This weekend saw the Grand AM series take to the Legendary Streets of Montreal Circuit, Gilles Villeneuve.
On the evening that I arrived to the hotel I had already been impressed by the Montreal area. The taxi driver had shown me a few places, including the track and a few other local attractions. I was told we would be catching the underground train to the track and I was intrigued to find out that all the land removed to build the Metro system was the base of the man-made island that holds the Montreal Circuit.
This weekend was another NASCAR / Grand AM weekend, and thousands of Canadian fans surrounded the track for the race. We first set foot on the track on Friday, and John Edwards was first out in the car. However, he only managed to complete a single out lap as one of out competitors had laid down a slick of oil from turn 2 until 9 where they eventually stopped.
This took a chunk out of testing while the marshals put down sand to soak up the mess. Eventually the track was reopened, and I was able to complete a few laps, although there was a lack of grip the whole way around. I’m sure the oil had something to do with it, but the track hadn’t been used since the F1 Grand Prix earlier in the year, and this also was likely to be a factor.
Throughout the day the track improved. We pretty much a whole day of testing before qualifying in the early evening.
I was one of the first out the pits, but the track temperature was down from earlier. It took a few laps to get the tyres up to heat, and I started pushing when the start of the lap felt good. That was until I reached turn 9 under the bridge which lay in the shade – I couldn’t slow the car down quickly enough – and I took a quick detour across the grass.
I made my way back to the pit lane just for a quick once over to make sure there was no damage, then got back to the business of qualifying, Marcus my engineer radioed-in to tell me that we had 4 minutes to go. I hadn’t even completed a fast lap yet and was currently second from last. I knew I only had one more lap, maybe two, and the pressure was on.
On my last lap I jumped up the standing and straight in to 4th position where I would start Sunday’s race. I was happy with the qualifying position, also being the top Mazda, but I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed about my mistake earlier in the session.
On Sunday the race started at 2pm. It was probably the warmest it was going to get all day, and I was starting on the outside for turn one. Off the line it went well on whole; I was side by side with another car but they had a better exit out from turn 3 allowing them to power past before the next corner. Immediately as the second lap began there was a big crash heading into the hairpin, as two Prototype cars must have collided, and one had ended up in the wall bouncing them back across the track, throwing debris everywhere. The safety car was out.
During the safety car period we used the advantage to pit and put a splash of fuel in. We jumped up into 4th position while everyone else came in to do the same. The 68 SpeedSource crew did another faultless stop. The race went green, but quickly there was further contact between Prototype cars at turn 2, with cars blocking the whole track the focus became avoiding contact with the debris. Some cars opted across the grass but I managed to stay on the tarmac, holding my position. Straight away there were two more safety cars for separate incidents, and it meant pretty much the whole of my stint behind the wheel had been behind the safety car. We were at the half way stage now and decided to pit to use the safety car as time for a driver change. I was in 3rd position as I handed the controls over to John Edwards.
John took us back into the race, trying to hold our position. The Mazda 69 car managed to get past, but there was a huge gap to the cars behind – we were over three-quarters of a lap ahead due to the safety car – but it wasn’t that way for long as another safety car was needed. This time a Prototype had laid down oil all the way down the back straight.
This was bad news. John was holding his ground as the race restarted, and we knew our car would be good towards the end, but suddenly the number 31 car made a dart for us and attempted to make an overtaking manoeuvre, but crashed straight into the back of us spinning us right around and left us facing the wrong direction. We couldn’t believe it. With only 15 minutes to go in this 2-hour race, our chances now looked battered. John managed to continue on with just minor body work damage, and we just hoped for another safety car and time to pit, but that opportunity never came. We were down in 9th until number 31 served their drive-through penalty for the earlier contact, and we ended up finishing 8th.
It was a disappointing result for us, but some good did come of the weekend. Mazda superbly secured the Manufacturers championship with only one race to go, so big congratulations to them and all the Mazda Teams for their efforts and hard work that have helped to secure the title.
Our next and final race for this season is at Miller Motorpark in Salt Lake city. I’m feeling confident and looking forward to it – last year I was the pace setter and race winner there – so we should be in with a fighting chance of a good result.
Watkins Glen drew a huge crowd this weekend as the NASCAR series combined with the Grand AM series for another great race event.
My team mate, John Edwards, managed to take our #68 MazdaSpeed Motorsports Development Mazda RX-8 into 5th during qualification, and the start of our race went well.
John quickly found himself in 4th, then 3rd, before winding up hot on the tail of the second place #57 car. Although he had the run into penultimate corner, there wasn’t enough time to pull off the overtake, however it wasn’t long before opportunity struck again, and as #57 moved over to the left and onto the racing line, he made contact with a Prototype car in the final corner, and this allowed John to overtake into turn one. Unfortunately for us, the officials ruled it as a contact advantage and we were penalised with a drive through, which dropped us back to 8th or 9th. From what I witnessed, I felt it was a little harsh, but the officials decision was final and we had to get on with our race.
Just as we passed the 45 minute mark, John handed the car over to me. Our the pitstop was seriously quick, and with no faults or delays, I had a set of fresh tyres and immediately felt confident with our setup and race pace. It took a few laps to warm the tyres but I was able to hold position.
Once the tyres had some heat in them, the car was on rails. I was chipping my way through the grid and gaining positions. Halfway through my stint I collected the fastest lap of the race, and as I started to catch up with the leaders, cars started pitting for fuel and tyres. I was now in the top three when the team radioed-in telling me to pit on my next lap when suddenly the safety car was deployed half way around the lap.
It had happened again! The safety timing of the safety car had taken away our advantage and we had to change our race strategy. Half a lap ahead and I would have been able to pit before the safety car and consolidate my top three position, but unfortunately the events meant our only choice now was to come in the pits at after the safety car period, fuel for the end of the race and ultimately that meant we’d lose position. The net result was that we dropped back to near 10th place.
With just 20 minutes to go, our prospects looked tough. On the restart after the safety car, there was a crash between two Prototype cars, which immediately caused another safety car, and frustrated our progress further as it ate the little time I had left for overtaking. The track was cleared up with 5 minutes to go and I was fighting battles left, right and centre for positions.
I was side by side with another Mazda going into the bus stop but wasn’t able to pull off the move, which slowed my mid-corner speed down. Suddenly the #07 car gave me a bump from behind and it allowed him past. I eventually made my way into 7th by the time we reached the last lap. I had the run on #40 car going into NASCAR corner, pulled out to the inside and braked half a car length later, putting me into 6th – but his left front wheel clipped my right rear tyre going into the left hander and it bounced me up into the air and gave me a puncture. I was put into a spin. I completed a full 360 degrees on the run off tarmac, dropped it down a gear and aided the car around the last corner and over the finish line, luckily retaining our 6th position.
I couldn’t believe our general poor luck this weekend. We had a strong car, team and super fast pit stops, but the appearances of the safety car destroyed our original strategy. But such is racing. Half a lap would have made a whole lot of difference.
Even so, we can leave knowing it was a good race for our points tally, and it leaves us only 6 points behind the 4th team in the team rankings, and similarly, just 6 points behind 6th place in the drivers’ championship. It’s going to be tight with just two events to go, and I’m now focusing our next race which is in Canada, at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.