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Virginia International Raceway

Started: 9th

Finished: 2nd

Coming off of the catastrophe known as Road America two weeks ago, I am eager to get this race weekend underway. It’s a chance to forget the emotional pain that is associated with our last event. Sitting with the feeling of being ripped off and not even getting a chance to compete was brutal, and it was only a short two weeks.

With that said, I am on a plane to Charlotte to connect to Raleigh, and then drive 2 Hours to Alton, VA where the Virginia International Raceway is located. VIR is a famous US country club style track (one of the first) with properties on the border of the safety barrier in certain parts of the lap.

This is a track that neither my team, teammate nor myself have any experience at, which will make “learning” the track extremely crucial since many of the other teams/drivers have had quite a lot of time around the 3.4 mile winding circuit.

Yesterday (Tue 19th of Aug) I received a call from my technical director, which went like this:

“Hello Jeff, how are you?”
“I am good Robby, how are you, what’s up?”
“Good, I have good news for you…”

At this point, the silence could’ve lasted for an hour, since I have heard this phrase before and I know the words that follow could be anywhere on a scale of -10 to awesome, so I patiently awaited my fate. Fortunately for me, Roberto did have some good news!

“I have rented you and Balzan a Maserati Tropheo car for one day, 3 sessions, since neither of you know the track and it is very important to get you two up to speed before we have our 3 sessions and qualifying as to not lose anytime. The only bad thing, is you will not see new tires in practice…..”

“Oh so you mean like normal, ALMOST new tires this weekend then?”

“Haha, yes” said Roberto

This was great news actually; I have driven the Tropheo car for a weekend last year when I raced for Maserati of Silicon Valley with Jon Becker, so the car was familiar. Even though the Tropheo cars are slightly heavier than my 458GT, they sound great and are pretty fun to drive. And that means that Balzan and I would share 1.5hrs of track time the day before our practice which will mean a great deal to us since we’d have a night to sleep on the sessions, ingraining all the things we consciously learned while driving the car as well as the subconscious things that we didn’t recognize day of, but become familiar the next time you see the track.

So it stands that Thursday morning, I will show up to the track ready to drive in the beginning of the day, then have a track walk with engineering and management in the evening to get our “Oak Tree Grand Prix” started on the right foot, or should I say correct foot!

Thursday:

I head to the track knowing that it was the start of my weekend behind the wheel, yet not in my usual #63 car. I would be driving an unknown Maserati Tropheo car, something new to control, feel, and manipulate. I like the word manipulate because I feel it ties the relationship to the driving craft and the machine very well. At the end of the day, it is my job to manipulate the machine on top of the tires to maximize that tire at all times, no matter how heavy, light, wide, tall, narrow or short. Vehicles all speak a language, some just slightly different than others.

I found my #28 Maserati to have a significant aerodynamic package on the car (different from last year), meaning physical pieces that visually look like they will provide decent grip with speed (or airflow) over the car. This brings to mind one technique immediately; something that I have been working on for years since my open wheel/downforce car days; called Digressive braking. The brake application that is defined by a massive pressure exerted extremely quickly, with a rapid release of the brake initially, then ending in a slow release at the tail end.

Think of brake pedal effort on a scale from 0-10. 10 is threshold, or maximum pressure and 0 is, well, none. Aero cars like to be driven with a brake style of: 10-7-5-4-3-2-1 with the whole “time” on the brakes lasting 2 seconds, maybe less. This style utilizes the extra grip for braking provided by the speed of the vehicle (or air moving over the vehicle), down force; to a rational effect, something like the square of speed.

In basic terms, without the down force the “10” pedal wouldn’t be attainable, but because of the down force that 10 is possible, however as speed falls off the car, the brake pressure needs to coincide since there is no ABS on this (and most) racecars. More speed = more down force. Now this Maserati is still a racecar, but it’s no featherweight. So my release from 10-7-5 can be a bit slower than a light-weight aero car, because the mass will take longer to stop, thus allowing the down force to reduce on the car more gradually as the air speed decreases more slowly than something like a formula car that weighs sub 1500lbs. I am trying to match my brake pressure to the aero grip of the car.

Before I even sat in the car, this was one of the plans my brain had conjured up to make the best use of the little time I had to learn the track. With that said, I found the aero kit on the Maserati made the 3000+lb car quite a blast to drive. The aero was balanced linearly, so I didn’t have rear grip growing out of proportion to the front, and the “balance” of the car (when the front or rear of the car breaks traction) felt the same at slow speed and high speed, which means it was designed well and easy to drive through corners. 45 minutes later over 2 sessions, I had a pretty good feeling about the VIR circuit.

What a blast, high speed corners, elevation, blind turns, all things that make the “brown light” come on, and that’s what I think makes a track challenging/rewarding. I have a feeling I am really going to enjoy the well balanced, nimble Ferrari around the rolling hills of rural Virginia. I went to dinner with my team mate, his girlfriend, and their two friends from Italy who are racing the full season in the Maserati championship, who tried to teach me more Italian……….

Friday:

Friday was the first time that I would see the track through the cockpit of the Ferrari, and the first session did not disappoint, although it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. As I left pit lane I found the car to be EXTREMELY sensitive to the steering wheel, more so than I’ve ever felt. It was to the point that if I turned the wheel 2 degrees, the rear of the car was on edge, starting to break free. By mathematical theories one would say that’s a good thing, less steering = more speed. However we are human, and humans make errors.

No two laps are exactly the same, and we would probably crash the car before the end of the race the way it was. So I relayed my feedback to pit lane, and let engineering go to work on figuring out the best solution for our racecar. We discussed and deliberated in the trailer after the short 30 min opening session, and defined a plan of action for practice 2 later in the afternoon that would probably take some edge off the rear instability.

Practice 2 was a step in the right direction, PHEW! What a welcomed change that was. It honestly had felt like the car was out to get you when you drove—sneeze and you change 3 lanes with a little sideways step from the rear. Not conducive to a flat out, up hill “S” section where we climb the curb at 155mph in 6th gear and go airborne with a little steering in the car, only to land for a moment, brake immediately, downshift 2 gears, and turn left for the back side of the table top hill as you feed on the power in 4th gear without seeing your exit. But the changes made calmed the rear’s motion, and we carried on sorting out the #63 to make the best racecar we could for Sunday.

Along the way I learned a few things about the track, like which angle to take certain curbs to help turn the car, and which curbs to avoid, etc. That session ended at nearly 19:00, so before I knew it I was back at the hotel with some food in the belly around 22:00, ready to get some shut eye for my 06:00 wake up call Saturday morning.

Looking ahead to Practice 3 had me feeling cautiously optimistic, some of the other cars had some great pace but the track was feeling very familiar to me, almost like I had been there a bunch before. No issue sliding the car up to the tip of the exit curb over crests, etc. Yet again we improved the car, making it more comfortable and drivable so my teammate and I were able to push harder, and uncover some more lap time that was hidden around the 3.27 mile circuit.

Yet as we were on track, I could see the speed the little yellow Turner BMW Z4 was hiding as it made its way around the track. I know one of the drivers really well, and at the end of the day they must drive the car, even if it is stronger than the rest of us. But having an extra 1 + seconds in your pocket that you can use if you need it sure makes the risk you take a lot less, as well as making it easier to manage traffic, fuel and the race itself.

Since there is only one of the Z4’s in our championship, there is no sense in them winning by a 10 second margin, so my hat’s off to them for “playing the game” as well as they are. But at that point I knew that a win with the #94 still circulating on track was highly unlikely.

The reason they have the extra speed is that car was developed and homologated (or accepted) by the FIA as a GT3 car most recently, so BMW was able to apply more information and resource into maximizing the rules that are currently allowed vs. a car that was created for competition in 2011 with a different set of rules as guidelines. So the BMW has massive down force over everyone in the series, which means they can brake later and corner faster than the rest of us.

Since the track in Virginia has very little straight away that don’t have high speed bends, the BMW is barely hindered by the higher drag it has due to the big down force it creates, and thus becomes an extremely capable racecar. It seems to struggle above 160 mph, but only a few tracks on our calendar have sections where you are going over 160 without turning the steering wheel.

At the end of the day, I am a competitor and will never say die, but at the same time I am realistic factoring in the different capabilities of other machines, and just trying to optimize what my Ferrari can do, not match someone else. This is important in multi-make multi-class racing because a particular car ahead of you may pull away in certain corners, which makes you push more, but occasionally it can lead you to over drive and make an error that costs you even more time, so you must be calm, patient and strike when you know you have the car to do so. As it was, Alessandro qualified our #63 P9 so that very mindset I just spoke of was going to be my mantra at the start of the Oak Tree Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon.

The Race:

After a great night of rest, probably the best I had all weekend, I arrive bright and early for the morning warm up, to bed in a set of new pads on a damp track. We were pretty happy with the car, so validating a laptime wasn’t super important, it was more about prepping the machine for the race at 16:00. Unfortunately after warm up the team noticed the front rotors had begun developing a crack, meaning that I would need to start the race on new discs, which have had no use and need some bedding before they are ready, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I would just need to warm up the brakes A LOT as well as the tires on my 2 pace laps before the green flag.

The drivers meeting, auto graph session, and pre-grid flew by after I stole a little nap in the trailer, and before I knew it I was strapping in to the car getting ready to start the engine just after our Nations anthem. I fire up the 4.5 Litre V8, and pull away to the track with 27 other snarling machines getting ready to have a 2.75 hr speed contest. I was trying to get the tires ready, as well as the brakes, while speeding up and slowing down with the cars ahead, careful to not get sucked into another incident like the one that crippled us at Road America two weeks ago.

We stack up 2 by 2 after one car had an issue, so I was promoted one spot, and came down the front stretch awaiting the words; “green green green!” in my ear. I was positioned on the inside lane heading into turn 1 which was ideal at the start, yet was bottle necked by a car ahead that had botched a shift or something, so I had to check up twice with no where else to go before we arrived at Turn 1.

I tried to square the car up to the inside curb and get to throttle as early as I could to beat the Audi on my left to turn 2, but the road bent in his favor so he was still a nose ahead entering 2/3 complex. I was much faster than the couple cars ahead, so in the next 2 laps I was able to pass 2 on track before I had Spencer Pumpelly behind me in the 35 Audi on lap 3. He was very aggressive early on in the race, and was trying to stick his nose in for a lap or two before I let him by without a challenge.

I could’ve blocked him, but the way he was driving seemed to me like it was going to end in disaster, throwing the car into and out of corners on lap 4 of a race that still had 2.5 hours to run. Sure enough one lap later I see him spinning off in the grass after the last corner. My guess is he ran wide and lost the car based on where he ended up, and on that very next lap there was a small tangle from the cars immediately ahead of me going into T4.

I don’t remember which cars it was exactly other than the 007 Aston Martin and the 23 Porsche, nor how many cars it was beyond those two, but I do remember just reacting before a thought of which way to pass the blocked track came to mind. I darted right, drove slightly in the grass heading into 4, and was free and clear. Next stop, the 22 Porsche in P3.

A few laps passed and I had closed the 5-second gap and was looking to make a move. In the preceding laps I noticed that I was braking about 1 brake marker later than the 22 heading into turn 1, so I tried to get a good run leaving the last corner, and set him up for an out braking maneuver into T1. He drove well, left room and realized that I was inside so we made the exchange as smoothly as possible, and I continued on.

At this point I built up a 5 second gap to 3rd, and was catching the leader, the 94 BMW Z4. I was instructed to save fuel, and so I went about keeping the same lap time as best I could while conserving fuel during my run. I did this by lifting off the gas, and coasting into the braking zone further than normal, which saves seconds spent at full throttle. The BMW was conserving as well, but those guys can afford to drive in the rear view mirror, and as soon as someone gets close, they put 1-2 good laps in and have another second added to the gap. Even from 4-6 seconds back, I could see this happening.

Time flew by, and before I knew it 1hr + had passed. Just as I saw my fuel light come on, a yellow came out and my team instructed me to come in immediately for and emergency splash of fuel which we are allowed to do even if the pits are closed to avoid running out of fuel under the caution. As long as we don’t service the car beyond the fuel, we take no penalty.

I circulated under yellow for a little while and came in to hand the car over to Alessandro. Unfortunately we took a drive through penalty for pitting out of sequence, but it turned out to be the best strategy call for us whether we meant to do it or not as it saved us track position when we stopped to service under caution. We left pits in P9, but with some cars ahead of us were out of sequence meaning they would need to pit for fuel soon there after, meaning we would inherit their position when they did.

Balzan had a great restart and in the opening laps made it up to 6th before a second yellow came out. We would come in to fill the tank again, and hopefully make it to the end with just over 1 hour left. We knew our tank wouldn’t quite support that, but the length of the yellow was unknown and would help, as well as one more yellow flag would make us good to go for sure.

We left pitlane from our splash in P5, and then Alessandro made up another spot in the succeeding laps after it went green. One more car ahead of us pit, and we were P3, hunting down the Dempsey Racing Porsche ahead of us in second with the 94 BMW still leading the field.

Ultimately we would make it by the Porsche, and catch the BMW, but as soon as we got within 1 second the BMW would build another 1 second gap in 1-2 laps and then sit there again, baiting us to burn our tires off chasing them full well knowing they could set the fastest lap of the race If they wanted to. But they don’t need to, so they just played with the “sand in the bags” for the rest of the race and took the win comfortably even though they will never admit it.

But for us, a P2 finish coming off the disaster that was Road America was like a win, especially because the Balance of Performance currently, and we celebrated like it was a win. We know BMW has speed in the pocket if they need it, but we are flat out, and it feels good to convert that effort into a result! We packed the truck, and started planning the best strategy for Austin, Tx coming up in September.

 

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  • Tom Firth

    Thanks for such a fantastic informative article Jeff. Really enjoyed reading it and learning about digressive braking. I have a couple of questions if you don’t mind.

    You mention about Turner’s BMW’s FIA GT3 homologation been substantially more up to date than the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari’s. Assuming that you guys will stay with the Ferrari next season, will you have to wait until 2016 and the introduction of full FIA GT3 regulations into TUSC for GTD before the field is rebalanced somewhat due to the effective rule cross over between the Grand-Am homologation that initially came with your car and the later GT3 GTD specification of TUSCC that the BMW came in as ?

    (Sorry I probably could of worded that better)

    The other question is when your racing, and BMW are playing tricks like sandbagging and baiting you to catch them, knowing full well that it is the tactics and the class leader. How do you and Alessandro as professional racing drivers in the heat of a race manage to resist the temptation and therefore avoid falling for that trap of chasing them and ruining the tyres ?

    Congratulations on your result this weekend, and on maintaining Ferrari’s manufacturer lead in GTD. The race looked fantastic from back here in the UK. It was nice to see a multi-class GT only race in TUSCC.

  • Insightful article, particularly relaying conversationally how a driver manipulates braking in a downforce car. One more way us fans can relate to you guys, another skill to marvel over. Thanks.

    Your title name is part-reason for me clicking on the article; great example of how F1B can upgrade its Google presence. Take note NC