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Jeff Segal files his first Sportscar365 following COTA…

Photo: John Dagys

Photo: John Dagys

Racing sports cars on a global stage in the FIA World Endurance Championship has been a career goal of mine for a long time, so it didn’t take much convincing to get me onboard when the opportunity presented itself to join 8Star Motorsports and AF Corse in their unmistakably orange Ferrari.

To sweeten the deal, my FIA WEC debut would be at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, so I would get to race on home soil and at a circuit that I know well. As it turns out, this home-track advantage would be quite useful, because the rest of my surroundings were completely unfamiliar to me…

The weekend started well enough, fist order of business once at the circuit was to meet the team and get acclimated to the cockpit and controls of the Ferrari F458 GT machine.

Despite looking similar to the Ferrari 458 GT3 and 458 GTD that I know so well, the GTE car is totally different on the inside. There is a lot more adjustability, and with this comes a dizzying array of knobs and switches to control ECU parameters, fuel mixture, traction control settings, gearbox function, and plenty more.

The engineers were very helpful to give advice on what settings might work best, but in order to really get the most out of the car, the driver needs to be proactive and find the settings to suit the conditions on the fly.

Not easy, especially when you’re one eye out the windshield trying to go as fast as possible, and the other eye on the mirrors trying to dodge the latest LMP1 prototypes from Audi, Toyota, and Porsche.

Free Practice 1 came and went, and with a few laps under my belt, I felt more confident with the task at hand. My teammates Gianluca Roda and Paolo Ruberti are veterans of the FIA WEC, so they were a great resource to kick start my learning curve as well. Our speed looked more than reasonable, and we had a few adjustments in mind to improve the car.

Free Practice 2 was to be held at night, and as it turns out, in the rain. Apparently in Texas, when it rains, it pours, because the track was completely inundated with water. Just the mandatory three night laps each, then, and we put the car away safely in the garage.

Free Practice 3 was a chance for Paolo and I to do a simulation of the qualifying procedure used in FIA WEC, which is a two-driver, two-laps each, average of lap times to set the grid. Our combined pace looked really encouraging, and we went in to qualifying thinking pole position wasn’t out of the question.

On to qualifying, and a bit of foreshadowing for our eventual race experience, as the session featured changeable wet/dry conditions that caught us out and derailed our well-planned effort. Eventually we would qualify fourth, and though we were disappointed to miss out on a shot at pole position, we were still confident for the race.

So the 6 Hours of Circuit of The Americas began, and Paolo did a great job to take the lead for some time, before we eventually settled into a position in the top-three. Gianluca took the controls for the second stint of the race, and did a fantastic job to stay within the top-three, even as the rain started to fall.

And then at the end of the second hour, as the skies opened and cars started to fly off the track left and right, things fell apart for us.

The implication is that we were one of the many cars strewn about in the walls and gravel traps of the circuit, but in fact we weren’t. Gianluca had done a masterful job to navigate the flooded racetrack on slick Michelin tires, and had just made it safely to pit-lane for a tire change when the race director called for a red flag.

I will spare you the intricacies of the rulebook, but the summary is that we became trapped at the closed pit-out along with several other cars that had managed to safely return to pit-lane before the red flag.

At the same time, many of the cars involved in various crashes and incidents were recovered and allowed not only a free switch to rain tires under the red, but also to pass-around the field and recover their place behind the race leaders.

A complicated series of events, but one that saw us lose around two laps to our class leaders before the race resumed.

When the race returned to green flag conditions, our race was effectively already done and decided. Night fell and the track started to slowly dry, and I got behind the wheel for a double-stint but without much to race for.

The conditions were changeable and really difficult, but despite this we showed really strong pace, and I by the end I felt really comfortable at the wheel of the 458 car.

An underwhelming fifth place was our prize at the checkered flag, though we all recognize that we had potential for so much more.

Hopefully I will have the opportunity to rejoin this great team in the final races of 2014, because we definitely have some unfinished business to take care of… Watch this space!

Jeff Segal (@JeffSegal) is a three-time GRAND-AM champion and the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona class winner, having competed in this year's TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship.

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