Promise and Pace at The Rolex It's always good to get a mega start to the season and despite the ultimate disappointment of retiring when it was looking good for at least a podium position at Daytona last weekend, the whole Ascari team are ...
Promise and Pace at The Rolex
It's always good to get a mega start to the season and despite the ultimate disappointment of retiring when it was looking good for at least a podium position at Daytona last weekend, the whole Ascari team are well pumped up for mixing it with the big boys this year. Having said that, we believe that we will establish ourselves as 'big boys' over the coming year when we tackle Miami, Sebring, Le Mans and Petit Le Mans among others. Like I have said before, Klaas (Zwart) has amazing plans for Ascari Cars as a whole and it is a great experience being at the sharp end of it all.
At the end of last season I went back home to South Africa to catch up with the folks and get away from a foggy and cold Northamptonshire for a while. Unfortunately, Theresa my wife had a fairly heavy 'shunt' while water skiing and was in hospital for a while and I had to be Dr Lupberger for a few weeks! Thankfully she has recovered just fine now.
We then went to Sebring in early December with both the Judd and BMW KZR-1's. It was the first time that I had been to the track, that we will race on in March and I have to say that it has more than lived up to what people have told me and what I expected myself. It is a well-known fact that the track is very abrasive but it is nothing too extreme. I think that Mondello Park last summer was harder on the car, particularly in the driveshaft department, but Sebring, with all the 50th anniversary celebrations should be quite something.
Klaas, our new signing TJ Bell and myself drove both cars at the test in Florida and apart from a minor test at Snetterton last August it was the first real run I had done in the turbo car. It took a little getting used to as compared to the Judd car you almost short shift as it only revs to 7,500 compared to the 11/12,000 of the atmo. I could even hear the tyres squealing because it was so quiet in the cockpit, which was a very strange experience. It was a fruitful test and we got the turbo car down from being 3 seconds behind the Judd to just 1.5. TJ was very impressive and did exactly what was expected of him, which was to not go out and prove himself and to just gel with the team and get used to his new surroundings.
After the test I headed back home (sunny South Africa as opposed to frosty Northamptonshire again) for Christmas and then flew back out to the Daytona tests on January 2nd. Frustratingly we didn't manage to get out for the first day with the Judd car but part way through the second we hit the track and I set about learning the infield. It didn't take long and on the third day everything came together despite a small clutch problem and I ended up with the quickest time of the day. It was quite funny because at the beginning of the day Klaas was a little despondent and not sure that we were going to be right up there, but I could feel the potential and just said; "Klaas, we're going to be bang on the pace here, don't worry we'll be on pole." That seemed to cheer him up a bit and the whole team left the test in a positive frame of mind.
I stayed on with some of the team during January just to help out with things and be with the boys as we had a workshop base at Orlando, right next to the airport. We managed to take a break one-day to Universal studios but apart from that it was a case of preparing physically and mentally for the 24 hours.
Free practice was again hindered a little by a clutch problem but we just concentrated on getting all the procedures correct like driver changes and pit procedures. Harri (Toivonen) had a brief shakedown on the short circuit at Sebring as he had just recovered from a shoulder operation and wanted to play himself in again as it was the first time he had driven the car since Le Mans.
Qualifying was fantastic, apart from one crucial aspect. I had no communication with the team at all as the radio was out and also the dash was not functioning so I could not see what times I was doing. There is also no way that you can see a pit board out on the banking so I was totally incognito! So, I just got a rhythm going and put some laps together not really knowing how I was doing which is so frustrating and slightly disorientating. I was cooling the tyres down in-between spurts but the confusion over communication was compounded by the fact that the circuit timing got wiped out in the last few minutes, so when I came in to the pits at the end everyone was convinced that I was on pole. I even went to the Press Conference believing I was the pole sitter until Didier Theys walked in. He had gone one-tenth quicker right at the death. Gutted!
But it was still the front row and I had a very good feeling for the race, as the car was the best I had ever driven it during that qualifying session. We decided to opt for the harder tyres for the race, knowing that we could triple stint on them. The start went well and I tailed Theys in the Dallara for the first hour or so and could see that he was taking some big chances amongst the traffic. We were all running pretty quickly in the early stages, near qualifying pace in fact. My engineer, Roger Griffiths was giving me some 'stick' over the radio and telling me to back off a little. Our strategy was to obviously finish the race but throughout qualifying and in the early stages the car felt fantastic and it was all pretty full-on with guys like Theys, Lammers and Guy Smith out there at more or less qualifying pace.
At the stops, the team were taking good care of the car, checking the brake ducts for rubber build-up and making sure that all was perfect for the next stint. As a result we lost probably quite a bit of time to the leading cars and I think we were in 4th place after five or six hours. My second time in the car was a triple-stint and I was really enjoying it and everything was looking good. Later on I looked at the telemetry and there was not one over-rev or missed shift, which is pretty impressive for that amount of running. It was looking very good indeed. However, you can never tell in a race of that magnitude and sure enough we had a major problem when TJ went off at Turn One. He actually went in to the tyres very hard and tweaked his back which needed some intensive physio work later on. It was sad for him as he otherwise did a great job and should develop in to a solid sportscar driver.
The guys did a brilliant job on the repairs but as a result of the 'off' some rubber and debris had got in to the gearbox and caused a sticking downshift but that was soon sorted too. After a while we were back on track but down in 9th or 10th position.
During the night, Peter Weston, who has recently joined the team from Lola switched from engineering the retired turbo car on to ours and I really enjoyed working with him. He has fitted in to the team brilliantly and is a pretty slick operator, I am sure that he is going to be an integral part of Ascari over this coming season.
Just as we had got it all back together, Harri reported some engine problems and pulled in to the pit apron. The Judd engineers were huddled over the car with their bore scopes trying to diagnose what the problem was. I hopped back in to the car and went out for a lap to listen to the engine and in my mind I was hoping that it would just be a minor electrical fault or something. Sadly, it wasn't and there were some bent valves so it was game over. All of a sudden there was a flashback to Le Mans last year, as it was roughly the same time that we went out there too. It's a funny mixture of emotions, mainly despair tinged with a sort of tribal pride with all the mechanics and engineers shaking hands after so much hard and satisfying work. It was the furthest the car had ever done and we were in the hunt for a podium place at least. Boy, these races are real heartbreakers.
While we learn from each and every time the car is on track, we never look back too much and now everyone is focused on Sebring in March. That is going to be tremendous as it will be Ascari's first time there, as well as mine, but at least I now have some experience of the track. It's going to be really physical there but that will suite me just fine. We will have two Judd cars there for that and it will also see us racing with the Audi's too. That is a massive incentive for any driver as anything other than an Audi is viewed as a David to their Goliath. I love competing against the best and with racers like Kristensen, Herbert, Lehto, Brabham and others there, it will be another level that I can find out about. Having raced against guys like Lammers, Nielsen, Baldi and Boullion over the last 18 months I have learnt so much about sportscar racing.
Having done that, it is now time to go out there to beat them. At Daytona I showed that I can take it to some of those guys and now I have every intention of doing the very same thing at Sebring next month.
- Werner Lupberger/cf-