Some highlights (and lowlights) of our first race at Oulton Park!
Racing as a sport presents an interesting dichotomy. On the racetrack, it’s a cutthroat, every-man-for-himself brawl. You’re on your own. Having a problem? Tough luck, figure it out. You won’t get help from anyone else.
Off the track, each driver has a crew backing him up, and it’s very much a team sport. The engineers help figure out how to make the car go fast, the mechanics make sure it stays together, and teammates look at squiggly lines on computer screens, figuring out where the other is going faster and how they can match them.
As the season approaches, I keep telling myself that there’s nothing coming up that I’ve never done before. I’ve competed at levels equivalent to Formula Ford, and indeed even higher. It’s possible, despite my 4 year sabbatical, that I may even be one of the most experienced drivers on the grid. But there are several challenges that I am facing that are unique in my career.
When I raced in the Skip Barber Race Series, they would place instructors at each corner. During every session, whether it’s practice, qualifying or race, they would take notes on each driver’s performance. After the session was over, we would get out of our cars and meet with each instructor and go over ways to improve. I was always impressed with the instructors’ ability to diagnose even very subtle mistakes from ~30 yards away, and it was a surprisingly effective way to learn how to drive.
In Star Mazda, we had even more coaching tools. While my engineer looked at hieroglyphics like shock histograms, oversteer/understeer graphs and what-is-this-I-don’t-even graphs, there were several tools that I used regularly to diagnose driving mistakes and make myself faster. The most important tools were my teammates, speed trace, throttle position, video, and C-time.
After each session, data from the cars would be uploaded to wireless servers and subsequently downloaded into our engineer’s computers. After writing session notes on a track map, all the drivers and engineers would get together, and we would overlay the speed and throttle position traces from our best laps. This would give us a visual representation of how we were driving compared to each other, and which technique was faster. For example, in a particularly fast corner, driver X may be lifting off the throttle later, but that causes the car to be unstable and they can’t get back to power until well after driver X. Although driver X has the higher minimum corner speed, he loses momentum and driver Y makes up that time and more down the straight. That sort of thing is very easy to see, especially with C-time. C-time (comparative time) is a graph that uses one driver’s time (let’s say driver X) as X=0 , and traces driver Y’s time along the X-Axis, with the Y axis being the time difference between each driver at any point on the track (Look at me using all these math terms! My high school pre-calc teacher would be so proud!). This may sound complex but it gives us a very simple visual comparison of our technique in each corner. In the example described above, you would see driver Y’s graph bend up as he “overslows” the corner, but then as his momentum continues, it would slope down. This would suggest that in that particular corner, driver X should lift sooner and work on carrying more momentum. We then dissect each corner of the track in a similar way. Despite my life-long hatred for math, these tools are extremely helpful and actually a lot of fun to play with.
But guess what! This year I won’t have any of it. No coach. Extremely limited data. No throttle position sensor and no speed sensor. I won’t have a teammate to compare to anyways. We’re kickin’ it old-school. So, as a driver, the biggest challenge I’m facing this year is to self-diagnose my mistakes, and the only tool I’ll have is in-car video. I’m not sure what the solutions are, but I know they’ll come. I’ll have to watch the video very carefully. I’ll have to observe what other drivers are doing when I’m behind them. It’ll be difficult, but it should definitely make my mind sharper and a better driver. The owner of the Star Mazda team I used to drive for said once, “it seems you like to be really busy when you’re driving.” It may sound like a paradox, but the more I have to think about, the less I over-think things. So maybe driving without the crutches of data and teammates and coaches will keep my mind from thinking too much.
Hey everyone! There’s a lot to talk about after our test last week, but I know you don’t want to read a novel so I’ll try to make it brief.
We rolled into an extremely foggy SIlverstone at 7:15am, and began working on a few final preparations to get the car ready. In the drivers’ meeting, we learned that the first session, originally scheduled for 9:00, would be postponed until 11 due to the fog. This turned out to be great news for us, since we ended up needing those extra 2 hours to finish working on the car. At 11, with the fog finally lifted and the car ready to go, we rolled out of the garage, fired it up, and I promptly stalled it in front of everyone in the pitlane. I fired it up again, gave it more gas and did a pretty fantastic burnout to avoid stalling yet again.
Our plan was to do a single out/in installation lap, and for the first session that’s as far as we got. The car came with the wrong gears, and I was running out of revs halfway down the straights. It was very confusing for me, since I’m used to driving cars with fixed ratios, and I kept thinking I couldn’t find 3rd and 4th gears. I did another lap to make sure it wasn’t me being stupid, and pulled in to change ratios.
This handed our crew their first real challenge of the season, figure out how to pull apart the gearbox, swap in the right ratios, and put it back together before the beginning of the next session. I’m really dense when it comes to mechanics, so after hanging around for a bit I left meet the tailor who was fitting drivers for custom suits, and also attend a mental performance seminar the series was holding. It all took about 30 minutes, and I got back to the garage 10 minutes before the beginning of the next session. As I turned into the garage, I fully expected to see the car still in pieces. Austin, Adam, and Jake did an awesome job to get the car back together, with the right gears in the right places, in time for the next session. We also owe a big thanks to Jamun racing for helping us pick gears, and Myerscough College for showing us how to take apart and replace the gearbox.
After that initial drama, things went smoothly the rest of the day. My main job was to knock off 4 years of rust, get comfortable driving the car quickly and learn how to use the transmission. I’ve never driven an H-pattern racecar before. After the second session the corners began to flow much better, and I was able to carry momentum and catch slides. It was so cold that even with a 150 horsepower we were still getting power oversteer! Following one of the new EcoBoost cars, I witnessed it lay down an impressive strip of rubber exiting Vale. We tried changing roll bar settings to dial out the oversteer, and we went in the right direction but still had some more to go.
At the end of the day we were on pace with the other Duratec cars there, and 6 seconds off the lap record. But with a rubberless track, very cold conditions, old tires, a rusty driver driving a new car, and a very new team, I think we can be proud of what we did and it’s a very promising start.
We took some great on-board video, but for some reason Silverstone hates free publicity and won’t let us publish it on the internet. I’m going to try to talk to them about it but I get a feeling they won’t be very interested in what I have to say.
I suppose it only makes sense that my European racing debut comes at the home of British motorsport, and the birthplace of Formula 1. In case you haven’t heard, our first test is this Friday, on the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit. Not the little National circuit, the full 3.6-mile track. The one the Formula 1 cars race on. “Copse,” “Stowe,” “Maggots-Becketts-Chapel,” are all terms we’ll be using to refer to the track that I’ll be racing on I’ve always preferred the European system of naming corners than just giving them numbers. Not only does it give each track its own personality, but in one word you can identify both the particular corner and track that you’re referring to. Every (non-oval) race track in the world has a turn 5, but only Spa-Francorchamps has La Source. Only Monza has the Lesmos.
But on to Silverstone. There are several challenges we’ll be facing this weekend. The most significant is that I’ll be driving a car I’ve never driven, on a circuit I’ve only seen on TV and in F1 2011, with a gearbox that I’ve never used on a race track (it has a proper H-pattern), without having driven competitively in 3 years. With that in mind, our morning program is very simple. I’ll leave the pits and come straight back in. Austin and Adam will take a look at the car to make sure it’s not leaking and nothing has fallen off. After that I’ll do 5 laps and then another quick check, and then I’ll just go out and do laps until the session ends or we run out of fuel. If I’m starting to feel comfortable before the end of the session, we may start making some simple changes to start getting a feel for their effects. But it won’t do much good if I’m missing apexes and grinding gears.
Once all the rust is knocked off and I put up some consistent times, we can start making set-up changes. The previous driver liked to run with a very stiff front, so we may work on softening it up a bit. I’m not exactly sure what we can change, but we’re being garaged right next to Jamun Racing, the team who have won the championship every year since around 2006. So maybe our high-budget operation won’t intimidate them too much and they can help us out a bit.
We’ve got an on-board camera, so we’ll definitely capture as much video as we can and, if they let us, throw it up on YouTube and here for everyone to see!
Hey Folks! Austin reporting again- we took delivery of our car this past Friday and spent the weekend preparing it for our first test this upcoming Friday. Overall I think we are in pretty decent shape; there are a few small things we need to work on but the car is pretty much ready to go. I’ll take you through the trials and tribulations we went through this weekend.
Charlie and I took delivery of the car and trailer at around 9am on Friday morning. The previous owners dropped it off at my workplace and gave us a brief rundown of how it worked and what they were giving us. We had to cram everything (mostly parts for our ridiculously huge awning) that was in their van into the trailer before they set off. The car sat in my parking lot all day and I showed it off a bit to some coworkers at lunch. As this was happening Charlie was in Birmingham to pick up the rental car to tow the trailer to Oxford. He arrived back at my office just after 5; we hooked up the trailer and after topping up a few of the tyres with air from our trusty new pump and jiggling the wires so all the lights worked (damned English electrics!) we were off to the workshop. We met Adam at the workshop on Friday night, created a plan of attack for the next day, and we began preliminary disassembly. After checking the car for fluids we also fired up the engine for the first time to get that bug out of our systems!
We were up early on Saturday for a full day of car rebuilding action. We started off taking a quick inventory only to find out that we were missing the car’s dash. We’ll have it by Thursday, but this has caused a bit of an issue in installing the data system. After this initial bump in the road, things started to go much more smoothly. We bled the clutch system quite quickly before removing a steering sensor that is not ours. Adam and I then went through and rebuilt all of the corners, torquing all of the bolts to specification. At this point a few more helpers showed up and we removed the sidepods and floors. When we took the floors off we found quite a bit of dirt and debris from some past off course excursions. I also used this opportunity to inspect the chassis for cracks. Once that was all cleaned out we flushed the coolant system and refilled it before adjusting the throttle cable and running through the gears.
Moving forward we installed the radio, made a lower seat (had some issues with the upper part but modified the insert that came with the car to fit Charlie, and adjusted the steering wheel to Charlie’s liking before replacing the cockpit shroud, which we have affectionately started referring to as “the fairing.” We discovered that we do in fact have more boxes of tent than race car. Our tent is massive- 6 x 9 meters, and with it our paddock space is definitely going to be in-tents. If you’d like to rent it out for parties please let us know! We rounded out the evening by taking corner weights and posing for a group picture that is quite nice if I say so myself.
On Sunday we packed up, but before loading the car on the trailer, we re-purged the coolant system due to potential freezing weather conditions in our area this week. In doing so we played a fun game with water pressure and I ended up getting drenched. It was quite humorous, so much so that we filmed a re-enactment, but we didn’t quite capture the magic of the original.
Overall it was a great weekend in terms of knowledge gained and prep work done. Come Thursday when we set up shop at Silverstone we should be in a good position to get some valuable testing in.
Well I mentioned when I started this blog that I’m terrible with keeping diaries/journals/etc. I’m terribly sorry I haven’t updated in more than 2 months. Part of it is because nothing interesting happened, and part of it was because big things were happening and I didn’t want to talk about them prematurely.
But, I’m totally stoked to announce that I have sold my racing car in the U.S. and on Monday I will be transferring funds in payment of a 2009 Duratec Formula Ford! Yes, we did it! With a month and a half before the first race of the season, and 2 weeks before the first official Formula Ford test day, we’ve gotten a hold of a very competitive car! Right now I’m swamped with registration and licensing forms and other bureaucratic nonsense to make our entry official. It’s really tough to keep track of all the things I need to do when I’m bouncing off the walls with excitement!
So the plan for the next month is this: We take delivery of the car early next week, and the weekend of the 21st-22nd we’ll take it down to Austin’s Alma Mater Oxford Brookes. They have facilities where we can do set-down, look through the car to make sure all the bolts are tight, make sure the engine starts, and other diagnostic checks to make sure everything is in top shape. It will also give us a chance to mould the seat! For those who aren’t familiar, al modern formula cars and prototypes (and probably most sports cars), from F1 to IndyCars, all the way down to Formula Ford and Skip Barber, have seats that are molded to the driver’s back. This helps keep the driver from having to brace himself in the car through the corners, as well as insuring maximum comfort and increasing safety in a crash.
Another exciting thing is that the car we bought is a lot less than I expected. So, barring unforeseen costs (read: crashes), we’re able to do at least the first 3-4 races of the season! So now we have a chance to put up some results and hopefully gain some momentum, which could immensely help the sponsorship hunt.
So after a long, cold off season, things are starting to thaw! Next week I’ll get Austin to write up what he’s going to do with the car to prep it for the test, and we’ll start putting up some videos, pictures, and other other more exciting stuff!
In order to raise money to buy a Formula Ford, I am selling the car I raced in Star Mazda from 2006-2007. Below are its specs, and if you’re interested, or know someone who might be, send me a message!
- 2007 Model Pro Formula Mazda
-Carbon Fiber Monocoque
-1.3L Mazda Renesis Rotary engine, cranking out 240HP
-Dry weight 1,040 lbs.
-Hewland 6-speed sequential gearbox with no-lift shift
-MOTEC Data System
-Long list of spares
-As is, eligible for SCCA Formula Mazda and Formula Atlantics
-Easily upgradable for competition in Road To Indy Star Mazda Pro Series
-Located in Pittsburgh, PA, can be shipped anywhere in Continental US
-$45,000 or best offer
When I started this blog I had an idea something like this would happen. I thought I’d figure out how to handle it when the time came, and here it is and I’m not sure exactly what to do.
That is, I’ve had a boring week. I’ve explored Lichfield enough that anything new isn’t quite as exciting, and have settled into a routine. A few personally exciting things have happend (we FINALLY have internet, and I joined a gym), but right now in order to progress with the racing team I need to get into the dirty business of finding a job. So this week has been pretty much the same as any of the other millions of people looking for jobs. Searching classifieds, writing cover letters, sending out resumes.
Whoever said racing wasn’t glamorous?
So in order to not bore you guys to tears with the details, and to try to keep this weekly update thing going, I present: Formula 3000 Practice at Oulton Park from 1990. The video isn’t so exciting, but the sounds are amazing! I wish modern racecars sounded that good. If you’re at work and bored of listening to top 40, set this video on in the background and pretend that spreadsheet you’re working on is Damon Hill’s race setup!