Daniel Burkett: A flag-to-flag blog of USF2000 in Toronto

Daniel Burkett, IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on July 17, 2013 1:44 pm
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In this guest column for More Front Wing, Canadian USF2000 racer Daniel Burkett offers a start-to-finish blog of his experiences from a weekend racing in front of a Canadian crowd in a Mazda Road to Indy series for the first time.

Thursday (Travel Day, Track Walk)

Thursday had a very early start — 3:40 AM to be exact. My two and a half hour flight from Winnipeg to Toronto left at 5:20 AM, which was not the most pleasant or sought after flight but allowed my father Murray and I to get acquainted with the track and spend a solid day in Toronto.

After arriving at the USF2000 paddock, otherwise known as the Direct Energy Centre, the first course of business is always to find my team, Belardi Auto Racing.

The mechanics are always the first ones to greet drivers at the pit while setting up the kiwi tiles and hospitality area. It’s always great fun to chat with those guys — they never have sad looks on their faces.

Secondly, I found the engineers, who were setting up the data trailer. In a very loud voice so that everybody could hear, “How’re ya doin’, eh?” came from the door, the telltale signal that I, the only Canadian on the team, had arrived.

After all the pleasantries, the weekend strategy was discussed between myself, Stefan Wilson (my coach), and Bob Knox (my engineer). Overall, we were aiming for a top-12 qualifying run and two top-10 finishes in the races. It seemed like a reasonable goal considering my progress throughout the season thus far.

The track walk followed this at 4:00 PM. I always love this part of the weekend because all of the drivers from every series are on the track at the same time — and that includes IndyCar! It’s really cool to be looking at a corner, then have Dario Franchitti standing right next to you examining the same barriers or curbs.

After the track walk, it was time to find the hotel. In typical Toronto traffic fashion, it took us an hour and forty five minutes to go three kilometers (1.8 miles for the Americans!). Anyhow, after we finally arrived, dinner was eaten and it was straight to bed. Considering that practice 1 would start at 7:30 AM, it was going to be another early morning.

*

Friday (Practice 1, Practice 2, and Qualifying)

Friday started very early, too — 5:45AM this time — so I didn’t exactly get a nice, long sleep in. But Tim Hortons came to the rescue! We got some coffee and breakfast bagels and away we set off to the track. We made a quick stop on the way to pick up Stefan, and then it was all business.

When we arrived at the track, Stefan and I went over the track map once more and I took in as much as I could. Then, it was time to get suited up for our first on-track session.

Practice one was uneventful. I spent it simply learning the track with a bit of hard running at the end. The track was extremely dusty and slippery, so there was no real reason to try and get a feel for what changes I wanted made to the car since the track would rubber up so much for practice two. We ended the session with the 15th-quickest time out of 30 cars, but I knew (and so did Stefan) that I had lots of time left on the table for practice two.

The usual hour or two in between sessions was spent in the data trailer analyzing and comparing with teammates. Having data from four other cars to look at is a tool I will definitely take advantage of right now! It provides so many different opinions of the track and really gives the whole team an opportunity to be fast. I find data analysis to be one of the most important parts of the race weekend because with such little track time it’s vital to trust the car and know exactly where I need to push harder — or, in some cases, tone my driving down.

Practice two started off with a bang, literally. On my third flying lap I was pushing the car to its absolute limit — braking as late as possible, using all of the available track space, and hugging walls where I could. Stefan was telling me that so far in the session I was 7th quickest but I should still try and pull more time out of the car.

Going into turn three after the longest straight away on track, I braked at the two and a half marker, which was later than I had before. But the brake pedal went straight to the floor, and the car didn’t slow down nearly quick enough. The front brakes started working miraculously, and the front tires took all of the pressure I was putting on the pedal and immediately locked up.

I used the entire run-off area, then I slowly drove the car back to the pits. Somehow, during my brake failure I managed not to touch a single tire barrier or wall. I can say there were more than a few close calls, though.

When I arrived back in pit lane, my mechanic took the front wing and nose assembly off and then started examining the master cylinders. He found a leak and quickly tightened everything back up and got the other mechanics on the team to jump in and help with a quick bleed of the brakes. However, I only got two more laps in, so the brake failure ended the session with us only getting about five laps. It was incredibly frustrating to lose that much track time.

Qualifying was up next, and I was more than ready. With the problem we had in practice two I was ready to go out and throw down a quick one. Leaving the pits I thought to myself, ‘focus, trust the car and push it to the limit.’

My first flying lap was dismal, but I kept at it. I pushed as hard as possible, trying to forget that brake failure in turn 3 and just trust the car.

When the session had ended I turned out in 16th, which I was incredibly disappointed in. I still really don’t know what was wrong with my car or my driving — I was just slow.

Coming back from the session I was a bit dejected, but that all changed: the fans started coming and asking for autographs and pictures, simply because I’m Canadian! The atmosphere at this race was better than any other event I have been to in my career. The fans in Toronto love their Canadian boys. My team owner, Brian Belardi, actually had to take the hero cards back into the trailer because they were going so quickly. By the end of the weekend I had none left, which was a very good feeling.

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Saturday (Race #1)

Our Saturday race started at 9:40 AM, which was a little later than the first two days. I was grateful for the extra amount of rest I got.

We arrived at the track at around 8:15 AM, and from then on it was just mental preparation and discussing possible strategies for the race with Bob and Stefan. The main idea was to try and stay on the outside of turn 1 because it allows me to carry more speed and not get caught in a single-file line and have no opportunity to overtake other cars. The other corner heavily discussed was turn 3, the heavy braking zone that leads into a tight right-hand corner. Stefan advised me to stay on the outside if I could because on the inside cars will get bottlenecked and again create a single-file line in which no one is able to overtake.

His main point was to seriously be aware of cars around me. Everyone will be pushing for position, and there is bound to be a wreck in either turn 1 or turn 3.

On the pace lap, I felt calm and relaxed. I knew that I was going to be fast. The green flag dropped, and I was totally on it.

I had a run on a few of the cars in front of me, and I made the move to the outside of turn 1. I didn’t brake as late as I possibly could have just to be cautious, but I still made up two places by going around the outside.

The long run down to turn 3 was spent planning and thinking about how I would overtake the cars in front of me. Stefan was on the top of the grandstands looking out for trouble, and he would only radio in if he saw a crash starting to develop.

Going into corner 3 I heard no radio from Stefan, so I braked as late as possible around the outside of most cars. I made up only one spot, but it was still valuable.

By the end of lap 1 I had made it to 13th and started chasing down the pack in front of me. I was much quicker and was on their gearboxes in two laps.

Just when I got there, the caution came out and killed the momentum. A car had smashed the wall exiting the last corner.

On the restart, I again tried the outside but got hung out to dry and lost a place. The pass had cost me a fair bit of time, so it took some work to catch back up to the group in front. At this point, I was in 11th.

By about halfway through the race, I had made my way back up to the group of four cars. I was thinking about what move I would make and where to set up for a pass when I brushed the wall exiting turn 3. The impact didn’t damage anything but changed the alignment significantly. It made the car a bit tougher to drive, but I still maintained pace.

With only five minutes remaining in the race another caution came out, and the entire field was under the impression that the race would finish under yellow. However, the safety team got the wrecked cars cleaned up very quickly, and I had one last lap to get at least one more spot to finish in the top 10.

The green and white flags waved at start/finish, and I really carried a lot of speed down the inside of turn 1 and made the overtake stick! I wasn’t able to make up any other places, but finishing 10th from starting 16th I was happy with. Also, I had the 9th-fastest race lap, which meant that 9th is where I would start in Sunday’s race — my best starting grid position of the season.

All in all, Saturday was a good day. I knew I could have done better if I hadn’t made contact with the wall in corner 3, but I also knew we had a very fast car for Sunday’s race.

*

Sunday (Race #2)

Sunday was an even later start — we arrived at the track at around 9:30 AM. Knowing that any handling problems I’d had in race 1 were caused by the contact in corner 3, I told Bob that no changes were needed on the car. In this entire weekend, we made only one change! It’s very rare to have a car that comes out of the trailer and is quick right away with only a few changes — it certainly was a first for me.

Sunday’s race started at 11:35 AM, and I was hyped up and ready to go. I knew my car was fast and I had a starting position that made it possible for me to finish in the top 5, a goal that seemed unreachable during the opening rounds of my season.

Before the race I was chatting with some of the other drivers and they had the same impression that I did, which was that there were going to be wrecks that day. Race 2 marked the midway point in the USF2000 schedule, which meant that for most drivers desperation for championship hopes began to set in.

The start of race 2 was a bit shaky, and in turn 3 I broke far too late and got hung out to dry in the marbles. This really cost me — eight positions, to be exact! I was in 8th place heading into the corner and came out 16th, which was very frustrating because it put me far back in the field and into a position where I could get involved in the mid-pack wrecks.

And that’s exactly what happened. On the same lap in turn 8, a three-car pile-up ensued. Luckily, I was able to maneuver my way around the crashing cars, which then put me into 13th.

The number 13 certainly worked its magic. After all the mess was cleaned up, two cars got together on the restart right in front on me! I jabbed the pedal and slowed down, but the driver behind me figured that he didn’t need to (and he should have). The end result was my car getting pushed into the tire barriers, sending me all the way back to 21st.

Surprisingly, nothing got broken or bent on the car, but I knew I had no one to blame but myself for the incident. If I hadn’t messed up turn 3 on lap 1, I would have been in the top 5 and far away from all the carnage.

After yet another mess was cleaned up, I got the call from my mechanic, Eric, that it was going green next time by the start/finish line. Since I was the very last car in the single-file order, I hung back to get a run on the rest of field. Boy, did it work perfectly! By the time I passed the flag stand I had already passed four cars and was going to get some more on braking into turn 1.

But as the tradition followed for this race, somebody had to crash again — right on the line I was planning to take. So, once again I had to hammer on the brakes when I should have been accelerating, which let all the cars I had just overtaken re-take me! It was really not our day.

Several laps of caution ensued, and I got the call from Eric that when the green was flown next time by I would have four laps to make up as many positions as I possibly could. I was a man on a mission — I promised myself that I wouldn’t settle for a lap that I didn’t overtake a car.

On the restart I was 19th, and I tried to time the green flag again but failed miserably. I waited too long and basically just destroyed any chance of an overtake in turn 1. In turn 3, however, I was bloodthirsty and overtook two cars on the outside.

I kept on pushing and took another on the inside of turn 8. On the following lap, I took one more on the outside of 1 and then another in turn 3.

After those cars the competition started to get tough, so I had to plan my overtakes in advance. Oh, was I ever a scheming little devil in my helmet. I got the draft at just the right moment for the next two cars and took them both down the inside of turn 8.

It was then the last lap, and I knew that I could catch the group in front but I would have to run a perfect lap. I ended up catching the group just after corner 5, after the major passing zone of turn 3. My only chance to improve my position was in turn 8, and I gave it a go but the driver in front blocked down the inside. (Not to say I didn’t try his outside — but there was nothing to be had. He put his car in the perfect position to stop me from getting by.)

After I took the checkered, Stefan informed me that I placed 11th and that he was thoroughly impressed with my outside overtakes in turn 3. He also told me that my teammate, Danilo Estrela, had won the race. This brightened my spirits a bit, but mostly I was disappointed because I knew I was much faster than 11th spot considering how fast I caught the group in front of me, I knew I had a top-5 car. Looking at the times, Stefan told me that I posted the third-fastest race lap on my last lap, the one that I’d known had to be perfect.  Looks like I did a pretty damn good job!

Recapping the weekend, I was thrilled with it to be perfectly honest. I mean, sure, I wanted to have better results — but the bottom line is that I need to improve each time I’m on track, and I’ve done that so far this season.

Toronto fans are the best, I’m not going to lie — I absolutely love them. I can’t wait for the event next year!

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