Photo courtesy United Autosports

Rayhall: One that got away in Austria

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Editor’s note: Sean Rayhall, one of America’s rising driving talents, will file a series of blogs throughout the year chronicling his season in the European Le Mans Series, co-driving with John Falb at Zak Brown and Richard Dean’s United Autosports team in its Ligier JS P3. His third blog recaps a tough end to what had been a winning weekend in Austria, before a post-race penalty was assessed (previous blogs are linked here; Silverstone, Le Mans). 

The Red Bull Ring weekend for us came at a good time, to get back in a rhythm after I’d had quite a busy few weeks of travel leading into it. Between testing at Spa, coaching at Mont-Tremblant and resting up when I could it was good to have a nice flight back overseas to Austria on the Thursday before Round 3 of the ELMS season.

We felt really positive about our chances going into the weekend with how both the team and us as drivers performed separately last year, so we figured putting the two together could work out nicely for us.

Free practices didn’t go too much as planned, as we were a bit off. We were running a few things differently on our car and we were struggling to achieve the ultimate pace on new tires to qualify up front, although on old tires our pace was mega.

Photo courtesy United Autosports

My engineer “G-Baby” (Gary Robertshaw) was pretty grumpy at this point and to be completely honest, so was I. But what followed next was almost magical because of how rarely you see this happen.

Gary dug deep and worked incredibly hard to do what he did, to get us the pace in qualifying. Going in, he looked at me and said, “Alright, we are changing everything. It’s going to be better and you’re just going to have to drive whatever it is.”

From a driver’s eyes, this is both motivating and concerning. I was literally briefed in the car by radio five minutes before qualifying on how I was going to have to brake differently. That being said, long story short, throwing the kitchen sink at it worked and we qualified sixth, within a few tenths of the other Ligiers.

At race time I wasn’t sure what our race pace was going to be like, so I knew I needed to get to the front and keep as many people behind me as possible to secure a good race for us.

So launching flat out on the start going up the hill, everyone hugged the inside and I went “high side and handsome” to get us into P3 by Turn 3. As this is such a short track, you need to make positions up quickly before a lap gets away from you.

A few laps later we made the pass for P2 coming out of Turn 4, and we were on a mission. About 35 minutes into the first stint a GTE car came back on track in front of me, which caused me to completely flat spot the right front tire I had to race on till the end of my second stint.

This took a lot of patience because I knew I would give up P2, but I also knew that I had to nurse this tire for another hour and a half. So we hit a bad bit of traffic and (Giorgio) Mondini got by as I settled into P3 for the rest of my stints.

John got in the car on a mission and was chasing down the leader with new tires, and I’d have to say it was one of the best drives of his life.

Win celebrations were there at first, but were short-lived. Photo courtesy United Autosports

He got to the leader and it was a battle for about 45 minutes before the driver in the No. 11 Eurointernational car cracked under pressure and made contact with a lapped car. We weren’t home free yet, as we were assessed a drive through penalty for track limit violations as John was avoiding a GTE car. Somehow after serving the penalty we still came out on track 2.5 seconds ahead of second. And somehow, we were safe to bring it home and grab the win. Talk about a nail-biter weekend and an emotional roller coaster!

The initial post-victory celebrations before penalty. Photo courtesy United Autosports

We had a great afternoon getting our belongings and trophies, had a drink with the team, and then went to our favorite Italian man in Austria’s place for some pizza and a bottle of his famous Orange melon Liquor to take back to Vienna with us. Antonino was perhaps the oddest but funniest man we met it Austria. By far, John Falb, Scott Andrews, and I had the best dinner out of everyone from the track that night!

About an hour into the car drive back to Vienna, I received a phone call informing us we had been penalized for getting to 80 kph two seconds too late (failing to reduce enough speed), and they had given us a post-race penalty of 25 seconds. That gave the win away and put us in second place. To be honest, these were two penalties that we never gained time from, would never have been race deciding, that were allowed to decide our race for us.

Unfortunately, that’s racing and we will just have to work had enough to be able to handle 50 seconds in penalties at Paul Ricard – but ideally, not receive any further penalties assessed.

This is the challenge though and it’s up to us how we rise above it between John, myself, “G-Baby” and the entire United Autosports team, who again put us in a position to win. And the team still did get one win – our guys in the LMP2 car, Filipe, Will and Hugo, won the race overall in their Ligier! Congrats to them.

Thanks for reading guys! Will let you know how the next one goes!

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

Photo: IndyCar
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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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