Anyone who tried to keep track of my 2011 season will know it was incredibly busy. I focused on my first season of European racing in the GP3 Series but I also competed in five Firestone Indy Lights races. Still, I knew the challenge going in, so I can't say I wasn't ready for it.
At the start of the year, people kept asking if I was doing the full schedule in both series, but I can assure you, that was not possible. It would have taken a miracle for the two series' schedules to have meshed that well! Even as it was, my calendar was hectic enough. Seriously: 70,000 air miles!
After each of the first three Indy Lights races, I'd be on the first flight back to Europe for GP3 preseason testing. Me, my suitcase and helmet bag became close companions. After the second Lights race at Barber Motorsports Park, I flew straight to Europe for testing on the following Tuesday which meant I had one day off in between a full race weekend and then three full days of testing.
But wait – there's more! After those three days of testing, I was on the first flight to Long Beach, Calif., to try and make first practice for the Indy Lights race. Unfortunately I didn't make that first session but I was in the car the next day and ended up having a good weekend. I drove our Sam Schmidt Motorsports car to Victory Lane which is a nice reward after 10 days in a racecar and only one day off. I was pretty proud that I was able to handle that many days in two different racecars combined with so many hours in an airplane and so many missed hours of sleep.
So, I led the Indy Lights point standings when I finished the first three races, and many people thought there was no way I could duck out of it and head to Europe. Well, it doesn't quite work that way: I was committed to the European program and lived in England, pretty much from late April to September. Still, at least I came to the start of the European racing season on a bit of a high.
But the good results did not continue. GP3 is so incredibly difficult, as 30 of the best young drivers from all around the world – and their cars – are so closely matched. The way I'd sum up the season, though, is saying that at the first race I started 29th and on the last row of the grid but in the final race I led momentarily going into Turn 1 before being taken out by the series champion later in that lap. Frustrating, yes, but at least there was proof of the great progress we'd made.
“Steep learning curve” didn't begin to describe the challenge of GP3! The first thing I really had to work on was changing my driving style to suit the car. At first, I was driving it too hard and couldn't figure out how to use the tires properly. I was stabbing the brake pedal very hard initially, causing too much of a peak in brake pressure and then coming off the brake abruptly, upsetting the car on corner entry. The GP3 chassis is light but the engine's heavy so the car is very pitch sensitive. I really worked hard on braking efficiently and, as I accomplished that better, I found a lot of pace.
By the third race, in Valencia, we had a lot of speed in the races but were still struggling in practice and qualifying. We knew we had a very strong race setup because we passed so many cars each race weekend but we had to be able to put ourselves in a more competitive position to start the races.
My dad, an ex-Formula 1 and IndyCar driver, started looking for assistance from some of the people he knew in the F1 paddock and, each race weekend, we learned more. Slowly we put together a better qualifying setup and we improved our best grid position every weekend, and that led to consistently better race results as well – imagine that!
This continued improvement meant I gained a lot more confidence, knowing I could run with the guys at the front. It was the most difficult year of my life but I learned so much and to be doing battle with the best toward the end of the season proved a lot to myself and hopefully other people in the racing world as well.
One great thing about GP3 is that every track we raced on was incredible and absolute state of the art. But then the street and road circuits I did in Indy Lights were awesome, too. To be honest, I really enjoyed everything I got to do this year.
Going back and forth between the Lights car and the GP3 car was one of the most difficult things I had to deal with. I couldn't understand how they could be so different. What I certainly did understand though, was that I had to get a handle on the GP3 car and I had to prove myself in Europe. So I was very driven to make the car work and improve every time I got in. That had additional benefits: thinking so hard about the GP3 car made me think just as hard about the Lights car.
Switching between cars also meant switching between teams – Carlin in GP3 and Sam Schmidt Motorsports in Indy Lights, and thankfully both are fantastic organizations. Everyone at SSM has so much experience, it made it easier to get up to speed with both the car and the series. I had a really smart engineer, Chris Finch, and a great group of mechanics who proved time and time again why they're the best team in Firestone Indy Lights.
The Carlin guys were awesome, too. They could see I was learning with every race and they'd be just as happy as I was after an improved result in qualifying or the race – that's incredibly encouraging. My engineer, Matt Callaghan, has a lot of experience of different cars and different drivers. He could see I had potential so he equaled my hard work to get us to the front. That's one of the keys in racing: being around people who believe in you.
So now it's time to look toward 2012. Having learned so much in GP3, I really want the chance to able to build and capitalize on that by doing it again next year. But it's very difficult to turn away from Indy Lights because of the pace we showed there, too. Still, as my dream is to represent America in Formula 1 – and I truly believe that's possible – then European junior formulas are the most logical route.
As you'd guess, then, the winter months are involving as much work – if not more – than the racing season itself, because it's tougher than ever to find the funding.
Looking back over 2011, I'd say that working harder than I've ever worked in my career helped me realize how much I love what I'm doing. It also proved that hard work does pay off – and then provides further stimulation. I was rewarded with ever-improved results every single weekend in GP3, and each time it encouraged me to work harder still. Yup, there's nothing more I want to do in my life than succeed in racing.
I really liked writing the blogs for RACER.com and I hope everyone enjoyed keeping up with this globetrotter. Thanks for all the support!
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the January 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.