Circuit Paul Ricard: First in France

Circuit Paul Ricard: First in France

Steel Valley Lifts Racer

Coming out of Brands Hatch, I believed we had a strong car and good opportunity to perform well at Circuit Paul Ricard in France, I never thought we’d be as strong as we were this weekend…

Again I travelled to a new country and track for the third weekend of racing in the SRO GT4 European Series. Firstly, I’d like to start out with the country. The racing is exciting and all but, my Lord, is southern France gorgeous. I’d heard it was where Europe goes to “Holliday” so I expected it to be beautiful, but even so, the scenery exceeded my expectations. I’m a little bit of a history nerd and we were able to have dinner in the Medieval Village of Castellet on a mountain top one night and I just could not believe the scenery.

A couple notes if you’ve not traveled to France before like myself.

  1. Dinner is served at the earliest 7:30 in the evening, however most people take dinner around 9-11pm.
  2. The villages are gorgeous and very interesting to explore, but most have tiny one way roads all around and if you don’t watch where you’re going you’ll find yourself on a one way road out of the village and have to find another way back into it.
  3. People in Southern France are surprisingly friendly. I had no issues with being an American that spoke zero French. I just pulled out the Google translate app if the person I was speaking to didn’t speak English. Isn’t technology a wonderful thing?
  4. If you’re planning on attending an event at Paul Ricard, and you should because it’s gorgeous and one of the nicest tracks in Europe, you can fly into Marseille which is about an hour drive to the track.

Ok – onto the racing…

Well, first thing’s first, like every time I go to a track we do a track walk. The Circuit is a 5.8km (3.5mi) track so we opted to do the track walk on bicycles. The first thing you’ll note if looking at a track map of Paul Ricard is that it’s basically a large piece of asphalt with some racing lines drawn around it. It was built in the late 1960’s and opened in 1970 with the tagline of being “The World’s Safest Racing Circuit”. It certainly has a lot of places to runoff and not get yourself into trouble. Coming from Brands Hatch, which had zero runoff, this was a little welcome. To me, it reminds me of Circuit of the Americas, my home Circuit, which looking back is a good indicator of how the weekend was to go. Paul Ricard is a popular testing circuit for all kinds of race teams as the weather is extremely nice, the circuit is safe, and there’s capabilities of wetting the whole circuit with a sprinkler system in order to test rain setups without having to have the rain. When we arrived Wednesday, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing was finishing up a test with Max Verstappen on the circuit doing just that.

The following day held a test day for us at the circuit. We got a four-hour uninterrupted session to go learn the track and get the car balance right for Simon and I to go quick with. Out of the gate the MDM BMW was pretty strong, I did the first driving as I needed a few laps to get acquainted with the circuit, but by lap 4 in our session I had already run quicker than the pole time the last visit that GT4 European series had at Paul Ricard. We tweaked a bit more on the car and were able to go a bit quicker, I think some of the other teams like to hold back in practice as towards the end we finally slotted out to be fourth of 42 cars, but about 0.8-seconds off of the fastest time. This was alright to me as we tried some setup stuff in the last hour of the session that didn’t improve the balance. Friday again we had two test sessions. These went well for us. In the morning practice on old tires, I ran the quickest time in the session, a 2:13.7. In the afternoon we opted to do a race simulation in order to see how the tire would fall off in the long run. Overall we felt we had a strong car at the end of the day, finishing Free Practice 2 in third-position.

Saturday morning was qualifying and our first race. Now with 42 cars on the track you were bound to run into some traffic, even on a 3.5-mile course. Unfortunately, on what would’ve been the peak lap for my tires, I had a car on a slow lap block me into the chicane down the back straight. We ran the whole session and still ended up third, but I believe could’ve had a pole for Race 1. We’re learning more and more each outing with these cars. This BMW has proper Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) in the car so we’re able to monitor the pressure and temperature of the tires at any point in the session in order to manage them, which is very important in GT4. Each race we learn more about the performance of the tire and come closer to maximizing it in qualifying. Speaking of this, Simon was able to do just what I described and put the car on Pole position for Race 2! With our starting positions set all that was left to do was race!

In this GT4 European series I’m racing against a bunch of people and circuits that are essentially unknowns to me. Every race I make a few more acquaintances and get to race some other competitors which gives me a larger sample of the driving standards of the field, but for the most part I’m learning how to race each circuit. I have to learn where you can pass, where outside moves will work, where you can out-brake, etc. by the seat of my pants as well as with some film.

Just like a football player will watch game footage to see the opponent he’s up against I watch past race films when going to each track to see a few things. Initially, I look for the starts and what happens there, do the cars go two-wide through the first few turns or does everything sort out quickly? Where do people pass? While it’s possible to come up with these on your own, identifying particular passing spots is advantageous because some places setup easier than others. Additionally, I have the added benefit of being a newcomer to these places. I think taking a fresh look at a track gives you an advantage as well. You’re not used to what “should happen” you just go and do what’s best at the moment. I noticed my line being different in some turns versus my competitors which I believe contributed to our successes this weekend.

OK enough about this “studying” you do we get it: Come prepared yadda yadda what about the races? Fine, let’s talk racing – Race 1, I started from third-position. If you want to see a short video of my start you can find it here: on my twitter. Basically, I had a good run and decided to go outside of Turn One and inside of Turn Two. If you’ll notice a bunch of people opt to cut the track in T2 and I didn’t. Looking back that might have been the better move as the Aston I was next to completely shut the door on me. I checked up and lost a spot to the Alpine that started next to me. Ok, no problem we have lots of racing left. Knowing the Alpine is strong in the corners, but doesn’t have the power down the straights, I made sure to get a good launch out of Turn Five onto the longest straight of the track. I was able to get by the Alpine and now just had the Aston and the Ekris BMW to worry about. The Aston and I went into the chicane side-by-side and unsurprisingly again he attempted to drive me to the edge of the track. I checked up early in order to get a better run out of the chicane and was able to get by into the high speed Turn 10. All this fighting the first lap gave the Ekris a chance to run away and had pulled out about a 2.5-second gap over me. In the next four laps I was able to reel him in. I was able to run with the car easily, but being similar cars, the only way around would be to either wait for the driver to make a mistake, unlikely as he is an experienced guy, or force one. The series is very strict on contact, which makes the racing that much closer. I pressured for three laps, but ultimately decided to conserve tires in order to give Simon a car he could fight with in the second-half of the race. We pitted early in attempt to undercut the first place car in pit lane, but ultimately came out right in the same spot that we pitted in, about 0.6s behind the Ekris. Simon was able to put heavy pressure on the car in front and made an awesome pass for the lead into T11 about halfway into his stint. From there he drove without issue to the win!! It was an awesome feeling as I think to date, I’m the only American to have won a GT4 European Series race. We have had the performance in us to do well but in the past couple events there’s been a few mistakes here and there that have prevented us from realizing our potential. We did it here. Additionally our sister car driven my Koen and Mark finished third! Making it a fantastic day for the MDM team.

With all the celebrations completed we had to focus on the second day. Starting from pole we had all the ability to go and be dominant again. Simon started in the car and had a good stint, taking the lead from pole. He had a close battle for a few laps, then the cars immediately behind him started to battle, giving Simon some breathing room… that is until a Safety car came out for a wreck in the final turn. This was not what we wanted to see. After the wreck was cleaned up and green flag flew we opted for an early pit strategy again so as to not get undercut in the pit lane. Again we battled with our friend the Ekris from the previous day! We came out in line with each other, myself being about three-seconds ahead. I ran all out, pushing hard to try and run away, but the Ekris was still catching. After about five laps he had gotten to my bumper, coming through the last corner suddenly the car disappeared and my mirror was clear. The Ekris had gotten a drive through for being 0.2s too quick on the pit stop. Admittedly, I was a bit relieved as it gave me a clear mirror and I just had to maintain a steady pace to the end, as we were six-seconds ahead of the next group now. On the other hand, a good battle always makes winning that much more satisfying. That’s ok we’ll save that for Misano!

We had a near perfect weekend, two wins, the second from pole position and achieved max points. I said it on my social media and I’ll say it again: I quite like France! My family was able to join me for this event and we took Monday to travel to Saint Tropez, , and celebrated the wins on the beach. As I said before, the area is beautiful, I’m happy to be bringing back a first place trophy from Europe, and am content with the result. Now though, the time for celebration has passed and we make strides to improve on our performance and head to Misano in Italy at the end of June!

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