Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mosport Sundown GP 2011 Race Report

This weekend Carl and I again headed to Mosport for one of our favourite events: the Sundown Grand Prix 3-hour endurance race. Although some might argue that a 3-hour race is hardly an endurance event as there are other races lasting between 12 and 25 hours, but we take what we can get in Canada. Anyway, a 3-hour race is quite easy to plan for if you have a reliable car. Even if your car is slow (like mine is, in the world of race cars), you can do well enough by driving consistently and staying out of trouble.

When I arrived at the track Friday, I made sure to get the car ready for the practice session Saturday morning while I still had available daylight (basically, I emptied out the gear and installed the race tires and installing the new Schroth enduro harness). As usual, I had driven the car to the event. I had arrived at the track early enough on Friday to get the car inspected by the race officials. Unfortunately for me, the inspector was unhappy when he noted that my electrical kill switch, although it shut off the engine, did not kill power to the brake lights. I was told to fix it before qualifying the next day. We looked at the fuse box to see if there was a way to rewire the switch, but there was nothing we could do with the supplies we had on hand. I convinced the official to let us fix the kill switch for the next event.

On Saturday, we arrived at the track early for practice, which began at 8:00. The plan was for me to run the practice session and Carl to run the qualifying session at 12:20. The race was scheduled to begin at 5:00 pm and run for three hours. The car completing the most laps in three hours was the winner. Simple. The cars were divided into five classes based on their predicted lap times. We were in the slowest class, called GT5, for cars that are slower than 1:41 per lap. The best time I have ever run with the present engine was 1:43.2, so I knew it would be virtually impossible to break out of the class by going faster than 1:41. The rules stated that if you break out of the class by driving too fast, you are penalized (a 2-lap penalty, I believe) for every lap faster than the breakout time. We were disappointed to see that there were only 17 cars signed up for the race, but we were happy to see that GT5 was the biggest class, with 7 entries. Besides our Civic, there was the civic of our friends Jean-Michel (Jam) and Pierre. Jam and Pierre are recent graduates of our race school and this was to be there first ever race. Their Civic is quick and they knew they might break out of GT5, but they didn’t mind, as all they were hoping for was a fun and clean race. There was also an E30 BMW M3, a Miata, 2 Nissan Sentra’s and a VW Jetta.

Carl and I planned to each drive half the race, with one pit stop to refuel. Last time we ran a 3-hour race at Mosport, we confirmed that we could run for over 90 minutes on one tank of fuel. We would be benefiting from the services of an Ontario racer named Jeff who had volunteered to act as our crew. It’s important to have crew members who do not screw up while refuelling, because even a relatively small spill can result in a penalty. We realized early on that we had chosen the right guy, as Jeff knew his way around a race weekend. He usually campaigns a Nissan NX2000 in regional races.

One problem I usually have at Mosport is getting up to speed and building confidence. As a result, I only generally turn in decent lap times near the end of the event. I was hoping to improve my best time to a 1:42 or even a 1:41 over the course of the day. I wanted to at least hit 1:43’s in the practice session. Weather conditions were perfect and I headed out for my session. For the first time in six enduros at Mosport, I felt quite comfortable in my first session on track. I felt that I had lost the confidence I had built up last fall at our club’s last track day. I was quickly hitting the 1:44’s, then eventually the 1:43’s. For the last couple of laps, I was caught by one of the Sentra’s in the straightaway (Jeff knew the car and told me it had 200 hp) and I managed to follow him until the end of the session. On my last lap, I managed a 1:42.8. Needless to say, I was very happy with the session. I was driving with confidence and attacking almost every corner (corner 2 being the exception). The tires were squealing in agony in the faster corners. With the new final drive, I could no longer use only fourth gear in corner 4. The advantage was that if I short-shifted into fifth before the corner, I could take it flat out with no problem. I remembered that I should try not to brake at all at the end of the straightaway, but simple downshift from 5th to 4th gear. It did not feel like this would work, but it did. Lap after lap, the car held on, and I realized that in corners 4 and 8 (the corner after the straight), I was quicker than many of the other cars.

I was in a good mood, and the car did not need any serious work before the qualifying session. I dropped the front tire pressure from 28 psi to 26 (we were using Nitto NT01’s) and that was pretty much it.

Carl hit the track for the qualifying session and started out with 1:46’s and 1:45’s. I wanted us to do well as a team, but I would have felt a little bit disappointed in myself if Carl started dropping 1:42’s in his first session in the car at Mosport in years. Carl’s lap times dropped less than we expected and his best lap was in the 1:44’s. This put us in last position on the grid, except for Jam, who was forced to start last as he broke out of the class in qualifying. We didn’t mind starting last, as qualifying position is not terribly important in an endurance race. Also, Carl is a notoriously strong starter. Carl was not happy with his performance, as he is used to being as fast as me or faster than me, even with my car. I was not too worried.

There were several hours to wait before our race, and this allowed us to watch a Speed World Challenge race and a Canadian Touring Car race. There was a freak rain shower that shook things up in the CTCC race and we wondered if the rain would let up before our race. There seemed to be only one rain cloud in the sky (and on the satellite image), but it was parked over our location. We decided Carl would pick the tire setup for the race. We had brought along some Hoosier rain tires, which are great for rain, but quite useless in the dry. Carl wisely chose to wait until the last minute (in fact, 20 minutes before the race, which is cutting it a bit close), and, since the rain had stopped, he chose to keep the dry setup, even though the track was quite wet.

We moved all our tires and equipment to the pit wall. We set up near Jam and Pierre and our other buddies Nigel and Choo, who would be sharing Choo’s K24-powered GT4 Civic. Those guys would be sharing enduro expert Lee Watterworth for their pit stops. Lee has run several 24-hour Chumpcar races and he can fix pretty much anything in a jiffy.

The cars took to the grid. Despite the small field, there were some serious cars out there: a Panoz, two Subaru Sti’s (one of them barely recognizable!), a couple of E36 M3’s, as well as two Porsche 997 GT3’s. The field headed out for the warmup lap at exactly 5:00 pm and the green flag dropped at 5:03. The track was still mostly wet at this point. We did not see any position changes from our vantage point, but when the cars came back around, Carl was right in the mix, having made up several places in the first lap. It turned out that Carl and Pierre had been carving through the field, taking advantage of the cautious driving of the rest of the field in the wet. Pierre took turn four a but too quickly and spun out right in front of Carl. He managed to rejoin the race without losing too much time, although he did lose his front airdam. The E30 M3 spun in turn 8 and Carl narrowly missed collecting him. He had had to take evasive action twice on the first lap, which is surprising in an endurance race.

After maybe 2 laps, Pierre signalled he was coming into the pits. I told Jam to find out what he needed before doing anything to the car. It turned out he wanted to change from his full tread rear tires to his well-worn dry tires. We found a couple of cordless impact guns and the tires were changed in short order.

As the track dried out, Carl’s early advantage evaporated, as the more powerful cars caught and passed him. Eventually, he settled into a groove, lapping in the 1:45’s, then the 1:44’s. We watched our competitors, wondering if they would make one stop or two. Choo came into the pits for refuelling. They had a small spill and I saw that they were facing a potential penalty. I jumped into lawyer mode and ran to get the fuel-spill-measuring-template to show the official that the spill was of an allowable size and she agreed.

Carl was driving consistently. Some of the GT5 cars came in for fuel well before the halfway point, indicating that they would need two stops to finish the race. This meant that we could possibly recover positions due to our pit strategy. The Miata seemed to be in a strong position for the win, as he was well ahead of us and would probably only stop once.

Carl came in as planned after almost 90 minutes. The pit stop went perfectly, with no mistakes. Carl told me the car felt great. After 10 hours of waiting, I was in the car again and on my way. Carl, as usual, had delivered the car to me in perfect condition. I got into the groove fairly quickly. I eventually met up with the now-class-leading Miata and we duked it out for a few laps. I was faster in the straight and decided to try a pass at the end of the straight. I was willing to go inside our outside, wherever the other driver left space. I saw the Miata choose the inside line, so I headed for the outside. As I began to pull alongside the other car, he suddenly veered to the left and cut me off. I had to brake hard to avoid being taken out. It’s possible that he was swerving because he was being lapped by Nigel, or that he was simply driving dirty. He pulled the same trick again shortly after, so it is hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. I understand the concept of a block, but it is not a block when the passing car has begun to pull alongside you. The general consensus is that you can squeeze someone, but you have to leave him or her one car width of room. There was no car width for me and I had to get on the brakes. Still I was determined to pass this guy. While I was still dicing with the Miata, I saw a meatball flag. I wasn’t sure if it was for me, as I was close to the Miata when I passed the flagging station. After another lap, I was shown the meatball again with my number. I was not happy. I came into the pits and was told that my brake lights were non-functional. I was furious, as I know this resulted from having manipulated the fuse box on Friday. The guys got to work under the hood while I fumed in the car. I yelled at Choo to get me some water (sorry dude!) and squirted some into my mouth. I don’t know how long it took, but Carl and Lee managed to rig something to make the brake lights work and I headed out. I was pissed, but Carl told me to just go out there and have fun. He was right, of course. We were there to have fun, not to win at all costs. I went out, still furious, but ready for action. After a very short time, I received a black flag. I figured it was for pit lane speeding, and that’s what it was. The limit is 60 km/h and apparently, I exceeded it. At this point, I was not angrier. My race result was damaged much more by the electrical issue than by a stop-and-go penalty. I served me penalty and headed back out, where I met up with a GT4 Integra. We diced for a couple of laps until he too disappeared due to a black flag. I was running consistent 1:43’s. The GT5 M3 caught up to me in the straight, and then I stuck to his bumper through turns 8, 9 and 10. He was decent through 1, 2 and 3, and I would catch him again in 4 and 5. Then he would pull away on the straight. By this point, I had dropped my lap times back into the 1:42’s. I had also stopped braking for turn 1 and simply lifted. The end of the race was nearing and the guys were cheering me on from the pit wall as I would cross the start/finish line glued to the M3’s bumper. I passed him once at the bottom of the hill in before turn 4 only to be re-passed in the straight. I passed him a second time and lost the position again. The M3 gradually picked up the pace and I saw that I would probably not be able to pass him again. He had begun to carry more speed in the corners. I didn’t know if he had passed me for position, but I figured if I could force him to break out of GT5 by putting pressure on him, I could take the position that way. With about 10 minutes to go in the race, I began to have fuel starvation in corners 3 and 5b. I backed off the M3 and tried to use less throttle in the corners and short shift to make sure I made it until the end. At 8:00 pm, there was still no checker. At 8:02, we were told we were beginning he last lap. My conservative driving allowed me to reach the finish line and I finally fully relaxed. Despite my two extra pit stops, I was happy with the way I had driven. My best lap was a 1:42.2. I didn’t break into the 1:41’s as I hoped I would, but I still feel I progressed as a driver. I made a pass in turn 2 for the first time, and also in turn 4.  I was not holding other up in the corners and, in many cases, I noticed that I was as fast as others or faster in the corners. Late in the race, I had started to feel more comfortable in turn 2 as well, and I learned that if I got my braking done early, then my turn in, then let the car take a set, I could get on the power early and exit with some decent speed.

In the end, we finished 3rd in GT5 and 9th over all, with 99 laps completed. The Panoz won the race. The Miata won GT5 and beat us by 3 laps. The less powerful of the 2 Sentra’s finished 2nd in the class, 43 seconds ahead of us. Jam broke out late in the race with a lap of 1:39.9 and was penalized, ending up 4th in the class. The M3 finished behind us with a total of 97 laps. Choo and Nigel won their class and finished 6th over all, with 101 laps completed.

Carl was a bit disappointed that he had not turned faster laps in the race, but as a first driver, part of your job is to preserve the car for the second driver. Carl handed me a perfect car (except that it had no frikking brake lights). When we looked at the data afterwards, we saw that the fact that Carl was not downshifting into 2nd gear before the straight was costing him a lot of time, as his speed all down the straight was about 6 km/h lower than mine. In most corners, our speeds were very similar.

We were both happy with the way the event went, as were our friends. Pierre and Jam had successfully completed their first ever race. Nigel and Choo seemed to have a great time as well. I have to thank Carl, for being my team-mate yet again, as well as our 1-man crew Jeff and everyone’s crew member, Lee. I don’t know what my next road race will be, but I am glad I kicked off the season with this event.

Our trusty Civic after the race
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