Coming into my second race weekend as a driver with Murphy Prototypes was a huge achievement for me, my family and all my supporters. I first traveled with the team in 2015 for every race of the European Le Mans Series and the Le Mans 24 hour race. Last year was a fantastic learning experience to be involved with the team and understand the actual programme and procedures that go behind the operations of a race team. As a result, stepping into the car for the car for the first time in Silverstone was not a big jump for me as I knew the team and knew the car.
After a great first weekend in Silverstone in April, I was looking forward to the world famous Autodromo Di Enzo Ferrari Imola. The Murphy Prototypes car was proven there in 2015 with a podium. With a great young driver line up with, Patrick McClughan, Garry Findlay and myself, we had a strong chance given we are all quick, young, ambitious career driven drivers!
Imola is such an iconic track. The TV doesn’t do the track any justice what so ever. On my Thursday track walk, you could see houses right around the outskirts of the corners, huge inclines and undulations which you can understand in person but really feel them in the car.
We showed good pace in Free Practice one (FP1) on Friday afternoon. I was second in the car after Garry and Patrick went out third. Going down the pit straight on the pit limiter and then unleashing the 500bhp Nissan VK-45 at the end of the pit-lane is still an amazing experience, going from from 1st gear to 5th before the first left-right chicane. I had 12 laps in the session of an hour and a half, same as the other guys. It was great to finally get on track, and real privilege to be driving around such an iconic circuit. Driving on the circuit, there are lots of tricky fast corners combined with slow, almost-to-a-stop corners, where it’s a struggle to get the car turned in and get good drive out of the corner. It takes a lot to master this track but with the help of the engineers and overlaying data between myself, Garry and Patrick we started to help each other along and make progress.
The second practice session was on Saturday morning. Again I was second in the car for the session , but on the softer tyre to get a feel for the car in different situations and get used to the tyres for a longer period during the race. It was clear that if you tried to carry too much speed into the corner the car would understeer which, in turn hurt the tyres and therefore, wouldn’t last the distance during the race. I came in and made some adjustments to the rear to settle the car in the mid-to-exit of the corners. My session was interrupted a couple of times with full course yellows (FCYs). With lots of traffic and not a lot of room for over taking, it was hard to get all the sectors together to get a good time. Looking at the sector time, it was clear that when I got a clear run, I would be able to put a good lap together. The team were showing good pace with 3rd or 4th quickest the practice session.
I’m starting to get to grips with the big carbon brakes and huge amount of downforce of the Oreca-Nissan. It’s something that will only come with more practice as I’ve never driven anything with such huge amount of downforce – LMP2 cars generate almost 2 tonnes of downforce at 290kph!
Garry went out for the qualifying session in the afternoon with the temperatures in the mid 20’s. With the warm weather, the tyres came in quicker than expected and peaked earlier than it should have, leaving us 11th for the race – with 0.5 seconds separating us from the 4 or 5 teams ahead of us on the grid.
We went to the grid for the start of the race, Gary starting with a double stint. There was an amazing atmosphere on the grid with lots of team members and VIP guest walking up the main straight. Italians love their motor-racing, so the stands were packed, checking out the millions and millions of euros worth of racing cars.
Garry got a great start and fought hard through the pack to work his way up to 5th place. On the way, he went up the inside at the hairpin for position and clipped the car in front, breaking the two front right dive planes. The front started understeering – which created an issue for the tyres, as they had to last a double stint. The car was pitted and the nose changed to replace the two broken dive planes. Garry went back out and, the Murphy Prototypes car dropped down the pack after the un-scheduled stop.
Patrick got in for his stint and had a great battle trying to work his way back up the field. Unfortunately, Patrick also ended up with an unscheduled stop when he got swiped across the front which further dropped us down to 10th. . Before my stint to bring the car home, I went up above the garages to get a better look at any weather fronts coming in. All looked good, right up to about 10 minutes before my stint, before the Italian sky decided to let loose. Patrick pitted for intermediate tyres and I got in, and immediately, a FCY was imposed for a stricken car on the circuit. To make things worse, the heavens opened completely. Even though we were restricted to 80kph, I still had to tip toe my way around to get back to the pits and get the wet tyres on. The rain continued to bucket down still with the FCY’s out. With 30 minutes to go, the track was still under FCY, but then the safety car came out. I thought we might get a few flying laps to try clear a dry line but unfortunately they left the safety car out till the very end of the race. I didn’t get to do one racing lap – all of my laps were done behind the safety car and under Full Course Yellow. It was a shame because I wanted to drive the car in the rain. Having cut my teeth in the wet and windy environs of Mondello Park, wet conditions don’t faze me at all – I felt that we could actually make up places.
Nevertheless, I had a good weekend. Imola is a great town, and a great circuit, it was such a thrill to be there and race on the same track as some of my F1 heroes. Speaking of heroes, I have to give a big shout out to to the great mechanics and great engineers in the Murphy Prototypes team, and, of course, my new teammates. We all worked well together and had good laugh on and off the track.
See you at Le Mans in June – look up the Murphy Prototypes team if you are going!