Belardi Auto Racing in the #5 car. I will be writing weekend review blogs after each of my FIL races this season. With a busy start to 2013, this first blog consists of both my St. Petersburg review and my Barber Motorsport review.
The Streets of St. Petersburg
The first race of the year is always one of the most enjoyable weekends with a lot of media appearances, pre-season talks, and the anticipation of who will be the guy to beat. I really don’t think there is a better place to start the season than St. Petersburg, FL. You just can’t beat the Florida sunshine in March, and that was what we got; the weather was outstanding from Friday to Sunday.
After our winter testing was completed, both the team and myself felt confident heading into the first race of the year. I arrived down to Florida early to spend some time with family and friends that had made the trip over from Ireland for the race weekend. It was great to have a few days before the race weekend to chill out and get myself in the right frame of mind heading into the season opener.
Thursday was a hectic day with driver symposiums, media training, interviews, and trying to fit in a track walk. The day started at 11am and didn’t finish up until 7pm. A good night’s rest was needed before track activity on Friday. Friday consisted of two practice sessions, one in the morning and the second one just after lunch.
Our aim over both practice sessions was to focus on getting through our run plan and make sure to try the different setup changes. Everything went along pretty well with no major issues. The only problems we had were breaking a front roll bar, the gear display reading wrong, and me ending up using the wrong gear at some corners. The second practice ran a lot smoother, and the car felt pretty good heading into qualifying. We finished up practice one in 4th and practice 2 in 6th. We also made sure to save three sets of tyres (or “tires”, as American’s say) for qualifying.
With qualifying complete, the team had to change the car over to race trim pretty quickly because that weekend we had qualifying and the race on Saturday. It certainly was non-stop all weekend.
Heading into the race, I knew it was going to be important to bring the car home no matter what. With it being the first race of the year, it’s so important to get some points on the board. We ran a longer 2nd gear compared to the other drivers, which really affected us on the start of the race, as the RPM’s were just too low. This left me under pressure from behind heading into turn 1, but I made sure to defend my position. This turned out well as the two leaders made contact, and I slipped into 2nd place. I settled into the race working on saving the car. I was chasing the leader down but also coming under pressure from behind. Carlos Munoz who started 1st had made his was back to 3rd and was chasing me. He made a move at turn 10 passing me in the braking zone; this hurt my exit and also allowed Jack Hawksworth past me. Then I was in 4th position and not happy!
Of course you always want to win but for the first weekend of the season both the team and myself were quite happy to walk away from the weekend with 2nd place. Now all our focus would change to round 2 at Barber Motorsports Park.
With the next race only 2 weeks away I was straight back to the gym once I got back home to Chicago. I hit the gym hard Tuesday and Wednesday, and then I made a trip to the BAR shop Thursday. Somehow I came down with a bad cold after that! This set me back four days of training and race preparation, which was not ideal heading to Barber. Fortunately by Monday I was feeling better and managed to get some good workouts in Monday to Wednesday.
Barber Motorsports Park
With Birmingham, AL being a tough place to fly into, I decided to drive from Chicago on Thursday. We left early that morning with a long 10-hour drive ahead of us. The track walk was at 5:45pm Thursday evening, so my mission was to make it in time for that. We arrived at the track by 5:30pm breaking some speed limits along the way! Then I met my team at the track and we walked down towards pit lane for the track walk to be told it had been cancelled! All that effort for nothing! So we decided to get out of there and go get checked into the hotel, get some dinner, and slip into bed nice and early! I was fast asleep by 10:00pm!
I was very excited heading into the first practice, as it had been two years since I had driven BMSP. It is a track I find very enjoyable to drive and is challenging to put all the sectors together. The car felt really good out of the box, and we were right on pace. We only made some minor adjustments, and we ended up P3 just behind the two Andretti Autosport cars.
The second practice I knew would play out a lot differently; we were focusing on saving tyres for qualifying and the race, so with an hour and 45 minutes on one old set of tyres from St.Pete, you can only imagine how much rubber was left on them. We ended up P8, but we had saved all the tyres, which was good!
Qualifying was the only session on Saturday, so after debriefing and coming up with our qualifying plan I was off for dinner and an early night.
I really felt we had a good package for qualifying and that we had a top 3 car (at least), so I was ready to get out there. It started off great; we sat P1 for a lot of the session, but when it came to crunch time and to using our second set of tyres, it just didn’t happen for us. We needed to do at least a 1.14.0 and I could only get a 1.14.5, which was disappointing. I knew I hadn’t got the most out of the car, which was frustrating especially only ending up P6. BMSP is not a place you want to start mid pack! It would mean for a long race on Sunday.
Once I got to Sage, I just couldn’t find a way past him. He was driving very aggressively and willing to make contact with me anytime I would try to make a move. With 2 laps to go, I made one last effort and made contact, which allowed my teammate past me. I was back to 6th with 2 laps to go. I knew at this point I would just have to bring the car home and live to fight another day.
It turned out to be a frustrating result for us as we certainly had a podium car, so it was difficult only to get a 6th place out of the weekend.
Now I am off to Long Beach and on a mission to get our results back on track. It is a track I really like, and I know we will have a solid car there. I can’t wait to get on track; I am going to be very aggressive from here on out and make things happen. No more Mr. Nice Guy in 2013!