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.
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.
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.