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COOPER: First Weekend on the Job at St. Pete

Michael Cooper files his latest Sportscar365 column on his first weekend as McLaren factory driver…

Photo: Brian Cleary/SRO America

I’ve yet to find a street course which I do not like. That includes St. Petersburg – my first street race and one where I swept the weekend.

It is always a great event with a lot of entertainment in the surrounding environment for both the fans and the teams. The track itself is also very enjoyable for drivers with some high-speed sections as well as technical bits to test the drivers.

I’ve been looking forward to my first race weekend as a McLaren factory driver. Now that it was here, it was time to buckle up and get to work.

A couple of other series ran before us Thursday and Friday, which is always nice to clean the dirt off the track and lay some rubber down.

The first thing I noticed on track during practice was the fresh paint on the airstrip into Turn 1; it was different than years past.

Photo Blackdog Speed Shop

I’ve been to St. Pete four times prior, and never had the paint been this slick. It was something to put in the back of the mind for the weekend ahead and any inside pass attempts into Turn One.

Overall the practice sessions went smooth for us. My engineer Alex Fleming was able to improve the No. 10 McLaren to the point where the balance was very comfortable on longer runs.

I was looking forward to getting new tires bolted on, reducing the fuel load and going for it in qualifying. You don’t really know what other people may have in their pockets until qualifying, especially at the first race of the year.

I pushed as hard as one can on a street course, even taking off the mirror on the concrete barriers! Still we couldn’t get within a second of the pole time. That put us sixth out of the 20 cars on track.

When it came time for the race I started inside of Row 3. The start was pretty clean up front and where I was sitting. After the first few laps the lead group had checked out of my zip code.

Photo: Blackdog Speed Shop

I had some pressure from Nicolai Elghanayan behind. Nicolai’s pace was probably stronger than mine at that point in time, but I was just quick enough to keep him at bay until a caution came out midway through the race.

When we restarted I couldn’t seem to stick with the cars ahead on the straight. I checked my mirrors and had plenty of space to the KTM as well as the Camaro behind him and went for the racing line.

When I got to the apex of Turn 1, I was met by the Camaro which was heading straight on after having passed the KTM. It was a big hit in the door and quite the surprise.

The race-leading Mustang also happened to do the same thing as the Camaro and run long at the first corner but with nobody ahead, he was able to make a U-turn and rejoin at the back.

Luckily the damage to my 570S GT4 was only in the door area, and we were able to finish the race in fourth place.

Props to Shane Lewis, the driver of the Camaro, for coming over to accept fault after the race. Not a lot of race drivers have that kind of respect for their fellow drivers. That’s always nice to see; we could use more of that.

Seeing as how I couldn’t stick with the lead pack during the race, the McLaren technicians looked into the data and found my car started exhibiting a turbo pressure issue during the race.

Unfortunately it could not be remedied for Race 2, and I would just have to carry on with a few less ponies.

Photo: Blackdog Speed Shop

I was slated to start sixth on Sunday based on my fastest lap from Race 1. At the start I was able to pass both Camaros to work my way up to the fourth position again.

However, within a handful of laps they each powered back by me on the frontstretch.

After that, the race was pretty straight-forward until the last lap. When I was headed for the white flag, the car lost power and came to a halt. I got the engine re-fired to take the checkered flag but now a whole lap down instead of sixth on the road.

It’s unfortunate because we were going to salvage a decent result for the car’s performance level this weekend. We’re not yet sure what happened, but I’m confident McLaren and Blackdog will figure it out.

Ultimately we left St. Pete with the biggest points deficient I’ve ever experienced after an opening weekend.

But that’s all it is – the first weekend. Not a second has gone by that I have doubted the fight in anyone in this team. There is a lot of experience and know-how at Blackdog Speed Shop. We’ll be back at Long Beach… stronger than ever!

Michael Cooper (@MSCooper1) is a three-time SRO Motorsports America champion and McLaren Automotive factory driver, driving for Blackdog Speed Shop in Pirelli GT4 America Sprint competition.

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