The ups and downs over the last four weeks have certainly kept me on my toes.  The Indycar weekend was the one that everyone wanted to partake in. Sizeable crowds, prizes and rubbered-in racetracks are the things racers crave. My “fear of missing out” was at an all time high. Not being able to race that weekend was proving to be a sore point. 

When you crash so spectacularly (and at the worst possible time in your race season), you need to engage some sort of coping mechanism. This time it was a weekend break to South Carolina with my better half. Niki was thankful that I was able to take a rest bite from this racing malarky and instead she could enjoy my company on some East Coast sandy beaches.

What seemed all lost in a tyre wall was quickly turned around with a last minute opportunity.

It was Tuesday morning and we were organising our packing ready for the red-eye flight Wednesday. An email comes through; one of Worldspeed’s drivers has dropped out and there is an open seat in a Formula Speed for the weekend. The ensuing conversation with Niki goes something like this:

Me: “There is an open seat for the weekend”

Niki: “Oh……. You really want to race don’t you?”

Me: “Yes”

Niki: “How expensive is it if you crash again?”

Me: “Expensive”

Niki: “Well if you crash again we’re through”

Me: “That is understandable”

Niki: “So we’re not going on vacation then, are we?”

Me: “I love you”

And that is how the vacation got cancelled………

A frantic frenzy of preparation followed. I needed to be ready for the on track activities which started Thursday. However I wasn’t expecting the frenzy to only last 10 minutes. There was only laundry to do this time! Normally its about two weeks worth of shenanigans; car prep, setup, loadup, supplies etc. etc. to get ready for a race. That was nice, I could focus my time practicing the track on iRacing in my state of the art simulator:

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Thursday came and off to the track I went. I had the masterful hands of Kyle on my car for the weekend, he gave me a fully sorted car ready for each session and put up with my relentless requests to adjusting the little wind screen. Top bloke!

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Some of you may have noticed that the car I was running is different to the Pro Mazda I had been racing for the rest of the season. The Formula Car Challenge has three classes within it: Formula Pro Mazda, Formula Speed 2.0 and Formula Mazda.  I was running in the middle tier car for the weekend; the Formula Speed 2.0. This open wheeler has the Mazda MZR 2.0 four-banger motor in it, pushing out about 195 horsepower. Strapped to the hotrod are Goodyear bias ply slicks and the same Hewland 6-speed sequential no-lift shift box that’s in the back of the Pro-Mazda. Although larger in plan view footprint and having more power than a Formula Enterprise, it is a little heavier and not as slippery making for similar laptimes on the track. This, however is where the similarities end.

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What struck me first when getting behind the wheel of the Formula Speed was the technique required to pedal it along quickly. Where as the Enterprise had lots of tyre and not much mass, you simply threw it around as hard as you dare to get the tyres warm and the lap time would come from there. No real precision necessary. The Formula Speed called for a far more conventional technique; it relied solely on precision, good lines and good pedal work to make you go fast. Bravery wasn’t going to count for much with this one. Although the car is on bias ply tyres (compared to the Pro Mazda’s radials), it was far closer in technique to the Pro car than the Formula Enterprise. With the bias tyres, you had to live with the car taking a little longer to settle at the start of the turn and in transitions, but the process of carrying speed into and through the turn was very similar between this and it’s bigger brother. Downforce levels and braking is also comparable to the Formula Enterprise, although far more accessible in the Formula Speed. Setup adjustments are plentiful and effective, but no way near as complicated as a Pro car. This car is a fantastic tool to hone the skill of race car driving.

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What does this equate to when jumping in the car for the first time? For me the first couple of laps are typically consumed with getting used to the controls; how to change gear, how much steering angle do you need to turn the car, how hard do you push the brake pedal to make it stop. Simple stuff. Once that is nailed down, you then start approaching that all important limit (and trying not to exceed it!). The harder the car is to drive, the longer it takes to get on pace. I was happy to see that I was only half a second off the pace in my first session, I could start refining technique and setup from there to claw the rest back.

Thursday involved two practice sessions, Friday had a practice early in the morning followed by a lunchtime qualifying and an afternoon race. Qualifying was the first time I had the chance to really open up the car as I would be on fresh sticker tyres. Up until this point I was on used tyres that were way passed their best. Friday also saw the first day that Indycar was running. I’m not going to lie, it was really cool watching the Indycar guys setting up whilst we were running up and down pit road.

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Although not a perfect lap in qualifying, I did get to set a respectable effort and halved the gap from myself to Michael Avansino to just quarter of a second. Post session data analysis showed I was gaining time in the braking zones (I believe hitting an all-time FS2.0 brake pressure record, take that Tristan Vautier!) but then losing it all and then some in the slow turns. Still I was second in class and ready to take the fight to Michael in the race.

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Race 1 was a fun affair with some good clean racing between Michael, Daniel Swanbeck and myself. I was able to keep up with Michael at the start whilst holding back a bit to save tyres with the plan of coming on strong at the end of the race when lapped traffic became a factor. Come mid race a sticky thermostat put a halt on the planned full-on assault. To manage engine temps I was instead short shifting and being as efficient as possible with my driving. The new target was to keep hold of the second place without overheating the car. I let the gap get eaten up back to Daniel to cool the car, and from there I fought hard to hold onto second place.

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A trip to winners circle to collect a GoPro Hero 4 and a really nice trophy (rare in racing) for the hard earned 2nd place. Racing has its perks sometimes!

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Friday was a scorcher of a day and conditions in the car we tough. The Pro Car gets a bit of air flowing through it so any sweat you make gets a chance to evaporate. The Formula Speed is very well sheltered from the air and come the end of the race my driver kit was completely sodden through with sweat. I’m not sure what Worldspeed thought of my “washing” being hung out to dry on their awning….. Gross, I know.

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Due to the self inflicted budgetary constraints that had arisen from my previous wall incident, I was sticking with the same set of tyres for Saturday whilst everyone else went onto fresh ones. Sometimes you just have to give yourself a challenge!

The second Qualifying session was early Saturday morning; my tactic was to run as little as possible to save the tyres. Unfortunately this backfired on me; I went out first thing when the track was green and slippery. I came back into the pits and was waiting to see how the session panned out, I wasn’t going to go quicker with the track like that. However the track cleaned up quickly and others were setting faster laptimes. So back out I went to try and better my time. Meanwhile, a rain cloud had positioned itself over the track and proceeded to drizzle. Yep, even with California in a drought there was still drizzle around to wreck an Englishman’s day. Bloody typical! I slipped and slided everywhere and went very slowly. My previous qualifying time from the day before still stood, but I went back two places to fourth as others had gone quicker that session before the moisture came. It was going to be tough to pull a result out of the bag in the race.

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Race time, and I was going to do my best on the start to put myself back in contention. What turned out was some great close racing that’s worth a watch:

A great start saw me move up beside Daniel. The turn 1 squeeze had $$$ signs flashing in my brainbox and I got out of it, dropping a car length. If it was my car and I hadn’t exceeded my crash quota for the year I would have kept my foot in it and tried my luck. But that time I had to exercise restraint. I lost a further place to an opportunistic Bill Weaver in turn 4. A last minute lunge into 11 and a battle up the start finish straight saw me claw that one back a few laps later.

The front tyres were screaming done come mid distance but I was still trying my best to claw back to 2nd and 3rd. A little moment consequently had me overshoot the bus stop chicane, which was enough to put to bed my pursuit of the podium. I accepted my fate and brought it home in 4th.

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What a cracking weekend; it was fantastic to be part of the Indycar Circus working alongside Worldspeed. Well worth missing a vacation for (Niki disagrees).

I took away a very different experience to what I am normally accustomed to: it was the first time on a race weekend where I could solely focusing on my driving. Not only this, it was  with the help a guidance from a professional team beside me. The comradery of having team mates was also a new and fun experience. I think we all learned a good amount that weekend. A big thank you to Telo, Kyle and the rest of the Worldspeed team who put together a fantastic car for me to race in. The quality and professionalism they offer is top notch.

This weekend has helped me realise that I need to spend more time focusing on the craft of driving. So far I have been relying solely on talent, but to move my driving to the next level I need to up the wheel time to hone my skills. All the guys I am competing with are putting in hours each week on simulators, karting and testing between races, where as I’m only putting hours in preparing my car and trying to stay fit. This needs to change, as they say practice makes perfect!

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Final thoughts are what a fantastic show it was for the Formula Car Challenge. Open wheel racing typically struggles a bit on the West Coast; my experience of running SCCA last year was certainly not anything to write home about. However the Formula Car Challenge is alive and kicking. Like the poster in the Thunderhill toilets says: “If you are thinking of racing open wheelers on the West Coast, the Formula Car Challenge is the only place to be”. I second that! It’s been a fantastic year for the series with probably the best depth in competition that they have ever seen. If you see their list of alumni and what they are up to now; statistically it indicates to at least one of us ending up in Indycar. Well I can dream….

As always, more information on the Formula Speed can be found at: http://www.formulaspeed.us/ and the Formula Car Challenge at: http://www.formulacarchallenge.com/

I’m off to fix my car.

-R