It was tough getting out of bed on Thursday as my whole body seemed a bit stiff. I thought nothing of it and did some stretching and jumped into the shower. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we headed off to the track for the first day of practice. Normally in the WSK races, we start practice on Wednesday, but due to a Continental Tire test going on, we could only get on the track on Thursday. Due to this, the WSK made the schedule for the day jam packed with six 15-minute sessions. Im all about getting a lot of track time, but when your last session of the day rolls out at 7:15PM, it makes for too long of a day. I would think a big international race organization would have more sense than this and maybe schedule the race on a different weekend being there is over a month and half until the next race so we could have the normal program.
Once we arrived at the tent it was a quick stop at the IAME van to pick up the engine and Blaz mounted it to the chassis. The first three sessions of the day were spent running in the engines. We had two engines for the weekend but IAME also had another piston/head combination to test so we had to break that in also.
The fourth session finally came and it was the first time I could really stretch everything out. Portimao is a great circuit and I was really enjoying driving it at full speed again. The session went without any problems and with a quick look of the tires it was time to strap up a fresh set and get a feel for the chassis. The circuit is really fast with a lot of long corners that are quite hard on the Dunlop DEM tyres. With new tyres, the kart along with your lap times will change drastically. From a finished set of tyres compared to a new set you can find upwards to a second in time, so you have to be careful how you use your tyres.
The fifth session we made a plan to do two laps with the old tyres to make sure everything was okay and then come in the pits and mount a new set. When I saw Blaz give me the signal, I headed for the pits and quickly changed the tyres. I headed out on the track and drove around at half pace to find a nice open area to make some clean laps. Once I found a good place, I started pushing. The first time down the fast straight I was going as if everything was normal and then all of a sudden the rear of my kart went out of control. I managed to only drop a tyre in the dirt and was able to get the kart off the track to have a look at what the hell happened.
Once out of the kart, I saw that both rear tyres had dismounted themselves from the inside bead of the wheel. I had never seen anything like it before in my many years of karting. Once back at the pit, we inspected the tyres and could find nothing wrong with them so we remounted them back on the wheels. The IAME engine tuners wanted to run in another piston for the final 10-minute session so we swapped out the tyres back to the old ones and had a good session.
All in all, besides the very strange tyre issue, it was a productive day. I also was very happy to find my right hand was not giving me any problems. I had 2nd-degree burns to the palm and three middle fingers from a cooking accident from the week before and was worried that it would be a problem when I drove. Once I was all wrapped up, it was perfect while on track.
When I woke up on Friday my body was quite stiff again but more troubling than that was a really sore throat. After my stretches, I put the sore throat in the back of my head and just thought to myself I was probably just thirsty and did not drink enough water the night before. Once at the track I looked at the program for the day and saw it was going to be another long one. We had four 15-minute practice sessions with one Qualifying run at the end of the day that set our starting position for the first heats for both Saturday and Sunday.
For the second session, I had completed just a couple of warm-up laps and then two flying laps before we had technical problems with the engine. This was a bummer because we were going to use the session to test some things with the chassis. Once back under the tent, Blaz took off the engine and ran it over to the IAME van, coming back with the other engine.
Knowing we only had two sessions left before qualifying, we decided to mount up a set of new tyres and have them ready for the next session. Run number three of the day saw us doing two fast laps to make sure the carburation was okay with the new engine and then coming in the pits to mount up the new tyres.
Then on my first flying lap, the same feeling came in the rear as the last time and I came to a stop. I looked and one of the rear tyres had come off the inside of the rim once again and that was the end of my session. I was not alone out there as two of my old teammates – Jonathon Thonon and Arnuad Kozlinski – had suffered the same problem as me. To be honest, I was glad to see I was not the only one because I almost started to think it was something I was doing to make them come off the rim.
We had one more session before the all important Qualifying session and still had not been able to test too many things. The last run we made changes, some were better and some were worse. But all in all, it was the first session of the weekend we really were able to test anything so I considered it a great session. The only problem was there were still a lot of unknowns going into Qualifying and we had to do a lot of guess work before this really important session.
Going into Qualifying, we took precaution and had bead lock screws placed on the inside of the tire along with the normal outside screws. We could not afford to miss out on this session so we also made the settings on the carb on the safe side so we knew we could get a time in. Qualifying went without any problems but our pace was not the best. I struggled to adjust to some of the changes we had made and was not able to put together the best of laps when the tyres came into their prime. Our time put us 22nd overall and a 0.5s off the pace.
With Portimao being such a long track, it was not too bad all things considered and we knew we still had a lot left to improve on. After the normal inspection of the chassis and quick wipe down, it was off to dinner. At dinner, I started to notice I was not feeling too well with a slight sore throat and a massive head ache. With my stubborn nature, I kept telling myself I was fine and I was just tired from the long day. But little did I know when I went to sleep I was coming down with something.
When I woke there was no getting around it, I was sick with the flu. I felt really hot, weak, and my throat hurt like hell. I’m not one to get sick often and it was a real bummer that it had to happen during a race weekend.
All the changes Dino and Blaz had made were for the better and the chassis felt perfect. I have to give my hat off to Dino on the chassis. The Zanardi is one of the best chassis’ I have driven but what is more impressive is how quickly and easy it is to find the right set-up for each track. It is safe to say you could take the thing out of the box and it will be really close to perfect on any track. Bottom line is, Dino knows his stuff and I feel really fortunate to be working with him.
The first heat saw me lining up in the 11th position. After our two warm-up laps we took the start and everything went well up until the first corner. As in every race, the middle of the pack is the worst place to be and it just happened to be where I had positioned myself was not the best place. I dropped two wheels in the dirt, losing many positions. But once back on track and when the first lap craziness wore down, I was able to get into a good rhythm and started picking drivers off one by one. I was able to get back to my original 11th position by the races end. Our pace was quite good and we knew we still could work a little more with the engine. After a good look at the data, we made a gear change along with adjusting the carb settings for the next heat.
We are placed on the grid for the second heat by where you finish the first heat, so I gridded up in 11th spot and made a great start. I was able to position myself in the pack much better this time. The changes in the engine department and my pace were the best it had been all weekend. By the end, I was able to get up to the 6th position and I was quite happy with our performance in the race. With our 11th and 6th place finishes in the heats, I would be on 13th for Final 1 and we decided to make no changes to either the engine or chassis.
Before the Final, my health was going down hill fast. It was really hard to focus my eyes on something and my body kept on having temperature swings. But once the helmet goes on, everything else seems to fade away and I was ready to race.
I got a decent start to the Final but the first corner shuffle saw me losing out on a few spots. Once settled in, I was able to take back a few spots due to a few drivers getting together and making some late braking moves in the inner part of the track. We just had started the seventh or eighth lap and I experienced technical problems with the engine right in the middle of the fastest corner on the track. Sauro Cesetti was right behind me when it happened and with nowhere to go he hit me in the rear sending me flying off the track at around 90mph.
There is a fence fairly close to the outside and it did not have any protection, maybe because its more like a straight with a sweeping corner in the middle of it. I hit one of the fence posts going backwards. When I hit, it whipped the kart around really violently and I got tossed around much like a rag doll. Once I came to a stop, I had to sit there for a couple seconds just to catch my breath. It was a big hit but I was really lucky it was not worse. Luckily the frame of the kart was only bent a little and could be repaired but the axle and radiator were toast.
Once in the hotel, I felt like death. I ate as much as I could get down, even though my appetite was zero and went to bed. I cant remember the last time I have felt so tired after a day at the track. After taking some pills to fight off the illness, I was out cold.
It was a tough morning waking up. My body was quite stiff and sore from the day before and my health was at its lowest point of the weekend.
Once we arrived at the track, the weather had changed drastically from the day before. Bright sunshine and warm temps where exchanged for heavy dark clouds, wind, and cold air. There was talk flying around the paddock that there was chance of rain during the day and seeing rain falling in the mountains surrounding the track, I would say their assumptions where correct. As we pushed up to the grid, light rain started to fall but not enough to change the track. I did most the session breaking-in a new piston and pushed the last two laps of the session. Everything felt normal and we decided not to touch anything for the first heat.
There was an hour and a half break before the first heat started and the rain became heavier and heavier. Actually it wasnt really rain; it was like a really heavy mist. The racing was stopped and it was declared a wet day and Parc Ferme transformed into a flurry of activity. Blaz went over to check it out and to see if there was anyway we could mount up our tires to be ready if the rain did not stop; but lets just say that place was like a war zone. Tyres were flying, people were shouting, chassis were falling off stands. For a race fan, it is brilliant to watch, but for the competitors, its your worst nightmare. Lets just say the ratio of air pumps to drivers is a little slim in Parc Ferme and some times you see the competitive spirit come out in people.
While watching everyone run around, Dino came over the radio to Blaz and told him to mount up the rains just to be safe but his opinion was the track was going to dry by the time our heat race came around. Dino was right and the heat race before ours showed us that dry tyres were the way to go and we just proceeded as normal.
The first heat, I would start from 11th position which came from my position in Friday’s Qualifying. I made a good start and started picking off drivers right away. Our pace was quite good. I was held up by one driver for a couple laps and that let the front pack put some distance between me and them. I slowly reeled them in and by the end of the race I was eighth at the back of the lead group. I was not able to get passed any more by other drivers but our times were just as good as the drivers up front. I felt I was stronger as the laps wore down. I was confident we would be able to get a good start for the second heat and gain some more positions and have a decent starting spot for Final 2.
Starting 8th, I made a killer start and going into the first corner I was sitting 5th. For a split second, I saw the possibility to finish in the top three in the heat up until we came into the first corner. As I applied the brakes, I got a huge shunt in the back but was able to keep the kart under control and in line. But as I regained control, I received another huge shunt in the rear sending me into a spin and stalling the kart. I was dead last and the pack was long gone before I got restarted. Blaz made the call to pull it in and save the tyres for the Final. It was really disappointing to miss out on what I thought could be a great heat. At least I know the driver it was who pushed me off and you can bet he will get what is coming to him not once, but twice like he did to me.
With my two heat race finishes, I would start Final 2 from the 23rd position and with no threat of rain, Dino told me to make a clean start and just finish the race due to the fact we had not turned many laps during the weekend.
For Final 2, we placed the karts out on the track with umbrella girls in the middle. Usually, the girls are quite nice to look at but either Portugal has a slim selection of good looking girls or the person in charge of picking them had an off day, because they were a little on the haggard side. I made a clean start like Dino had asked me, and got settled into a rhythm and started picking off drivers when I could. The engine did not seem to perform as well as it had in the past and I seemed to be loosing power as the laps wore on. Then four laps from the end, we had technical problems with the engine in the middle of the straight and that was the end of my weekend. It was a disappointing end to a tough weekend.
Once back under the tent we made quick work of taking down the tent and loading all the stuff into the van. Chiesa Corse had a great weekend as a team, seeing Nyck De Vries destroy the field in KF1 and seeing Lance Stroll being one of the fastest drivers in KF3, only to be taken out in the Final in what could have been an easy podium finish. After all the stuff was packed and we said our good byes, Dino, Blaz, Mike and myself hopped into the rental car and made our way to Seville to stay over night in order to catch our early flight home the next morning.