2015 Sepang 12 Hours Race Report

2015 Sepang 12 Hours Race Report
Fresh off the podium from the Sepang 1000km, I wanted to carry on the momentum into the 12 Hours of Sepang. With only two weeks before the 12 hour-long race, I was approached with a last minute deal to drive with experienced French team, Sport Garage in their Ferrari 458 GT3.
It was a glorious opportunity as it has always been a dream of mine to race a Ferrari. It will be my first time in a Ferrari 458 GT3 and my first time in a GT3 car on Sepang. I know that the leap from my usual touring front wheel drive cars to a 550bhp rear-wheel drive mid-engined car is not going to be easy but I welcomed the challenge!
Free Practice
The race weekend began on a Thursday the 10th of December where the usual driver license and equipment checks were the first order of the day. It was the first time this race is being organised by the Stephane Ratel Organisation (SRO) and the level of organisation was nothing short of world class, everything was well laid out and we even had to do a driver test for safety codes and FIA flags.
Meeting the Sport Garage team for the first time, we exchanged pleasantries and the engineer, Matthieu LaLisse quickly gave me a tour of the car. He explained the myriad of buttons that were in the car and on the steering wheel. I am not used to seeing so many buttons! I am just used to a standard steering wheel, a gear knob and three pedals. I had to learn fast and remember the function and location of each button. I also took the opportunity to pass the team Liqui Moly Race Tech Oil and Ceratec Engine Additives to be used for the gruelling 12 hour race.
I had three French team mates, Romain Brandela has the most racing experience within the team as he has competed and placed well in many GT races and even completed the 24 hours of Le Mans in a LMP2 category car twice! Georges Cabbane and Jean Paul Buffin were seasoned endurance racers in the Blancpain Endurance Series and 24H series races so I knew that I was in good company.
The team was not ready for the first paid practice in the morning and early afternoon so we could only have a go in the car at 5.50pm. It is the monsoon season in December at Sepang and afternoon showers were a common place. It poured in the afternoon just before the start of the free practice session making conditions extremely tricky for the drivers.
Matthieu asked me to start the session even though I did not have experience in the 458 GT3, I had local knowledge of the track. I was sent out to access the track conditions on wet slicks. The track was damp, not wet enough for full slicks and not dry enough for slicks. It was a stressful time as I did not want to mess up in my first few laps. After 3 laps, as more cars were circling the track, conditions got better and I told the team to get ready the slick tires. After the slicks were put on the car, I went out for another 2 laps in the damp conditions. I could not really push the car as the track was very slick and I did not want to damage the car.
By the time the other three drivers had a chance to drive the car, it was already the end of the first free practice session and the next session was at night. It was a dry but slippery track, without having driven a lap in the dry, it was very tough for me to get any type of rhythm in the car as it was very hard to get the brake and turn in markers right at night.
My three French team mates had a worse time as it was their first time racing in Sepang and to drive at night in a fast car is not easy at all. We did not have a great Free Practice and Night Practice session as the car was not handling well and suffered from huge understeer. Matthieu and the mechanics made a few changes for the Free Practice session on the following day.
The heavens opened again on Friday morning and I was selected to start the last Free Practice session again. Now I know how the professionals feel when they are thrown in the car during the worst conditions. My race engineer told me to access the conditions again and make the call when to change from wet slicks to full slicks. I drove a couple of laps and as the track was drying, I brought the car back to change tyres. I had a few more laps in the car and handed it over to my team mates with the track drying all the time.
Unfortunately I only got to drive the car in damp conditions and still have not gotten a chance to drive the car in the day with dry conditions. I knew that Qualifying later will be a challenge as I had no idea how the car will react in the dry.
The drivers’ photo taking followed after the final Free Practice session. It was a tradition for all SRO events to have the drivers of the race line up on track for a photoshoot. It was a great privilege and honour to be sharing the track with the top works factory drivers like Ferrari’s Gianmaria Bruni, James Calado, Audi’s Laurens Vanthoor, Stephane Ortelli and Bentley’s Guy Smith , Andy Soucek and a whole list of world class drivers like famous Japan GT driver Nobuteru Taniguchi.
Qualifying
Qualifying was in the late afternoon and Romain Brandela was put in the car with used tyres to test out some setup changes after Free Practice. He was in the car for a good 40 minutes testing and was given a fresh set of tyres to set a qualifying time. It was my turn next, it will also be my first dry lap in daylight. I was only given one timed lap as the other drivers had to clock their laps before the end of the session. I drove the best I could with five lap-old tyres from Brandela, the car was understeering very badly on the slow and right-hand corners. All the drivers had the same feel and our race engineer had a job on his hands to change the setup again for the race.
Race Day
The team had a discussion and I was selected to start the race as I have started many endurance races at Sepang before. However, this is my first time driving such a fast car and in a full field of top professionals, I knew I was going to have a tough time. I looked forward to the challenge and got myself ready for the race.
Race day started with clear blue skies and a blazing hot sun. Track temperatures were high in the 50 degrees Celsius with humidity at over 90%. It was a hot and sweaty affair to be the starting driver as I will be in the race suit and car for the longest. The pit lane opened at 1110hrs and race will start at 12 noon meaning by the time I finished my first stint I would have been in the car for a good two over hours. I knew that I had to stay hydrated and drank several bottles of water before the race.
At the grid, I got a lot of attention with spectators and supporters coming to take pictures with me and the Ferrari race car. There is something magical about the Ferrari, it just has this ability to draw crowds and capture fans. After the grid parade was over, it was time to put on my helmet and get down to business. I got into the cockpit with the mechanic strapping me in, asking me if I was alright and then gave me the usual “All the best” note with a clenched fist. My heart was racing as I closed my eyes and said a prayer as I always do before a race.
The 30 seconds board was shown and I fired the prancing horse’s V8 engine. Every single car ahead of me was driven by a professional, I knew that it will be a challenging first stint and I had to drive within my abilities and not try anything foolish. My goal was to find a good rhythm and to drive a consistent error free stint. The Malaysian flag waved, signalling the start of the formation lap, cars were accelerating and braking, weaving left and right to warm up the tyres. There were butterflies in my stomach and adrenalin pumping through my body, I was all ready for the race start.
After the last turn, the lights turned green and it was pedal to the metal, I set my fastest lap of the car in the opening laps as it was my first time on brand new tyres but I also had a full tank of gas in the car. In the first few laps, I was battling with Peter Kox in the Audi R8 LMS Cup and another professional in the Lamborghini Huracan. I managed to overtake the Huracan as he made an error and tried to close the gap with Peter Kox, however after five laps I experienced a huge drop off in pace from the tyres and the car was understeering badly again. I then maintained a consistent pace and completed my full 65 minute stint. My physical training leading up to the race paid off as I was not fatigued even in the Sepang heat and humidity.
After handing the car over to my other team mates, I went to shower to cool off. I think the heavens decided to give Sepang a shower to cool things off too as after three hours of racing, the heavens opened and it quickly brought out the red flag as there were rivers on the track making racing impossible. The race was red flagged for more than an hour.
Ten minutes before the red flag session was over, I was sent out in the wet conditions for my second stint as I had a good feel for wet racing. All suited up, I climbed into the car and started the engine. A driver’s nightmare before a wet stint, the display screen showed “TC OFF/TC FAILURE”. We had no time to rectify the fault, I had to deal with so many uncertainties as I had no reference lap in my database for wet racing in a 458 GT3 and this was my first time racing with wet slicks in a full wet Sepang. I have always enjoyed racing in the wet and trusted myself to rely on my driver instincts.
The restart was treacherous to say the least, entering the first corner at 230+km/h with all the spray of water from the cars ahead meant the windscreen was a sea of water and I had to look out the side of the car to get a reference for my braking point. I took the conservative route for the start of the race and eased into the opening laps. I quickly found that the car was actually better to drive in the wet than the dry. I then used my local knowledge of Sepang to set very fast and consistent laps in the wet. I was later told that I was matching several of the professionals lap times in the wet. I stayed in the car for the maximum 65 minutes driving a fast and error free stint. The team manager, engineer and team mates were very impressed by my performance and clapped for me as I returned to the pits.
Unfortunately the race was halted again later due to another bout of heavy downpour that lasted through the night making conditions dangerous for racing. There was a safety period for over 1 hour and we quickly reached the last hour of the race. Romain Brandela had the least time in the car up till then and he was asked to do a stint and a half and I was to drive the last 30 minutes of the race. However, at 2315hrs it was reported that our car was very slow on track. There was damage to the rear right suspension and driveshaft. Brandela limped the car back to the pits and the team did a quick fix before sending me out.
In my last stint, the car was very difficult to drive as coupled with the rain, the rear of the car did not seem stable in the corners. I did my best to bring the car home and we crossed the line finally after 12 hours to complete the race! It was a great experience for me in the Ferrari 458 GT3 and having had 2 full stints in the rain interrupted race was a blessing, giving me much needed seat time in the dry and wet. The second stint in the wet without Traction Control and still having the ability to match some of the professionals in the trying conditions was a good validation of my driving ability. I hope to be given more chances in another GT car in the near future to build up and sharpen my driving skills.
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