Pippa and her engineer had their work cut out (Nate Napierala photo)
So, you haven't driven a road course in two years or a racing car at all in the past year, and you've never driven on these tires, in this car, with this team, or on this circuit configuration. But you will get two 30-minute test sessions before you have to qualify and race. You might think, as I do, that this is starting to sound like a Top Gear UK challenge. So, to quote Jeremy Clarkson's infamous line from that show: ”How hard can it be?”
As anyone who watches Top Gear and has seen one of their challenges knows, the answer to this is, very.
I didn't really know what to expect when I strapped in for the first time on Friday morning. I'd been told that the car was very physical to drive, but then all racing teams say that about their car when they get a girl turn up to drive one. I was told that they moved like billy-o in a straight line, but all racing series like to say that about their cars. I had seen from the data that the style of driving required would be very different from the Indy Lights car I last drove on a road circuit, but I have driven that type of car before in Europe, so I didn't think it would be a big deal...
Within about three laps of my return to a cockpit, several things were immediately clear. Firstly, this was the fastest racing car in a straight line that I have ever driven on a road course, by quite a margin. Second, physical is somewhat of an understatement for a car that would make Chuck Norris' arms weep. And finally, quick in a straight line is one thing, but holy sideways in the corners batman!
The first session was extremely tough, and the amount of improvement I needed to find after my first 15 laps on track was huge. And by huge, I mean absolutely vast. My engineer Manuel was starting to eye up the sharp objects in the awning again. I was trying to remind myself that this was meant to be fun.
Thankfully, the data showed a different story. It showed a driver who had no idea of the limit on the brakes, and had low confidence in the high-speed corners where the car was moving around. But the data also showed a few highlights – like minimum corner speed and exit speed around most of the medium- and slow-speed sectors. Basically the data showed a very rusty driver, who didn't know what to do with this type of racecar, but thankfully for all involved, the data definitely showed a "driver." All this data stuff aside, it went without saying that the afternoon session needed a herculean improvement.
The afternoon session and my next 15 laps on track was better. The gains I made were masked and flattered by us deciding to on my first ever set of new Kumho tires, but I definitely felt like I was starting to get an idea which way was up. In Auto GP, you only get three sets of tires per race weekend – one set of medium compound and two sets of soft compound. So my new tires were already eating into my precious supply, but we hoped that running on the mediums would at least give me an idea what to expect the next morning in qualifying. 30 laps into my return to the cockpit, and I was already fresh out of testing/practice time. The next timed session would be the one that mattered.
Back in the engineering area, the data was again analyzed, and I was warned that while my braking was starting to look much better, that I would need to push on even more in qualifying the next morning. I was sent home to the hotel with printouts to study and try and absorb.
Saturday morning dawned with the usual brisk chill that descends upon Sonoma before the sun wakes up and basks the place in warmth. Despite the weather being pretty predictable, it was the first time we would be on track in lower temperatures. Given that the Kumho tires like to ease gently into life even when the weather is warm, heating them up correctly and gently while still getting them hot enough to perform would be a challenge in itself. As with IndyCar, qualifying would also be my first time on the soft compound tires – another new addition; another set of new and different circumstances. Just because I didn't have enough of the new stuff going on around me already.
Out on track, I thought I did a decent job of nursing my tires into life without pushing too soon, and I knew I was making improvements from the previous day. Unfortunately, however, my improvements were relatively small, and in the half second range, while the improvements of those around me were enormously bigger. The handling of the car on the soft tires was also very different, and after this amount of time out of the seat, I was unable to give precise enough feedback to really make a difference with the changes available to us on pit lane. To say I was gutted would be an understatement.
In the back of the Campos Racing garage, we once again looked over the data, and my post-session map for my engineer Manuel was littered with comments and thoughts. Between the pair of us, we thought we hit upon the main issue I was having with the car in qualifying, and the guys set to work the moment the car was out of parc ferme regulations and they were allowed to work on it.
As for the driver, something else had started to show up too.
When I first started driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in Firestone Indy Lights, it was made clear to me that my driving technique learned in Europe of carrying brake into the corner, having a lower minimum speed, pivoting the car on its nose, then getting back on the power hard would not work in an Indy Lights car. I had to learn to get off the brake pedal much earlier, carry a higher minimum speed, and get on the throttle later to maintain momentum through the corners. At the start of the year I found it very tricky to master – especially on new tires in qualifying.
Under pressure, my muscle memory in my foot would revert to type, and keep trying to hang onto the brake pedal, asking the car to do things it didn't want to do. “Get off the brakes” kind of became my mantra for 2010, something I would literally be saying to myself out loud in the car approaching a slow corner to remind myself to make the action happen. I did get there, and better results started to come, but it took some doing.
This being the case, you would think that it should be easy for me jumping back into a car where you drive it in hard and deep on the brakes, pivot it 'round on the nose, and boot it out the other side of the corner. I certainly didn't think I would have any issues at all, and I genuinely thought it would come as naturally as walking.
Irony loves a good laugh.
In fact, in the two years I hadn't driven on a road course, the muscle memory in my left foot had only solidified into the “get off the brakes” pattern of driving. Now in a car where I need to be hanging onto them until the last possible minute, and not be bothered a jot about momentum, I was jumping off them and carrying these fantastic minimum speeds that were now gaining me zero lap time. Actually, they were losing me lap time because jumping off the brakes early means you're not braking quite as late, nor getting on the throttle quite as soon the other side of the corner. I promised Manuel I would make a better job of things in the race, because 40 laps into my return to the cockpit, it was time to go racing.
Pippa's blog of her Auto GP race weekend from Sonoma continues on Tuesday. -Ed.