Editor's note: Briton Oliver Webb drives for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in the Firestone Indy Lights Championship.
After a break from preseason testing the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team and I headed to the sunny state of Florida for the first round of the year at St. Petersburg. Testing had gone well for myself and the team, with all of us getting acclimatized to the new 2012 Firestone tires, which had brought a lot of new challenges in terms of wear rates and performance.
My first test session would always be about getting used to the tracks, as I haven't seen 90 percent of them, I went out and instantly fell in love with the track. It is a fantastic course with some technical slow-speed corners in the mid sector and some very high-speed corners in the first and last sectors, which Is always exiting on a street course.
Friday testing went well and we ended up consistently in the top 5 which for my first time at the track I was very pleased and felt I could learn well from my Sam Schmidt teammates. Qualifying was in the heat of midday on Saturday and we had made some changes from practice that myself and my engineer where very confident with. The session overall went very well, every single time I pitted and looked at the screens I was P1! Unfortunately a red flag came out just as I was on my last set of tires. Unable when I went back out to gain enough heat in for a better flying lap I was pipped to P3, a bit disappointing but good qualifying overall and good for the team to have four cars in the top 5. As usual the thing to do after qualifying is to head back to the teams trailer and spend a couple of hours with the team debriefing and looking at data from the cars and sector times from the other teams cars to try and find where we can gain time for the race.
Our race was on the same day, the Saturday afternoon. We felt we had a good race pace in our car as on old tires in testing we where quickest. The safety car came in second time by and then I heard the words loud in my ears, “Green Green Green!” Time to floor it!
I had a good start and nearly got into second down the inside of my teammate Esteban Guerrieri. However it wasn't to be and I settled into third where myself, Esteban and Tristan Vautier checked out from the rest of the field setting very consistent lap times and a good race pace. The safety car however decided to make an appearance eventually after Carlos Munoz from AFS Andretti had hit the wall at Turn 3, meaning we lost our advantage and ended up packed up again. On the restart Sebastian Saavedra managed to get the better of me off the last corner for third, which meant I had to settle back into a pace to try and catch the guys in front again. It was a little too late but a solid fourth position in my first round.
The next race weekend was Barber Motorsports Park. We had tested there earlier in the year and very quickly noticed that Saavedra was the man to beat. This was the same story throughout the weekend in practice and in qualifying on a drying track where after I had set two green sectors I was to be placed P2 on the grid, however a last corner off while pushing hard for pole meant my best lap was taken away from me due to causing a red flag and I was to start fifth. The race was one to forget as with a startline hit from behind it meant my right-rear suspension was broken, so I had to spend the race trying to drive round a balance problem that I wasn't understanding and that was causing huge understeer, putting me far off the pace. Contact at Turn 5 also meant I had to take a pit stop, resulting in a disappointing finish of 12th.
Long Beach was the next event on the calendar and one that many put just below the Indy 500 on the ranks of the best events, with its street course taking us through the harbor roads of the California town. The first practice session went very well and we ended up P2 in difficult conditions on another track that I had never seen, I could feel instantly that our problems from Barber had gone and the car was handling fantastically.
Qualifying was a frustrating session as we finished third on a grid that was very close after being on the pole for a lot of the session but catching traffic on our last tire run. Our sectors where good, however, and we had theoretical fastest lap and a great balance on the car for the race. Sunday came very fast and it was race day, the weather was normal L.A. sunshine and the crowds in masses turned up to hear the roaring of engines through their streets.
We lined up third on the grid on the inside, but my start was not good and I was too cautious through Turn 1 after driving on the dirt and I ended up holding sixth position all the way through a fairly uneventful race to the checkered flag. I managed to set the fastest lap of the race throughout the middle part of the event, which showed that the car was really on form, so it was disappointing not to be driving at the front with the pace we had.
The next event is Indy 500 week, where we will be racing on the Friday for the Freedom 100 – a great event and great week to be in Indianapolis, my new home town. Hope to see you there!