COTA: A circuit to behold from the passenger’s seat

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It’s not often you get the opportunity to have a few laps in an Audi with a three-time Le Mans winner at a world-class circuit. Yet that was the chance afforded to me this past weekend at Circuit of the Americas, part of the FIA WEC media rides with Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello in an Audi RS 7.

Though Capello’s been retired from the LMP1 ranks of the Audi prototype program for two years, he hasn’t lost his joie de vivre, or his ability behind the wheel. He remains as active as ever in an ambassadorial role for the brand and still travels to events.

Alas, my ride came after the first round of laps were complete. Capello was wondering what kind of brakes – carbon or steel – his car he had when they were smoking upon pulling into pit lane, just prior to pit out.

Dindo Capello

“Must be steel,” he said as the smoke dissipated and I buckled in.

Immediately, as we launched out of the pit lane, you could tell Capello was reminiscing about what it would be like to drive one of the latest generation Audi R18 e-tron quattros, or even the standard Audi R8 LMS, in this moment.

While the RS 7 is an incredible beast, at 560 bhp with all-wheel drive and an awesome interior, it’s still a much heavier car and that’s not ideal for this circuit which tends to favor sleeker, more svelte and nimble type cars.

“This car is too heavy for this track,” said Capello, who still had no problem extracting the maximum out of it as we flew down the hill, through Turn 2 and immediately into the esses.

He began to wax poetic about the track before we’d even really got going.

“Love this circuit. Love this sequence. Just like Silverstone,” he said, as the esses section of COTA from Turns 3 to 7 is a near carbon copy of the Silverstone sequence that includes Maggotts, Becketts and Chapel corners.

Now when you’re feeling how heavy the steering input is, and how hard you’re thrashing to pound these corners in a heavier car, you can begin to appreciate the magnitude of what the racers are doing this weekend.

Turns 8 through 10 are a bit slower as you crest the rise and then run down the hill to Turn 11. Capello leaves his braking fairly late here, but turns into the hairpin at the proper angle to release out and launch down the back straight.

Turn 12

Then you get into the tight, twisty bits. Turns 12 through to 15, it’s difficult to get much rhythm as it’s stop-start-stop-start before you exit Turn 15 and head into the three-apex right-hander just next the COTA Tower, Turns 16-18.

This was where the extra weight was noticeable because Capello was pushing like mad through the corner. He was oversteering as we did a near-perfect, opposite-lock power slide through the right hander before plunging down into Turn 19, catching our breath for maybe a split second, hard on the gas and then back on the brakes into Turn 20.

And that was a lap – before he got it going even better on the second lap.

Interestingly as you crest the hill into Turn 1, from the passenger’s seat (and to a point, the cockpit), the climb up the hill isn’t nearly as severe as it appears from a spectator standpoint. It feels a gradual rise, rather than one that’s as severe as it looks in track maps and from either the inside or outside of the circuit.

But it’s the plunge down the hill after Turn 1, into Turn 2 where you feel your stomach drop out. It’s more noticeable than the Corkscrew at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, for instance, where it feels a slight gradual drop rather than a plunge.

And then we were on for two more laps. With Dindo bang-on at every single apex.

I knew he was pushing too, because our rides were scheduled maybe half an hour before the Austin weather went south and the rain hit.

Perhaps the only thing that could have made it better was if Capello did one lap, did a driver change, handed off to Allan McNish, another change and then Tom Kristensen jumped in to bring it home.

But the sensory experience of riding merely in the passenger’s seat at this track just showcases what a circuit this is.

Sometimes you have to pinch yourself on occasion to remind you of the awesomeness this line of work entails, and riding shotgun with one of Italy’s greatest sports car heroes at one of North America’s finest circuits certainly affords you that opportunity.

Sincere thanks to Fiona from FIA WEC and Dave from Circuit of the Americas for the opportunity.

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”