Close to victory at Daytonaby Johnny Mowlem on 2nd February 2015
If I ever decide to go and live in the United States of America, I would be hard pressed to find a place where I feel luckier or more comfortable than Daytona Beach. Ever since I first took place in my very first professional race there in 1999 I've absolutely loved the place, and not just the famous speedway.
A lot of people, especially Americans, look at me like I'm crazy when I say I could live there, but for me it has more than just lovely long beaches, palm trees and lovely weather in the winter! It has that je ne sais quoi that means that every time I'm there I feel at home, and I've met some great people and made some fabulous friends that stretch far beyond the confines of the speedway paddock itself.
Maybe if I did a bit of family tree digging I'd find that I've got some long lost ancestor who used to run up and down the Daytona coastline bootlegging black market alcohol… that might explain my affinity with the place.
But then again it's probably more likely that I'm often in a good mood when I visit, and that in itself has a lot to do with how I'm going on the track.
In my last column I briefly outlined my history with Daytona and hoped that she would be lucky for me again, and she didn't let me down. The BAR1 Motorsport #16 felt really good from the get go, and we were second quickest in the practice session just before qualifying, but even so I didn't really believe that we had a chance to take pole position. We tried a set-up change in the final session before qualifying and I must admit I wasn't 100 per cent convinced that it was the way to go, as the car was quite a handful on a hot and slick track. But we knew that the ambient temperatures would be cooler for qualifying and more suited to the set-up and John Travis, my engineer, convinced me and made the call to go with it in qualifying. He was absolutely correct.
The Continental tyres in the Prototype Challenge class have excellent endurance abilities, but they often don't appear to have any real ‘new tyre peak’ in grip, especially the front tyres, which take a while to get up to temperature and generate maximum grip. As a result of this in qualifying you often see the last lap being the fastest one, which lends itself to quite exciting qualifying sessions as pole position is regularly grabbed on the very last timed lap of the 15-minute qualifying session.
Apparently from the outside, I was told later by the BAR1 team as well as John Hindhaugh's Radio Le Mans posse, that there appeared to be a big game of one-upmanship between me and current PC champion Colin Braun as we traded fastest laps every time we went across the start finish line. But from inside the car it was actually pretty calm! I managed to get myself into one of those really good rhythms where each lap I was chipping away at the lap time as the front tyres developed more and more grip. I remember John Travis telling me as I approached the start finish line that this would be my final lap and that I needed to make it count and that I was in P2, one tenth of a second from pole position!
I knew when I was half way around the lap that it was a good one, unfortunately not due to a predicted lap time on the dash, as these aren't allowed in the PC class for some reason, but just because I had a good old fashioned feeling that the car was hooking up everywhere. As I approached the Bus Stop down the back straight I was told again on the radio that this was a good lap and to keep pushing, as they could see I was up from the sectors on their screens back in the pits. So I threw caution to the wind a little and although I wasn't too crazy on the brakes, I did get back onto the throttle very early in the middle of the corner and forced myself to keep my foot in. I got a little bit airborne on the kerbs on the exit, but the car didn't slide too much or cost me time and then it was just a case of keeping my head ducked down and making a beeline for the finish on the famous Daytona Speedway banking.
As the team came on the radio to tell me I'd got pole position, I can remember hearing everyone in the background cheering. It's a long time since I can remember feeling that kind of joy in a race car, made all the sweeter by the fact that, for me at least, it was a little unexpected.
I was so pleased to be able to give BAR1 Motorsports their first United SportsCar Championship pole, and the team deserve huge credit for giving us a car capable of doing just that. But although a pole position at Daytona is always nice, even by the time I was sitting in the pole winners’ press conference I was already thinking about the race and what we needed to try and execute in order to win.
All four classes of the USC are super competitive and our PC class was no different with drivers of the calibre of current PC champion Colin Braun, international sports car stars Filipe Albuquerque and Tom Kimber-Smith and ex and current IndyCar stars Bruno Junqueira and Jack Hawksworth, to mention just a few. So with that kind of quality of field I knew we were going to have to run clean to the end to stand a chance of victory and winning a nice Rolex watch.
Having said that, I was feeling pretty confident that we had a strong team in our #16 Oreca, with Tom Papadopoulos, Tomy Drissi, and team owner Brian Alder all driving really well and consistently, and having Martin Plowman as our not-so-secret weapon to help me in the middle of the night and towards the end of the race if needed. Martin was leading our sister #61 car, but he was also listed in our car to help us out if needed and as things turned out, it was a good job we had him!
I took the start and led for the first few laps, then Colin Braun and I basically ran nose-to-tail pulling nearly 30 seconds on the rest of the PC field up to the first round of pitstops. We led again to the second pitstop window, even running in fifth place overall as well, but then shortly after Tom got in our car suffered an oil leak which turned out to be a hole in the oil filter. The mechanics performed a minor miracle to change it so quickly that we only lost 10 laps on the track – a total of 18 minutes, including driving back to the garage in the paddock, changing the filter, topping up the oil and getting back out to pitlane! From that moment on we all drove it like we stole it and with the assistance of a number of full course caution ‘wave-bys’ and a great race pace, we finally managed, by three hours from the end, to actually take second place in class from the PR1 Mathieson team, although the Core Autosport team were still out front by nearly a full lap.
At this point I was beginning to think that if nothing else the PC leaders must have been looking over their shoulders at us a bit, but unfortunately no sooner had Martin taken second place than he got a left rear puncture, which dropped us back down to third, a lap behind first and second place again. I climbed aboard for my final two-and-a-half hour stint, knowing that we would need a small miracle now to win, but still pushing as hard as I dared. Then, with 20 minutes to go, Colin Braun suffered a suspension failure and had a huge crash at the Bus Stop, which promoted Tom Kimber-Smith in the PR1 car to first place and us to second.
I managed to unlap myself from Tom and pushed like crazy for the last few laps, but even despite PR1 having to take a splash of fuel with five minutes of the race left, we still finished 40 seconds shy of winning that shiny new Rolex. Every team and driver, especially in a 24 race, always can a tell a tale of ifs, buts and maybes as to why they didn't win, but I have to say that I felt terrible for Colin Braun and the whole Core Autosport team for what happened to them, as they truly deserved the victory. But when I saw their car in the wall, and I thought back to what might have been if we hadn't had that left rear puncture in the last two hours of the race, I felt not a little depressed!
The Rolex Daytona 24 hours is a special race to win, and I also know from experience that opportunities to win it have to be grabbed when they present themselves, so to be so close yet so far was a little annoying. Nevertheless, PR1 Mathieson deserve full credit for grasping their opportunity with both hands. No-one ever wins a race of this magnitude unless they deserve it, so hats off to them.
I’d bounced back by the podium, and enjoyed spraying the champagne alongside all my team-mates and now we are all in second place in the championship, which is a nice feeling heading towards another famous race, the Sebring 12 Hours. If the BAR1 Motorsports team can show the same mettle there as they did at Daytona, then we might cause another upset.
Roll on my next trip to sunny Florida. Onwards and upwards and never a backward step.
Last week the news came through that our car had been disqualified for a drive-time infraction. One of our silver-rated (amateur) drivers didn’t spend long enough in the car, even though we hit the minimum silver drive time overall. We’re all obviously gutted, and not just because of all the hard work it took to get on the podium.
Having a rule governing the maximum time your professional drivers stay in the car is one thing, but giving a minimum time to each individual silver driver is risky business. What happens if one of our silver drivers is taken ill? We wouldn’t have the option to run the full time required for each of them. As it stands, over 11 hours were shared between our three silver drivers.
We’re looking forward to the rest of the season, though, as have the speed to challenge right at the front of the field.