Dateline: Tuesday, February 26, 2019
It wasn’t supposed to start like this…
The maiden voyage ended up in the middle of…a muddy field. Classy.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up the calendar a few days.
We took delivery of our shiny new Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR on Monday, February 18, only 10 days before our season-opening event at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA). The first three days were spent on mechanical readiness, and the next three days were spent plastering the car with colored vinyl and sponsor decals. Thanks to Andy Blackmore, the Hella Pagid Brake Systems livery turned out AWESOME. Festooned in vibrant shades of blue with a huge Texas flag on the roof, we loaded the car on the trailer and headed to MSR Houston (a local test track) for a shakedown run.
Thankfully, Eric Forsythe photographed the car before I drove it into the mud.
Q: So, how was it on track?
A: Let’s just look at another beauty shot of the car, shall we?
More props to Eric Forsythe. It will probably never be this clean again.
Q: We’re gathering that it didn’t quite go as planned at MSR, did it?
A: Not. At. All.
We can start with the rain. And then we can talk about spinning out on the first lap. And again. And again.
On a positive note, the car was mechanically sound, ran as smoothly as a well-oiled Italian pasta machine, and had just enough power to be interesting. However, nothing we did to the car would change its inherent desire to rotate 180 degrees, seemingly at random. Or its incredible ability to fog up the front windscreen. After two hours of battling the weather and the setup, we threw up a white flag and inflated the rear rain tires to 50 PSI in a Hail Mary attempt to find ANYTHING that would settle the car down.
And that’s when I proceeded to drive it straight off the track in a corner known as the “Bus Stop” and into a mud pit from which I had to be unceremoniously extracted by a Dodge Dakota pickup truck with 39-inch Super Swamper tires. It really doesn’t get much more humbling than that. To their credit, Miles and Mark did a yeoman’s job of hosing down the entire underside of the car, but I am confident that 10 years from now someone, somewhere will still be finding pieces of dried soil and grass crammed into the unibody.
Having turned in a best lap time of 1:59.7 (a completely horrible lap time for MSR Houston, even given the conditions), the car was loaded back on the trailer and sent on its merry way to Austin. It was an inauspicious start to my “professional” road racing debut. Air quotes in there just for you, Anthony.
Q: Well, at least you got in some dry practice laps at COTA on Thursday, right?
A: Negative. The rain and cold followed us west. As did the car’s desire to rotate 180 degrees, seemingly at random. After spinning the car out in three of three practice sessions on Thursday afternoon, we scanned the timesheets to find that we were the slowest TCR car on track. Our 2:35.3 at the end of the day was a full seven seconds behind the fastest cars in our group. In case you’re wondering, that’s in the wrong zip code.
A rare moment on Thursday when the car wasn’t spinning out. Props to Regis Lefebure.
To add pressure to the experience (because pressure always makes things better, right?), we were joined on Thursday afternoon by three engineers from Romeo Ferraris, the car’s manufacturer. They had flown in from Italy to support us at the track, and like the rest of us were perplexed at the results. After spending hours staring at computer models, Vbox data, and an assortment of in-car video clips, we made some pretty drastic changes to the car’s setup in hopes of changing our luck on Friday. I may or may not have also been alone in the garage at one point whispering, “Please, let me love you!” to the car.
Not that I have ever had an Italian mistress myself, but this is sort of how I envision it would play out if I did.
Q: So, were you finally able to get in some dry laps on Friday?
A: Mostly negative. At least not right away. Early on, the track appeared to be wet, so we stuck with the rain tires for the morning session. Which, of course, was the wrong choice. By lap four or so the racing line was completely dry and the tires were completely unhappy, preventing us from coming to a meaningful conclusion about the car’s new handling character. Our 2:24.3 lap time was a huge improvement, but perhaps even more importantly, I had managed to complete four laps IN A ROW without spinning around 180 degrees. This generally pleased the crew and our Italian guests. It was the first time we could observe progress in three days!
Mark reacts to four consecutive laps without a spin. You can react to his stylish hat.
For the Friday afternoon session, we stuck with the same setup we had employed in the morning, slapped on a fresh set of dry tires, and hoped that the conditions would support those choices. It was still cold enough to make your toes tingle, but the track was generally dry. Which was awesome until the transmission refused to downshift on lap three.
Note to self: sequential transmissions don’t like to downshift if you’re not completely off the throttle pedal as you decelerate and pull the right paddle. Rookie mistake.
Trying to figure out why the car wouldn’t downshift. Problem was found in the driver’s seat.
After figuring out that driver needed an adjustment and not the transmission, the car was sent back out on track and promptly laid down a 2:22.9, good for fifth in the field of twelve TCR cars. While that was a personal best, it was still about two seconds slower than the fastest TCR car on track that afternoon. But hey, the car went a full 24 hours without spinning out, so there was a silver lining.
Q: It sure doesn’t sound like you were fully ready for qualifying on Saturday morning!
A: Nope, but that didn’t stop us.
After running two semi-dry sessions on Friday, the rain returned for Saturday morning. Sort of. And it brought along an Arctic blast with it. The tire choice really wasn’t between rain tires and dry tires as much as it was between rain tires and snow tires. Every lap the conditions were changing, and grip was limited at best. Treacherous is a word that might best describe the experience, but yet, somehow, the car never tried to swap ends. Lap times were out in left field for every car on the grid, and when the checkered flag fell at the end of the 15-minute session, #34 had earned the fourth spot on the grid of twelve cars.
Running through the esses while qualifying on Saturday morning. God Bless Texas!
A note about COTA qualifying: in general, one MUCH prefers to be on the OUTSIDE row heading into Turn 1 at the start of the race. As it turns out, fourth on the grid placed us on the OUTSIDE row, exactly where we wanted to be. Finally, a small measure of good luck to buoy the spirits!
Q: Did you pull off a Cinderella-Story win in your first race?
A: Umm…..no. Saturday was more like “The Tortoise and the Hare” than “Cinderella.”
Q: Did you at least lead the race at some point?
A: YES! But only for about 800 feet.
Remember how excited we were to be on the OUTSIDE row for the race start? Well, that evaporated when the pole-sitting Hyundai was bumped to the back of the grid for an infraction during qualifying. As such, we were moved up to third…and to the INSIDE row.
At the green flag we got an AWESOME jump on the field and led the pack into Turn 1. However, the VW to our right got all racy and essentially tried to push us into pit row – a legal move that could have been defended, but not the sort of thing that I was going to fight during my first live-fire exercise in a new car. As such, I intentionally gave up position coming out of Turn 1 and was subsequently passed by about three other cars as we drove down the hill into Turn 2.
I led my first TCR race. Briefly. Very briefly.
Over the ensuing 16 laps, we fell back to eighth place, moved up to sixth place, and continued to set personal best lap times. We were racing for knowledge, not position, so I was not in the mode of taking risks or driving with my hair on fire. But as the race unfolded I gained more confidence in the car. So much, in fact, that the fastest lap of the race for #34 was the last lap of the race. Our 2:22.0 was yet another improvement and the third fastest race lap posted by the entire field.
Q: If I missed the live streaming on Saturday, can I still watch it online?
A: Absolutely. Everything you missed is available online for your viewing pleasure. Just follow the link below to watch and listen to the racing action from Saturday. Kudos to the announcers for giving Risi Competizione more than their fair share of on-air love.
Q: How did you qualify on Sunday?
A: Unlike other series, SRO does not hold a second qualifying session for the race on Sunday. Instead, they rely on lap times from the race on Saturday to establish the grid for Sunday. By virtue of our third-best race lap on Saturday, we were slotted into the third position on the qualifying grid. Which, in case you’re forgetting, is on the INSIDE row heading into Turn 1. Here we go again.
Debriefing with the Romeo Ferraris engineers. Those guys were switched ON.
Q: You haven’t mentioned anything about the car spinning for a while…
A: You’re right. Just wait a minute.
Q: Did it continue to rain on Sunday?
A: Sort of. Like the rest of the weekend, the misty/rainy/windy bitterness persisted into Sunday morning. With temperatures in the low, low 40’s, it was going to be very difficult to get any heat into the tires before the start of the race. But at least the track was mostly dry as we rolled down pit row and onto the track.
Q: So was that you that spun around on the pace lap in front of everybody?
A: Yes. It happens. Let’s move on.
Q: Did you pull off a Cinderella-Story win in your second race?
A: Umm…..no. Saturday was more like “The Little (1.7-liter) Engine That Could” than “Cinderella.”
In a virtual repeat of the race start on Saturday, the VW to our right got all racy and essentially tried to push us into pit row – a legal move that could have been defended, but not the sort of thing that I was going to fight during my second live-fire exercise in a new car. As such, I intentionally gave up position coming out of Turn 1 and was subsequently passed by two other cars as we drove down the hill into Turn 2.
This is exactly the moment where I intentionally gave up position coming out of Turn 1.
Over the ensuing 16 laps, we maintained our fourth-place position but continued to set personal best lap times. We were again racing for knowledge, not position, so I was not in the mode of taking risks or driving with my hair on fire. But as the race unfolded I gained more confidence in the car. So much, in fact, that the fastest lap of the race for #34 was the last lap of the race. Again. This is becoming a thing. Our 2:20.9 was yet another improvement and the fastest race lap posted by the entire field for the entire weekend. We even got a little trophy that says so!
Our “major award” is now sitting on the trophy shelf at Romeo Ferraris in Italy.
Q: If I missed the live streaming on Sunday, can I still watch it online?
A: Absolutely. Everything you missed is available online for your viewing pleasure. Just follow the link below to watch and listen to the racing action from Sunday. Kudos again to the announcers for giving Risi Competizione more than their fair share of on-air love. There is even a live pit-row interview with Tony Nevotti, Risi Competizione’s General Manager, during the caution period that you should not fast-forward through by mistake.
Having four tires on the ground is so overrated.
Q: That’s a lot to take in. Can you summarize it for us?
On Tuesday we were stuck in a mud pit.
On Thursday the car spun out in every session.
On Friday we finally found a setup that worked and completed four dry laps without spinning.
On Saturday we qualified third and finished sixth.
On Sunday we qualified third, finished fourth, and set the fastest TCR race lap.
Q: Wait a minute. Where’s the Hello Kitty duct tape? Did I miss that?
A: Good catch. I’m working on that. This crew needs to be properly warmed up to the idea…but don’t be surprised to see some unleashed soon. Courtesy of Chet, we have a fresh roll in the toolbox just waiting for the call to duty.
The competition should be very concerned. We have a fresh roll for the 2019 season.
Q: What a great start to the season. When’s the next race?
A: We continue our Championship quest in only four days in St. Petersburg, Florida. Everything you need to know about the weekend, including the schedule and live streaming information, can be found at the link below. This will save you from having to ask me, “What time do you race on Saturday and Sunday?”
Q: What time do you race on Saturday and Sunday?
On Saturday we race at 5:25 PM (Eastern), and on Sunday we race at 4:40 PM (also Eastern). But check the link above as that is subject to change.
Q: Hold on. Isn’t St. Petersburg an Indycar support race through the city streets with concrete walls EVERYWHERE?
A: Yep. First time for that too. Bring it. We’re ready.
See you at the track!