The first round of the Pirelli World Challenge at Circuit of The Americas marks the start of a three-week journey for me on the road. PWC has back-to-back weekends and another racing commitment the week after St. Petersburg has made my March filled with race cars and hotel rooms.
Not only was this a big weekend for PWC, it was a big weekend for Bentley as a brand. It marked the start of a new season for its customer and works-supported team and drivers, who will race around the world in 2016.
Moreover, Texas is a large market for Bentley sales, so they had planned many events for hundreds of customers and guests throughout the weekend.
My race weekend started a bit earlier than usual with a dealer event at Bentley Austin on Tuesday evening. People who know me understand that I’m certainly not afraid to try and make things fun and get a little goofy.
So, naturally, when one goes to a Bentley event in Texas, one must purchase a cowboy hat and rattle snake cowboy boots.
Surprisingly enough, I was the only person at the event in boots and a hat, however, the customers seemed to enjoy their time talking with us and learning about the race car regardless of personal attire.
Wednesday morning, we had little to do at the track so I took the opportunity to introduce my teammate to the wonders Texas has to offer.
Adderly [Fong] is from Hong Kong and hasn’t spent any time in the United States but one thing he did know about Texas is that they love their guns. In the morning we went to a shooting range and worked on our hand-eye coordination, shooting things I had only seen in video games.
That afternoon was the start of business. Trucks had been unloaded and garages were set up. This marked the first race for Bentley Team Absolute in North America so a few things were different for a lot of the guys.
Unlike at the Formula 1 tracks in Asia, where they build the pit box facing pit lane, here we pit backwards in order to follow the series pre-grid rules.
Thursday was all about developing my relationship with my new engineer and making sure I was comfortable in the car. The whole season becomes a lot easier if you start out on the right foot and build solid relationships with the key people who help you and the car go faster.
Because Thursday was not official practice we didn’t know exactly where we stacked-up to the rest of the field. However, we quickly began to realize that we were struggling on top-end speed. We knew we would need to maximize the car set-up for the rest of the track in order to achieve the ultimate lap-time.
It was refreshing to have ample amounts of practice during the race weekend. Last year, when racing in Europe, first practice was on Saturday and I shared a car with two other teammates. If one thing went wrong it could mean going into a race with virtually no practice.
Friday was another productive day and we ended P6 on the time charts in final practice.
That evening kicked off the Bentley customer events at a private dinner downtown, which gave me another opportunity to rock my cowboy hat and boots while arriving in a Bentley Continental GT – the car that my GT3 is derived from.
It was awesome to see new fans interested in the sport and excited to come to the track for the first time the following day.
Saturday was the first day of true competition in the 2016 PWC season. Qualifying got underway early and we posted the seventh fastest time.
Race 1 was rather uneventful for me as I spent the majority trying to get past the Acura of [Ryan] Eversley. Once past, I chased down the McLaren of Thompson and made a last lap pass to secure an eighth place finish.
The real action came on Sunday. One thing that I was really impressed by was the number of fans that came out to the race.
More specifically, there were hundreds of really young kids wide-eyed in the paddock. That is something that often lacks at a lot of races and seeing this is good for the sport. I was once that kid. I may have met a future PWC champion.
During race two I was able to fight at the front of the field for the entire race. After the safety car, the top five of us pulled away in a small pack. With a little time left to go, [Alvaro] Parente, [Michael] Cooper, and I started to battle. It was really enjoyable racing. It was aggressive but respectful.
After back and forth, I found myself in third and eventually second after Parente was issued a penalty. However, the next lap I was given the same late race penalty that handed the Caddilacs a 1-2 finish.
I have to take the positives from the weekend and walking away with third fastest lap and a team that didn’t make mistakes is something valuable for the whole season. I think we are ready for St. Pete and Bentley Team Absolute is just getting started.