After missing the previous round of the FIA World Endurance Championship in Shanghai due to a scheduling conflict, I was excited to return to the AF Corse Ferrari team for last week’s Six Hours of Bahrain.
Previously, I had driven in the AF Corse-managed No. 90 8Star Motorsports entry in Austin, Texas, and also in Fuji, Japan, but for Bahrain the team had decided to shuffle the deck of their GTE-Am effort a bit.
For this race I was entered in the No. 61 AF Corse Ferrari F458 alongside Alessandro Pier Guidi and Alexander Talkanitsa.
My two previous FIA WEC starts somehow made me the veteran driver of the lineup, but Alessandro and I had been co-drivers earlier this year in Level 5 Motorsports’ Rolex 24 winning Ferrari effort so there was a great existing history there, and Alexander was a front-runner in this year’s European Le Mans Series in a Ferrari F458, so our team looked to be really solid.
Moving over to the No. 61 team meant working with a completely new group of mechanics and engineers, but part of the larger team shuffle meant that it was actually still the same bright orange chassis that I had driven previously—albeit with a different number decal—so at least the car gave me a bit of continuity heading into the weekend.
As with the Fuji race, I arrived early in order to have an opportunity to adjust to the time change, and also to have a close look at the circuit prior to Thursday’s first free practice session.
None of the drivers in our car had ever been to the Bahrain International Circuit before, but during the track walk Alessandro confessed that he had actually done a few hours of preparation by lapping the track on a simulator, so he already had a bit of a head start!
Thursday, we finally hit the track for two free practice sessions where we quickly found that the grip level of the circuit was quite low, and the tire degradation seemed exceptionally high.
This makes it really difficult to get any kind of feel for the setup of the car, as each lap is a bit different than the last, and you can struggle to differentiate between the effect of setup changes and the falloff of the tire. Our single-lap pace didn’t look too bad, but the longer runs were really difficult as the rear tires went away, so we knew we had some work to do.
Friday we arrived for the third and final free practice where Alessandro and I did a simulation-qualifying run, which showed that we had made some really positive gains with the setup overnight. Based on this session, we were feeling good about our prospects for qualifying, but there were four other GTE-Am cars within 0.3seconds of us, so we couldn’t afford any mistakes at all.
Coming from a background of various American sports car racing series’, the FIA WEC qualifying format has probably been the most difficult thing for me to adjust to this year.
Besides the two-driver, four-lap cumulative average used to determine the grid position, the FIA WEC allows the use of tire-warmers, which means that the tire performance is pretty much at its peak as soon as you leave the pit lane.
In American racing, none of the major series allow tire-warmers. As a result, I have grown accustomed to having to carefully manage the build up of both tire temperature and tire pressure over one or two warm-up laps to optimize the tire performance curve before pushing hard in qualifying.
It doesn’t seem like it would be a major change, but it requires a big “un-learning” curve and adjustment in approach to be ready to nail a qualifying lap immediately out of the pits. Having said that, this type of adjustment is exactly what I was hoping for in coming to the FIA WEC: getting out of your comfort zone makes you learn a lot about yourself, and pushes the boundaries of what you think you can do.
In the end we qualified third in the GTE-Am class, fastest of the Ferraris and just behind the two Aston Martin entries, which felt like the maximum we could do with our car at this circuit.
That felt like a victory—everyone on the team was pleased with the result, and it was especially gratifying to see the increase in our performance after the amount of changes we had made to the setup since the start of the weekend.
If qualifying had gone more or less according to the plan, the race was a different story all together. In the end, various circumstances playing out led to a sixth place finish for us.
The good news from the weekend is that AF Corse was victorious in the GTE-Pro class, which also clinched the 2014 Drivers’ Championship for my teammates Toni Vilander and Gianmaria Bruni, and also for AF Corse in the Team’s Championship.
The next stop for me is the FIA WEC season finale Six Hours of Sao Paulo, where Alessandro Pier Guidi and I will be joined by two-time Formula One Champion and racing legend Emerson Fittipaldi.
As you can imagine, I can’t wait to get started. Emerson Fittipaldi as a teammate in Brazil should be quite an experience!