RACER.COM ZHUHAI REPORT
It’s been a little while since I’ve written for racer.com, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy and it’s good to be back with the readers. I just returned from China, where we (co-drivers Andrea Roda and Tacksung Kim) finished second in LMP2 with Portuguese-based Algarve Pro Racing Team in their Ligier JS P2 in the Asian Le Mans Series’ 4 Hours of Zhuhai. It was an all-around great experience worth sharing.
The past two years — since running in the European Le Mans Series and breaking the youngest driver record at Le Mans in 2014 — have been a mix of IMSA-focused work, culminating most recently with qualifying on the front row in the Porsche GT3 R with Park Place Motorsports at Petit Le Mans in the GTD class (we also finished second, but the officials took that away post-race on a questionable technicality).
Back to China. It was my first time there and marks the eighth country where I’ve raced. Zhuhai is a one-hour ferry ride west of Hong Kong. Door-to-door, it’s a 24-hour trip and it was punctuated by realizing that the taxi drivers don’t speak English and they don’t recognize our alphabet. Being engaged in a conversation where two people are talking their native languages to each other, and neither has a clue of what the other is saying, is quite funny!
Needless to say, Google Maps and Translate saved the day multiple times as we made our way over to Zhuhai International Circuit. With 14 turns over 2.7 miles, the track has just one 4th gear high speed corner and a slew of bumpy braking zones, and was China’s first permanent road course when it was built in 1996.
We were scheduled to practice on Friday and Saturday, with the race on Sunday. However, Friday didn’t go as planned since the cars didn’t get out of customs until late Thursday night. That left us one practice session. “Tack” – the nickname for Kim – drove most of it since he was new to LMP2. Andrea and I each did an in and out lap, plus one flyer so we could start the next day familiar with the track layout.
Conditions were mixed on Saturday, but I did get some dry running in (see in-car video). Qualifying was wet and Andrea put us third on the starting grid, while Andrea Pizzitola in our sister car was on pole alongside Nicky Catsburg and team owner Michael Munneman. It was a great showing for the team, which is competing in the Asian Le Mans Series partly because the champion gets a Le Mans auto-invite.
Tack led off for the first stint and almost immediately things weren’t looking good, as he reported gear downshifting problems on the first lap. I got in for a double stint, and indeed, the downshifts weren’t working unless you slowed way down. My first check was to the dashboard where I noticed that the “GBox” button was on, activating the shifting manual override.. That’s the position you go to when the shifting electronics fail. When activated, it allows the driver to shift manually with the clutch. I turned it off,, and we were good.
I spent the next 95 minutes in flat out chase mode. I wasn’t getting lap times, but team manager Stewart Cox was great on the radio, “Matt keep up that pace, you’re closing on the leader.” On pit sequence we jumped into first place over DC Racing’s Ho Ping Tung and Gustavo Meneves, followed by a full course caution. When we went green DC Racing was three cars back, behind two other non-LMP2 entries.
Over the next few minutes I was able to pull out about a 12-15 second gap over Tung, before pitting for fuel. Exiting the pits we were 50+ seconds back from DC Racing. Over the next stint I was able to whittle that down to around 20 seconds, and on pit sequence the lead came back to us once again and I handed the car to Andrea leading the race. Man it was hot in that car! Probably the hottest I’ve ever felt with 80-85 degrees outside and stifling Asian humidity and sun. When you’re driving, you just push through it, but when you get out, you feel it. I needed about a gallon of water afterwards.
Throughout my stint I was mixing quick laps with fuel conservation. The way things were unfolding, we had a feeling fuel strategy was going to rule the day. Whoever could avoid a final splash would likely prevail. As it turned out, we came up one lap short of hitting the perfect pit strategy, and we needed full fuel service under green, while DC Racing only needed a splash-and-go. Otherwise the top step would have been ours. Sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles.
All in all, I loved racing with Algarve, in China and in the Asian Le Mans Series. The team has asked me to join them for the rest of the season. We’re trying to figure out how to squeeze that all in with likely stateside commitments in IMSA and my aerospace engineering schooling at the University of California – Irvine. Hopefully we can make it work. Here are a few other tidbits about my time in China:
01. You’re Only 18 Years Old
It was too funny when Nicky realized that he’s almost old enough to be my father! Because I’ve been around the sports car scene for a few years, everyone assumes I’m a lot older. Nope, I’m just old enough now to vote.
The team used a program called Vbox which integrates video and data (and provides the on-screen graphics and dual views you see in the in-car video), so that you can review your driving data while getting a cockpit view of your track placement and your hands. Awesome!
03. 750 Miles Per Hour
On the flight home, I glanced at the inflight data and it showed we had a 167 mph tailwind, which meant our ground speed was over 750 miles an hour! HKG to LAX in 11 hours, that’s gotta be a record.
04. Future of Sports Cars in Asian
I sort of figured there wouldn’t be many fans, but on race day the grandstands were almost entirely full! Car count for the Asian Le Mans Series is up over last year, and the team, car and driver quality was quite strong. There is a future here.
05. No Chinese Food
Being in a place where there’s hardly any English, you drive around seeing Chinese characters and you really have no sense of what’s going on. To the point, after the race we finally went out for Chinese food. The only problem: it was a Japanese restaurant! Who knew?