Coming to the first race of the year is always a bit nerve-racking. I have tested at Motorland a fair bit so at least I was returning to a circuit that I knew for a baptism of fire in Formula Renault 3.5. Over the winter I had been testing at various circuits including Barcelona, Motorland and Paul Ricard to get me up to speed in the new car. I found it hard initially getting used to the power and size of the machine but, after many laps and sets of tyres, I had become quite used to it.
The weekend started off reasonably well with me 19th out of 26 cars in the first practice session. This was on the open downforce setting that is always used in the first of the two practice sessions. I found the car was a little bit tricky with a ‘green’ circuit – one without much rubber down on the tarmac. I made a bit of a mistake on my new set of tyres and locked up the wheels under heavy braking, causing heavy vibration and making the rest of the session a bit tricky.
Second practice was on the low downforce set-up which would prove more difficult, as there is less available grip, due to the lower angle on the rear and front wings. The idea behind the two settings is to make the races more interesting and to add another dimension of difficulty to the series. I ended up 20th overall which wasn’t quite as good as the first session. But, with the times being so close, just 0.1 second would have moved me up three places. I found the car had a bit of understeer which needed to be sorted out for the qualifying and race. This was mainly due to the circuit gripping up and, with more grip, the rear tyres picking more of that grip than the front due to the larger surface area of the tyre itself.
First qualifying was a bit of an eye-opener. Putting in a decent time with limited laps, and yellow flags due to various people spinning off, made the task of setting a fast time very tricky. I felt there was a lot more potential in the car to set a better time but these issues of traffic and yellow flags held me back. When a yellow flag is shown you must slow down and reduce speed or face a penalty for disobeying the rules. 24th was the position I would be starting in, which was quite disappointing, but at least I knew that I had a better car than the position I ended up in. Also again 0.1-0.2 of a second would have put me around 15th – so very close.
After qualifying on the low downforce set-up the race in the afternoon followed suit. The start was pretty decent but I found the first corner a little interesting with a massive bundle six cars across trying to get round all at once. I struggled a bit with the car throughout the race but after a few tussles with my own team mate I settled down in 18th place where I found a processional race to the finish flag. It was a good race in terms of getting the first hurdle out of the way but with definite room for improvement. This car is quite tricky to overtake in and without doing something very brave at this circuit you can end up following the person in front for a long time until a mistake is made.
Second qualifying was on the open downforce setting which generates more downforce and grip. This session was a lot better but still not quite there in set-up terms. I ended up in 18th with 0.2 of a second putting me ninth. This was very close and a good improvement on the previous day. However, I went from a race set-up on low downforce to a qualifying set-up on higher downforce, and the more experienced drivers will always benefit from having more knowledge of the car in circumstances like this.
The second race included a pitstop in which two tyres would have to be changed. I have never done a pitstop in a race with tyre changing involved but have had much practice during the winter. The start to the race was initially very good in making up about four places by the first corner. However, another driver decided it would be a good idea to drive over my front wheel, which bent the wheel, and pushed me slightly into the car ahead. The car did not feel very good after this collision but I decided to carry on in the race regardless; I was running in 14th place at this time.
After pushing hard in the first five laps of the race it was time to come in for a pit stop. I was quite excited about my first tyre change but, after stopping on the marks, it soon became apparent that the left wheel gun had malfunctioned and left me with only one front wheel on the car for about 10 seconds. On top of that mishap my front wing broke off after one more lap due to the collision in the first corner. The front jack must have damaged the wing in the pit-stop and this made me take another pit-stop to get a new wing. By this time I had lost a load of places and ended up 23rd overall. I managed to get myself amongst the top six to eight competitors in terms of lap times even with a slightly damaged car.
Not quite the result I wanted in my first race but there was some very good parts to the weekend which can be taken onboard for the next race at Spa Francorchamps.
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