Senior Editor Richard Sloop took a couple of laps around the St. Petersburg Grand Prix 1.8-mile street circuit in a racing Audi RS4 driven by Panoz instructor, Nick Fanelli. Coming across the start/finish line, we were flat out in fifth...
Senior Editor Richard Sloop took a couple of laps around the St. Petersburg Grand Prix 1.8-mile street circuit in a racing Audi RS4 driven by Panoz instructor, Nick Fanelli.
Coming across the start/finish line, we were flat out in fifth gear. The front straight is a surprisingly smooth concrete runway. I saw the 300 ft. marker approaching and instead of going for the brakes, Nick, shifted into sixth gear for half a second (a half a second too long for me) before jamming on the brakes for Turn 1. The first turn is a large wide area with high rumble strips on the inside and plenty of distance from the concrete walls on the outside.
I need to preface this article with the thought of how many times I am going to type the word "concrete". Because St. Pete is all about concrete, you see it and you fear it. I took extra time yanking down on my seatbelts when they strapped me in. I pulled so hard that I couldn't move an inch in my seat as we pulled out of pitlane.
Exiting Turn 1, there is a quick left hander (Turn 2) which leads on to a short straight and a burst of acceleration and another jam on the brakes for the third turn. Now the speed really starts. There is a medium length straightaway between Turns 3 and 4 where we first reached over 100 mph. There are buildings on the left and right and the track starts getting narrow. At the end of the straight is a tight right hander which, when approaching, all you see in the distance are traffic lights which were of course, red!
The next series of turns, 5-6-7-8, is a roller coaster ride of concrete on the left and then on the right and then back to the left. The circuit is very tight here and with the looming buildings, makes it very claustrophobic.
The approach to the ninth turn is a slightly longer burst of speed and a hard stab on the brakes as this is a very tight right-hander. Now comes the second longest straightaway, which in the middle is the "infamous" Acura Kink. This is where, as you approach, every muscle in your body tightens up. Only by experience, do you know where to lift and toss the car toward the concrete wall and wait for the tires to grab.I said "lift" but in the ALMS prototypes and IRL cars this is a flat out section. This is the most exciting section of the circuit.
I, up to the that moment, had only seen the eyeballs of my driver, Nick, but now I wanted to suddenly know how much experience he had, how many times he had been around this circuit and most importantly, are the tires warm enough?!
The Acura Kink is a momentary gulp and then we are back on the gas accelerating to Turn 10, the Honda Corner. As we approached, the circuit opens up and I noticed the yachts in the marina flashing by on my left. I caught a glimpse of a girl in a bathing suit on a top deck there somewhere but it was so quick I could not tell you the color of the boat, let alone whether she was a blonde or a brunette. She just looked bored. Bored was something I was not at that moment.
We powered out of the Honda Corner and as soon as we reached third gear, we reached Turns 11 and 12 which are the esses and like most of this circuit, they are mad rushes toward the concrete walls. Another long gulp and and we screamed toward the final two turns. They list this section as two corners but 13 and 14 are one long right hander with two apexes. If you don't have your car set up right, this would be where you lose time.
I was now confident with this Audi RS4 and my driver. I really enjoyed this last turn. The rearend stepped out nicely and caught at the right moment. We were on the gas almost before the last apex and we swept out onto the front straight and the start/finish line flat out.
St. Pete might not be everyone's favorite track but it is challenging and technical. It does not allow any room for errors and will bite you in an instance. Many, I'm sure, will attest to that.
I thoroughly enjoyed my ride. It was an incredible blur of speed and color. And, oh, did I mention the concrete?