There's an engineer by the name of Manuel, who works for Campos Racing. On Wednesday, he flew from Valencia to Paris, then connected onto San Francisco. Over 14 hours of traveling, and with a nine-hour time difference from home, he was travel weary and jet-lagged, and had to fight the California traffic out to the Sonoma racing circuit to meet his new driver for the upcoming round of Auto GP this weekend. He didn't notice anything different about his new driver when he shook her hand. However, the conversation quickly moved to what racing the driver had been doing so far this year. Ah – the look that crossed this poor guy's face was a picture.
For the past two years since my last full season of competition, it seems that jumping into an available racecar when I have the slightest whiff of opportunity has become very much my modus operandi. This year however, pickings have been slim. I have been so close to getting into cars at various times in the IZOD IndyCar Series that I could already feel the steering wheel moving again beneath my hands, but typically, anything that could go wrong at the last possible minute has gone wrong. People have asked me constantly why I did not do the same as my teammate from Indy in 2011 and friend, Sebastian Saavedra. He jumped back into Firestone Indy Lights to stay fresh, ready, and competitive. The largest part of the answer to that question of course is simple, and known to every racing driver everywhere, and said by many every day – I did not have the funding.
I have worked tirelessly off the track this year to try and put myself into a position where I would be getting back in a car, but in terms of the 2012 IndyCar season, it ultimately turned into a fruitless venture. And while my focus has since shifted to the 2013 season, the thought/dream of getting back in a car before the year was done never faded from the forefront of my mind.
Then about three weeks ago I got a phone call offering an opportunity to get back into a racing car again – a fast, open-wheel racing car, racing at one of my favorite road circuits in the U.S. It was a car I've never driven before and I wouldn't get any testing – in fact, the first time I would meet the team when I turned up at the track was to make a seat.
“Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play.”
I honestly didn't even have to think about it before I said yes. The opportunity to “play” might have been something I once took for granted in the junior series, but in these last couple of years, I have learned just how precious a commodity it is. I tried not to believe it was really happening so that I wouldn't be left pulling myself together again after another last-minute letdown. However, this time everything went smoothly, and on Wednesday afternoon I was in Sonoma, making my first seat in over year, and getting ready for the upcoming weekend.
So what is Auto GP? It actually raced in Europe for years as the Euro F3000 series, and in fact it's this series that Felipe Massa won in 2001 before moving into Formula 1 with Sauber in 2002. In 2010 the series changed its name to Auto GP, and more recent drivers that have passed through the series include Romain Grosjean, Vitaly Petrov and Luca Filippi. Antonio Pizzonia won the last two races in Curitiba, Brazil.
The cars themselves are fast, racy open-wheel cars with a 550hp V8 Zytek engine. The gearbox is a paddle shift much like IndyCar's, but it has a foot clutch. The weekend format will give me two 30-minute test sessions on Friday, followed by a 30-minute qualifying session on Saturday morning and then two 40-minute sprint races – one on Saturday and one on Sunday. The grid for Sunday's race will be formed by reversing the top eight from Saturday's race; both races will feature a standing start; and there is also one pit stop per race.
I've been fairly vocal about my love for standing starts; however, since I moved to the U.S. four years ago, it's been that long since I last did one in a racecar. Also, the only time I have ever done standing starts with a foot clutch was six years ago back in the first open-wheel cars I ever drove! So, nope, I'm not nervous about my first standing start in six years, in a fast pack of cars, at all...
Then there are the pit stops. Normally in European racing series where cars do pit stops, they do two-tire stops as opposed to four-tire stops. This helps keep the costs and staffing numbers down; plus, as the series are normally feeder series to F1, the tires you get back on the pit stops are lovely and warm and sticky – ready to rock and roll from the moment you bolt them on. Auto GP follows the two-tire pit stop idea, however to keep the costs down further, there are no tire-warmers, so you have two hot, sticky front tires on your car from the previous stint, and two stone-cold rear tires going on at the pit stop. I think the correct American terminology for this set of circumstances is this: “LOOOOOOOSE!” Also the whole coordination thing with using a foot clutch, but not having to wait for fuel when the car hits the ground after the rear tires are changed, is going to mean my brain needs a bit of rewiring.
Also, there's the track. Yes, I'm aware I'm being touted as the only driver to have run previously at Sonoma, but to be honest with you the layout we're using is pretty different to what I've driven before. I do know about half the track, but the rest of it will be as new to me as everyone else!
Our track walk on Thursday evening (RIGHT) also confirmed just how dusty it is, not only off-line, but also on some of the segments of track we will be using this weekend. As a support series to the World Touring Cars, that means we're the sweepers in our first session tomorrow morning, and it's going to be slipperier than a used-car salesman.
As for my engineer Manuel, we've now walked the track, got me sorted in the car seat and with the pedals, and he seems to be over the shock of working with a driver who is yet to race in 2012. The cockpit feels small and cozy after an IndyCar – much more similar in size to an Indy Lights car, but the speeds will be similar to the big car, so it's a nice compromise for my return. The data I have seen shows a fairly different driving style to the one I have been racing with in the U.S., but it seems fairly similar to the cars I drove back home on road courses before I came here, and the other drivers with Campos tell me the cars are a huge amount of fun to drive.
By the time you read this, I will be getting ready to get strapped in and run my first road course laps in two years. There's going to be a steep learning curve ahead over the next couple of days, but I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to take on this challenge. Whatever happens this weekend, and whether I learn this fast or slow, I am going to enjoy every corner, every straight, and every minute back out on track.
Once upon a time there was a girl who started racing go karts, and she started doing it because it was fun. After a year of standing and watching, it's time to get back to being that girl this weekend, and to really appreciate simply having the opportunity to play.