20 June, 2012

My interview with American GP3 driver Conor Daly: Barcelona, Force India and Hares!

American Conor Daly has been working his way up the racing ladder steadily for the past few years, but many more Americans took notice when the 20 year-old won the second of two GP3 races in Barcelona earlier this season.  Following that with a straight-line test for the Force India F1 team before heading to Monaco, Daly’s first full year in GP3 has proved to be a busy one, but I caught up with Conor for a candid interview about this whirlwind of a year shortly before the Monaco round of the GP3 championship.

Daly, the son of former CART and Formula 1 racer Derek Daly, is a former World Karting Association champion and multiple winner in Skip Barber and Formula Ford.  Originally entering the Road to Indy, which aims to aid racers in ascending to the IndyCar series, Daly won the Star Mazda Championship in record-setting fashion in 2010 (nine poles and seven wins) before moving on to Indy Lights the following year with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.  After capturing victory in Long Beach, Daly competed in GP3 with Carlin Motorsports (splitting his season between Europe and the United States).

But throughout all of these accomplishments, Daly has perhaps garnered the most attention in just four races in GP3.  Currently fifth in the championship standings with 23 points, Daly won the Barcelona sprint race on the opening weekend of the GP3 season, but it wasn’t easy.

What many people didn’t realize was that Daly had already been offered a spot testing the Force India before the opening weekend of the GP3 season---something he called “a nice little incentive” for those first two races.  However, that didn’t make things simpler for him in the feature race.

After a great qualifying, Daly dropped several spots at the start, from which he was never able to recover.

I saw the pole sitter, [António Félix] da Costa jump and I released the brake just slightly which made me pull in the clutch paddle so when the lights actually went out I was slipping the clutch way too much,” Daly said.  As a result the car stayed relatively stationary before creeping away slowly.  Despite the disastrous start, the clutch had only been slipping for a total of 2.4 seconds.  “It was definitely my fault, and it was sad because I was in a good position to try and win but unfortunately I wasn't able to do so,” he lamented.

Over the course of the race a difficult battle with Marussia Manor Racing’s Tio Ellinas developed until a late safety car bunched the field together.  In the ensuing sprint to the end, Daly’s main focus was finishing the race in one piece and setting himself up for the sprint race, which would invert the top eight finishers from the feature.  He would go on to finish P6, which meant he would start P3 on the inverted grid for the sprint finale.

More jump starts saw penalties befall those in front of him, and the sprint race quickly became a one-man show with Daly pulling away.  He later revealed that in the final few laps he had to keep himself from thinking too much about what would happen if he won.  Instead he made himself concentrate more.

The car was so good that I was able to focus on hitting my marks and just finishing out the race,” he said.  “I had to manage the tires towards the end and was able to finish with a good gap behind me so I was quite happy.”

 One of the best moments of the weekend for American fans was seeing Daly holding the American flag as he celebrated in parc ferme after the race.  Where did the flag come from, though?

 “I made sure to have my Dad bring the American flag from home because I knew I would get to use it at some point this year, I just didn't honestly think it would be this soon!  I was so thrilled to hear the American national anthem.   It was a very emotional moment and I can't really describe the feeling I had.  I was relieved because I knew that I was starting to prove myself in Europe.  I was extremely happy but it’s just the beginning and I can't wait to get to the next race in Monaco!”

For the rest of the weekend the young American was approached by numerous luminaries of the GP3, GP2 and F1 worlds.  At one point he was even congratulated by Ferrari F1 team principal Stefano Domenicali---the importance of which was not lost on the Indiana native.

“It is always nice to know people are watching,” Daly smiled.  “I don't want to get too caught up in it, though, because it’s a long season and I just want to focus on keeping the good finishes coming and scoring points to be there for the championship at the end.”

I have to ask, then, are any future deals coming out of some of those important conversations?

Daly laughed.  “Not that I know of at the moment!”

Fast forward to the Force India test a few days later. This was Conor’s first taste of a Formula 1 car.  Obviously he had grown up hearing about the machines, but the jump between GP3 and F1 technology had to be a great one.

 “They are indeed massively different cars.  The F1 car was absolutely incredible.  I was pretty much living every childhood dream I ever had!  There are just so many different settings on the steering wheel and it is a far more technically advanced race car than anything else in the world,” he explained.

But the coolest thing, if he had to choose something?

“Ultimately, though, the coolest thing had to be the sound under hard acceleration; just absolutely beautiful.

Since the test was a straight-line test---one of the few types of testing that has been allowed by the FIA over the past few years---Daly had plenty of opportunities to accelerate and decelerate, sometimes being told to accelerate as hard as he possibly could (which he described as being “the best part” of the session).  There was a brief moment, however, when he got to test out the handling as well.

Somewhere around 150 mph a hare ran out onto the Cotswold Airport runway where Daly was testing (located in Gloucestershire, England).  Although it wasn’t as much of a near-miss as some would like to think, Daly said he ‘did have to make his way around [the hare] as it sprinted away.’

Surprisingly, having worked with the Lotus GP3 team and now Vijay Mallya’s F1 team, Daly says that the two squads are extremely different, but only because the Lotus GP3 team is really ART GP.

“It's funny because everyone thinks because we have the same name that we are heavily affiliated with the Lotus F1 team but really we aren't,” he explained.  “Lotus GP is really ART GP which has been one of the best teams in the world competing in junior formula car racing.  Fortunately, though, the [ART GP] team has aligned themselves with the Lotus F1 team which gives us the cool color scheme and a great historic name.”

 Even so, Daly says with a chuckle that he is yet to meet anyone from the Lotus F1 team.

From there Conor was going to be heading to Monaco---somewhere he had never raced but had always dreamed about experiencing.

“I have been looking forward to this race since it was announced on our schedule.  I love street courses,” he said.  “I have raced on many street courses in America, and I've thoroughly enjoyed every single one.  Now I get to race on what is arguably the best street course in the world!”

Citing the 27 cars that will be taking part in the race, Daly noted that he may need a little luck when it comes to avoiding the inevitable traffic jams, but through simulator work and studying the track, he felt very comfortable leading up to the race.  He even mentioned that he was most looking forward to “pushing the limit in qualifying and using every inch of the track to try and get the pole.”

So, with one victory in the first two races, Daly would head to the French Riviera to the legendary and dangerous streets of Monte Carlo, where few could have predicted the outcomes of that weekend’s races.  We’ll catch up with Conor and get his thoughts on Monaco and the following round of the GP3 championship (Valencia, Spain) next time.

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