Upon winning the 2007 “Dunlop Motorsport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the Year” Award (That’s a mouthful!), I traveled to Sydney, Australia in February 08 to take part in the Friday practice sessions as Rookie Driver for A1 Team Ireland. The team had been out there for a month already when the Australia round came around, as they raced in New Zealand a few weeks prior. I met the team out there, which was my first time meeting most of the guys. I felt right at home from the start, I knew Mark Gallagher and Adam Carroll from before, and I had worked closely with Sophie Ogg, then team Ireland PR representative, when I was in Formula BMW UK. When Friday came around, I woke to find the heavens had opened, and it soon became evident that I would be sampling 500bhp with no traction control for the first time in wet and slippy conditions! To make matters worse, Adam and Danny Watts (then A1GP test driver) played a prank on me early Friday morning. Danny had been testing that morning in the A1GP test car, and Adam suggested we go and talk to Danny so I could get some pointers. Danny told me it was absolutely lethal out there and it was “scary” driving the A1 car in those conditions. Needless to say I was very nervous getting into the car! Funny looking back now, I was already nervous enough being in control of the teams only chassis for the first time on a race weekend!
On each initial run I was required to do a radio check, speaking along each straight and calling out the corner numbers as I pass them, to get a read on where the radio communication to pit is clearest. That first radio check became a point of humour for the team for many months. On leaving the pitlane, I disengaged the pitlane speed limiter while on full power, which unleashed 500 bhp in 1st gear on the cold rear wets, and it was like all hell had broken loose. My heart rate went through the roof, and you could hear it in my voice for the radio checks. My voice suddenly turned high pitched and I was shouting down the radio! Looking back it is funny, but I can tell you if you ever have to make a jump from a 140bhp BMW to a 500bhp monster, try to do it in the dry! I gained my composure quickly, and put in a solid session, getting to grips with the car to set a solid mid-grid pace. We had problems with the car all weekend, and required a tub change on Friday night due to a crack. Ultimately it was an unsuccessful weekend for Team Ireland, finishing outside the top ten.
After that first test with the team I returned home to Ireland and waited to see if I would be called back. I am told there was competition for the seat, but to my delight I was called back for the South Africa round in Durban. This was a street circuit, and I was under strict instructions to keep the car in one piece. I spent the session bedding in brakes and doing evaluations on different setups, but never went close enough to the limit to put the car in danger. It was a good thing too, as my then team-mate, Team Canadas Daniel Morad put the car in the wall, which, as a Rookie you never want to do. (Team Ireland and Team Canada shared engineering teams in season 3). To my delight, the then team owner Mark Kershaw told me I would be retained as the rookie for the rest of the season. At that point it was based solely on my ability to follow orders and I was very keen to repay their faith by showing them my speed.
Next up was Mexico City. Up to this point Ireland had been struggling somewhat. Carroll came into the team at the start of the season, and instantly lifted the team to within a fighting chance of podiums, but for various reasons there was no win yet, and New Zealand to Durban were all disappointing results. In Mexico, I was given a little bit more of a free reign to push the car on, and I felt a lot more comfortable. We hit the ground with a good car that weekend, and to everyones surprise I put the car on pole in rookie session 1, remembering this was my third one hour session in the car. Even I was shocked, but I was comfortable at the limit, and the car felt great. Ultimately I was pipped to overall pole by sometime GP2 driver Davide Rigon in session 2, but a P1 and P2 in the two 30-min sessions left me ecstatic. It boosted morale in the team too, with everyone feeling reservedly confident about the weekend ahead, eager to see if the rookie pace was true to the whole grid. It was. It was an excellent weekend and Carroll went on to win Team Irelands first race, and on St. Patricks Day. I am proud to say I had a part to play in that first win for Team Ireland.
From that point on it was like a transformation for me. I could jump in the car and instantly be at the front, and I was P4 in Shanghai, China and P5 in Brands Hatch, UK. The Brands Hatch session is to this day one of the greatest experiences I have had in a race car. The GP circuit at Brands Hatch for those of you who don’t know, is awesome. And in a 550bhp A1GP car, which likes to go sideways, a lot, it’s a hair raising experience. Again, I spent a lot of the session bedding in brakes and doing preliminary setup work. With 2 minutes to go I was in the garage and the engineer came on the radio and said, you have time to come around and do one hot lap, were sending you. I got around to start my hot lap with seconds to spare, and posted three green sectors, one of which was purple. (Green is personal best, Purple is overall best). The engineers were impressed with my ability to put together an almost perfect lap on demand, and I think it was a major factor in the teams decision to retain me for the next season, through an ownership change.
That first A1GP season was very enjoyable. I learned a lot from the engineering team, and of course from Adam. He is immensely talented and to be able to compare data and get advice from him is probably the most valuable thing to come out of A1GP for me. It was very difficult at that time to directly compare times with Adam, as the track changed a lot from 9am to 3pm, and with new tyres on in the free practice two times plummeted, but the position I ended up on the rookie sessions at events I was allowed to push, was always in the same area of the grid to where he ended up in FP2. That I could take away with me, and I was confident I was getting the most out of the car. The whole experience was something I will never forget, the A1 Team Ireland boys are the greatest bunch of lads you could ever hope to work with, and travelling the world with them as a team was a lot of fun. I wont go into the details here, but lets say they play just as hard as they work when it comes to the race afterparties!
Next up, is season four of A1GP, where we had a new car. The 600bhp Ferrari A1GP car. Until then, again, thanks for reading and I hope you found it interesting.