If you're reading this thinking that I had to be nervous before my first race in almost 12 months, then you'd be absolutely right. Even at the best of times, I tend to go quiet and occasionally a little pale in the build-up to the start of a race. I always have, and I probably always will. It's simply a part of my DNA, and goes hand in hand with the desire to succeed. Going into this weekend, several people said to me that this was a great "low pressure" way to get back in a car, but that's not how I operate. I don't care what series I'm driving in – the pressure I put on myself to get out there and do the best job I can is the same, every single time. To me, nothing short of my best is acceptable. Period.
So in the garage area, as the time to get in the car got closer, the pressure I felt on my shoulders grew heavier. Normally, I like to joke around, inject levity, and make time to stop and sign for fans. In a situation where I know the series, the procedures and the other drivers, I'm able to keep this intensity level below the surface, somewhere where only I know how bright it burns, and how hard it pushes me. But in the last 30 minutes or so before the race, my sense of humor hit ground level zero, and the only thing I could think about was the challenge that lay ahead.
Once I was finally in the car, all the various checks, procedures and reminders returned an element of calm to me. They let me know that I'm not alone out there, and that I have a great team of people behind me. At this point the nerves start to dissipate – I'm in the racing car and to me, the racing car is home.
One of the things that I struggled with when I first moved to Firestone Indy Lights was how to get temperature into your tires before the start, when doing American-style rolling laps behind the pace car. However in Auto GP, just like most other European series, the pit lane opens for five minutes and you then leave it to make your lap around to form up on the grid before the official warm-up lap. There is even time for a pass through pit lane and a second lap if you want. This allows you to get a lot of heat into the tires, and to really feel the changes to the car before the race even starts. Maybe it's just because it's what I grew up with, but it was a format I greeted with a welcome return.
Sitting on the grid after my two laps, I felt about as ready for the race as I could ever be, given my circumstances. My practice start in pit lane the day before, and on my lap driving through pit lane had both gone fairly well. I would get another attempt when we went off on the green flag lap before the start, and my tires would retain some of the heat I had already put into them.
There were some last-minute reminders on the grid, a couple of last-minute changes to the car based on the handling on the warm-up laps, and then it was time to go around again in formation, and come back and line up for my first standing start in four years, and my first standing start with a foot clutch since 2006.
One of the differences between Auto GP and the car I was driving in '06 (Formula Renault 2.0) is that in Auto GP, you have to slip the clutch a little as you pull away – more similar to starting in a road car. In FR 2.0, you simply dump the thing when the lights go out, and nail the throttle, controlling the resulting wheelspin with your right foot. When the red lights went out in Sonoma, that old muscle memory trick that had been plaguing me on the brakes jumped into action before my brain had a chance to intervene, and I dumped the clutch way too hard. I did react fast enough to my mistake not to stall, but I definitely gave the term "standing start" a whole new meaning, by almost literally being left standing!
However, the start was shortly followed by chaos through Turns 1 and 2, and thankfully I wasn't made to pay too high a price for my ghastly getaway. I was able to pick my way through the carnage, and while you might imagine that I spent the time under the safety car dwelling on the mistake, I didn't. I had already simply filed it into my memory for later review, and then brushed it off so as not to have it follow me around the racetrack.
The pit stop window opened on lap four, despite the safety car still being on track for the clean-up. Given that this is a European series, all the teams have just one pit stall. I came down pit lane as slowly as I could, to try and give the guys time to change my teammate's tires and get him out, but there was a problem with his left rear going on, and as we only have one crew, that also meant an even longer wait for me. Eventually it was my turn to get into the box, and then back out on track. For the entirety of a single corner I thought that the safety car would give me the benefit of warming my rear tires up more slowly, and avoiding the big "loose" characteristic of the first lap with warm fronts and cold rears. Then my radio crackled into life.
“Safety car in this lap. Safety car in this lap.”
The words I said to myself at this moment in time were mainly of the four-letter variety. I was roughly half a lap behind, because of the queuing at my stop, and the issue with my teammate's stop in front of me. And now I would have to push as hard as I could, while under safety car conditions and with cold rear tires, to try and catch the back of the field before the restart. The reason I mention being under safety car conditions? Let's face it – make a mistake on cold tires in those circumstances, and it is not only going to be greatly frowned upon by the officials, but quite frankly, it'll make you look and feel like a total tool.
So I stepped on it as hard as I dared and started thrashing. As the field went into the last corner for the restart, I was about eight car lengths behind. Close, but no cigar.
Over the next few laps I closed on the cars in front of me, both of whom had made mistakes under pressure. Then I came across a faster car that had spun and had just got going again as I arrived. Challenge accepted.