Well one of the busiest, if not the busiest season of racing is over for me. It has been an incredible year and the biggest learning curve I've ever experienced. The trend of the season was massive improvement every weekend and sure enough we stayed true to that in the final two GP3 weekends of the year...
Last time I checked in I was just getting ready for GP3 at Spa-Francorchamps. First of all, what an absolutely incredible circuit. As soon as you get there and look up at Eau Rouge, your mind is blown! No simulator or game does it justice, as soon as you get on track and experience the real deal its an incredible feeling. However, I must say that in the dry, it is very simple for the GP3 cars to get Eau Rouge flat, simply because we don't really have enough horsepower to make it extremely challenging. During our one and only practice session for the weekend I think it rained 10-12 times (maybe a small exaggeration) so I definitely experienced the typical Spa weather pretty early in the weekend. Practice was a lot of fun though because of the conditions. It started dry and I was able to take Eau Rouge flat on lap 2 (I know, should have been lap 1...) but after about three laps the rain started coming down. That was an entirely new learning experience!
Qualifying was where things got really interesting. After one session on a new track for me, it was time to throw down for pole. The session started wet but with each lap the track got a bit more dry. With about 12 minutes left we were in the pits thinking about going to slick tires. There were two cars who had just gone to slicks but they were struggling. We decided to put on scrubbed slicks and go out.
It was really sketchy because half of the track was still considerably wet but half was pretty dry. Now Eau Rouge was a challenge. It was a little damp and on slick tires it was one of those times you just held your breath going through the corner and hoped for the best. The very last timed lap was going to be my best, considering we'd have the most temperature in the tires and the track would be at its driest. So when I approached Eau Rouge on my last lap I had to take it flat. Sure enough I got it done with a bit of opposite lock, of course, but, hey, it worked. That lap ended up good enough for my best qualifying result of the season with sixth. I was pretty stoked to get out there and race!
After watching the weather go from wet to dry another hundred times during the day on Saturday it was time for Race 1 and the sky decided it wanted to rain. It was a great rain race, though. The guys at the front were all pretty equal, so it made it difficult to make up many positions but I had a great race with Alexander Sims and got a lot of experience with defending my position. At one point coming through Blanchimont (the fast corner before the bus stop), Sims was right behind me and the rear stepped out in a big way and I did my best Ken Block impression to keep the car going straight. That was fun. I ended up finishing fifth, which was my best finish of the season.
For Race 2, I'd say the track was about 95 percent dry. I started fourth and heading down the straight into Les Combes on the first lap Tom Dillman, Adrian Quaife-Hobbs and myself were three wide and I was on the inside. However, as we got close to the braking zone I saw a bit of a mist of water being tossed up by the rear diffuser and I knew that wasn't good...
As soon as I hit the brakes, I was backward. I did a good 720-degree spin and straightened the car up as I jumped over the sleeping policemen in the run-off. Fortunately, I only fell back to ninth. So, from then on, I just worked on trying to learn the track in the dry! I really only had around four laps on the track in full dry conditions, so every lap I found myself finding more speed. Unfortunately, the balance of the car was not good considering we had very little time to work on the dry weather setup. I wasn't able to do much because we lacked some pace but I ended up finishing seventh right outside the points. Still our best weekend of the season and I just couldn't wait to continue improving at Monza for the final weekend of the season.
If you thought my next race was Monza, you were wrong. In between Spa and Monza I did the Indy Lights race in Baltimore! It was great to jump in that car again on a street circuit.
The new Baltimore circuit was fantastic! It was bumpy in some places smooth in others, had fast corners, slow corners and just a good mix of everything. I won't spend much time on this particular race weekend because everything went really well until the race. It was awesome to get my first pole in Firestone Indy Lights on the Saturday before the race. Our car was great all weekend and I was loving the track and the event.
When the green flag was waved I led the race until about halfway. I then started to feel the balance go off only turning left. I thought something had broken on the car or I skimmed a wall or something. But after about two laps I was still going, so I figured I'd just have to manage what was going on and make it to the finish.
My teammate Esteban Guerrieri eventually got by me and there was nothing I could do, really. All of a sudden, about four laps after he passed me, I went through the flat Turn 2 and it was an extremely bumpy corner, so right at the very last bump on the exit my right-rear upright on the suspension snapped clean in half, shooting me nose first into the wall.
I saw the video and it looks pretty stupid, because I'm actually going straight when the suspension snaps. I assure you, I didn't turn straight into a wall flat-out on purpose! It was probably the hardest hit of my career, but fortunately it didn't do much damage. I thought the hit was hard enough to where I couldn't drive it back to the pits, but when I got out all that was damaged was the front wing and the suspension piece that had broken.
I was lucky there, but it was a disappointing end to a promising weekend. Another great learning experience, though, and I was ready to get to Monza to finish off the GP3 season.
When I think of Italy, being the car person that I am, I think of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. I got an incredible opportunity the Wednesday before the race weekend to go visit the Lamborghini factory. My ultimate dream supercar is a Lamborghini!
Myself, my dad and my brother Christian got to go with a great group of people also from the U.S. It was definitely one of the coolest places I've been to! I tried to see if they could sneak me onto the two-and-a-half year waiting list for the Aventador, but they didn't seem to like that idea...maybe next time.
The next day we got to go to the Yamaha MotoGP factory. I'd say I'm definitely in the market for a Yamaha R1 after going there! It was really cool hearing about all the ins and outs of MotoGP. I'm definitely sticking with four wheels, though – I was useless on a dirt bike as a kid.
I finally got to the track Thursday afternoon for a track walk and, wow, what an amazing place. I had been to the race last year just to watch but now I was walking the track and getting ready for practice the next day. I knew the racing would be epic and very close. I had so much experience using the draft from my Skip Barber days, I knew I could put that to work there.
The cars were set up with absolute minimum downforce, which meant maximum straight-line speed. Our car was immediately well balanced and I was quite pleased with how things were going. In free practice 2, I was using the tow really efficiently. I was on a lap with a purple first sector (quickest of the session) by about 0.3sec and then a green second sector (personal best) and then there was a yellow flag in the very last corner, so I had to abort the lap. It was disappointing because when we looked at the data that lap would have put me P1 by about two tenths had I just gotten around the last corner. Oh, well! Nothing we can do about that and we were still P7 or something, I think. At least we knew the car was extremely fast and I was ready for qualifying.
Qualifying, however, did not go anywhere near how we thought it would go. The first run on new tires was average and I kept getting traffic in the wrong places. I made a few mistakes but the car still felt really good, so I was just looking forward to the second set.
I got out there early and started a flying lap and, all of a sudden, after going purple in the first sector, there were cars going 10mph in the middle of the Lesmos, which are high-speed corners! Then the next lap I get to the straight after the Ascari chicane and there must have been a line of about 17 cars going 30mph...and a few of them were three wide spread out across the track! I had to pass three people through the grass just to try and start another qualifying lap; it was absolutely ridiculous.
Sure enough, it started to get really hectic with little time remaining. No one wanted to lead the tow train. I just wanted to do one lap by myself and there wasn't enough time to slow down to a slow enough speed to get a gap, so I kept going flat and eventually started the tow train.
I was quick enough to lead them though without them passing me, and I knew they were going to get really good laps with my tow – so I had to back off a little. Time was up, though, and on the last lap I had to try to get in a position for a tow. After passing two cars and getting through a chaotic lap, I put myself up to P12 and then dropped to 17th as the rest of the train came around. I was so frustrated because I knew we had the car for pole. But that was another fantastic learning experience, because if I can come back next year I'll know what to expect.
I knew the racing was going to be incredible at Monza and I was ready to put on a show. A lot of my Irish family were at the race supporting me along with some friends from the States, so I didn't want to let any of them down. I had my best start of the season in Race 1 and started working my way through the field. The racing was so fun!
The tow was incredible and I was having great battles with everyone coming through the field. Luckily, my car was good enough to pass and then break the tow to get to the next group of cars in front of me. At one point, my friend Gabby Chaves bump-drafted me down the front straight and we were flying past cars – it was epic!
As the race came to a close, I had made it up to sixth and was right on fifth with one lap to go. I passed him into the second chicane but I couldn't defend from him down the next straight – and I couldn't get a run on him down to Parabolica, so I ended up sixth, 0.03sec off of fifth! I had fastest lap of the race until the very last lap, again proving our car was fast. If we could have only had a bit of luck in qualifying...seems to be the story of the season. But we've learned more every session and I will continue working on improving.
I started third for Race 2 and I went in thinking that I wasn't coming home without a win. I was so confident that our car was good enough to do it.
I got another good start and briefly led the race heading into the first chicane, but I was on the outside of two other cars, so I had to give way just to make it around the corner. I stayed third around the Lesmos and heading down the back straight I saw the series champion Valtteri Bottas and his teammate James Calado behind me. Bottas wasn't close enough to pass, so I was focused on trying to tow the guys in front of me.
As we got closer to the brake zone for Ascari, I could tell he still wasn't close enough to pass, so I didn't need to block. However, as soon as I started to turn into the corner, it felt like I got hit by a bulldozer and was sent flying into the gravel trap backward...
I was thinking, WHAT ON EARTH JUST HAPPENED?! AND WHY?! Heck, I even restarted the car in the deep gravel and tried to drive out because I just so badly wanted to continue the race, but this wasn't possible. I couldn't believe it – I seriously had never felt so angry in my life, because I knew the team deserved a win after all their hard work and all that they helped me with. I also didn't understand why the series champion just blatantly forgot his braking point, ending my race and season.
I saw the replay so many times and it even made the GP3 season highlight video at the awards banquet that night, and I'm still like, "Seriously, you've got to be kidding me!" Bottas did come up to me after the race to apologize and said he just missed his braking point. I respect that, but it's still just such an unfortunate end to a season that was improving massively every weekend and could have been capped off with a great podium result. After saying all of that, it was out of my control, really. Nothing I could have done about that, so on to the next season.
I really hope I can get back to GP3 next season, because I know I could challenge for the championship after all I've learned this year. Now the worst part of the year starts – the off-season. We are broke again looking for a big budget for next year, but I have no doubt we will be able to do it. I have fantastic supporters and sponsors around me and I'm confident we can develop more great relationships through the winter to put everything together for next year. This year would not have been possible without the Mazda Road to Indy program and everyone at Mazdaspeed Motorsports Development. Those guys have been very good to me and I've been happy to represent their brand and program.
I hope you all have enjoyed hearing about my year; it has definitely been an interesting one. Personally, I feel it was very successful because I know the amount I've learned and I'm ready to put it all together next season, like I did in Star Mazda last year. I absolutely can't wait for the next time I get in a car. I'm sure I'll check in over the off-season to keep everyone up to date on what's going on next year.
Thanks for all the support! It really means a lot!