On the restart I held my own for the first lap and a half, but then made a mistake on the brakes coming into the chicane, and just avoiding locking my rears. I didn't spin, but I had too much speed to make the turn in point, so I ended up across the dirt and back on track having dropped a few places. Impolite words were said, but I resisted the temptation to say them over the radio.
On the next lap, cars started to peel off for their pit stops, and more on the next lap after that. As per the plan, I kept going. However I suddenly realized that things were eerily quiet on my end again. The laps ticked away with zero radio communication, and I knew my wire had come unplugged for the second time in the race. I had no choice now but to make the rear tires last until lap 10 or 11 when my engineer had pushed for me to stop, as I had no way of letting the crew know if I wanted to stop earlier!
I kept track of the laps on the scoring pylon, then as I began lap 10, I looked to my left over the low pit wall on the curved front straight and was fairly sure I saw the Campos guys waiting in pit lane. I knew my teammates would have stopped by this point, so I knew they were waiting for me, and probably wondering why I hadn't come in and wasn't responding. I took a calculated risk that they would still be there the next lap – lap 11 – the lap Manuel had wanted me to pit on, and decided I would pit next time by. The relief when I rounded the corner of pit lane and saw them waiting for me was immense, and the guys rewarded me with a great pit stop.
I came back out on track and did the whole sideways, warm fronts, cold rears, loose thing for a lap. I haven't yet seen what my out lap looked like relative to my other laps, but I'm hoping it was a semi-decent attempt at getting up to speed and on with the job. The car felt relatively good on the set of tires, so then it was a case of pushing as hard as I could while trying not to run out of rear tires before the end of the race. And of course remembering the brakes!
In Indy Lights I used to literally talk to myself under the helmet, telling myself to get off the brakes, and now I was talking to myself in every slow corner telling myself to stay on the brakes! My lap times were slightly slower (to make this technique work for you, you need to brake later) – get the technique right first, and then work on braking later!
With about four laps to go, I got company, and was incredibly grateful for my late stop. The guy behind me caught me at an absolute rate of knots, but I instinctively knew it was for position, even without the radio, and I dug in for the fight. I spent the next four laps placing my car exactly where he didn't want it to be, while never really leaving the racing line, employing a technique I learned in Indy Lights. It's extremely effective if you can do it correctly, and allows you to be faster than if you were defending the inside in the more traditional way. It can be hideously irritating and frustrating for the driver behind you though, and he nearly ran into me a couple of times trying to put his nose alongside my rear wheels as I was turning into the corners. But quite frankly, if you want to pass me, get yourself alongside me.
Finishing the race in eighth and maintaining that position gave me immense satisfaction, and it also meant I'd accomplished one of my other goals for the weekend – I had fun. It was nice to lead a lap or so again and be out front for a minute, even if it was through pit stop strategy, and it felt great to make smart choices with strategy and tire management that paid off later in the race. Plus coming away beating someone in a straight fight like that always leaves you feeling good! For the record, I don't think it left him feeling very good. He made a point of passing me after the race was over, and in doing so nearly took himself off the track. This brought out a few wry smiles within my team – myself included!
If you'd told me going into the weekend how much I would struggle at times, I wouldn't have believed you. I vastly underestimated these cars – they are actually faster in a straight line than IndyCars, but have less downforce in the corners. I also didn't expect the steering to be so heavy – a rude awakening after being out of the saddle so long. And I certainly didn't expect to have to work so hard to revert back to the braking technique I was using before I came to the U.S.
However, it was hugely satisfying to stand up to the challenge and take it head on, even when I discovered just how tough a challenge it was. And the biggest satisfaction of all came after the second race, seeing the faces of everyone at Campos Racing who helped put me out there in a car this weekend. Auto GP is a tough series, and those guys have been around all year. If they think I stepped up to the plate and made them proud, then I think that gives me the most personal satisfaction that I can come away from the weekend with.