Well into April now and the year has gone very quickly so far. As I think back to the beginning of the year I realise that the Autosport International show at the NEC in January was a very important milestone for both myself and the team. We unveiled our new car for the forthcoming BTCC series and the response we had from both the media and the fans was breathtaking. The car looks spectacular but the proof was going to be in the actual driving and fortunately we had scheduled a number of test sessions prior to the initial BTCC rounds at Brands Hatch in early April.
I had to wait until the session at Snetterton in February to finally try out the new Mercedes Benz and to say that I was impressed is very much an understatement. The car feels like a much better overall package. There are so many little differences that all add up to a very big change. One obvious example: the car gives me more confidence when driven on the edge as it is easier to keep control of when it goes wrong; it is so easy to correct that it gives me great confidence to attack the brakes later and go much harder into bends. It just feels so much better suited to my own driving style — the Cruze has potential to be a great car but it just didn't work for me. It was taking us too long each race weekend to bring the car up to pace.
My confidence in the Mercedes was displayed at the BTCC Media Day season launch at Donington Park on the 24th of March. After all the media fun and games the afternoon test session gave me the chance to show what the car was capable of and we achieved a fine third position just behind Jason Plato and current series Champion Colin Turkington. This gave the team great confidence going into the first rounds at Brands Hatch just a week and a half later.
Qualifying on the Saturday proved eventful however! We were pushing for a top ten position but there were some issues with the car in Free Practice 2 which was affecting the car's handling. We didn't get the chance to resolve this for qualifying but were placed firmly midfield (15th) which equalled our previous best qualifying position in the Cruze. As this was while we were having problems, I was ultimately happy enough with the result.
On the Sunday I managed to "christen" the new Mercedes on the first lap! Going into the final corner a driver lost control and this in turn caused bunching between the cars following. I took to the grass to avoid the mêlée before coming back onto the track. As I came back on, I was just behind Dave Newsham; he slowed his car down much more than I expected resulting in me running into the back of him. Ouch!
But it was a strong race for us — we finished in a position (12th place) in the first race of the year that had taken us 27 races to achieve the year before.
For the second race at Brands the new rules meant that were positioned 17th on the grid (the year before we would have been 12th, echoing the first race results). This was frustrating, but in spite of being stuck in a train of traffic, I had pace that was matching some of the faster guys at the sharp end of the grid, and climbed back up to 13th on a track that is not the easiest to overtake on.
Race Three started well and I immediately had pace, but then the safety car came out as Race One winner Rob Collard's BMW was extricated from the gravel. During this period I completely lost the brakes due to a master cylinder that has decided it wanted the day off for Easter! So it was back to the garage and there we stayed.
Overall it was a very positive weekend, despite the issues we had. Tom Onlsow-Cole was on board that weekend, offering advice and letting me benefit from his experience. He is a really good friend and someone that I have worked with for a long time. He is a very quick, experienced driver, so having him there on instantly available on the team radio is always a great help.
Now we look forward to Donington; from our testing this appears to be a strong circuit for us, and the biggest thing we took away from Brands Hatch is that with the new regulations regarding "success ballast", and the way that the Race Two grid is dictated, anything can happen!