race, Bryan finishing fifth in his first Indy Lights race!
The Indy 500 weekend was full of great events and Mazda Road to Indy races and I was doing my best to attend as many as I could while making time to see my family – and maybe get a bit of sleep. Saturday night, the night before the 500 was a crazy evening. I went out to what is now Lucas Oil Raceway for the USF2000 and Star Mazda races and it brought back a lot of fantastic memories from the year before, when I was able to win my home Star Mazda race in front of a huge number of friends and family.
I was hoping to get home right after the two races took place because I had to pack for living in England until August!! My flight back overseas was Sunday night right after the 500. Unfortunately, the Indiana weather caused a bit of a delay and the Star Mazda race did not finish until close to 11 p.m., which meant I got home around midnight and my family was planning on heading to the Speedway at 4 a.m. to beat the traffic. I tried to pack as quickly as I could but I had to make sure I had everything I needed for a little over two months away from home. I think I got to bed around 1:30 a.m. and was awake again at 4 a.m. Once we got to the track at 5:30 a.m. I slept in one of my mom's tower terrace suites until around 7:30 and then I was good to go!
It was an incredible day at the track and the amount of people there was awesome. I've never missed an Indy 500 since birth and every year I think it's one of the most fantastic experiences ever. The race itself was one of the best I've seen and the finish was just insane!! I was absolutely gutted to see JR Hildebrand lose in the final few hundred feet but I was also happy for my friend Dan Wheldon. Dan has always been a great friend and has always been supportive of my career. I also have to give a shout out to Graham Rahal. It's good to see two fellow Americans in the top three. He was pretty proud of passing quite a few cars, so I'll give Rahal some credit! Keep it up my friend.
So the race was over and I had to get to the airport. Thankfully my uncle and aunt volunteered to drive me to the airport through some very heavy traffic. It had been a very busy five days in Indy which meant I had fallen asleep immediately in the car! Fortunately, I made it to the airport in time and I was off to Budapest, Hungary, for two days of GP3 testing.
I slept every hour of all three flights to get to Budapest. I was very much looking forward to getting back behind the wheel. I knew what I had to do to keep improving and I was ready to keep moving up the time sheets. I really liked the Hungaroring circuit and I was getting closer to fine-tuning my driving style to suit the GP3 car. At the end of day 1, we could see in the data that I was getting the hang of driving the car a bit smoother with less initial brake pressure and strong throttle applications to get good corner exits.
We had made a few small adjustments to the setup for day 2 and, sure enough, we went out on new tires and we were immediately quick. I think we were P3 when we came in the pits and I was extremely happy. It's so strange, though, because the lap time came and it didn't really feel like a lap where I was driving extremely hard on the limit. With these cars, you have to be very careful not to overdrive. I just had to work on perfecting small things and driving the car very smoothly and accurately.
We ended the morning P7 after saving a set of tires for the afternoon. It felt great to be in the ballpark, which meant we were not looking for a huge amount of time anymore. We then had to work on small adjustments to fine-tune me and the car.
The afternoon session was a bit of a mess because we waited until late to start running then it started raining. I went out with a couple minutes left while it was still raining and I was able to put a lap in before I hit a wet curb and did a pretty impressive 360, if I do say so myself! We ended that session P15 but we are now consistently in the top half of the grid compared to the first two race weekends where we struggled to break out of the 20th to 30th range. Overall we were P7 for day 2. I am very happy with that and next up is yet another two-day test in Valencia. I will again work on fine-tuning my driving style and learning a new track. I can't wait to get to the next race, the European Grand Prix in Valencia.
I know this was long but there has been a lot going on, hope you guys enjoy it! Things are getting better, don't give up on me quite yet!