Dateline: Thursday, June 6, 2019
For those not in the habit of following international sports car racing, the month of June is typically dominated by a certain 24-hour-long race in France. Held in the otherwise obscure town of Le Mans, it is arguably one of the most arduous tests of man and machine ever conceived. It is both a spectacle and a circus, and it is considered a major accomplishment simply to finish the event.
In its 20-plus-year history, Risi Competizione has competed in, and in fact won, this prestigious event in a variety of cars, most with a prancing horse on the hood. Earlier this spring the team submitted an entry for the 2019 race, and after months of planning and preparation they will take the green flag approximately one week from today. If you happen to tune in to watch, be sure to cheer for the only blue (!) Ferrari ever campaigned by Risi Competizione at Le Mans.
Preparing a new Ferrari for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Some assembly required.
But what REALLY matters here is that because of this little distraction they blew me off at Sonoma. But hey, I can’t blame them. I would have done the same thing.
Meet the Replacements
The team manager and team coordinator roles normally covered by Scott and Anna were combined and given Tony whose regular day job is to play General Manager for Ferrari of Houston. Truckie Mike was swapped for Truckie Jody. The technical responsibilities that normally fell to “Data Guy Don” were covered by “Super Renu.” Russ flew in from Florida to fill in for Miles and Mark, our regular mechanics.
But wait – there’s more! The Italians also showed up to help.
Romeo Ferraris, the manufacturer of our Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR in Italy, provided additional support. Regulars in the international WTCR championship, Erik, Carlo, and Luca arrived ready to rock and roll in California. Erik is the lead Romeo Ferraris WTCR race engineer and was in constant communication with Rick (the regular Risi race engineer) trying to figure out how to adapt #34 to the unique challenges posed by Sonoma Raceway. Carlo and Luca tended to the care and feeding of #34 as if it were their child. The Italians take this racing thing very, very personally.
While the cast of characters was strong, none had really worked together before. The team chemistry was unknown, and as a result the anxiety was high. It didn’t help that the driver (that’s me) was still licking his wounds after a semi-disastrous outing at VIR back in April. Oh, and Sonoma Raceway is a fast, treacherous place that is about as unforgiving as it gets if you put a wheel wrong while on track. So many opportunities (excuses) for a lackluster weekend.
And then all we did was put the car on the podium on Saturday and backed it up with the second fastest TCR race lap on Sunday. Our third trophy of the season is heading over to Italy as we speak as a small “thank you” to the guys from Milano that helped to make it all happen.
Enjoy your vacation in France, guys. We have this covered.
A rare moment where Erik (third from the left) was actually seen smiling.
Q: How was it learning Sonoma? Is it really as scary and difficult as people say it is?
A: Oh yeah. It’s amazing how much drama and excitement you can pack in 2.4 miles of asphalt. Having never been to Sonoma, I had heard stories and watched video but nothing can fully prepare you for a circuit like this. Fast, blind corners, rough braking zones, and zero runoff room certainly can get your pulse going. Drop two tires off and you’re probably going to have a very bad day. I absolutely loved it.
Q: So what did you do to prepare yourself?
A: I was armed with a secret weapon: Anthony Lazzaro. Anthony is a long-time friend of the Risi team, and he offered up some coaching to help get me up to speed during Thursday’s test day. We shared seat time between the two sessions, and by the end of the day my best of 1:54.1 was about four seconds adrift of his best of 1:50.3. But to be fair (and to soothe my ego), to this point I had only completed about eight laps on track compared to Anthony’s 1.3 million (I may be exaggerating slightly).
But while his support and insight were indispensable, none of his coaching prepared me for the sheep.
A: Yes, sheep. Several hundred sheep. Weirdest track walk ever.
In case you are wondering, yes, there was sheep poop everywhere between Turns 7 and 9.
Q: Has the phrase “sheep poop” ever appeared in an scR newsletter before?
A: Nope. First time. Weird.
Q: Yeah, that is weird. Did you go faster on Friday morning during practice?
A: Nope. Immediately after getting on track on Friday morning the car felt numb. The steering was slow, the response was lethargic, and the overall grip was gone. After exactly one lap “at speed” I pulled the car back onto pit row and the crew identified the cause: a broken front anti-roll bar fastener. This was not helpful. Our 2:04.3 was comically bad, but not surprising since the car was basically broken.
At this point, Anthony left the track and headed to Le Mans to join the rest of the team. Can’t blame him for that, either.
Q: Could you repair the car for the Friday afternoon practice session?
A: Thankfully, the fix was as simple as finding a new bolt and threading it in place, but we didn’t get to complete any more laps Friday morning. And then, just to make matters worse, the Friday afternoon session was cut short by a red flag. In total on Friday we managed to get in about six timed laps. Our best improved to a 1:52.5 (which was good news), but the TCR front runners were turning in laps closer to 1:50.1 (which was not good news). Of the ten TCR cars, we were a solid…eighth.
Using all of the apex curbing in Turn 9a during practice on Friday.
Q: How were you feeling heading into qualifying the next morning?
A: After two days on track, we had only completed a total of 14 laps and were about 2.5 seconds off the leader’s pace. This was not worthy of celebration. Or optimism. But we showed improvement every lap and knew where more speed was to be found.
Q: What did you change for qualifying on Saturday morning?
A: Not a whole lot. To this point we had been fiddling with shock settings, differential settings, ride heights, and tire pressures. All were pointing us in the right direction, but tuning takes time. Which we did not have. Knowing that Anthony found a 1:50 in the car, we settled on a setup that we thought merged the best of what he drove on Thursday and what we thought we had learned on Friday. But frankly we were rolling the dice a little here.
Q: And did your changes catapult you to the front?
A: Not exactly. But we continued to improve over the course of our five qualifying laps (qualifying is particularly short in TCR). Interrupted briefly by a mild off-track excursion in Turn 2 (I don’t recommend doing this at home, kids), the Hella Pagid Brake Systems Special managed to bring home a best qualifying lap time of 1:49.7. Which was awesome, but the entire field found their own speed too. Our sixth-place qualifying position wasn’t anything to write home about, but our gap to the leaders had dwindled to about 1.5 seconds.
Click here to switch over to YouTube to watch the in-car video of our 1:49.7 qualifying lap. Just don’t forget to come back to finish reading the newsletter when you’re done.
Q: You started your first race at Sonoma with less than 20 laps under your belt?
A: That’s right. Only mildly intimidating. But that’s the hand we were dealt.
Q: So how did the start of the race work out for you?
A: Not so bad, actually. By design we had put a car on track that we thought would steadily improve over the duration of the 40-minute long race, but was most likely not going to be ultra-fast on the opening lap. Which is pretty much how it played out. Coming around the finish line for the end of Lap 1 we had maintained sixth place without drama, but had fallen slightly behind the lead pack.
Lap 1, Turn 2. TCR at rush hour.
Q: Does that mean that drama eventually showed up?
A: For several others, yes. For #34, no. In a classic case of “slow and steady finishes on the podium” we maintained pace (consistent 1:51’s) and watched as others continually fell off the pace. On Lap 12 we caught the #14 Honda driven by Harry Cheung and camped out on his rear bumper until he locked up his brakes and went straight off track entering Turn 4 on Lap 14. This moved us up to fifth place.
Three laps later, the #72 VW driven by Nate Vincent and the #12 Hyundai driven by Mason Filippi got together in Turn 11 while scrapping for third place. Literally threading the needle between them as they untangled from one another, we found ourselves in third place with about five laps to go.
Q: Did either one of them make a run at you before the finish?
A: Not so much. Immediately after making the pass for the final podium position, both the #72 VW and the #12 Hyundai made a charge at the little Giulietta, but we had done a far better job at preserving our tires. Over the next five laps we opened up a seven-second margin to the #72 VW following behind. The #12 Hyundai suffered a similar fate and ended up finishing in fifth place another 13 seconds in arrears.
Q: So it sounds like you saved TOO much tire performance for the end of the race!
A: Probably true. We noted that little strategic finding for Sunday.
Q: Did you get to spray champagne?
A: Oh yeah. Third place champagne doesn’t taste quite a sweet as first place champagne, but it makes your driving suit stink all the same.
Finally back on the podium!
Q: Did you change anything on the car in preparation for Sunday’s race?
A: It’s a secret.
A: Because Hurczyn and Vincent read these newsletters too!
Michael Hurczyn with his FCP Euro-branded polo shirt, sun glasses, hat, and scooter. I suspect their merchandising budget dwarfs their racing budget.
Q: Really? You’re going all secret agent on us?
A: Ok, fine. We adjusted tire pressures and camber for Sunday’s race.
Q: Did you go up or down with the tire pressures and camber?
A: It’s a secret.
A: Because Hurczyn and Vincent read these newsletters too!
Q: Fine. Be that way. Any strategy changes for Sunday?
A: Yes. See above. The plan was to not hold back in the early stages of the race. Full kill from the green flag.
Q: Where were you starting the race?
A: Even though we finished in third place on Saturday, our best lap time of a 1:51.1 was only good for a sixth-place starting position on Sunday afternoon.
Q: Were you able to improve at the start with your full-kill approach?
A: Negative. The start of Sunday’s race was short-lived. On the opening lap, a crash in involving a TCA car in Turn 7a caused the race to go full-course yellow for a handful of laps. That was enough time, however, for the #15 Audi driven by Bryan Putt to nose his way by us in the braking zone of Turn 9a for a loss of position.
At speed in the famous Sonoma Esses.
Q: You got him back after the full-course yellow period, right?
A: Are you reading ahead? One lap after the double yellow cleared, we gathered speed coming through the carousel turn and passed him on the inside heading into Turn 7. And then another crash involving another TCA car, this time in Turn 11, caused the race to go to full-course yellow again.
Q: Anything interesting happen during all those laps behind the pace car?
A: Funny you should ask. During the second full-course yellow period, the #14 Honda running directly in front of us in fifth place lost power (or something related to power, I suppose) on the front straight. He eventually coasted to a stop in Turn 1 as the rest of the field was instructed to drive on by.
Notably, it’s the first time that I have gained a position during a full-course yellow period.
Q: That sounds like a good thing!
A: Well, it was until it wasn’t. I don’t know the full story here, but after being passed by the rest of the TCR and TCA field, the #14 Honda magically fixed itself and began to move again under its own power. And that’s when it got silly.
Q: This sounds like a story waiting to happen.
A: Yep. After falling to the back of the pack, the #14 Honda proceeded to accelerate, dodge, and weave his way through the entire field in an attempt to regain his fifth-place spot in line. During the full-course yellow period. Which, in case you are wondering, is blatantly verboten. For those race-centric individuals in the crowd, it was reminiscent of that “I Was Seventh” video posted a number of years ago from a club race at VIR. Click this link to watch it one more time.
Q: Didn’t the officials do something about it?
A: I think they tried, but I don’t know the full story here either. What I do know is that at the green flag restart with 20 minutes left to go in the race, the #14 Honda was still sitting in front of us. Halfway through the lap he finally got the memo and was ordered to pull into the pits for a stop-and-go penalty, but not before significantly holding us up as the lead pack ran away in front of us.
So with about 11 laps remaining in the race, we were sitting in fifth place, but more than six seconds behind the lead pack.
Q: What happened next?
A: Tony came over the radio at this point and said something to the effect of, “Ok James, it’s time to do what you do best. Catch them.” And then, for the first time this season since the debacle at St. Pete, it all came together. And I actually had fun.
Kicking up a little dirt in Turn 3a while charging back up to the leaders.
Q: Did the race end with another champagne shower?
A: Unfortunately, no. But this might have been the best race yet for our fledgling TCR effort. Over the next eight laps the little Giulietta found speed and deliberately clawed its way back to the lead pack. We were the fastest car on track, and with approximately two laps to go we caught up to the cars in second, third, and fourth place who were engaged in their own skirmish for the podium. You could throw the proverbial bed sheet over the four cars as we passed by the start/finish line for the final lap of the race.
Q: And that’s how it ended? Fifth place?
A: But what a fulfilling fifth-place finish it was. At the checkered flag we were 0.3 second behind the #72 VW who was 1.0 second behind the #71 VW who was the final car on the podium. Along the way we set the second-fastest TCR race lap at 1:51.2, only about 0.3 second behind the race-winning #12 Hyundai.
Q: Couldn’t you have pulled out a little extra there at the end and made something happen?
A: Is that you asking, Ken? Maybe, but frankly it wasn’t worth the downside potential. A fifth-place finish pays the same as a fourth-place finish (that’s zero dollars, by the way), and the small difference in points was not enough to justify the risk involved in making a move that would possibly get “reviewed” by someone with an official title and an SRO name badge. Unlike the rest of the TCR field, we were the only car to come away from the weekend without a scratch on the car or a summons to the Principal’s Office, and that’s not something I take for granted these days.
Celebrating after Saturday’s podium performance. We could not pry the champagne bottle out of Luca’s hands.
Q: You must have been bummed about not getting another trophy, though.
A: No way. We came away from Sunday’s race with things more valuable: confidence, momentum, and pace. All of which we plan to bring with us to Portland in July.
Q: Will the “Regulars” be back by then?
A: Unless their trophy doesn’t fit in the overhead compartment, I suppose so. But whether it’s the “Regulars” or the “Replacements” supporting the race at Portland, the talent on this team runs deep.
There is no doubt that the pieces are in place to move up the leader board. So let’s go chase down some VWs. With the season at the halfway point, we have some points to make up.
See you at the track!