The Macau Grand Prix
Category: Formula 3
Text and photos by Motorsport Publication
I put Macau on my top five list because, like everyone knows, I’ve been in love with that race since my first start in 2010 – but also because it was such a special and strange weekend in every sense.
I arrived straight from the Marrakesh Formula E round, feeling a bit ill and tired. We had several media activities planned with Theodore Racing and there was a lot of focus on my comeback to Macau as the defending winner.
The first day felt relatively good, but I could tell there was something wrong and wherever we went, I thought it was quite cold. I asked our driver coach Nuno when we were chilling in the jacuzzi at the hotel what temperature it was, and he said it was close to 30 degrees C and 90 % humidity. That’s when I realised I was probably not that well.
Shortly after that I also picked up food poisoning, forcing me to cancel many of the activities we had planned, including the track walk. I knew it wasn’t ideal, but with the experience I had from previous years in Macau I was hoping it wouldn’t affect us too badly.
The first practice session felt strange. I was struggling with my concentration and didn’t think I was driving too well – but I proved myself wrong in going P1 by almost half a second, so at least I knew that I could deliver despite being ill.
The extreme amount of attention that surrounded me that weekend was something I’ve never ever experienced before. It was massively intense, on the edge of being detrimental. You might think it’s just an F3 race somewhere in Asia and not such a big thing, but it really is huge.
It was a constant haze of noise, pollution, interviews, autograph signing and selfie-taking and to be honest, I couldn’t have been happier when the weekend was over. I spent one week in my bed when I got back home, and just left my phone turned off.
Macau is a blend of different memories for me, but in the end, we had a fantastic race on Sunday after a tough week struggling a bit with the car. Even if we didn’t reach the target of winning it was so nice to be back with my friends at Prema – it’s a family to me, and we’ve stayed in contact every day since my last race in 2015. Bringing the year to an end together with them, looking out from the podium at the best track in the world, surely is a memory that has to make my top five list.
Leading the Mercedes charge in Budapest
Result: P8 (Race 1) / P11 (Race 2)
I got called up to do my DTM debut in Moscow, in the middle of the season when Esteban Ocon was replacing Rio Haryanto in Manor in F1. Having scored points in my first race, it felt like it would be hard to top that, but after a successful weekend at the Nürburgring – still with some room for improvement – I realised that I started to become a strong contender.
I was being hard on myself to try and improve, even if the results were already more than good enough to justify my place in the team. I was quite self-critical during those first weekends in the DTM, and that helped me to adapt quickly. It’s a very, very competitive championship and you need to give it everything you’ve got.
When they put the car on the ground in Budapest, I immediately felt I was on it. It was one of those times when you know you’re going to be strong. Unfortunately, however, we carried a weight penalty of something ridiculous compared to Audi and BMW, so we were more or less doomed to be at the end of the field on that weekend. That happens in the DTM from time to time.
Before qualifying on Saturday, I remember feeling a bit tired. I had an espresso and a Snickers bar trying to wake up a bit, and suddenly our chief engineer says: “are you not supposed to be in the car?”
We have a strict schedule with loads of activities and not so much free time, so occasionally – confused as I can be – it’s possible to mix up the times. I took my hot espresso like a shot and ran to mine and Gary (Paffett)’s truck to get changed. I jumped into the car, not feeling so tired anymore! People who know me will probably say that’s a rather typical “Felix” episode.
Once out on track, I felt really comfortable with the car and with my driving. I managed to do one very good lap early on, and my engineer Alban kept saying on the radio: “push, push, we have good pace!” I was able to improve by one or two hundredths in each corner, and put together one of the best laps I’ve ever done. I wound up P9 with all eight Audis in front of me and six BMWs just behind. The second-best Mercedes was P16.
I remember seeing one of the giant screens after the session, and that’s when I knew I’d probably maximised what we had. That remains one of the proudest moments of the year for me.
The race itself was nothing special. I finished eighth, again as the leading Mercedes, having Timo Scheider on my gearbox for most of the race. I was proud with the way I drove, though, making no mistakes despite that pressure on a track which is very technical in a DTM car.
I also think that Saturday in Budapest goes to demonstrate a few things about motorsport on a wider scale. Our sport is fantastic, but quite often just looking at the results does not reveal the full story.
That’s especially true in a series like the DTM, where the performance weights can disguise some of the really good performances. It’s part of the game and not something to complain about; it’s a system in place to make things more interesting for the fans, and it’s something you just have to deal with. Over a year, it’s supposed to even out.
I think it’s important for people on the outside to know, however, that some of the great drives can actually take place in the midfield. For me, that P9 result in qualifying in Hungary was one of my best-ever performances. I drove better than I’ve done on pole position laps in other series. It gave me a great deal of satisfaction and goes to show how complex motor racing is.
Doing the double in Toronto
Category: Indy Lights
Location: Toronto, Canada
Result: P1 (Race 1) / P1 (Race 2)
I flew out very early to Toronto, as I had no other things planned that week. I’d heard a lot of good things about the city, so I thought I might as well have a look around and spend a couple of days just doing a bit of sightseeing.
I arrived at my hotel which was very nicely located in the middle of Toronto, but there had been a misunderstanding which meant I didn’t have a room booked for the first day. There were no other rooms available, so I had to try to get a temporary hotel for that night.
There was a big trade fair or expo thing in Toronto that weekend and basically impossible to find a central hotel, so I took a long shot and ended up staying in some really creepy place around 40 minutes outside of the city center. It was very hot and humid in Toronto at that time, and the place didn’t have air conditioning – it was more than 30 degrees outside. I must have drunk two litres of water that first night!
The next two days I was just walking around in the city on my own, exploring the things it had to offer. I had pretty high expectations given what I’d been told – and it delivered on the promise. They have lots of different kinds of restaurants and things to do, so it was easy to spend time there. The Canadians were also very friendly. It actually turned out to be one of my favourite cities, and I’d recommend anyone to go there.
Coming into the weekend in Toronto, I had missed the previous two races in Indy Lights due to clashes with my European commitments with Mercedes, so it had been a while since I was in the Belardi car. Everyone was asking me if I would be struggling this weekend having only driven closed cars for the past two months, but I felt quite confident I could get back into it quickly.
The circuit was the most bumpy and rough one I’ve ever seen. In some places, there were more than ten changes of surface within 100 meters, with most corners also having concrete patches which had about half of the grip compared to the tarmac. That made it unpredictable and very physical, but it was really cool and different to anything I’ve driven, and once you got to grips with it there was actually a nice flow in the track.
I went on to win both races from pole position, and that marked a big turning point of my season where before then, things had been a bit tough. The pace was generally there, but I felt like I was having quite a lot of bad luck during the early parts of summer. Winning twice in Toronto was a significant moment of the year, proving I was able to bounce back. It also turned out to be my last two races in Indy Lights, with calendar clashes unfortunately making it logistically impossible to carry on over there after I got called up to compete in the DTM.
A couple of days after Toronto, I also had my first IndyCar test in Scott Dixon’s car with Chip Ganassi Racing. It took place at Mid-Ohio and I loved every second of it. It’s the fastest and most powerful car I’ve ever driven and, even though it was just a test, it remains a very fond memory. That very test has opened a lot of doors for me on the American racing scene.
The time I spent there in the US this year was very educational for me as a driver and as a person, on many levels. It’s an eye-opener into a different way of going about motor racing, including a particular lingo. For example, I had never heard about “sticker tyres” before – I thought everyone just called them “new”! The American experience was certainly interesting, and while the travelling that came with it while combining racing in Europe was a big test at some heavily over-crowded airports, I’m very happy that I did it.
The Marrakesh success
Category: FIA Formula E Championship
Location: Marrakesh, Morocco
Result: P3 / pole position
Having spoken about those other races on this list, with characteristic circuits and surroundings, I think Marrakesh was very different to all that. I didn’t get much of a taste for the place; the layout of the track was quite straightforward, being flat with run-off areas and so on. Also, unlike all the other circuits we go to in Formula E except Mexico, it wasn’t a street track. Still, I rate that weekend as one of the outright best of my career, and probably the strongest of all for me in 2016 in terms of pure performance.
Being a rookie in Formula E, I had only done one previous race – the season-opener in Hong Kong. It was a fantastic place to have a race, right in the heart of the city, and it gave a similar vibe to the Macau Grand Prix. Perhaps with those two cities connected by just a short boat ride, that was maybe to be expected.
Then we got to Marrakesh, which was all different. I didn’t check the surroundings out that much; I think the most cultural thing I did was a camel ride in the desert on the Thursday! Instead, we got down to work pretty much straight away. It was the longest and fastest track in Formula E history, and those characteristics had a huge effect on energy consumption and strategy. It was another cup of tea compared to Hong Kong, so we just had a lot to do.
With Formula E rounds being one-day events, it’s a very busy schedule once we get going. It begins in free practice, where you need to hit your race simulation targets and quickly decide on your baseline plan.
Also in practice, you have one full-effect, 200 kW lap in each of the two sessions, and that’s all you get with that setting before being thrown into qualifying. It gives you very little time to prepare.
Added to that, the Marrakesh track was particularly difficult because of its many big braking zones. Running 200 kW instead of 170 kW has a huge effect on top speed, which means you have to brake earlier in qualifying than in practice, but still take into account the changes in grip from track evolution. It’s basically a guessing game, but that’s exactly what I find so interesting. You need to be more adaptable in Formula E than in anything else I’ve ever raced.
Qualifying is normally crucial. The circuits are very tight and leave little room for overtaking, so you need to start towards the front of the grid. The field is exceptionally strong, so even a tiny mistake – like a slight lock-up – can put you P10 instead of P1.
Having said that, in Marrakesh I actually felt quite confident of making it through the group stages of qualifying and reach the top five Super Pole part. Things had been going well in practice and I noticed there were probably three or four of us who had a bit of an edge over the rest. It also turned out to be true.
From the outside, Super Pole probably looks like a repeat of qualifying but in a top five shoot-out shape. In reality, it’s much more complex than that. The tyres we use are a bit like those in Formula 1; great grip on the first few laps, and then a significant decrease before they stabilise.
In Super Pole, you use the same exact set you used earlier on in qualifying, and they now have a heat cycle in them coupled with more wear. That means you have to rethink once again and adapt your driving style. On my Super Pole lap, I was being a bit more refined – still on the edge, but without over-driving. Some might have seen my powerslide charge from the first phase of Marrakesh qualifying; that’s the kind of driving you can’t afford in Super Pole.
When my engineer told me on the radio that we’d taken pole, I was obviously excited. It was more than we could ever have expected so early on in the season. I think it was the best pole position of my career in terms of the performance itself.
I felt no added pressure going into the race; on the contrary, to be honest. Starting up ahead allowed me to do my thing, uninterrupted. The start procedure in Formula E is pretty straightforward – it’s mostly about reaction time – and I managed to get away well off the line and keep the lead throughout the first stint.
As the race wore on, however, I slowly came to realise how new everything actually was. It’s not like in Formula 3; if you’re leading there at the end of lap one it’s half the job done, but Formula E has a whole lot of strategic elements to it. You need to control your pace, save the energy and be clever about everything you do. Coasting is part of the game and you need to nail that, each corner, each braking zone, each lap.
I opened up a gap of about five seconds before the pit stop, which was pretty much exactly what we needed given the fact we pitted a lap earlier than our most immediate rivals.
What caught us out was the second stint, where we lost more time than we should have done. We were never going to be the quickest on track at that point because we had to go a lap longer than the guys we raced, but for a variety of reasons we faded off slightly more than we’d hoped. We learned from it and with a bit more experience in the future, it should be fine.
A few laps from the end, Sébastien Buemi and Sam Bird managed to catch up and get ahead. It was a shame, obviously, but at the time I wasn’t thinking about it too much. You need to focus on your own race and your own strategy, and you never know what will happen on the final lap. People have run out of energy before and it can bite you very, very quickly. I also knew P3 was safe, and I certainly didn’t want to risk that.
Experiencing that success in Marrakesh with all the guys at Mahindra Racing – a team I’m already feeling very much at home with – was a big thing for me. Formula E is still very new to me, but I really like the concept and I think it suits me as well. I love the kind of challenge it represents; you need to be quick and clever at the same time. It’s a championship going places and it’s great to be a part of that. I’m really looking forward to getting back out there with the team in 2017.
The 24-hour road to recovery
Event: 24 Hours of Spa
Category: Blancpain GT Series
Car: Mercedes-AMG GT3
Location: Spa, Belgium
The GT3 programme with AKKA-ASP in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup was the first thing I signed this year, and in the end it was the only full championship I did. I shared a Mercedes-AMG GT3 with Tristan Vautier, and it’s actually quite funny it ended up that way.
I met Tristan the first time in 2009, when we had a little fallout after I inadvertently blocked him in qualifying for a race at Snetterton (pictured below). At that point I’d never have thought we would end up being team-mates, but life surprises you sometimes and Tristan and I turned out to have a lot of fun together this year.
We also made a very strong combination by the end of the season, winning the finale in Barcelona. It was great to get acquainted with GT racing at large; it exceeded my expectations and I can understand why it’s grown to such heights in recent times.
The 24 Hours of Spa was definitely the highlight of the GT season. It was actually not part of the Sprint Cup, so technically it was a one-off for me in the Endurance Cup which packs together the longer races on the Blancpain calendar.
Our team boss, Jérôme Policand, put so much effort into Spa. You could really tell that he wanted to do well in this race, and obviously so too did the rest of us. We got Renger van der Zande on board as our third driver, which was a “known unknown” for me – we’ve both been part of the Mercedes family for many years, so it was good to have him join us for the 24 Hours.
I remember being surprised at how much fun it was to drive the GT3 car at Spa. It’s a lovely track, but it was almost a bit boring in F3 with all that amount of downforce and not a lot of power. In GT3, the car/track combination was really awesome.
I think especially Eau Rouge and Blanchimont were particularly challenging in that car, and I will never forget when I managed to do Eau Rouge flat out in the Super Pole qualifying segment, where we ended up P3. I told myself earlier in the weekend that I had to do it, and it was greatly rewarding when I did.
Shortly after qualifying, however, all AMG cars ended up getting a strange penalty which I still honestly do not understand to this day. We were told it was because of Balance of Performance reasons, but I really don’t know how that happened.
Anyway, all AMG entries – which included us – had to start from the back of the grid, and serve a five-minute (!) stop and go penalty at the start of the race. It was a massive, devastating blow.
Tristan, Renger and I sat down and discussed how we were going to tackle the race, and after we got through some words probably not appropriate to mention in this context, we eventually settled down and decided to just give it our everything and have a lot of fun. People often say “everything can happen”, and so did we on this occasion. I don’t know if we believed it, but I know one thing: we did have fun…
We started the race by standing still for those five minutes in the pitlane, watching the others lap us two or three times. Terrible. Then we started to work our way slowly up the field. After my first stints in the car, I had a nap, and when I woke up three hours later I realised we were actually getting somewhat in the mix, being P30 or something like that.
I ended up driving for almost half the race, and the final double stint that I did was something very special. I decided that I would treat it like a qualifying run, where every corner, every overtake had to be done in the quickest possible way – which meant taking a decent amount of risk every lap. I remember overtaking some people in the grass after Blanchimont, flat out at 250 km/h, just to save a couple of tenths. That was the mode I was in once I realised we had a shot of getting onto the podium.
When it started to rain in the last 20 minutes, we were P4. The heavens just burst wide open – typical Spa – and it mixed everything up. We managed to pass two cars during the final round of pit stops and take second place, finishing on the same lap as the winners. It was surreal in every sense of the word.
Spa really got my eyes opened for endurance racing; it’s a very cool form of motorsport, and it gels you together as a team like nothing else.
I think what no one can understand is the enormous commitment that goes into a 24-hour race from every person involved. It’s little or no sleep at all, and everyone must be millimetre-precise during that whole time. To end up on the podium after that initial, massive setback was just very hard to believe, and it took a long time to understand what a crazy thing we had accomplished.
That combination of emotion, from a big low to a massive high, and the actual driving performance that allowed for it, is what makes this my number one moment of 2016.