Me, Alex and the whole RJN Motorsport team were feeling great heading to Paul Ricard, on a high from our win at Brands Hatch British GT a week before. This would be my second visit to Paul Ricard, the first time was for a balance of performance test, it was also the first time I drove the Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3. The schedule was a bit different than normal, qualifying would be on the Sunday rather than the usual Saturday. Also the track layout that we were originally going to use was changed quite late on. We’d be using the full back straight, which is very long. This was unfortunate for us because our top end isn’t as great as the Porsches/ McLaren’s.
The heat would play a big factor for us during the race, so the team still had the same modifications to the car as we did at Brands. For Ricard we had an additional window air scoop, just so fresh air can hit our faces to keep us cool. We’d need them because on the Saturday it was 35C ambient, track temp was 48C! This weekend was the first time where I learnt a lot from our engineer Richard regarding track temperature and how much it can affect a cars tyres. This weekend Chris Ward was racing with us too, we all had a brief with the team before the 1hr 30minute P1. Team decided it was best to use the Brands Hatch race setup for the first session as a baseline, and then tweak it as we went along. All 3 of us had the same issues after we had a go in the car. Which is good as we all agree on where to go next. It is tricky for us. We have got data from the balance of performance test early on in the year but it was a huge amount hotter than it was back then, the car is running different springs and some more variables, like wind. We had a head wind on the back straight which affect the top speed massively at 170+ mph! Plus the setup we had back then isn’t as good as the one we have now. Wing changes, bump changes, rake, roll bar changes and more where done over the two practice sessions.
After the sessions we had dinner at the race track at the SRO tent. It’s really nice when the temperature is cool, there’s a breeze and you suddenly remember you’re on top of a French mountain where there happens to be a race track! We discussed over dinner where we thought we’d be after qualifying. I thought a low 1.59.xxx was doable with the current setup.
In qualifying each driver starts on new rubber, whatever time they set in the 15minutes they have on those tyres, they’d have to use them in the race. Also there’s no refuelling in qualifying. So if you’re the third driver, you’d have the lightest load. I would be second. In Chris’s session he had the task of bedding brakes, so we would have a nice new set for the race, with minimal wear on them. I asked the team, and they thought it was best to send me out as early as possible. We had a pit garage very close to the end of the pit lane, so best make use of it. I managed to get the jump on two McLaren’s next door. I only had two cars in front of me. Even so on the first flyer I caught up a Mercedes which hindered my lap. I backed off for the 2rd lap and decided to go for it on my 2rd flyer. All going great until going into T8, the double right. Where a McLaren went off the track to avoid a fast car on its quick lap. (Which was nice of him) But for me as I was right behind him, the McLaren driver decided to come on to the track and cause me to take a tighter line… 4lap, 3rd flyer was quicker than the lap before only by a tenth. Fronts were scrubbing now.. A 1.59.3xx was what I did, but a 1.58.962 was my theoretical which is what I could of done on the lap before. Alex’s had similar issues right up until his last lap where he posted a 1.59.1xx, which put us 40th… 1.8 seconds off pole. Similar situation to Brands, where our qualifying pace isn’t great, but our race pace is. That’s a lot in qualifying setup, which we don’t have yet.
Optimistic we were for the race as our pace over 3 hours has been great. We have a great driver line up as all 3 of us are similarly paced. Alex would be starting, me second and Chris third. Start went well up until lap 2 where we got punted off by a Mercedes into T5. There was a small gap, but anybody with sense knew you couldn’t pull a move off into that corner from that far back! Alex got spun round and was last. There was damage to the rear, but it didn’t touch the rear wheels so geometry wise we were fine, it was just cosmetic. Was very easy at this point for Alex to get red mist and angry. He didn’t though, and quickly caught back up to the pack, passed that Mercedes with an epic dive down the inside at the last corner. He gained about 15-20 positions before the safety car came out. This was good for us as the field was bunched up again all on the same lap. A Audi at T7 had a left rear puncher going through one of the fastest corners in the world in GT cars. He spun onto the track as Mark Blundell was exiting this fast right hander, he hit him very hard. Nasty to watch, but both were ok. During the safety car train on the pit straight, Alex would come very close to the pit wall so Bob and the engineers could see the rear damage and figure out if anything had to be done in a pit stop. As the safety car came in Alex was charging again to the front, passing many cars. (the onboard footage is mega!) Unfortunately 2 laps before I was due to do my stint, Alex had a coming together with another car at T4. He carried on for two laps, car still going fine. I didn’t know about this until the car was trundling down the pit lane, and I noticed part of the splitter gone. Anyway we did our driver change faultlessly. I looked at Geoff our chief mechanic at the front of the car. I could work out from his face that it wasn’t good… I was pushed back into the garage, I still stayed in the car hoping that it could be fixed. Then the door opened, and somebody unplugged my radio. Game over.
Looked at the front of the car and noticed some carbon splinters were in the air intake, and some close to it. I knew this would have been the main reason for retiring the car. If it was a 24hr race we would have fixed it and continued, but 30 seconds in the pit lane in Blancpain, your race is over. Alex apologised to me, Chris and the team. All of the drives knew we shouldn’t be qualifying down there in the first place, we shouldn’t have to deal with silly situations with other cars. The car is coming along great in its first season of racing. We know what area we need to develop in the setup, but with limited parts and time at a race weekend, you can’t risk trying it in case it’s a turn for the worst. The team know this and hopefully we can go in that direction for Spa. The damage is repairable so the car will be fine and dandy for Spa 24hrs!
RJN Motorsport is the top performing GT-R team at the moment which is great, but it’s even more exciting as there is a lot more to come from the car.