Chris Dyson kept a journal of his reflections on each of the 2010 races throughout the year. What follows is a unique view from the cockpit with a perspective than only a driver can bring to the keyboard. Here is the first installment on the first four races of the year:
It’s been a long time since I’ve added a column to our Perspectives section. Since anyone who knows me can tell you it’s not in my nature to keep quiet for too long, let’s chalk up my absence on these pages to my being quite busy lately attending to the matters of our racing efforts.
I have been compiling some snapshots from each race we’ve done this past season. I hope you enjoy them.
Sebring was an excellent run for the team. Had we not suffered from an early oil pump filter issue, we would have figured for the win. The pace of the car on average was every bit as good as the winners – our good friends Cytosport – and the team did a perfect job executing in the pits.
There is nothing quite like driving around Sebring at night. In fact, no matter how many days of testing we have done in the offseason, it’s only during Sebring’s night practice session that I truly feel like a new season has begun. It’s incredible how much some darkness and mobbed crowds, with their bonfires and God-knows-what-else burning in the paddock can change your perspective of a place that, in the middle of December testing, is so quiet and lonely. Taking Turn One without the benefit of familiar daytime reference points, for example, is an incredible thrill each and every lap. Dab the brakes ever so slightly and turn in to a blind, 6th gear commitment corner made more daunting in darkness. Did I mention that you’re flat-out on the floor as soon as you’ve turned in? Once you’ve hit the exit bump in that familiar spot, you know you’ve made it. The rush is incredible. Every time. At night, even the entry to Sebring’s “Evans” esses (our team’s half-affectionate name for the tedious section installed by the notorious Andy Evans), is something to behold without sunlight. We always treat the night practice as an installation run and never really go for times as we have all of our race components on the car. But ripping around this crusty old airport, even at nine-tenths effort, gets the blood pumping and the adrenaline going in such an amazing way. Afterwards, I just can’t wait for the race on Saturday.
By the time we see nightfall during the race, it’s a different experience. The track has been green for nearly ten hours and the grip level is quite high thanks to the rubber that has gone down. As drivers, at this point in the race, we have been in a rhythm all day, and the feeling of unfamiliarity of night running is no more. The darkness is a welcome respite from the searing heat. The temperatures are usually quite a bit cooler and the engines begin to put out very nice power. Our MZR-R 4-cylinder turbo engine loves the cooler air, and it’s just a pleasure to begin a run with the wastegate chirping away through the carousel on the “out” lap, knowing the excitement that lies ahead. Usually, cars set their best times in these conditions just after the sun has disappeared.
The sand kicks up at night and creates another interesting feature around Sebring. Also, the tail lights of the cars shows exactly how fast the cars are going—something you don’t totally appreciate in daylight. At some point during my first run at night, once the tires have come in and the fuel starts to burn off, I have to remind myself that what I’m doing professionally is truly an incredible (if slightly insane) undertaking.
It was a good podium finish for us and a strong points haul for the championship standings. Any time the team comes away from Sebring with a healthy car and points, it feels as good as victory.
Long Beach is a great event with amazing history. The whole city really comes alive for its traditional April downtown racing festival. Every night there’s some kind of concert or street performance following the racing events. The merchants love it and every restaurant is packed. The buzz is tangible and it’s early in the season, so there’s a distinct aura of possibility and excitement in the paddock. Sebring is behind us and the whole season lies ahead.
The track layout at Long Beach is actually quite good and makes for very good racing, even with mixed classes. I have always enjoyed racing at Long Beach since my first race there in Formula Atlantic in 2005. It has its quirks but in general, it’s a real challenge for the drivers and the engineers.
Long Beach always has the craziest schedule. A couple of years ago, we had a test session on the Thursday evening preceding the race. This was very helpful for the engineers and for us to re-acquaint ourselves with the place, but the test session has gone missing the past two visits, placing a premium on your “truck” setup—our term for the setup with which you hit the track for the first session.
This year’s visit was our first time competing at Long Beach on the Dunlop tires, and we weren’t sure what to expect. Immediately, the Dunlops were encouragingly well-suited for the changing nature of the track and Guy and I were happy with the car.
Even though it’s a street track and one would assume downforce would be king, Long Beach always favors the cars that are fastest in a straight line. The Aston Martin and Intersport’s AER-powered cars staked out this turf on the time sheets early, and both were untouchable by the smaller, formerly LMP2 cars this weekend. Even our Mazda-powered Lola coupe wasn’t even in the big cars’ league this weekend.
In qualifying, I expected we’d pose a strong threat for the front row. It was looking good until we arrived at the Queen’s Hairpin. We hadn’t been able to run a qualifying simulation in practice due to the compressed schedule, so some of the boost buildup at the low end was surprising on our qualifying map. On the exit of the final turn, I was suffering from some pretty massive wheelspin on power over the washboard bumps. Unfortunately, this was costing us nearly a half-second on the watch and we just missed the front row by a small margin.
In the race, Jon and Clint Field looked like winners early on, but sadly for them a leaky fuel cell problem put them out with 30 minutes to go. This left the game in Aston’s hands, and Adrian Fernandez, who we all greatly respect, did his best to manhandle his wounded Lola and keep it ahead of a charging Simon Pagenaud in the closing laps. Simon pressured Adrian hard and forced a mistake and Highcroft slipped through to take the win.
And the 16 car? After running a steady 3rd early on, and keeping in touch with the Aston-Highcroft battle, I pitted to hand off to Guy. Unfortunately, we ended up pinned between the Autocon and Drayson entries in the pits. There’s precious little (read no) space in the cramped Long Beach pitlane, and being delayed as we jockeyed the car into position for fueling and tire-changing cost us two spots during the pit stops. Guy did his absolute best to hang onto the back of Klaus Graf’s Muscle Milk car but couldn’t find a way past. We were unhappy not to finish on the podium, but 4th was good for the points.
Afterwards, we spent a great evening with an eclectic cast of transplanted New York friends, college alums and extended family members at the local brew pub restaurant. The downtown is always mobbed after the race and it’s at this point that we can stop and enjoy the same festival that every fan is attending. We concluded our evening with some low-key revelry with Ben Devlin and Clint Field at an Irish Pub where Guy’s dear friend “Ginger Jesus” works.
We knew we deserved a podium at Long Beach, but we had come through a street race unscathed, which is a victory somewhat in itself. We couldn’t wait for the next race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.