Guy Smith: In at the Champ Car deep end

Britain's Guy Smith finished an encouraging 10th on his Champ Car debut at Road America last weekend. The sportscar star, who won the Le Mans 24 Hours last year with Bentley, is enjoying his return to single-seaters, as he told Alex Sabine

Guy Smith: In at the Champ Car deep end

I've been keeping an eye on Champ Car for several years - it's something I've always wanted to do. When I was Indy Lights Champ Car was definitely in its prime, but at the time there was no opportunity to move up because there were so many established names there.

I met Paul Gentilozzi at the 2002 Daytona 24 Hours, and, like Stefan Johansson when I went over to Indy Lights, he was always a guy that stuck out and seemed to make a bit more effort than everybody else to be friendly. So I would email him my progress and kept in touch, but it wasn't really anything more than that. And then he called me, so it was a bit of a surprise really.

When he finished with Nelson Philippe in Toronto, he needed somebody that weekend who had some experience. Memo [Gidley] was in America, he knew the car, so he was sort of the obvious choice in that timeframe. But there were some schedule conflicts because Memo had some other races [in the SPEED World Challenge touring car series], so I think Paul thought, 'I know Guy pretty well, he's free for the rest of the year, let's give it a try.'

I really like Memo, and if there's anybody I wouldn't want to take the drive from it's him, but that's just the way the circumstances have worked out. People are already tending to draw comparisons between Memo and myself, but what they have to understand is that Memo has a lot more experience in the cars. I know he hadn't driven a Champ Car since 2001, but I hadn't even driven a single seater since 1999!

It's been an amazing transition. I always remember when I was racing in the States how friendly the teams were towards the driver, and all the people at Rocketsports have gone out of their way to make me feel at home. The team manager Phil Howard is a Brit, and so is my crew chief Rob Hill, so we have a good bit of banter. And [team-mate] Alex [Tagliani] has been great - [in view of his maiden win at Road America] he seems to think I'm his lucky charm! He's assured me we're going to work together, and the idea is to build a really strong two-car team.

Well the Champ Car doesn't have power steering or a paddle gearshift, so in some ways it's less refined. It's definitely a lot more physical, especially on the arm muscles; through the Carousel at Road America you're pulling 4g for seven seconds! And the work rate in the cockpit is much higher.

In terms of driving technique, the biggest difference has been the braking; that's where I'm losing most of my time to Tag at the moment. In a sportscar you initially brake quite gently and then increase the pedal pressure because you're trying to control the pitch of the car, but in the Champ Car you can really stand on the brakes and the car will stop in time. But it's a matter of having the confidence to be able to get the most out of the brakes - that's the main area I need to work on.

Another thing was getting used to driving on cold tyres again, plus it was the first race start I've done since 2001, because in sportscars I usually go second. So lots of little things like that I had to learn or re-learn; it was almost like starting from scratch.

Well it's a great circuit, and very quick. It has a bit of everything, really: long straights, hard braking areas and some awesome corners like the Carousel and the Kink. I think it's the sort of track where confidence is the key to the lap time. I don't think I went into the race in a confident frame of mind, on the basis that I didn't really know the car - I don't feel I was able to attack the circuit in the way you need to.

Tag wasn't there on Wednesday [when Smith was allowed a brief familiarisation test at the circuit] so I didn't really have a reference point to see where I was. Comparing my traces to his, I can see that in the corners I'm right there, but I'm losing time on the brakes. So if I can get that sorted out I'll be on the same sort of pace as he is. The problem is that there's no time - certainly not before Denver - to go away and test somewhere and practise my braking.

I was pretty happy. I learned a lot about the pit stops, strategy and setup. I just need to work on my pace a bit more, but I think the experience of having a race under my belt will give me more confidence when I get to Denver. The team were very happy, because it was one of the best finishes that particular car has had all year. I had realistic expectations for the first race, so it was pretty much mission accomplished.

Laguna Seca is the only one I've raced at; I was on pole there in Indy Lights in '99. If I can get towards the top 10 in qualifying at Denver I'll be really happy. Unfortunately because there hasn't been an opportunity to test I'm having to use my first two races as test sessions. We've got a test at Las Vegas straight after Denver, and then the truck goes straight to Montreal.

I'd like to think that by the end of the season I'll be up there with [fellow British rookie] Justin [Wilson] and battling for podiums. I know that that's going to take some work, but I also believe that I can do it.

Bathurst 24 Hours cancelled

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