From Daytona to Sebring via Hollywood

by Johnny Mowlem on 25th February 2016

Since a very soggy podium at Petit Le Mans last October I have been very busy – not just sorting out my 2016 racing plans – but also managing to fit in my first Gulf 12 hours in December, racing for the Ferrari-supported FF Corse team.

I teamed up with the established driving talent of Charlie Hollings and the up-and-coming amateur driver Ivor Dunbar who will also be my team-mate for the new ACO-sanctioned European Le Mans GT3 Cup championship in 2016, driving the brand-new Ferrari 488 GT3, which we are very excited about.

This year looks like it will be an exciting season because as well as my deal to race with FF Corse, I am also doing the United Sportscar Championship. I am going to be quite busy this year… In fact things were beginning to look so crazy that I had to stop progressing some talks with an LMP2 team in the ELMS as otherwise I would have been back to the 2001-2009 days when I was away for more than five months of the year. It wasn’t great for family relations…

Daytona 24 Hours

I’m back for a full season with BAR1 Motorsport in the Prototype Challenge class and things started well when I managed to set pole position for the second year running. This time, however, the conditions were incredibly wet, and I was in a battle more with myself than anyone else in terms of driving as fast as I could without crashing.

The GT and prototype classes are each given a 15-minute qualifying session, with the GT classes going first, followed by the prototypes. Near the end of the GT session the rain, which had been falling pretty steadily all day, began to intensify and by the time we got out there it was torrential.

I managed to set class pole by a comfortable 1.7 seconds, so nothing like as exciting as last year when the gap was only 0.180s, but what I didn’t realise until the very end of qualifying was that my time would end up being the fastest overall prototype time, edging out Mikhail Aleshin by half a tenth.

The initial grid looked pretty good with our BAR1 Motorsports Zoolander 2 car on class pole and eighth overall, and our next class competitor down in 17th. However, the race organisers decided to declare variable conditions, which meant that we had to start at the back of all the Daytona Prototypes, with all my class competitors line astern. It was nice while it lasted!

So, the Zoolander 2 car… The reason behind the name is that Tomy Drissi, who runs a PR and marketing company in Hollywood that services the film industry, always manages to get a film placed on our car.

Last year we had the Spongebob car (which, oddly enough, loads of people seem to remember!). This year it was the Zoolander 2 car, which entailed me having to do a photo shoot wearing a blonde wig and a furry 1970s-style white coat. While there I was in full ‘Blue Steel’ mode, doing my best Hansel impersonation (Owen Wilson’s character). I would obviously never admit this in public, but I did quite enjoy it and I might have the coat hanging in my wardrobe for special occasions.

Come the race we ran at the front throughout. I have to say, though, that Stephen Simpson had way too much for me in the dry conditions, his car was clearly hooked up and he was driving beautifully, taking the lead in class after just a few laps and I don’t think they relinquished it from that point on.

Things were going well until my team-mate slid the car into the pit wall when leaving the pits on new, cold slicks at 2am. He did really well to bounce back from that incident and didn’t put a foot wrong for the rest of the race, but he was clearly very disappointed to have done it. This even after I listed all the superstar drivers that had made the same mistake at various times in their career, including a certain Allan McNish!

In retrospect, given the problems that befell all the others, with the Prototype Challenge race unusually degenerating into a race of attrition, that incident which dropped us to last place cost us a win. The winning car also had a crash and lost a number of laps fixing bodywork and so without losing 18 laps fixing the suspension we should have won comfortably.

Pretty much every car in our class had a similar tale to tell, so we were very pleased to finish on the podium for the second year in a row. I have to give full kudos to the BAR1 team and mechanics as well. How they managed to change two suspension corners, all the front bodywork, the splitter and the front brakes and only lose 18 laps I’ll never know! It shows what a strong job Brian Alder and his crew chief Colin Adams do in prepping the cars. In fact, out of our whole class I believe that our car and the winning car were the only ones to run reliably throughout the whole 24 hours, putting aside the self-inflicted problems.

I’m now just about to board a plane bound for Florida again, this time Sebring for the official two-day test leading up to the Sebring 12 Hours in three weeks time. Hopefully we can keep some of that reliability and performance that we had at Daytona and consolidate our championship positions with another strong finish.

However, in between the Sebring test and race I’ve still got to squeeze in a two-day test in Portimao as well as two days in Imola shaking down our Ferrari 488… What wonderful problems to have!

Until the next time.

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