There is a famous quote from Formula 1 racing about how driving an F1 car around the streets of Monaco is like trying to ride your bicycle around your living room.
Two years ago, I went to the Milwaukee Mile in a Firestone Indy Lights car for the very first time, and having driven at Monaco myself – although admittedly not in an F1 car – my first thoughts upon trying to get around the track unscathed was that any F1 driver who used the quote had quite simply never tried a flat one-mile oval.
My first thoughts after today, and after my first experience at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, is that when I made that statement about Milwaukee, I had not only never been to the Magic Mile, but I had also never driven an IndyCar on a flat one-mile oval. Forget riding your bicycle in your living room, we're talking riding your motorbike round and round in circles in the smallest room in your house...
Milwaukee is a thin, narrow, very low-banked one-mile oval, which is just about flat-out in qualifying on brand-new tires for the guys who qualify right up the very sharp end of the grid. New Hampshire Motor Speedway is also a bumpy, very low-banked one-mile oval, but this time the straights are even longer and the corners even sharper. It's a paperclip shape, and really only has two definitive turns rather than four as one and two blend into one single seamless bend, as do three and four. The seams however, out on the track between the lanes, are definitely not seamless and while the bumps have been ground down, they are still very definitely there. Personally, I kind of like it. It adds a little thing called character, and makes it that little bit tougher to get right, which results in it being that little more interesting and challenging to drive.
I had already been warned by my driver coach and the engineering staff at RLL that this place would require some serious pedaling. I took them to their word, and have spent many hours the past week on my bike. Apparently, however, as I spent them out on the road, and not going 'round and 'round my laundry room on a motorbike, I may have misinterpreted the meaning of "pedaling." My counter argument was that I would love to be getting in a car much more often to practice "proper pedaling," but, unfortunately, that's not going to happen this year, so what else is a girl meant to do?!
Normally, I would spend some time doing homework, and studying some data and driver coach notes before we came out to run. If I'd been to the track before, I would also have my own notes for reference, but that wasn't applicable this time around. RLL had been to the Magic Mile, and had plenty of success there, but it's been so long since IndyCar has run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that the track has been totally reconfigured since!
Unfortunately, when they change the track that significantly, your data is not the most useful tool you have in your arsenal. (This is polite speak for it doesn't really relate anymore – at all!). My driver coach also hadn't been back since the track changes, so instead of my usual two page ADOS (attention-deficit-oooh-shiny) friendly bullet point notes, we had a phone call – because for the first time in living memory he didn't really have any.
I did spend several days out at Columbus in the shop getting fitted into the RLL car, and spending time with the engineers. The guys might not have been to Loudon in a very long time, but having seen the layout of the track we all figured we would be dealing with something reasonably like Milwaukee... Just with faster straights and tighter corners. Well, that should be easy then. And, if you've ever driven Milwaukee, you will know that that last comment was dripping with sarcasm.
As such you may have the opinion that I might have been a touch nervous before hopping into my shiny brand-new ride, with my shiny brand-new team, at what could possibly be one of the toughest ovals on the schedule. I'm meant to be a racing driver, and as such not meant to admit to these sorts of things, so let's quickly and quietly move on and pretend this last paragraph never happened!
The first couple of runs were certainly somewhat eye-opening. There were only two of us testing, and while I would love to hold true to the genius of Ricky Bobby that, “You're either first, or you're last,” when the other car is a Penske, with some guy called Will Power driving it, and you're a rookie so green you practically blend into the background when standing next to freshly watered grass, it's not exactly practical. We had hoped that Penske might be kind enough to get out on track early and sweep it for us, but we lost that battle by being about ready to go when they turned up at the track! To meander back to my point, the line was a little dusty and dirty, and that makes for some sliding and skating around on the surface.
As it was a short oval we were working on lap time rather than speed, and slowly run by run, we started to chisel away at the numbers, shaving tenth after tenth off the previous best and chase after the handling of the car. As the lap times got better, the aero started to really come into play and all of sudden it started to become much more fun. Having a Penske to play with gave us a fairly accurate benchmark to shoot for, and going testing is even more fun when you have a fairly good idea that you might be well within the ballpark. The bump in Turn 2 is not quite Iowa-esque, but it is definitely there, and as you try and hustle the car through you had better pay attention. I have a feeling that quite a few people will be playing catch through there on race weekend, and until I drop the ball and it comes back to bite me, I have to say that I quite like the bump. It adds a bit more of that character to the place and makes it that little bit more of a driver's track.
Toward the end of the day we were ready for our last set of specially matched staggered specials from Firestone, and we went after a time. Most of you have read enough of these blogs by now to know that I have something of an affiliation for shoes, and I can assure you that it does extend to getting new boots on my racecar. I'm not going to tell you how fast we went, but I am going to tell you that we do have hopes of getting somewhere fairly near the pointy end, and they are not based on a pipe dream.
Make no mistakes that I am still somewhat raw and rough around the edges, but the guys at RLL have already started to polish. I still have a lot to learn, and going into only my second-ever IndyCar race at such a technical and tricky little track with such tight short pit boxes is certainly very different to my experience at Indy. My first IndyCar race was run in a car with almost no downforce on it. My second one will be run with almost maximum downforce, yet on race day no one will be running flat-out. I may still be doing the “go fast, turn left” thing, but those two tracks are about as different as you could possibly get.
Between now and the race weekend I will be hunkering back down with engineering, and we will keep rubbing on the car and the driver. My road car may have been getting to know I70 East of Indy to Columbus fairly well recently, but she's going to get know that stretch of road an awful lot better. We may have been good, but we want to be back in August harder, better, faster, stronger. I will be making my own new track notes, poring over data, watching video of myself, and going through the driver coach and engineering notes. Unlike my time spent in school, this time I will be paying attention to my studies, and I will be doing my homework.
Because, quite simply, when we come back in August, “I just wanna go fast.”