Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing

DiZinno: Two days of driving bliss at Lucas Oil School of Racing

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The old adage in sports writing is that the reason sportswriters are sportswriters, is because they’re failed athletes. In motorsports journalism, the same is true.

My racing career as a driver ended before it ever began, following a go-kart incident in a church parking lot in Arizona as an eight-year-old. The natural follow-up question is, “why are you driving a go-kart in a church parking lot?” but that’s neither here nor there.

The bottom line is, like most youngsters, my interest in the sport was founded by my parents’ interest. Because interest, talent and funding wasn’t there for me to make it as a driver, it became obvious there had to be another way.

Luckily, putting pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard now – was the next best and most cost-effective option of figuring out how to stay involved with this sport I love.

But in the back of my mind, there was always a small hope that one day I’d actually be behind the wheel of a proper racecar. Even for just a day or two.

In early November, that opportunity arose.

It was time to go back to school: in this case, the Lucas Oil School of Racing.

Sebring International Raceway’s short course is where champions are born. It is the single most unsung circuit layout in this country, because teams and drivers in open-wheel and sports car racing spend so many days and hours stuck in the usual Orlando-to-Sebring drive down Highway 27, then pounding around the track’s 1.53 miles in the pursuit of ultimate performance and reliability. Indianapolis may be the “racing capital of the world” and Daytona may feature “the great American race,” but Sebring is undoubtedly the “winter home of motorsports.”

Once you arrive at the Lucas Oil School of Racing, founded by Neil Enerson in late 2015, it’s apparent that the preparation and dedication to the customer is such that you feel as though it’s the first step in your racing career for however far you go.

And for two days, we’re going to be pounding around in the school cars on the short course, forgetting everything else in the world around us in that same pursuit of perfection.

INTRO

Transporter setup. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Transporter setup. Photo: Tony DiZinno

The first thing of note is the cars themselves. The Lucas Oil School has three fully loaded transporters with 20 of the Ray Formula Cars GR11, powered by an Elite Engines 2.0L 4-cylinder (produces about 140hp), Sadev sequential gearbox that has paddle shifters (this will come in handy) and runs on street Cooper Tires.

All those bits work in unison to create a fun driving experience that gives the driver all the comfort in the world without worrying about the shifting and much clutching, and the grip level in the tires is such that they force you to go deeper in the corners on braking as you build confidence. They want you to work hard.

The setup is also first class. You feel as though you’re walking into an IndyCar-team level setup, as the crew puts together the two awnings from two of the transporters, and houses all the cars there. The crew ensures you’re all good to go with the cars once you get going.

And then there’s the feedback, which is off the hook. More on this will come throughout, but the dedicated one-on-one time from the instructors will only force you to be better as the time goes on.

With this also only a two-day school rather than a three-day one, it’s also more cost effective for those customers or business folk who now need less time to take off work. You’ll go through a laundry list of items in the two days, but there is not a moment that is not well spent.

LEARN THE CAR, THEN GET GOING

Cockpit. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Cockpit. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Todd Snyder, a past Barber Dodge series champion and veteran driver in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, had long been an instructor at Skip Barber. Snyder serves now as the Lucas Oil School’s Chief Operating Officer and for our school, was lead instructor.

So on the morning of the first day, you’re given the whole lowdown on the car itself, where all the various switches and gauges are and how you’ll feel once on board.

And then, boom. You’re into the car for the first time. The first running is done on a modified version of the short course, using the short course pit lane before coming onto the track at Cunningham Corner (Turn 10), through the left-hand sweeper and back into the pits. This exercise is done specifically to get you comfortable with the car, and start to get a feel with it.

Naturally, nerves took over for me at this point. But once going, it only took a couple laps for the crew guys to be putting their hands down as I was coming through a right-hand kink to say “slow down!” This was already fun and only going to get better.

The first classroom session followed. A number of driving tips are applied here, but we’re taught to spend a lot of time thinking about braking. Passing instructions, meanwhile, for the purposes of the school are to let drivers by on the right first.

For the second session, we did a lead-follow with RC Enerson in one of the school cars. That allowed us to get a sense of the racing line and where to optimally brake. As you get the car up to speed, you then progressively learn how to brake later and later as you grow more confident.

The key, of course, is not making too big a leap at any one time.

THE FIRST AND ONLY “HANG ON, BROTHER” MOMENT

Smiling at the start. Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing
Smiling at the start. Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing

Radio feedback is applied from the coaches – in this case, Snyder, Enerson or Jonatan “JJ” Jorge of JJRD, Inc. – telling you where you’re struggling and where you need to improve.

One of the challenges here is when you’re starting to get in a rhythm behind the wheel, you don’t want to break your habits because you’re comfortable. The drive to be better and brake later comes once you know how hard you have to mash the brakes, at a certain psi amount. The preferred psi amount is 400psi.

Cunningham Corner, mentioned earlier, is a 90-degree, right-hand, third gear corner that comes after the second longest straight on the short course. Ideally, you’re at about 105-110 mph entering it here before braking. As part of the braking technique, cones are outlined from four cones at the first braking point to three, two and one respectively.

The feedback I’d received to that point was that I wasn’t hard enough on the brakes, and was easing into the corner. So I’d been giving up a lot of time as a result.

What should have followed was a gradual step of moving from the four cones to the three cones. My inner Italian side came out as I went from four to two… and naturally, the heavy lockup and avalanche of expletives came along with it.

Fortunately there’s a pavement runoff area, and I slid off. Even more fortunately, I got the thing stopped before hitting the tire barrier. So you’re helpless at this point, with a local yellow out and RC needing to come over to assist, to get the car back in gear and allow you to get going.

USF2000 shootout featured Lucas Oil School of Racing cars. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
USF2000 shootout featured Lucas Oil School of Racing cars. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

It’s perhaps even most fortunate lunch followed shortly thereafter, with Coney dogs a highlight of the experience. The hospitality is great, as Neil came through to check in with everyone to see how it was going and offer insights about the school, the program and the future goals. Already, the school has a successful race series that runs at a number of tracks (2017 schedule out late Tuesday night) and had its cars showcased at December’s Mazda Road to Indy $200,000 scholarship shootout for the USF2000 series in 2017 (right).

In the background, we’d heard a thud and then saw track safety vehicles dispatched. One of the school’s lapping drivers had binned it at Cunningham, as he hadn’t downshifted correctly upon braking, and backed it in. He was OK, but his confidence was as dented as the left rear suspension.

I will say that having that moment I had was good, because getting back on the horse and back behind the wheel for the afternoon sessions was vital to ensuring my own confidence wasn’t sapped.

A DEVILISH 1.53 MILES TO MASTER

Photo courtesy of Lucas Oil School of Racing
Photo courtesy of Lucas Oil School of Racing

Sebring’s short course is fascinating, again, because even if you excel at certain parts of the track, there’s others you’re missing.

Starting from pit out, you head into a right-hand kink, then into Water Tower, the first of consecutive 90-degree right-handers. The following right-hander, I loved, and felt most at ease. But winding it back up and then rejoining the full course, at the right-handed kink into the left-handed sweeper called the Carousel, proved a challenge throughout the two days. The Carousel then launches you onto the fastest part of the short course, the following right-hand sweeper down the straight and into the Hotel hairpin – the hardest braking point on the circuit. You then hit the apex there on the 45-degree right-hander and accelerate hard out, right, then left, back onto the straight before braking at Cunningham. You hit that right-hander hard, then accelerate through the left-hand sweeper back to the right-hand kink, and you’re at Water Tower again.

Snyder’s instruction was great because he gave us specific reference points to aim for. Water Tower, for instance, has a “T” in the center of the road. Ensuring you’re putting your right front tire on that “T” guarantees the ideal apex for the corner and sets you up for a faster exit. The Carousel, however, I couldn’t get right to save my life.

The feedback from JJ and RC was consistent about my braking, but once they noted how you want the front tires to “squeal” – the ideal braking pressure before locking up – I searched harder for that and felt that I got there. What was great about all three of them was their calmness and gentle pushing it took to get better. It’s not “in your face” at all; it’s designed purely to help, and the way they expressed it built my determination.

Trail braking is a good thing to master and that was one of the key takeaways.

GOOD DAY ONE FEATURES MOTIVATION FOR DAY TWO

In the morning of day two, you get the data and telemetry from your first day at the office. This was the real eye opener. Tracing your data up against sports car veteran, Lucas Oil School coach and general good dude Gerardo Bonilla shows just how and where you’re losing time. With my best time a pedestrian 1:25 and change to Bonilla’s 1:17, there was plenty of time to be gained.

Understanding and interpreting data is one of the keys to success in modern motorsport, and using that data can fuel your performance to get better. The fact this is offered to you out of the gate shows the school’s dedication to your understanding of all facets of racing.

RACE PREP!

The morning sessions featured two lapping runs, and with the data at hand I immediately located where I needed to be better. With each passing lap, I felt more confident, and I started to see how with preparation and feedback, I could get better.

One of the day two elements is a “mock race,” where RC or JJ drove their street car as a pace car and you line up alongside your fellow school drivers in the cars to practice a two-by-two start, then run down to the first turn (again, Cunningham in this case).

We get two cracks at it. I took both cautiously on purpose, first lining up from pole and the second from third on row two.

A single-file restart then produced another element of learning for yours truly: how to avoid a collision.

Following the single-file restart I intentionally let a couple cars past, because I wanted to go at my own pace and avoid being too close to others. As it turned out, one driver made a dive-bomb attempt at the hairpin and consequently took another car out, and I had a front row seat to all of it. That brought out a yellow flag to end that session.

GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

With a 1:23 and change done in the morning, by the two final afternoon lap sessions, I’d got down to a 1:21.07 (best on video is a 1:21.23, shown above), so had shaved more than four seconds off compared to day one. I still couldn’t quite get the Carousel right. You have to enter at driver’s left, come across at the kink and then stay right at corner entry before powering through and getting back on the gas. Corner exit speed is everything, because it sets up the straightaway terminal velocity.

The final session, fatigue began to set in. And rather than keep going, I parked it a few minutes early. Better to end on a high note with everything still in one piece. A graduation process follows at day’s end. All the while, I also began to bond with the other drivers who took this school. Fellow writer Miles Branman was a natural and seriously impressive, the true standout among our peers.

A LEGEND I MISSED

Byrne coaching at Lime Rock. Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing
Byrne coaching at Lime Rock. Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing

Irishman Tommy Byrne’s junior career marked him as a standout to watch on his path to Formula 1, with pure talent and no cash helping to carry him up the ladder. But his intense partying lifestyle away from the track didn’t mesh with the largely corporate world of F1 and outside of a pair of starts with the Theodore Racing team in 1982, his flameout from that world followed.

Byrne reinvented both his life and his career as a racing instructor, with longtime work at the Mid-Ohio School and now joining the Lucas Oil School. At the Sebring full course, where the final race series event of 2016 took place in mid-December, competitors were treated to not just Byrne’s instruction but a viewing of the all-too-real, outstanding Crash and Burn documentary that’s the film version of his “Crashed and Byrned” autobiography. Yes, it’s a racing film but it’s just as much a film about life.

SUMMING IT ALL UP

The school is two days that features eight on-track sessions (roughly 2.5 hours per day on track), four classroom sessions, two breakfasts and lunch, and countless tips of advise.

It was hard to describe then, and even reflecting back on it a month or so later now, how much these two days meant to me.

As someone who has lived this sport for the better part of 20 of my 27 years, to have the chance to drive a racecar and temporarily be a race driver was something I could have only dreamed of.

Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing
Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing

It also taught me a ton. You think you know a lot about what drivers and teams go through on a race weekend. But the amount of information these drivers have to retain and be ready for at a single moment’s notice is unreal. These cars are simple enough to where it’s not overwhelming, but they’re also sophisticated enough to give you a sense of a proper formula car at a bargain rate.

The feedback is sensational. The fact coaches take such a hands-on role with you over the course of the two days shows how committed they are to seeing you improve at your craft. Four seconds improvement day-to-day on my end is statistical proof of that.

And then there’s the emotional and spiritual side of it. When you’re in a racecar, nothing else matters. That desire to push for that extra tenth or hundredth, that thrill of clicking off another flier, or the relief of saving the car from a big accident all sends chills down your spine. You get out and of course you’re smiling.

For two days, pounding around Sebring, I had that feeling that perhaps I could be driving for real. I loved every second of it.

And then I remembered why I got into writing in the first place, because it’s cheaper, and I love the sensation of capturing the moment just a little bit more…

Hamilton plans to see out Mercedes F1 contract to end of 2018

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Lewis Hamilton is planning to see out his Mercedes Formula 1 contract until at least the end of the 2018 season despite reports suggesting that he may consider quitting the sport at the end of the year.

Hamilton clinched his fifth British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone last weekend, drawing to within one point of F1 drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel in the process.

Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes is up at the end of next season, but speculation had emerged suggesting that a move to Ferrari could be of interest for the Briton as he nears the end of his career, or that he could even opt to retire from racing.

Hamilton said in a press conference after the race that he “can’t really say what’s going to happen six months from now”, as per Reuters, but he was quick to clarify that he expected to see out his contract with Mercedes.

“I just think in life you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said.

“Right now I love driving and then in six months I might… it’s very unlikely because I think I’m always going to like driving, I’m always going to like doing crazy stuff.

“I’m still enjoying it and I still have a contract with the team for at least a year so I plan to see that out at the moment.

“Even in getting another championship, it will never be: ‘OK, now it’s time to hang up the gloves’. I’ll always want to win more.

“Even when I do stop, something inside me will say I still want to get more.”

Q&A: Andy Meyrick on McLaren GT4, Ligier LMP3 European balance

Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing
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As the international sports car season rolls on, occasionally we’ll check in with drivers who have raced largely in North America but have since set up shop with European programs (Sean Rayhall and Will Owen, who race with United Autosports, are two good examples).

Today we’ll check in with Andy Meyrick, who was with the DeltaWing outfit from 2013 through 2016.

The Englishman is balancing a dual role this year with a McLaren 570S GT4 with the new Bullitt Racing team, established in Spain, run by veteran team manager David Price and co-driving with Stephen Pattrick in the GT4 Series Northern Cup, and also with a Ligier JS P3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with Motorsport 98 and co-driver Eric De Doncker, a Belgian sports car veteran who is that team’s owner.

Meyrick helmet. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Thus far there’s been four races in the McLaren with five to go – three more in the Northern Cup and two in the south – and more races to come in the Ligier after late start for races in Monza and Le Mans, the latter as part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race week. Meyrick heads to the Red Bull Ring this weekend for the next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup season.

For a driver who hasn’t too regularly been in pro-am lineups, Meyrick is now balancing two pro-am roles simultaneously and loving going back and forth between prototypes and GT cars in two of the emerging categories on a worldwide stage.

MST: It’s certainly been a change for you this year with a hectic schedule and two programs. How has it all come together?

Andy Meyrick: “To be honest, it’s been fantastic. There’s no restriction on testing in either series, so with multiple programs, we’re out all the time, especially in the McLaren.

“For me, it’s a completely new arena really. I’ve very done little pro-am racing to be honest. I’d been with Aston, Bentley and DeltaWing with pro-pro lineups. It was a new experience to do the pro-am stuff. I was a bit unsure of how to approach it in the first place. I’d done a bit with Gulf in a McLaren.

“But I love it as both programs are growing. When I sat down with the team that I’d do the GT4 program with them, they hinted GT4 is gonna explode, it’ll be the next GT3… and I wasn’t too sure it’d be the case. But I’m gobsmacked at the level GT4 is at, with how often you can go racing, how good the championship is and how well it’s run. It’s good to be in this market.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: With a guy like Stephen in the McLaren, how have you helped and aided his development?

AM: “It’s been pretty amazing. Stephen, before the season, I’d known him since he was a guest in 2011 when I was with Aston Martin. He’d done track days but hadn’t really never done anything else. At the Red Bull Ring, he led outright and a double podium for us, so he’s shown flashes of really fantastic speed, not just for gentlemen but for anybody!

“Sometimes you have to stop and tell yourself, look this is only your third or fourth race weekend! We can go racing, but we also have to accept he has a lack of experience, the speed he’s shown so far, the ability to absorb the information! He’s been thrown deep into the program but he’s shown he’s enjoying and learning it all.”

Bobby Rahal with Dave Price at 2016 Petit Le Mans. Photo courtesy of IMSA

MST: You and ‘Pricey’ have a great relationship. Has it been a natural with him running the McLaren program?

AM: “This one here we entered with a turnkey car, but the team was brand new at the end of 2016. ‘Pricey’ was a huge motivation to want to be there, because I’ve been a big fan of him and with the two of us, it just clicks. He doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking – I just know what he wants. We have such a good relationship. He was a big thing for me to want to be involved with it. But it’s great to build something from scratch.

“The team are based near Ascari in south of Spain, so at least once or twice a month we’re there testing. It’s an easy flight from Manchester. It’s easy to forget we’re only a handful of weekends into the team between Misano, Brands Hatch, Red Bull Ring and Slovakiaring. There’s a fair way to go but we’re accomplishing our goals for the team and the races thus far have been phenomenal.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: Of course you also have the LMP3 program as well, also a new outfit…

AM: “Yeah and this one was a bit of a surprise to be honest! I’d known Eric from his driving a Group C car I’d driven a few years back. We talked about LMP3 and I said yeah let’s do something for 2018 after testing this year… and Eric wanted to do it now! We tested April 18-19, he bought the car April 21 and our first race was 12-13 of May! So it put us at Monza and we rolled it straight out of the truck from Ligier and finished fifth! Save for a drive through we would have been on the podium the first race. Eric’s very experienced and it’s been a pleasure.

“We went to Le Mans and we’d started the second race from the back owing to a probelm, but went from 49th to 9th in the second race at Le Mans. We’ve shown tremendous pace given how little we’ve done with the car. We have the Red Bull Ring this weekend, and it’s coming back to where I got two podiums in the GT4 a few weeks ago.

“The DeltaWing’s a prototype but not in the traditional sense, so before that the last prototype I’d been in was the old Lola Aston and the AMR-ONE, both in 2011. I’ll admit a few years ago when I read about LMP3, you’re sort of rolling your eyes at another class, series, that can cloud the market. But to be honest it’s brilliant and fantastic. It’s cost-effective for what it is but cheap for prototype and endurance racing. You get such good service out of it.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: When you do have such disparate cars as an LMP3 Ligier and a GT4 McLaren, how do you jostle between the two of them?

AM: “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, jumping from car to car, as you don’t see too many doing it anymore. I think it’s a big skill. The GT3 Bentley and DeltaWing couldn’t get any further apart! You’re going from a GT3 with ABS, TC and some weight compared to a very light prototype. But you make the adaptations quite quick, otherwise you spend the first laps of every weekend trying to get up to speed with the groove of each car.

“If you’re a driver, part of marketing yourself is being in as many cars as possible to get the most track time. I’ve always looked up at a guy like Stephane Sarrazin for example, who goes from rally to LMP1 car, and you’re constantly learning. If you’re in different environments and packages, you’re open to different engineers and approaches.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: How close were you to any U.S. programs this year and should we hope to see you back Stateside racing soon?

AM: “I was very close to two programs in the U.S., one in IMSA and one in PWC, but unfortunately neither came together. That said, I enjoy racing in the States so much more than Europe.

“I pinch myself every time I go to a race in America when you think, ‘Mate, I get paid to do this, fly across the Atlantic and driver a race car.’ I love the environment of the States, the circuits, as it’s not just a circuit, but the variety. You go from the streets of Long Beach to the flowing Road America which is just stunning.

“I want to be back over there and perhaps attend one race tail end of this year. Those two championships are both looking amazing as usual.

“Otherwise it was cool to see my mate Jack Harvey racing in the Indy 500 this year. As he was teammates with Fernando Alonso that was so cool! It was ace to see, as he’s had a rough couple years and he’s a huge talent, and one of the nicest guys around the paddock. He’s done a fantastic job and committed to his craft.

“Ideally we’re both back racing in the U.S. sooner rather than later.”

Wehrlein: Sauber F1 set for big C36 upgrade in Hungary

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Sauber is set to bring a sizeable update for its C36 Formula 1 car to the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend, according to driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Sauber has been battling at the back of the grid throughout 2017 after years of financial difficulties, limiting the development of its new car.

The team is racing with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals, but it currently sits P9 in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Wehrlein confirmed that Sauber would be bringing a sizeable update package to Budapest, and was positive about the boost it may offer.

“For Budapest we are set for a big upgrade. Almost all the car, or all the aero side, will be new, so that should give us a good performance boost,” Wehrlein said.

“If what the data shows really can materialize we could be on a good go.”

Wehrlein has endured a rocky season so far, missing the opening two races through injury before leading Sauber to eighth place in Spain, as well as taking another point in Baku.

“It is no secret that my start to the season was very difficult. The injury matter was pretty tough,” Wehrein said.

“Going to Australia and not driving was hard and having to skip China was another notch on the ‘horror scale’.

“The start to 2017 in Bahrain was not bad. It felt like I had never been away, never been injured. The first qualifying took me to Q2 and I nearly finished in the points with P11, with the Sauber car!

“Since then it is going smoothly and pretty much in the right direction. Twice I scored points, with the clear highlight of Barcelona, which was exceptional for us finishing in P7, even if with the penalty it was finally P8.

“But imagine: P7 with the Sauber! Yes there have been difficult races since then, but we knew that this would happen.”

Agag: New York race ‘a defining moment’ for Formula E

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FIA Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag believes that last weekend’s inaugural event in New York City was “a defining moment” for the all-electric series as it continued its world tour.

Formula E became the first motorsport series to hit the five boroughs on Saturday when it staged a race around the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook, with the Manhattan skyline acting as a backdrop across the East River.

New York was just the latest in a long line of major cities to host Formula E, but series chief Agag felt it was particularly significant given the effort that went in to securing it as a venue.

“Formula E has a habit of breaking new ground. This weekend in New York was yet another example of achieving what many thought was impossible,” Agag said.

“We managed to bring international open-wheel racing to New York for the first time in history, this is something that sets Formula E apart from any other series, bringing electrifying motorsport to the world’s leading cities.

“Along with Hong Kong on Victoria Harbour and Paris with the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, New York has quickly positioned itself as a flagship event on the Formula E calendar. The race in New York was a defining moment in the series and years in the making.”

New York had been a target city for Formula E since its inception in 2014, but Agag had fears at one stage that a race would not be possible before settling on Red Hook.

“We worked tirelessly with the local authorities to find the right location. It couldn’t be Central Park and Liberty State Park wasn’t an option either,” Agag said.

“I actually thought it wasn’t going to happen, I didn’t lose hope but I wasn’t certain we’d get Formula E to New York. It hadn’t happened before in any form of open-wheel racing.

“Then we found the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. It was the most viable option and it also meant we didn’t need to close any streets.

“But, best of all, we still had the most spectacular view of New York. I had a similar feeling on the grid as at our first-ever race in Beijing. We’d done it, and the race proved to be a resounding success in front of a sell-out crowd.

“As the saying goes, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere!”