14 Sep

“Living and competing!”

CHRONIQUE 3The 2015 lndyCar season – my first at Team Penske – is over and it turned out to be far more interesting than I had imagined. I take away a high number of positives despite the results which can be described as disappointing. Motor racing is a lesson in life where you always make more progress in the face of adversity. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was the empire forged by Roger Penske.

We excelled in qualifying and reached the Fast 6 [Q3] 14 times out of a possible 16. We also led and played an active role in all the races that took place at superspeedways, namely Indianapolis, Texas, Fontana and Pocono. At the oval venues, I also stepped up to a new level. That’s vital for the future and for my chances of winning the title, and I claimed my first pole position start at Fontana! I am now in a position where I believe I can win at all the different types of track. Over the season, the crew of the N°22 car learned to mesh and work well together and the atmosphere was fantastic. We moved forward in every area and there is huge potential there for the future.

At the streets circuits, we have put our finger on what suits me so that I can make the very most of my car. The same goes for the road courses where we were particularly competitive. We obviously need to progress on other things if we want to achieve the results we deserve. In the course of my career, I have often experienced years like this; years when nothing slots together and which can seem hard and cruel. That said, thanks notably to the support of my family and friends, I have always considered such periods as moments that pave the way for a bright future, so long as I gave myself the means to succeed. I notably recall 2005 when things didn’t go ideally for me in Formula Renault 3.5. That’s when I took the decision to come to the United States and I won the 2006 ChampCar Atlantic series, a feeder to ChampCar racing.

My thoughts are already turned to 2016. I can’t wait to get started with pre-season testing which will begin on September 22 – a sign, perhaps! There is still a great deal we need to take on-board with regard to Chevrolet’s aero kit. My engineer Ben [Bretzman] and I have a few ideas which we are eager to try. Over the winter, I will continue to develop the bond I enjoy with my crew, engineers and strategists. I quite like this period because you can take time to analyse and optimise all the tiny details. It took three seasons at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to reach the same point. Today, I feel we are ahead of the game, and that’s why – in my opinion – there were so many positives about the season.

At the same time, of course, 2015 was a sad year for motor racing, with the tragic loss of two incredible guys: Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson. Justin was a both a respectful and highly respected racer, a father, and an exceptionally kind guy for a driver. There wasn’t a trace of misplaced ego about him. I was quite close to Justin because we represented the Drivers’ Association together, along with Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe. Naturally, the most frequently debated topic was safety.

04CJ0897ATravelling back from Pocono, Pennsylvania, where Justin had his accident, was very hard. We were aware that his injuries were serious. My father was over from France for a vacation. He doesn’t like ovals because he finds them dangerous. Once again, he was right. Today, I have decided to try to put down in words what I felt that week because it isn’t easy for someone on the outside to truly understand what goes through the mind of a racing driver.

When an accident occurs at an oval, you soon see how quickly the driver gets out of his car, a sign that everything is okay. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to realise that wasn’t the case with Justin. My immediate thought was for his back which he had hurt in the past, before I stepped in for him at Mid-Ohio in 2011. Next time round, I saw the medical crew around his car and I knew it was serious. I wanted to call over the radio to find out what the situation was, but I hesitated. It’s precisely in situations like that that things can become difficult for a driver. My hesitation was a form of self-protection. If you don’t do that, how can you continue to race and keep your foot flat to the floor at 380kph in the knowledge that a friend has been badly hurt? Team Penske’s Team Manager Kyle Moyer informed me that Justin had suffered a head injury, no doubt a bad one. I heard the words but, subconsciously, they failed to register…

I have raced since I was nine. That was 22 years ago. During that time, you learn to suppress and control your emotions when you are behind the wheel. If you don’t you risk becoming an uncontrollable race horse. It’s something you work on subconsciously from the outset. When racing resumed at Pocono, I didn’t hesitate in the slightest to take the first turn flat out and my only desire was to pass the guy in front of me.

I ended up seventh after leading for the majority of the race. When I got out of my car, with the adrenalin still pumping after 500 miles at speeds of up to 380kph, my mind was still on how the race had unfolded and I felt a sense of deep frustration about certain things that had happened. It was only once my feet started touching the ground again that I understood that Justin was in a serious state, thanks to my girlfriend Hailey who told me before I faced questions from the media. I had managed to blank out that cruel and difficult side of the sport and, as a result, I felt terribly ill at ease with regard to what had happened to Justin.

Every time we climb into our car, we know it could be the last time we ever see those who are dear to us. When it actually happens, though, it’s something else. That’s when the pain hits and you have to learn to live with it. Quite honestly, I believe it is tougher for those who are close to you than it is for yourself. As a driver, you feel in control and, despite the risks, it is hard live without what racing brings, without what driving a car at such high speeds represents. Drivers don’t give up. If you think about it then you need to quit.. The most difficult thing is talking about it, calling your parents on the Monday after a race and explaining that a friend has lost his life, and that he was just behind you on the track when it happened.

It was hard not to feel ill at ease and devoid of all sensitivity when I received messages from my family and friends who are still very much present in my mind even though I left France 10 years ago. It’s hard, too, to sleep peacefully when your girlfriend has been crying over the loss of a friend, knowing perfectly well that you will be back racing a few days’ later? The internal personal conflict is clearly a very fine line.

JDC_SONOMA-15-0504-AThe week between Pocono and Sonoma was tough. In the end, the liberating moment came when I fired up my engine for Friday morning’s practice. It was a bark that ripped through the heavy silence. It made my body shake and my hairs stand on end. As a tribute to Justin, I decided to race wearing a black helmet. But despite the immense sadness I felt, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been anywhere else on the planet than in my car at Sonoma that Friday morning. Early in the session, I am convinced it was a sign from Justin when the red flags came out after the engine of the N°25 Dallara – his car – cut out through Turn 1. The session was interrupted and I watched the N°25 car as it rolled down the pit road, its V6 silent, past all the drivers in a beautiful sound of bearing friction with Oriol Servia, Justin’s replacement, behind the wheel. It was as though Justin had wanted to salute us. I feel shivers down my spine every time I think about that moment…

Rest in peace, Justin.




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