In his third exclusive column for Crash.net, M?cke Motorsport F3 Euroseries rookie Alexander Sims reflects on trials and tribulations at the Eurospeedway Lausitz, his maiden appearance in the prestigious F3 Masters at Zandvoort, testing at Magny-Cours and his breakthrough podium with the runner-up position at the Norisring - as he bids to go one spot higher still next time out on his Zandvoort return...

My second race weekend in the F3 Euroseries F3 at the Lausitzring Eurospeedway was one that I came away from realising what could have been had a couple of things gone my way. I am not making excuses; I made mistakes and paid heavily for them.

I will run through the weekend and tell you as much as I can about the events and how they unfolded. On Thursday I got up at 5:30am to leave for Heathrow. It's always difficult managing the flight on the day before to not be too early so that you're tired, but also so that you get to the track in reasonable time to be organised and prepared for the weekend. After all the travelling I got to the track at five in the afternoon, so having travelled for almost twelve hours I was ready to get into the main part of the race weekend.

We did our usual track walk and discussed all the corners and different options with lines around the track; then we went back to the race truck and went through the various bit of information needed for the weekend. Then I just relaxed for half an hour or so whilst eating supper and actually watched part of a film on my portable DVD player! That evening we got back to the hotel around 9:30, so I had a quick shower and went straight to bed.

Practice on Friday was from 10:30am-12pm and 3-4pm. In the first session it was slightly damp but drying, and after ten minutes we were all on slicks. I got into my rhythm quickly and started to improve my driving bit-by-bit. We did a few stints of eight laps and then changed the car a little to try some things that needed improving. We got the car feeling really good, and at the end we put new tyres on and finished the session fifth overall. During my new tyre run I had a lot of laps where I caught other cars which affected my lap time, but eventually I managed my situation well enough to find one clear lap. By this stage I had missed the peak of the tyres, but they were still reasonable.

We then went through the standard procedure of analysing the data and working out how we could improve both the car and myself. Having worked out how to move forward, I had some lunch and then went to the drivers' briefing. The second session of the day was an improvement again, which was good to see. We had a similar plan, and after doing a couple of stints to try out a couple of different options with the set-up we settled with what we thought was best. Then we put a set of new tyres on again. This time I managed my space better and had a few clear laps in a row. We finished the session second and less than a tenth behind the fastest. I was very pleased with our pace - with it being my first season I feel that it is very good to be so fast. Having the speed is by far the most important thing as with that, the results will come with time.

On Saturday we qualified at 8am again. We will qualify at that time at every race this year. It is inevitable as we are a support race to the DTM, so I can't complain. Qualifying was damp and everyone was on wets. I was going well and in fifth, but the track was starting to dry. With only ten minutes left I felt that the best time would come at the end by saving my tyres so they were in the best possible condition to push hard when the track was driest. By pushing hard all the way I felt the tyres would overheat and lose performance, and so my best possible lap time would be unreachable.

I therefore held back, but unfortunately that decision was the wrong one on that occasion, because within two laps the rain had started again! In two laps I went from fifth to eleventh, and with the rain falling I knew if I wanted to have any chance of salvaging a time I had to push straight away. I did my best first sector, but by the end of the lap the rain had fallen enough to wet the surface of the track and so I simply couldn't lap as fast as I would have done a lap earlier. I then did not improve my overall lap time, and eleventh was where I would stay for the remainder of the session.

I was gutted to have made the wrong call on managing my tyres. To have the raw pace that we did, it was difficult to take eleventh after qualifying. I knew I should have been far higher had I made a different decision. That is racing, though, and I continue to learn from my mistakes and try to improve my overall game. Afterwards I looked through the data as always, and on my fastest lap I was as quick as one of my team mates and faster than the other at the same point in the session. I took the positives from qualifying and talked with Michi, my engineer, about how I could have done a better job. I picked myself up and turned my focus to the first race, which was just a couple of hours later.

I got in the car on the pre-grid, drove through the pit-lane onto the track and round one lap and pulled up to my grid position. Whilst keeping calm, waiting for the ten-minute countdown for the green flag lap, I ran through the start in my head, just checking I had everything covered. Then after the lights went off for the green flag lap I pulled off and laid some rubber down on my grid spot. This just helps a little to clean the track and put a bit of rubber down to increase the grip, so that when you go for your start you can get slightly better traction. Having warmed everything up correctly, my start was good I jumped from eleventh to seventh on the drag down to the first corner.

Unfortunately, this was the best part of the race, as on lap two I felt the car and tyres were ready to go flat-out through turn seven, which is a fifth gear right-hander. In testing it had been flat-out every lap, so I didn't feel I was asking too much. I guess I was, though, and the car snapped in the middle of the corner. I had to turn into the slide to stop myself from spinning and consequently drove into the gravel trap. I lost a lot of ground but rejoined, then just a few corners later a car behind lunged down the inside; I saw this coming and went as wide as I could, but he slid into me and broke my steering arm. I was out on the spot. I got out and headed back to the pits to watch the remainder of the race.

After we got the cars back from Parc Ferm? we looked at the data. This time there was only the start to look at, and that was reasonable. I have consistently improved my starts, and that was another step in the right direction. I spent some time with my father, brother and a couple of sponsors that had come for the weekend before they headed back to their hotel. Then after supper I just headed back to the hotel and got some sleep.

Sunday, I felt, was going to be a tough race starting from 24th. It turned out quite reasonable, though. Having got an even better start than I did on the Saturday, by racing well and taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself to me I was in ninth by the end of the second lap. I closed down the gap to the driver ahead of me and started to pressure him; I maintained a small gap to him for a number of laps, but could not find a way past. When following another car in F3 you lose a lot of downforce due to the disturbed air that they create, so getting past once everyone has settled into a rhythm is quite difficult.

After about ten laps of sitting behind him he made a mistake in the second-to-last corner. I was close behind him and picked up his slipstream down the main straight. Knowing from the previous laps that I was later braking than him anyway for the first corner, I decided to make a move there. I went down the inside but he moved across on me; I went as far towards the corner as I could but he turned into me, thinking I would back out of the move. I had braked as late as possible, though, so once I had committed to the move I could not suddenly slow down any quicker to stop the move, plus I was far enough down the inside for it to be my corner anyway. My front wheel hit the middle of his tub and broke my rim; therefore I had a flat tyre and completed the rest of the lap to pit and get a new one.

It was a massive disappointment as I had to make progress, as there are only points awarded for the top six in race two. It was a bold move, but one that was completely legitimate. After that I had decent pace unsurprisingly, but by that time I had an odd tyre which was worn more than the others and a damaged front wing. I ended up a lowly 22nd, which was almost as frustrating as the first race. To make up some 15 places was fantastic, but in my eyes it was no better coming ninth than it was 22nd - no points is the end result whatever position you finish if it is outside the top six.

Again, though, I took away the positives and learnt from what I could from the weekend, and next we moved onto the F3 Masters at Zandvoort, another circuit I hadn't been to before. Learning tracks quickly has never been too much of a challenge for me, though, and at last we had a respectable weekend where things simply went according to plan.

Going into the weekend I was a little unsure as to how it would unfold. Being the 'Masters', as it is a stand-alone race, many different drivers and teams from many different championships entered. They ranged from the Euroseries, British F3, Italian F3 and Spanish F3. With the race open to so many people, unsurprisingly there was a massive field of drivers, 38 in total. The meeting was staged over two days, with testing and qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday.

Arriving at midday on the Friday after a typically early start for my flight, I got straight into looking around the circuit so I would be familiar with everything as quickly as possible. Being a one-off race we had a few more administrative things to do. These included signing event forms and having an official weighing for the scrutineers so they have a base weight for each driver before the weekend begins.

Once all this was sorted we waited for the track to be free - as other formulas were testing on Friday until 5pm - then we did our usual track walk. It was clear straight away that Zandvoort was going to be a great challenge; the corners were all quite unique. Many of them had different cambers and the circuit had lots of undulation. This always adds to the challenge as each of the different cambers, rises and falls requires different driving techniques. Michi and I talked in length about the different corners as we walked and discussed the different approaches and techniques that would be required. After the walk we were pretty much finished for the evening, so it was back to the hospitality tent for some supper and back to the hotel for some sleep!

On Saturday morning we were out practicing at 9am. The weather was great and the 30 minutes flew by. It may sound like a decent period of time to effectively just learn where the corners go, but with one stop in the middle of the session you only get about 15 laps. Bear in mind that whilst you have to push and get as close to the limit as you dare, one step over the limit and you will find yourself sat in the gravel trap and your session is over. If I did that, like some people, early in the session, then it suddenly makes the weekend a whole lot harder as there is just the one practice session left - so I had to try and find the limit in every corner in 15 laps, which is a hard but achievable task. Completing the whole session, I ended in ninth place; I was satisfied, as everybody ahead of me had been to the circuit before so had started a step ahead effectively.

In qualifying we had two sessions, one to separate the top and bottom 20, and then the second to determine the grid. I ended up eighth, which was a solid result. So that was it, Saturday went very quickly due to being out on-track three times. We had not had any issues that affected our performance, and so thankfully we were in a decent position for starting Sunday's race.

On Sunday it was quite a similar story really. I had a reasonable start and overtook my team mate Christian Vietoris who had started one spot ahead of me in seventh. I was then following the car in front and he made a small mistake and went slightly wide, which allowed me to go through on the inside and I was up to sixth in a matter of a couple of laps. It then became evident that Jean-Karl Vernay in fourth had a slightly damaged front wing and was struggling for pace. Jules Bianchi was just ahead of me and pressuring Vernay who was holding us up. After a few laps of trying, Bianchi found a way past, and then I closed the gap on Vernay instantaneously. It was difficult to get past him straightaway as you lose so much downforce when you get close to a car ahead, even if they do have a damaged front wing! After a small battle I was able to overtake him in the first corner with a decisive move around the outside. I braked late to get alongside knowing I was going for the outside so had a few more metres extra to brake, then I was able to hold it around the outside and get good enough traction to get past and into fifth.

From that point on it was a fairly lonely race; I had a large gap ahead of me due to being stuck behind a damaged car for a few laps, and there was a gap behind as well. The only issue I faced was mid-race when marshals' trucks seemed to litter the track! There had been a couple of incidents and the marshals were either going to collect a car or towing one away. It all happened on one lap and I seemed to get to all the vehicles when they were right in the middle of the corner and on the racing line! With waved yellow flags, I had warning and slowed sufficiently to avoid them, but it is quite a shock when approaching at some 200km/h and you have to completely change your speed and line whilst in the corner!

After that I just had to bring the car home; I tried to be fast and consistent so I would have no threat from behind, and be able to take advantage if something happened to the drivers who were up the road a bit. Nothing happened, though, and despite closing the gap to the guy ahead of me by the end of the race it was still far too large for me to put any kind of pressure on him. Still, my team and I were quite happy to have had a normal weekend after the two disappointing weekends previously, and the team was great as usual and gave me a good car throughout the whole weekend.

After that I had a two-day official test at Magny-Cours. With an official test everyone in the F3 Euroseries takes part, so it is effectively an extended qualifying session - and with such little testing time, we have to maximise the testing opportunities as much as possible.

I had a normal day on the Tuesday - a flight to Paris, a car drive to the track, a track walk and a look at data. Then on the Wednesday we were out on-track from 9am until 5pm, with an hour's lunch break at 1pm. There is not a massive amount to say about the testing really. We did many sessions of between six and eight laps, trying out different set-ups and parts on the car. We worked well on the first day and got some useful results. On the first day we set our fastest time - like almost everyone else - in the afternoon, and it was good enough to put us fourth. I realised it was a good position to be in, but after looking at the data and working out where I could have been faster, I was eager to capitalise the next day to improve our position.

The next morning we were able to do exactly that! On my first set of tyres, I did a reasonable job again in the top five and lapping in 1m34.26s, which was two tenths off the quickest. I struggled a little in two corners but was strong in all of the others. This was great as I knew I just had to focus on those two corners and I would be able to be very competitive. On my second run I did a 1m33.92s and was fastest. I was also the only person to get into the 1m33s, which was nice.

We did a few more sessions after that, just confirming a few set-up changes, and then stopped for a while to change the car completely. We changed it over lunch to a set-up for the next race at the Norisring, which is a street track with a very long straight. We therefore run very little downforce and the car handles very differently. We used the afternoon to just do some sessions for familiarisation and to get used to the feel of the car. That was all we could do, as the near-perfectly smooth track surface is nothing like the bumpy streets of the Norisring. At the end my engineer and I were satisfied with the two days. We had made good progress with myself and the car and ended up fastest, showing we were improving at a good rate.

The Norisring was another good challenge as I hadn't been there before and we only had one hour of testing before qualifying, and it was a very mixed weekend. The first three-quarters of it were fantastic, but the last part was where I let myself and my team down. The Norisring is close by to Nuremberg, which has a massive history itself for reasons other than racing. It is where Adolf Hitler had a lot of his rallies to boost troop morale and where he gave speeches to the people of Germany. On Thursday, whilst walking around the old stadium - which was the DTM paddock! - it was quite eerie as I could easily imagine Hitler standing on this podium structure that was high up in front of a large square field with stands around the edge. The field would probably fit four full-size athletics tracks, so that gives you an idea of how large it was. To imagine it filled with people with Hitler's voice blaring out of the PA system was not as hard as I would have thought. It was quite creepy really!

On Thursday evening when the race truck was set up and my engineer was ready, we went on the usual track walk. It soon became apparent how bumpy this track was. Its layout was relatively simple, but with the bumps it made it a lot more challenging; this is simply because a small mistake is always exaggerated when there are bumps. On a smooth track, a small lock-up can be rectified quickly by releasing the brake pressure slightly, whereas say you lock up on a bumpy surface, the tyre is constantly having more and then less load on it due to the car bouncing; therefore it is harder to regulate the releasing of the brake. This, then, is the same case when you have a bit of oversteer or have to make a small correction to your line in the corner.

The other characteristic of this track was long straights and slow corners! This meant there was not so much gain to be had by running much downforce, as that works the most in high-speed corners. Therefore the car had little grip in the braking zones, which would make it very difficult if you made a small mistake. Also, with it being a street track, there is no possibility of testing there before the race weekend starts, so if drivers had raced in the Euroseries in previous years they would know the track, otherwise there is no way of learning it.

So, on Friday we were testing in the early afternoon and then qualifying in the late afternoon. Testing went well; I took my time to get comfortable with the track. I didn't want to rush it, but was equally aware that with only one hour of track time before qualifying it was necessary to get on with it! Very near the end of the session I realised where I could really find some time, so I changed my technique slightly and found a good amount of time. We finished the session third. This was positive having not been at the Norisring before. We got back to the awning after testing and went through the data as usual to understand where and why I was fast, and also to see where I could improve compared to my team-mates. Thankfully there was not too much that I needed to change, just some very small details.

Qualifying was nearing, and with about half an hour to go the heavens opened! It poured down for about 15 minutes, and drenched everything. We could see that the weather was far better straight after the rain, so it was clear the best times would come at the end of the session when there would be less water on the track. We changed the car to what we thought would suit the conditions, and I got out on-track with around 20 minutes of the half-hour session left.

Many people went out straightaway, so I knew it would take a few laps for my times to be close to theirs' as they would have tyre temperature and be finding the limits sooner than me. I didn't panic; I just took my time to adjust to the different grip level and after ten or twelve laps we were starting to be pretty competitive. The track was starting to show signs of drying up in the last five minutes - this is when the lap times really start to tumble as the grip level increases dramatically. I kept pushing and was trading fastest laps consistently with a couple of other drivers. At the flag I improved my time dramatically, making the most of the drying conditions, and ended the session fastest! It was great to get my first pole position in F3. The team had worked very hard and it was good to get the result. I was all-too aware that it was only qualifying, though. You do get one point for pole which is a bonus, but the main points haul would be in the first race the next day.

From pole, I made a great start and comfortably led into the first corner. After three-quarters of the lap, though, the safety car was deployed due to an accident that had happened on that lap. The safety car stayed out for around five laps, and on the re-start I showed a little inexperience and left myself prone to Bianchi - who was in second - to slipstream me on the long straight and overtake me into the first corner. I fought back, but was not able to get back in front and stay there. The car in third was close behind all along, and as he was running no rear wing element, he was mighty fast on the straights. This made for some fun battles, but ultimately he had little confidence in the braking zones and I was able to keep out-braking him. I was happy with our set-up which gave us small, but at least some, rear downforce. This kept the car balanced and slightly easier to drive.

The rain then started to fall halfway into the race, and the race was stopped. We all changed to wets and then set off behind the safety car. By the time the officials felt it was safe to get the action underway again, we had run out of time and the race finished without having had a racing lap in the wet. I finished the race second, which was great as I got my first podium, but on the other hand I had gone backwards one place from where I had started, so that was not so good. Overall, though, I knew I would look at my re-start procedure and improve it so that would come. To get eight points and a podium was a real positive to take from the race. I then had the press conference, which was nice as it was my first one. After that it was back to the team, and we waited to go through the usual data from the race once the cars were free from the technical checks.

On Sunday I started the race from seventh, due to the reverse grid rule for the top eight. I got a reasonable start and held my position into the first corner. There was then a slight coming-together between a couple of cars ahead of me which I was able to take advantage of, and suddenly I was in third! From there I held my position and was pressuring the cars ahead as much as I could. On lap six, though, into the first corner, I down-shifted on a bump and the rears locked a bit. This made me lose some control and I could not slow down fast enough. Unfortunately I skidded into the back of the car that was leading and put us both out of the race. I was able to pit to repair my front wing, but by then I was a lap down and with no hope of any recovery.

It was a massive disappointment to have lost a second podium for myself and the team. That is racing, though, and I have to learn from it and improve. Now I am back home and preparing in every way I can think of for my next race, which is round four at Zandvoort on 18-19 July. At Zandvoort I plan to get two good results in the points so I can really start making progress in the championship table. I am fast and the car is very good, so strong results will come very soon I believe.

I'll keep you posted...

Alexander

To follow Alexander's racing activities throughout the year, please visit: http://www.alexandersims.com/

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