Following an impressive season in the professional category of the 488 Class of the Ferrari Challenge, Sam Smeeth was finally crowned third in the Trofeo Pirelli Drivers Championship.
Reflecting on the last three races of the season Sam shares his experiences from inside the cockpit:
We had been looking forward to our home race all season, it's such a welcome relief to have an advantage over the European-based teams. Silverstone is an extremely technical track, probably one of the best testing grounds to improve both car and driver. This is owing to the variety of corners and high-speed combinations. I honestly can't get enough of it!
We made the most of the home advantage by organising a couple of test days to hone the car prior to the 'Ferrari Racing Days' event. We gained a much better understanding of how the Ferrari 488 responds to setup changes - it's interesting to realise how she compares to her predecessor.
The 488 really is a Godzilla version of the 458, apart from the obvious power and aero advantages she swallows up curbs like they don't exist. The wider spec Pirelli tyres also behave differently, it's quite an art form to bring both front and rear tyres up to temperature at the same time. This is even harder on a qualifying lap when you really need everything to come together for you on one lap. This usually happens by lap 3.
Saturday - Qualifying 1
We were unfortunate to get caught up in traffic on lap 3, we had another go on lap 4 but the temperatures rose above their optimum so we decided to pit and settle for starting from P4.
The race started well and we swiftly moved up to P3 from the rolling start. We initially looked set to give chase though it soon became apparent that a technical issue was developing. In a sprint race you cannot afford to pit as doing so will mean you will finish last.
We stayed out for as long as possible, trying to hold on to 3rd until finally the rear track rod gave way. It seems that the 488 is not completely impermeable to curbs after all. We had to pit, losing all hope of a podium spot. My incredible team managed to find and fix the problem with the track rod and we re-joined the race gaining some precious points.
Sunday Qualifying 2
After traffic issues in Q1 we were hoping for a clear run this time. Our hopes are fulfilled and a good qualifying session results in us improving our time by five tenths. Unfortunately, other drivers improve as well so we start from P3.
Building upon our better qualifier we managed a great start moving up to P2 with only 1 car to catch driven by Philipp Baron. Daniele Di Amato, who was currently leading the championship, gave chase to me and just behind him, Björn Grossman.
Immediately, we came under attack from Di Amato and had no choice but to focus on defence rather than keeping up with a soon-to-be-distant Philipp Baron. After numerous flawed attempts to pass us, Di Amato nudged the back of our Stratstone Ferrari around Luffield. This manoeuvre caused us to momentarily lose traction, giving him the space to slip past. Thankfully we managed to regain control quickly enough to shut the door on Grossman who was also poised ready to pounce.
I was able to hold position in P3 being not quite fast enough to reclaim P2 or pull away from P4. This should have been the finishing order but then disaster strikes Team Stratstone in the form of a back-marker. The speed difference between our cars is huge and, even though I'm driving a yellow car with headlights on it seems I'm invisible! I try to make an evasive manoeuvre but unfortunately, we clash as we both reach the apex of the corner. As a result, our car damages the track rod again. Grossman narrowly avoided the collision himself by taking to the grass. Once the dust has settled we limp our way back to the pits once more. The team does a superb job of turning the car around and getting us back out on track, clinching more vital points.
All in all, Silverstone turned out to be a nightmare round putting hopes of a successful championship campaign into serious jeopardy.
Imola was a new track for me. We arrived early on the Tuesday and walked around the famous 4.9km undulating track to familiarise ourselves with its twists and turns. Having only previously seen the track on TV, it amazed me how much steeper the gradient of the climbs and descents were.
Dramatically different to Silverstone, Imola has little or no run-off areas, lined either side by imposing walls. Infamously menacing corners like Tamburello, highly cambered turns like Tosa, a steep descent to Acque Minerali followed by a climb up to a steeply curbed chicane, Variante Alta. What a place to race!
I couldn't wait to try to remedy the points deficit. Before the Stratstone Team could focus on engineering, I had to learn the track. As usual, we had test days on Wednesday and to hone both myself and our Ferrari 488.
Saturday - Qualifying 1
As the track cleared towards the end of the session, our old nemesis came back to taunt us. We struggled to activate all tyres at the same time, temperature regulation persisting in being a real issue. As a result, we were only able to qualify P4.
Race One started dramatically, and saw us on the defensive entering Tamburello. Alessandro Vezzoni attacked our position and made an overzealous manoeuvre. Approaching around the outside, Vezzoni tagged our front bumper as he passed. His earnest endeavours caused him to miss his braking point, cannonballing into both Baron and Di Amato.
A pile-up of sorts followed as the cars behind hit Vezzoni's now stationary car. I was able to narrowly avoid him but lost many places, re-joining the track in 11th position. Amongst the amateur class drivers, I aggressively found 3 places before the yellow flags were waved a few corners later, at Acque Minerali. Meanwhile, Vezzoni had retired his beaten-up car whilst Baron and Di Amato re-joined a few cars behind us.
Observing from behind the safety car it became apparent that the remainder of this race was going to be very interesting. Out in front was Grossman, he was followed by six amateur class cars and we sat in P8. There was quite a number of amateur drivers behind us, beyond whom Baron and Di Amato followed. Finally, the safety car came in and the race was on. Everyone's best chance here on in was to attack and move up the pack as quickly as possible. I passed at least 1 amateur class car for each remaining lap, finishing the race in second position, overall. FANTASTIC fun!
Sunday - Qualifying 2
In Q2 we improved our lap time by 1 tenth of a second. Unfortunately, others had similar improvements as they too found more time meaning we started from P5.
As we formed on the grid, news came through to Team Stratstone that the championship leading car of Di Amato had suffered a technical problem. This would mean him starting from the pit lane and we therefore gained a position on the grid. We made a good start and gained 3rd position on the tricky corner of Tamburello, leaving only Grossman and Baron in front of us.
Our tyre strategy was to play the long game and hope that the others were set up to peak earlier. Holding position, we sat back and waited. We wouldn't have to wait long. Baron made a good attacking move on Grossman with the two Ferraris driving side by side through the narrow Tamburello.
On the high-speed exit, Grossman's car pushed Baron around and into an uncontrollable spin, his car hit the wall with huge velocity spreading debris all over the track. Baron was ok, but his car was not. Grossman was given a drive-through penalty for causing the accident.
Once the safety car left the track, it was only a matter of time before Grossman would have to take his pit lane drive through penalty. His penalty gifted us a much-appreciated win! Admittedly not the most heroic victory but after an unfortunate series of events at Silverstone, the champagne of victory tasted even sweeter.
Mathematically, Di Amato could not be caught now as he was already so far ahead and so the championship deservedly went to him. Our race was for 2nd position, with Baron only a few points behind us and Grossman a few behind him we knew that we would have our work cut out at Mugello in the final sprint to the line.
Mugello is by far the most beautiful place I have ever driven a race car. We had visited this heavenly place on many occasions previously, the track and scenery backdrop are a magnificent sight to behold. Over 20,000 Tifosi fans would be filling the circuit stands on Sunday to watch the Mondiale Finali (World Final). If ever there was a time for me to perform it was now.
A total of 46 cars set on the first qualifier, the largest grid of the year. This number is made up of all the European classes. We manage to achieve our fastest run of the week so far but unfortunately it is only good enough for 8th position.
During the early stages of Race One we make up 2 places in quick succession. Going into and around turn 1, San Donato we then find ourselves chasing down Vezzoni. Vezzoni is hugely experienced and knows Mugello well so passing him was always going to be challenging.
It took 4 or 5 laps of watching his driving style to work out how to pass Vezzoni. When it happens, we use a combination of the first 6 corners to execute the pass. Shuffling for position and manoeuvring from side to side we attempt to put Vezzoni on the back foot. A dogfight ensues, with Stratstone's Ferrari finally making the lethal move to ease past the experienced Italian.
We finished the race in P4 behind both Baron and Grossman. Baron now moved up to 2nd in the Championship, one point ahead of our Ferrari, with Grossman still lurking just a few points behind.
Q2 on Sunday gave rise to a much better effort. We manage to clinch 5th just behind our championship rivals but at least this time there were no cars separating us.
In the second race of the weekend we made another good start. Overtaking Grossman immediately we were practically glued to Baron's bumper at the exit of the first turn! A few laps later it became apparent that Baron's car has encountered a major problem. Forced to retire his car, we are gifted 3rd in the race and 2nd in the Championship.
It was at this point that our car started to suffer. The Traction Control randomly lost power, this fault allows Grossman to take advantage. A poorly-timed Traction Control induced power cut as we entered the long straight then presents him with an easy pass.
The team advises me by radio to alter the Traction Control settings but nothing corrects the fault and so we rapidly lose time. Thankfully for us, the racing gods throw the dice and a major crash which, for once, does not involve our car forces the race to be stopped, before we lose any more places.
We finish in 4th for the race, concluding the European championship in 2nd position! In my first year of professional racing, it really is a fantastic feeling of achievement for both myself and for the team.
For the World Final, drivers from Ferrari Challenge Asia and Ferrari Challenge America join us. Another 50-car grid fielding many additional cars, makes for an interesting start. We start the race from 8th position, calculated by taking everyone's fastest qualifying lap from the previous session on Friday and Saturday. Our audacious aim is to somehow get to the podium. Now operating in full attack mode, we decide we have nothing to lose.
Early on in the race, the Stratstone Ferrari car does well, overtaking 3 cars in the first half of the first lap. In front of us there now only 2 cars between us and P3. Elsewhere on the circuit, there is a crash and so the safety car is called. When the race resumes the two lead cars pull away, they leave the rest of us to fight for 3rd.
Currently holding the third spot, Baron ran wide exiting turn 5, Borgo San Lorenzo. As he did this he kicked up dirt but managed to stay in control of his car. The sudden cloud of dust spooks American driver, Cooper Macneil. Swerving to dodge the dirt he lifts off the gas, allowing us to run side by side down Casanova and Savelli. I finally find the space to pass him around the outside of Arabbiata 1.
Both our car and Baron's had kept pace throughout the move so Baron didn't actually pull away This meant that by the end of the same lap we were close enough to attack Baron's position. Heading into Bucine we take a deeper entry line, brake later; sacrificing mid-corner speed. Our exit from Bucine is so good that by the time we brake for San Donato, at the end of the straight we are half a car length in front but sitting dominantly on the outside line.
Keeping momentum is key to making these kinds of manoeuvres work. It's so easy to overwork the throttle or not brake enough. Thankfully though everything stays tidy and we are able to pass around the outside. The Stratstone Ferrari car has the pace to pull away from Baron to a safe position but the lead 2 cars are too far ahead.
It's a long drive before we are due to finish but crossing the finish line to claim 3rd in the world is an indescribable feeling. An emotional end to a very successful season, there is nothing like ending the year on a high!
I would like to thank Stratstone for all their support this year. We have achieved what few thought was possible 2016 European and World AM Champions and now in 2017, Vice European PRO Champions and 3rd in the World… none of this would have been possible without your help.