JONNY ADAM ON THE CHALLENGES OF THE DAYTONA 24 HOURS
British GT champion Jonny Adam won a seat in American showpiece. By Rob Ladbrook
Jonathan Adam was thinking he had a shot at making history. He was just a few hours away from a dream result of standing on the podium at the Daytona 24 Hours. Only one winner of the Sunoco Daytona Challenge has ever achieved that. Then British Formula 3 champion Felipe Nasr – now of Sauber F1 fame – finished third in the 2012 edition of the American endurance classic. Adam was well within a shout of becoming the second, and possibly the best finisher, in last month’s race.
Then, just before 0900hrs local time, with Adam in the number 31 Action Express-run Coyote-corvette Daytona Prototype running fourth overall and closing on the tight lead pack, suddenly, bang… nothing.
As Adam rounded the final corner, the driveshaft sheared. Revs hit the roof, but wheels didn’t turn in sync. Adam crawled back to the pits, and the Action Express team worked a miracle to get the machine patched up and back into the action. But by that point the crew had lost 13 laps. The dream had gone… or had it? Not for Adam.
The 31-year-old Scotsman was rewarded with the fully funded Daytona drive through winning the Daytona Challenge contest, which is run by the Anglo American Oil Company’s Sunoco brand and Whelen Engineering. The contest awards drivers points based on their results across their respective British national championships. Adam’s consistency alongside Andrew Howard in the Beechdean Aston Martin Vantage GT3 in British GT landed him the national title, and also the Sunoco Challenge chance.
But this wasn’t Adam’s first ride at the Floridian track. He was fortunate enough to land a seat with the TRG Aston Martin team to race a Vantage GTD in the 2014 event. The outing didn’t go to plan, but at least served as a foundation of sorts.
“The Aston deal was a bit of a compromise as it didn’t offer the best seat time,” says Adam. “I was sharing the car with four other drivers and we had a gearbox issue in the middle of the night so lost loads of time to repairs and finished well down the class order. But it did at least give me a knowledge of the track, where it went and what to look out for.”
Through his role as an Aston Martin Racing factory driver, Adam is used to joining new teams regularly to provide help with their competition Vantages. He’s used to working with different nationalities and different styles of racing, but there’s always been a common theme at the centre of it – the Vantage. A car he knows inside out.
Adam says the Daytona chance was an entirely different situation. With no knowledge of the car, the team or his team-mates Simon Pagenaud, Dane Cameron and Eric Curran.
“It was a totally different experience,” says Adam. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the situation of going in to something all-new and having to adapt. You learn how to blend in with a team being a factory driver, but the difference is in that situation the team usually looks to me because I know the Vantage. This time I was the unknown quantity, not the known one.
“I spent a lot of time listening to Eric, Dane and Simon, as they have the experience. They gave me tips and tricks and a lot of information. But more importantly they gave me seat time to learn. The prize allowed me to join the team for the Roar before the 24 official test, and it was massively useful. They gave me runs in different situations – such as on warm tyres and high fuel in case we had to do a splash and dash stop, or on totally cold tyres to feel the difference in the car.
“It also gave me time to work with the engineers and form a bond and most of all learn how the racing works in America. It’s very different. Things like not turning the engine off during a pit stop and then being allowed to light the rear tyres up when you leave your box. You’d get a penalty for doing either in most European series, but actually it’s very important at Daytona to get the tyres up to temperature as fast as you can.”
Adam also had some adapting to do to the Corvette DP, although he says it wasn’t as alien as he first imagined.
“The Corvette to me felt like a big GT car in a way,” he explains. “I’m glad I went into it from a GT racing background and not something like an LMP2 World Endurance Championship one where you’re used to being aggressive with a pointy prototype. You have to be very patient with the car, especially through the slower infield section. The Continental tyres were very consistent, but you couldn’t over-drive the front end of the car or they’d get trashed.
“Patience was the key with it, just like a GT car. You’d follow the same trailbraking style and wait for the front end to settle before easing onto the power. I remember the first time I came out of the pits at the test, I put my foot down and the thing just took off. There’s so much raw power. But the pit lane exit feeds out to a shallow chicane, so it’s so easy to be too eager, spin the wheels up, even though you have traction control, and have an accident and lose the race there and then.
“The high-speed stuff is very different, especially on the banking. You have much more aero in the DP and the banking is so steep it’s scary at first. When you’re going slower and bringing the tyres in you can feel pretty nauseous due to the angles and forces. You end up looking almost through the sun strip to see ahead. There are a few ripples in the surface, but mainly the banking is super-smooth and it’s easyflat as the car hunkers down and has so much grip.
“The car is very solid. You can feel that. During the race we had a few scrapes on the side and there was zero damage. They are very well built for endurance racing.”
It’s a good thing that Adam racked up the test mileage, because the build up to the race weekend itself was a troubled one. Free practice was blighted by heavy rain, as was qualifying, meaning Adam and the entire Action Express team had minimal running before race day.
Adam enjoyed just three flying laps before his first race stint. He was second in line to jump into the car, following qualifier Cameron, who had started the car in sixth place. By the end of his opening stint, the Corvette ran second, and the pressure was on Adam.
“I was watching the timing screens and clocking Dane’s lap times and saw we were in second and I was up next, that was real pressure,” he says. “I definitely wouldn’t have preferred to be lower down the order for my first stint. The pressure spurred me on when I got in because there was an expectation of me. Nobody really knew what I was
capable of. I could have spun, crashed, or been slow in race conditions. There were some nerves in the garage I’m sure.
“I was supposed to only drive for one hour 45 minutes, but I actually ended up doing three hours 15 minutes as my pace was good and I was having a great fight with Brendon Hartley [in the Chip Ganassi Ford Riley DP] to hold on to second. The team changed strategy to keep me in longer but it was tough as my drinks system failed during the first few minutes so I had no fluid in the car for three hours. I was starting to cramp up a bit near the end but adrenaline got me through.”
The extension of that first stint kept Adam in the race heading into the night hours. He set the fastest lap of the race at the time during his stint. The Scot says racing at night at Daytona was a strange experience. “It’s not like Le Mans because you have floodlights over the entire track, but it’s a strange experience.
“Managing traffic at night is tough because drivers get tired and mistakes can happen easily. We’re told to stay high on the banking and close to the wall to pass but it’s nerve-wracking when you’re coming up to lap a GT car at 160mph and you’re just thinking ‘God, I hope he’s seen me and doesn’t come across’ as you’re scraping the wall next to him.
“A big difference was having spotters in the grandstand. Doing this event without them would be near impossible as the vision out of a DP isn’t the best. I never checked my mirrors once because they are so good. The guys usually do NASCAR spotting and they become a constant voice in your ear and your best friend during a stint. When you pass a slower car they’ll tell you when you’re clear and can re-take the lines or when there’s stuff around you on track.”
Adam and crew snuck into the lead during Pagenaud’s stint in the early hours, but lost time due to a flash fire during a routine pit stop. Some fuel splashed into the cockpit of the car as the team were refuelling and refreshing the drinks system at the same time. It was extinguished within seconds, but caused a delay in Pagenaud handing over to Cameron. It also meant a full tank of fuel wasn’t delivered, forcing an extra stop and dropping the team down to sixth and off the lead lap.
Adam took over again around 0600hrs, and settled in for his second stint. It was all going smoothly as he pulled the lost lap back and battled into fourth place. Then came the failure.
“I’d just passed a Ganassi car for fourth through Turn 1 when I could smell burning and the team radioed me to say there was a fluid loss and to keep them posted,” says Adam. “Then the next lap it lost all drive coming around the final corner. It was lucky it went then as I could coast into the pits, but the failure was unknown and it took a while to diagnose a driveshaft had sheered and get the replacement parts ready and fitted.
“I knew it was a transmission failure, but the team had never had this type of issue before. I was gutted and felt awful that it went when I was in the car but there was nothing anybody could have done.”
To compound the issue, Action Express’s sister car crewed by Felipe Albuquerque/joao Barbosa/scott Pruett/christian Fittipaldi lost the race lead with three hours remaining to the same issue. Adam’s car lost 13 laps and dropped back to 14th after the time spent to diagnose the problem. The sister car lost only six.
Adam and crew fought back to finish sixth overall, 12 off the winning Extreme Speed Ligier-honda LMP2 car of Scott Sharp/ed Brown/johannes van Overbeek/pipo Derani.
“I feel we got robbed a little as the team deserved more,” says Adam. “But regardless of the results it was an amazing experience, and it is an experience not just a prize that Sunoco and Whelen are offering.
“It’s the full package. From attending the Grand Marshal celebration dinner before the race and mingling with greats of the sport like Tom Kristensen, Allan Mcnish, Bobby Rahal and Chip Ganassi, to doing the testing, the PR and media events and then the racing itself.
“I’ve got a great picture that Anders Hildebrand from Sunoco took for me that shows ‘Adam P2’ on the big leaderboard at the track and underneath mine are names like [Rubens] Barrichello and [Tony] Kanaan. That’s special.
“I’d love another go. I feel I showed my pace and what I’m capable of and if the phone rang next year I’d love to have another shot.” ■