I arrived one day early in Monza on Thursday morning at 8am. After picking up the rent-a-car with Alan Macdonald we went straight to Monza to say “Hi” to the team and walk the track.
Upon arrival it felt like I was the only driver who decided to pitch up as I could see none of my team mates nor my competitors around. It was kind of strange! The track walk went well and I was happy to see my team again, however after close to 30 hours of travelling I was ready to hit the pillow with my face…
The Blancpain Endurance Series is unlike any championship I’ve competed in before and that includes the schedule. Unlike karting where practice starts on a Wednesday or Italian GT where you get two hour sessions on a Friday, the Blancpain event does not officially start till Saturday.
That means Friday is spent doing a lot of admin which includes driver/team registration, engineering briefings, session planning and system checks. I completely underestimated how taxing all this work would be and was left quite exhausted by the end of the day.
Come Saturday and I was 110% ready to go, having just received my new Ferrari suit the reality of this new opportunity was starting to dawn on me. I was excited.
Free Practice One (FP1) went well, I got up to speed relatively quickly and landed us 2nd in class and 10th overall. In FP2 things were a bit tougher as the more experienced Pro drivers came out and threw down some incredibly quick times. Even so we were still very competitive on old tires and had really good race run pace, easily holding my own amongst the Pro Cup cars around me.
FP3 would be the first time I’d use new tires in GT3 and it showed, I wasn’t able to extract the most from the new rubber and traffic on all three flying laps compromised my session. After my qualifying simulation I handed the car over to my team mates as they needed more time to get to grips with the car.
By the end of the day we were half a second off 1st in class and about 1.5 seconds off 1st overall. I wasn’t too concerned though, as the most important thing at this event is your pace over one hour, not necessarily one lap.
Race day arrived quickly and by now myself and Kessel Racing were looking forward to a good race! Having analysed the lap times of our competitors we truly felt we had a shot at winning this thing.
Qualifying was up first though, and the chance of Pole Position in class was on the cards. With the session split into three 15 minute segments, each driver gets a chance to put down a competitive lap time. Given that I was the fastest driver in car 111 I was tasked with the final segment in the session – when the car is at its lightest and the track at its grippiest.
Before heading out I knew the target lap time would be a low 1’48 or possibly even a high 1’47. At this level the pace between all 60 cars is incredibly close, so if you’re on the wrong side of 1/10th of a second it can easily cost you five positions on the grid. In free practice my best time was a 1’49.5 and knowing that I needed to find over a second was not lost on me.
In the end I managed a 1’48.49 which netted us 3rd in class and 30th overall. We were just under a second off overall pole position and had out qualified some of the best in the business. I wasn’t ecstatic with the lap I did but knew that the race would be where I’d make up the difference.
The Monza event was to be a three hour race. With three drivers per car, we each had to drive for one hour and generally the fastest driver either starts the race or ends it. In both cases this is when you have the best chance of pulling a gap on your competitors or catching them.
It was decided that Stephen Earle, my American team mate, would start the race. He’s been racing GT’s since 1994 and has started more races than I’ve competed in by a factor of ten. Next up would be Bernard Delhez, my team mate from Belgium, before handing over to me for the final hour.
Walking onto the grid as the cars lined up before the start was incredible and I experienced a truly surreal moment when I found myself wishing Chris Harris (yes, him) a good race as he’d be our main competition in a Bentley!
Our start was clean and trouble free, Stephen did great and fought his way up to 2nd place by the 15 minute mark. Soon after he lost some ground and dropped to 4th but the gap to the leader was still manageable – our chance of success still high. That came to a sudden end 50 minutes into the race when an incident in turn one between Stephen and another driver resulted in a punctured radiator.
The coolant leaked onto the rear tires and pitched him into a spin, half way through the lap, but what came next was even worse.
With the radiators busted the engine was not getting cooled and a few hundred meters later the Prancing Horse cried no more in dramatic fashion. An engine blow up on the back straight put an immediate end to our race. Stephen tried to free wheel back to the pits but landed up just short. It was all in vain however as the damage to the engine meant we wouldn’t have been able to carry on anyway.
[EDIT: The turn 1 incident turned out to have no affect on the fate of our engine. It was literally a coincidence that the engine failure happened a few corners later.]
It was a tough pill to swallow and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit upset. Even though it’s the nature of racing, it doesn’t make it any easier to take.
In the end our class was won by a team which were behind us before the engine gave in which means that our chance of winning was a real one.
Luckily our next race is only three weeks away in the UK at one of the most famous tracks in the world – Silverstone. I have yet to experience a lap around there but cannot wait to do so.
I need to end with a huge thanks to all of you who followed my progress and supported me throughout the weekend. It makes me incredibly proud to fly the South African flag in this championship and I hope to make you proud at the next event!