For the next three laps I drove the Auto GP car as hard as I had done all weekend, and I finally started getting used to driving the car sideways for a large part of the lap. My lap times were closing the gap to the cars I wanted to be racing, and I really started to feel like I was getting it. Then, within the space of a few corners, I completely lost the rear tires. Ah, hello learning curve – how nice to see you again. Not for the first time in the weekend, I instinctively went for the front and rear anti-roll bar driver tools in the car, only to remember that they weren't there. This is a European open-wheel car, girl. You drive what you've got!
So the rest of the race was basically spent just hanging on, slithering around, and absolutely refusing to make a race-ending mistake. I ended up coming home ninth, but my pleasure from the result was tempered by my irritation that just as I felt I was getting somewhere again, I had run up against yet another variable that I needed to figure out.
Looking over the data after the race, my left foot was still popping off the brake pedal too early, and carrying very good slow-corner minimum speeds but costing me lap time. That big stick my Indy Lights engineer had used to get me to do this technique properly in the first place was passed to my Campos Racing engineer Manuel, and I grabbed a second big stick to brandish at myself. I was only going to get one more chance to sort my footwork out and start hanging onto the brakes through the corners again, and I was absolutely determined to prove to both myself, and to Manuel, that I could do it!
On Sunday morning, despite the race not being until 2 p.m., I woke up first thing with that same air of intensity about me that I normally only get as it gets closer to "go time." This was going to be my last chance to try and close the gap, to prove to myself that I was smarter than the tire degradation, to make a better job of a standing start, to sort out my disobedient left foot, and to do a job that I could walk away from the weekend and be proud of. I used the big stick on myself the entire drive into the race track, and spent most of it looking out of the window and muttering darkly.
In the garage area I went straight back to the engineering room. We had an Auto GP autograph session at 9:30 a.m., but my mind was already on tire strategy. I'm not sure whether I actually snarled when I was pulled away from the computers to come out and meet the fans, but there was certainly an aura you don't normally find about me. I took a deep breath and tried to remind myself how lucky I was to be here, that the fans had helped me be here, and then I tried to find humor in the fact that like all the other drivers, I was asked to wear my extremely smelly race suit for the autograph session.
One hour later, and I was back in my chair next to Manuel, bugging him about the changes we were making to the car and the strategy for the pit stop. We agreed to take a risk on the safety car coming out and decided to stop later so that I could run two, more even stints. I was going to start on soft rear tires, then pit for the medium rear tires as soon as I felt the softs start to go away. He wanted me to make it to at least lap 10 or 11 (about half distance) as theoretically, if you can keep them underneath you, the softs are quicker. I was pushing for lap eight and eventually we reached a compromise. My team mates would have stopped by lap eight anyway, so as soon as I felt the rears go away, I was to call it in. He would monitor my splits, and call me in for my stop before then if needs be.
Before the start of race two, I simply sat in the shade at the back of the garage and either stared into middle distance or closed my eyes. When you get so few opportunities to drive, you know you have to make every single one of them count. I had to make today count. For me, it wasn't even about who might be watching. I simply had to make it count for me, for my own personal satisfaction, and for every single person who has stood behind me and supported me all year while I've been out of a car.
The start was nothing to write home about, but I held my own off the line and was able to slot into order going through the first corners without being left standing on the grid. However someone stalled and we had the safety car out for a lap. When I realized I hadn't been radioed about the safety car, I then also realized my radio had come unplugged.
I fished around in front of my suit, found the wire, and then tried to reconnect it to my helmet while on the very brief front straight at Sonoma. I knew I would have no chance once we went green. I got on the radio to my engineer to confirm I was back in touch. He radioed back to tell me the safety car would be in this lap – information I would otherwise have missed, as the lights are always hard to see when you're anywhere from about fifth or sixth back in the line.