Thursday (Travel Day, Track Walk)
Thursday had a very early start, 3:40 AM to be exact. My two and a half hour flight from Winnipeg to Toronto left at 5:20 AM which was not the most pleasant or sought after flight, but allowed my father (Murray) and I to get acquainted with the track and spend a solid day in Toronto. After arriving at the USF2000 paddock, or otherwise known as the Direct Energy Centre, the first course of business is always to find my team, Belardi Auto Racing. The mechanics are always the first ones to greet drivers at the pit, setting up the kiwi tiles and hospitality area. Always great fun to chat with those guys, never a sad look on their faces. Secondly, I found the engineers who were setting up the data trailer. In very loud voice so everybody could hear “How’re ya doing eh?” came from the door, the tell tale signal that I, the only Canadian on the team, had arrived. After all the pleasantries the weekend strategy was discussed between myself, Stefan Wilson (My Coach), and Bob Knox (My Engineer). Overall we were aiming for a top 12 qualifying and two top 10 finishes in the races. It seemed like a reasonable goal considering my progress throughout the season thus far. Track walk followed this at 4:00, I always love this part of the weekend because all of the drivers from all the series are on the track at the same time. That includes IndyCar! Its really cool to be looking at a corner then have Dario Franchitti standing right next to you examining the same barriers or curbs. After the track walk it was time to find the hotel, and in typical Toronto traffic fashion it took us an hour and forty five minutes to go three kilometers! (1.8 miles for the Americans!) Anyhow after we finally arrived dinner was eaten and it was straight to bed, considering practice 1 started at 7:30 it was going to be another early morning.
Friday (Practice 1, Practice 2, and Qualifying)
Friday started again very early, again, 5:45AM this time, so I got a nice long sleep in. But Tim Hortons came to the rescue! Got some coffee and breakfast bagels and away we set off to the track, made a quick stop on the way to pick up Stefan then it was all business. When I arrived at the track Stefan and I went over the track map once more, and I took in as much as I could then it was time to get suited up for our first on track session. Practice one was uneventful, simply learning the track with a bit of hard running at the end. The track was extremely dusty and slippery so there was no real reason to try and get a feel for what changes I wanted made to the car considering the track would rubber up so much for practice two. We ended the session with the fifteenth quickest time but I knew I had left lots of time on the table for practice two and so did Stefan. The usual hour or two was spent in the data trailer analyzing and comparing with teammates, having four other cars data to look at is a tool I will definitely take advantage of right now. It provides so many different opinions of the track and really gives the whole team an opportunity to be fast. I find data analysis to be one of the most important parts of the race weekend because with such little time on track it’s vital to trust the car and know exactly where I need to push harder. Or in some cases, tone down my driving.
Practice two started off with a bang, literally. On my third flying lap I was pushing the car to its absolute limit. Braking as late as possible, using all of the available track space and hugging walls where I could. Stefan was telling me that so far in the session I was seventh quickest and I was quick but should still try and pull more time out of the car. So I did, going into turn three after the longest straight away on track I braked at the two and a half marker, which was later than I had before. But the brake pedal went straight to the floor and the car didn’t slow down nearly quick enough. The front brakes started working miraculously and the front tires took all of the pressure I was putting on the pedal and immediately locked up. I used the entire run off area then slowly drove the car back to the pits. Somehow during my brake failure I managed not to touch a single tire barrier or wall, I can say there were more than a few close calls though. When I arrived back in pit lane my mechanic took the front wing and nose assembly off then started examining the master cylinders. He found a leak and quickly tightened everything back up, and got the other mechanics on the team to jump in and help with a quick bleed of the brakes. However I only got 2 more laps so the brake failure ended the session only getting about 5 laps. It was incredibly frustrating to lose that much track time.
Qualifying was up next and I was more than ready. With the problem we had in practice two I was ready to go out and throw down a quick one. Leaving the pits I thought to myself, focus, trust the car and push it to the limit. My first flying lap was dismal, but I kept at it. I pushed as hard as possible, trying to forget that brake failure in turn 3 and just trust the car. When the session had ended I turned out in sixtieth. Which I was incredibly disappointed in, I still really don’t know what was wrong with my car or my driving, I was just slow. Coming back from the session I was a bit dejected but that all changed, the fans started coming and asking for autographs and pictures, simply because I was Canadian! The atmosphere at this race was better than any other event I have been to in my career, the fans in Toronto love their Canadian boys. My team owner, Brian Belardi , actually had to take the hero cards back into the trailer because they were going so quickly. By the end of the weekend I had none left, which was a very good feeling.
Our Saturday race started at 9:40, which was a little later than the other two days so I was grateful for the extra amount of rest I got. We arrived at the track around 8:15 and from then on it was just mental preparation and discussing possible strategies for the race with Bob and Stefan. The main idea was to try and stay on the outside of turn one because it allows me to carry more speed and not get caught in a single file line and have no opportunity to overtake other cars. The other corner heavily discussed was turn three, the heavy brake zone which leads into a tight right hand corner. Stefan advised me if I could, stay on the outside because on the inside cars will get bottlenecked and again create a single file line in which no one is able to overtake. His main point was to seriously be aware of cars around me, everyone will be pushing for position and there is bound to be a wreck in either one or three.
|Daniel running hard in Toronto (Photo courtesy of Daniel Burkett)|
On the pace lap I felt calm and relaxed, I knew that I was going to be fast. The green flag dropped I was totally on it. I had a run on a few of the cars in front of me and I made the move to the outside of turn one. I didn’t brake as late as I possibly could just to be cautious but I still made up two places by going around the outside. The long run down to turn three was spent planning and thinking about how I would overtake the cars in front of me. Stefan was on the top of the grandstands looking out for trouble and he would only radio in if he saw a crash starting to develop. Going into corner three I heard no radio from Stefan so I braked as late as possible around the outside of most cars making up only one spot but it was still valuable. By the end of lap 1 I had made it to thirteenth and started chasing down the pack in front of me. I was much quicker and was on their gearbox in two laps. Just when I got there the caution came out and killed the momentum, a car had smashed the wall exiting the last corner. On the restart I again tried the outside but got hung out to dry and lost a place. The pass had cost me a fair bit of time so it took some work to catch back up to the group in front at this point I was in eleventh. About halfway through the race I had made my way back up to the group of four cars. I was thinking about what move I would make and where how to set up for a pass when I brushed the wall exiting turn 3. The impact didn’t damage anything but changed the alignment significantly. It made the car a bit tougher to drive but I still maintained pace. With only five minutes remaining in the race another caution came out and the entire field was under the impression that the race would be over and finish under caution. However the safety team got the wrecked cars cleaned up very quickly and I had one last lap to get at least another spot to finish in the top ten. The green and white flags waved at start finish and I really carried a lot of speed down the inside of one and made the overtake stick! I wasn’t able to make up any other places but finishing tenth from starting sixtieth I was happy with. Also I had the ninth fastest race lap that’s where I was starting on Sunday, in ninth place. Which was my best starting grid position of the season.
All in all Saturday was a good day, I knew I could have done better if I hadn’t made contact with the wall in corner three but I knew we had a very fast car for Sundays race.
Sunday started at 8:00 AM and we arrived at the track around 9:30. Knowing that any handling problems I had in race 1 were caused by the contact in corner three I told Bob that no changes were needed on the car. This weekend we made only 1 change! Its very rare to have a car that comes out of the trailer and is quick right away with only a few changes, certainly was a first for me. Sunday’s race started at 11:35 and I was hyped up and ready to go. I knew my car was fast and I had a starting position that made it possible for me to finish in the top 5, a goal that seemed unreachable during the opening rounds of my season.
Before the race I was chatting with some of the other drivers and they had the same impression that I did about todays race, there were going to be wrecks. Race two marked the midway point in the USF2000 schedule, which meant for most drivers, desperation for championship hopes set in.
The start of race two was a bit shaky and in turn three I broke far too late and got hung out to dry in the marbles, this really cost me, 8 positions to be exact! I was in 8th place heading into the corner, I came out 16th which was very frustrating because it put me far back in the field, in a position where I could get involved in the mid pack wrecks. And that’s exactly what happened, on the same lap in turn 8 a three car pile up ensued, luckily I was able to maneuver my way around the crashing cars which then put me into 13th, and the number 13 certainly worked its magic. After all the mess was cleaned up, on the restart two cars got together, literally right in front on me. I jabbed the pedal and slowed down but the driver behind me figured that he didn’t need to, but he did need to. The end result was my car getting pushed into the tire barriers sending me all the way back to 21st. Surprisingly nothing got broken or bent on the car, but I knew I had no one to blame but myself for the incident, if I hadn’t messed up turn three on lap one I would have been in the top 5, far away from all the carnage. After yet another mess cleaned up I got the call from my mechanic, Eric, that it was going green this time by the start/finish line. Considering I was the very last car in the single file order I hung back in order to get a run on the rest of field, and boy did it work perfectly! By the flag stand I had already passed four cars and was going to get some more on braking into turn 1. But as the tradition followed for this race, somebody had to crash again, right on the line I was planning to take. So once again I had to hammer on the brakes when I should have been accelerating letting all the cars I had just overtaken, re take me! It was really not our day. Several laps of caution ensued, and I got the call from Eric that when the green was flown this time by I would have four laps to make up as many positions as I possibly could. I was a man on a mission; I promised my self that I wouldn’t settle for a lap that I didn’t overtake a car. On the restart I was 19th and I tried to time the green flag again but it failed, miserably. I waited too long and basically just destroyed any chance of an overtake in turn 1. In turn three however, I was bloodthirsty. Overtaking two cars, on the outside nonetheless. I kept on pushing and took another on the inside of turn 8. The following lap I took 1 on the outside of 1 and then another in turn 3. After those cars the competition started to get tough so I had to plan my overtakes in advance and oh was I a scheming little devil in my helmet. I got the draft at just the right moment for the next two cars and took them both down the inside of eight. It was then the last lap and I knew that I could catch the group in front but I had to run a perfect lap. I ended up catching the group just after corner 5, after the major passing zone of turn 3. My only chance to improve my position was in turn 8, and I gave it a go but the driver in front blocked down the inside. Not to say I didn’t try his outside but there was nothing to be had, he put his car in the perfect position to stop me from getting by.
After I took the checkered Stefan informed me that I placed 11th and he was thoroughly impressed with my outside overtakes in turn three. He also told me that my teammate, Danilo Estrela, had won the race. This brightened my spirits a bit, but mostly I was disappointed because I knew I was much faster than 11th spot, considering how fast I caught the group in front of me, I knew I had a top 5 car. Looking at the times Stefan told me that I posted the third fastest race lap on my last lap, the one I knew had to be perfect, looks like I did a pretty damn good job!
Recapping the weekend I was thrilled with it to be perfectly honest, I mean sure I wanted to have better results but the bottom line is I need to improve each time I’m on track and I’ve done that so far this season. Toronto fans are the best, I’m not going to lie, absolutely love them and I can’t wait for the event next year!