Over days of testing both in the final months of last year and at the Roar Before the 24 earlier this month Sunoco Rolex 24 at Daytona Challenge winner Bradley Smith overcame what he described as “of all the little niggles you don’t really know about,” including the temptation to lift from the throttle around the banking.
Now, he’s ready to race at the Rolex 24 (January 25-26).
“I think I proved to myself in the November test that I could mix it with the big boys and that was something in my mind that I wanted to do,” Smith explained to www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk. “Hopefully if we all pull together and everyone puts the effort in then we could end up with a great result.”
Having won the Radical SR3 Challenge title Smith also beat off racing drivers from around the UK and Europe to scoop the coveted Sunoco Daytona Challenge to race at the Rolex 24, a prize that – with the US sports car unification creating the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship – comes with a added level of prestige.
“It’s great to be part of such a big event when the two championships are merging and to be able to be there for the first one it’s brilliant,” Smith says, before continuing, showing more wisdom that you’d maybe expect from someone only about to compete in his first major international sports car race. “There’s obviously a lot of politics with all the DP cars versus the LMP2 cars. They both have their pros and cons so as long as they manage to get the difference right in terms of performance against how long you can run in a stint then they should be good.”
The opportunity to compete in the biggest race of the year in the new championship is an opportunity not lost on Smith, though he reflects wisely on the reality of the situation. “Motorsport is full of politics,” he says, “and unfortunately now days it’s not just how far you are you have to all the off track stuff really well and that’s something we’re learning just coming in from a family run team in Radicals to a worldwide event it’s a big step, a lot to take in, a lot to learn.”
For the race this weekend Smith joins the Marsh Racing team – themselves racing a Daytona Prototype for the first time – to complete the line-up alongside Boris Said and Eric Curran, who step up with the team after campaigning a Chevrolet Corvette in the Rolex Series GT class, and Italian Max Papis.
Smith admits; “due to that day in November [Smith had an Action Express Racing Corvette DP to himself for a day] I think I ended up with more time in the car than they did. It’s been a big learning curve for everyone, they’re all working their hardest to make sure everything’s ready to go so we can hit the track for the race and know everything’s in a good position.”
“There’s a good team and a good bunch of guys who are working really hard to understand the car because they’ve had it nowhere near as long as the other team, so there’s a lot of learning to do for everyone but hopefully if we all pull together and everyone puts the effort in then we could end up with a great result.”
As with every driver who has won the prize drive at the Rolex 24 Smith has had to learn both a new track and a new car, though in some respects he explains his Radical was tougher to drive.
“The first thing you notice is the speed that the DP has but in terms of handling I think the Radical is a little bit more physical to drive just because you’ve got so much aero compared to the power so you’re hardly braking for corners. With the DP you have to really get it slowed down and wait for the car to settle a bit more and that’s something that it took me a while to get used to, allowing the car more time to get slowed down, but there are similar aspects with the aero so some of how to drive the Radical does apply and those bits that do I’ve tried to use to advantage and try and learn the bits that don’t.”
Again, in learning his way around both car and track the importance of the day of running in November is clear in his words; “I had a full day with Daytona Protoype to myself, so I had a full day just to get used it, learning the track because obviously with the banking it’s very different, but with the car itself.”
“The first time I went [on the banking] was in a road car and you just sink to the left side of your seat and you feel like the car’s going to roll over but when you get up on it in the race car it’s very hard going from the flat part of the track as you go up there’s a bit of a bump and then when you are eventually up there you’ve got this strange G-Force sort of going down more than across and that throws you out a little bit. The first lap on I was about to lift off because you feel a little bit ‘oo, hang on a minute’, a little bit sick but once you get used to it’s fairly easy.”
However, as easily as he dismisses the banking as “fairly easy” he recognises the challenges of the race. “It’s a difficult track,” he concedes, “especially with the GT traffic on the infield which is quite tight so you’ve really got to pick your moment to try and stay in the flow whilst getting past the GT cars.”
Perhaps easing the learning process is the communication not only amongst the Marsh Racing teammates, Papis one of the key men who helped bring 2013 Challenge winner Ivan Bellarosa up to speed at Daytona, but with Smith’s Mectech Motorsport teammate Lewis Plato, who won the Sunoco Grand-Am 200 Challenge, rewarded with a drive in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race at Daytona.
For the UK season it has been Smith who has acted as driver coach for Plato, but in Daytona, with both learning the track at the same tip the advice has flowed both way though, as Smith explains “obviously from what Lewis is driving to the DP is completely different so maybe not as much stuff applies but it’s still good to have a chat with someone with a different opinion and see what you can learn.”
“For Mectech it’s great to have two drivers out in Daytona and I think that proves how hard the team to work to make sure we’re consistent over the season with their level of preparation, the actual speed from the car and on the coaching side. It’s a big project and we all put a lot of effort in and it’s great that both drivers from the same team have made it.”
www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk will have full coverage of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with reports on every pre-race session before hour-by-hour updates throughout the race itself.