Jono Lester: Monza – a weekend to remember

Back in the hot seat again. It’s a sensation that is impossible to explain to someone who has never driven a racing car.

When I exited the pit lane for my first lap around  Monza; my first lap as a Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup driver and my first lap in a Porsche GT3 Cup Car in over seven months, my heart skipped a beat.

For starters, I didn’t remember it being that bloody quick! But, as the legendary Jackie Stewart is quoted as saying, once you learn to ride a bicycle, you never forget. It’s just the finer details that change.

But if I can rewind for a minute, the Supercup is far more than bigger fields; harder, closer racing and noisier cars. My first impression of the pit complex was a perfect example of Porsche’s commitment to the king of its one-make cups.

As a kiwi embarking on my first event out of NZ, I didn’t really know what to expect, but one thing I didn’t anticipate was a full transporter, Porsche’s top race engineer, three mechanics, a beautifully presented race car with two in car cameras, a brand new custom race suit and all the latest set up equipment and gizmos…all for me.

This was the perfect introduction into the big time of Porsche racing, and I was going to savour every moment of it.

The free practice session went pretty well. Of a massive 32 car field (the biggest in over five seasons for the Supercup) I finished up in 23rd place, 1.4 seconds off the leading car. The position was irrelevant to me, but the time difference was, and we weren’t all that far away!

Rusty was my summary of the session. But hey, it had been a while. There were a couple of occasions where I was exiting a corner and said to myself “shit, I missed that bloody apex again!”

But now that I was back on the bike, it all came back to me pretty quickly. Qualifying went pretty well and I finished up in 20th spot, shaving some time off the gap to the quickest cars, but not by as much as I would have liked. At least my competitive nature hadn’t waned in my time off!

Setup wise, we’d only made a couple of minor changes for qualifying, but we felt that to have a good race car, we should revert back to our original configuration for the race.

Lining up on the Formula One grid was incredible. Even though we weren’t the draw card of the event, the number of fans filling the stands around Monza took me by surprise. And it was made even more special by the passion and enthusiasm of the Italian fans. The atmosphere was electric.

Once the race got underway though, this was the last thing on my mind. Right from the instant the five red lights went out, the race was so intense that I hardly had time to think about breathing.

It didn’t settle down until about the mid-way point of the race, where I found myself on the back of the leading train that stretched from first place back to me, but with cars passing each other at every corner the field spread and compressed regularly.

The five-car bunch I was in including some big names of Porsche racing – former Supercup champions and Factory Drivers for instance – and I learnt a lot just by mixing it with these guys.

They didn’t give and inch and were happy to bump and grind on one another, and yet I still felt safe around them. They still seemed to have a relative amount of respect for one-another.

Thankfully I placed myself and the car in the right position nine times out of ten, and when I crossed the line in 13th place there wasn’t a mark on the car, which was more than could be said for a lot of the competition out there!

As my debut in the world’s most competitive one-makes cup, I was over the moon with the result. My laptime was within 4/10ths of a second of the quickest lap, and I finished only nine seconds shy of race winner Nick Tandy. Given the fact that this was my first race in 18 months, I couldn’t have asked for much more.

Mentally and physically I felt terrific. I was switched on up top, and well up to scratch fitness-wise too – much more so than in the past. Racing drivers are elite athletes and many people forget that. We are constantly improving our bodies and minds and I can certainly vouch for that on a personal level.

So, my preparations and efforts in the quieter months have had an immediate effect for me, which is really positive for the future!

The Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup has my two thumbs up, and for my development as a racing driver it’s now my championship of choice for 2011!

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