British driver Simon Harrison reminded the touring car world of his talent with a fine performance in Macau. Before a controversial crash with BMW's Jorg Muller he had been well on his way to setting up a fairytale win. But as he tells Richard Asher, he's now thinking about next year's programme.
Yes, to a certain extent I did surprise myself. This year was my fourth time at Macau and it is a circuit that I really enjoy driving and racing on. My previous three visits to Macau have all been in a Ford Focus, which is a good handling and reliable car, but it does not have the power to compete against the factory BMWs and Alfas. We only had the opportunity for one day of testing with the Honda Integra at Silverstone, prior to leaving for Macau. We knew what the Focus could do around Silverstone and the Integra went quicker, so myself and the team had an inkling of what was possible. But to end Thursday's qualifying session on pole position was quite a surprise. And it was a good time, quicker than last year's pole position.
The lap times came because everything was right. I know the team (GR Motorsport Asia) and trust them implicitly. They are exceptional and helped we to win the 1999 National Saloon Car Championship. Together we have competed at Macau in 2000 (when we came third), 2001, and 2002, so we all know the circuit well. The Honda Integra Type-R has low drag, important for Macau's long straights, and good handling, vital for the hill section with its demanding bends. The Mountune engine was completely reliable and very strong, especially in the areas that mattered for overtaking. Lastly the Yokohamas proved to have good grip, which remained almost constant in the race.
The prospect of racing some of the world's best drivers around unquestionably the world's toughest track is always going to be daunting, and for sure I was rusty. This year I have competed in just two races. Last year was good, so when I drove onto the circuit for Thursday's free practice session I was apprehensive. So many people worked so hard to build the new car and raise the money, I wanted to do the best possible job for them. At the end of free practice I was only seventh fastest. But first qualifying was a different story. Towards the end of the session I got some space and really started to push. My times started to fall and as the lap times came down my confidence shot up. My final lap gave me pole position by 1.2 seconds and was 0.4 seconds faster than the 2002 pole position time.
To be taken out in dramatic fashion on the last lap of race one, whilst lying second, was a bitter disappointment for the whole team. My initial reaction was that it was deliberate and it had to be team tactics. I have now had the opportunity to calm down, view the video and think the situation through. I still think that I was removed from the race. In the race I had passed both the BMW of Jorg Muller and his team mate Andy Priaulx. I had set the fastest lap in the morning warm up, and set a new lap record in the race. I was the number one problem that could stand in the way of Duncan Huisman taking his third consecutive win at Macau for BMW.
I spoke to Jorg the second he returned to the pits. He was bound to use standard race driver tactics and tried to blame me. Both the crowd (who were on their feet booing him) and the FIA officials were on my side. Muller was fined $3000 for causing an avoidable incident. The incident is now over in my mind and we have been able to speak calmly. I was also able to congratulate Carly Motors as they have now won the Macau Guia race for the last four years running.
If I had finished leg one in second position then I believe that I could have won leg 2. Off the line the BMWs being rear wheel-drive are very strong, so I may have slipped down a position, but I was the fastest driver on the circuit. I picked off the BMWs in the first leg and I would have done the same in leg two.
The reaction of the crowd was an experience that I will never forget. After leg one I was taken back to the pits in a rescue car. When my car was brought back on a recovery truck the grandstand opposite the pits erupted which cheers. I did not really understand what was happening, but when Muller's car was similarly brought back a few moments later and this time the crowd got to their feet and booed, then I realized that the initial cheer really was for me. I think it was Peter Briggs from Edenbridge Racing that told me to stand on the pit wall and wave to the crowd. Again they cheered and waved back, it was a truly special moment and it did go some way to making up for having to sit out the second race.
Team tactics does seem to play its roll in all forms of motorsport, whether it be teams using third drivers in the European Touring Car Championship, or team orders in Formula 1. The result can be very hard on drivers that have worked all year to try and win a championship, or lost a golden opportunity.
Macau has given me an ever greater determination to ensure that I have some quality races next year. It is certain that GR Motorsport Asia will return to Macau in 2004, but it is important for me to land some warm-up outings before next November! I am going to look very closely to see if there are any opportunities to compete in a few rounds of the European Touring Car Championship. That is my ideal because the regulations at Macau next year may be ETCC-based. But I wouldn't say no to a good BTCC opportunity either. It will all depend on money.
This year's Macau success has helped my enormously. For myself I have reaffirmed my belief that I can race and beat the best drivers in the world. I have demonstrated that not only am I quick, but I can work with a team to quickly develop a new race car into a potential race winner. For me the number one achievement to come out of Macau is my new lap record. A lap record around the world's toughest driver's circuit - of that I am very proud.
JAS Motorsport's Alessandro Mariani says he was "amazed" by Alexander Murdzevski Schedvin's suggestion that Volvo's structure compared to Honda was key to its 2017 World Touring Car Championship success
Volvo gave the World Touring Car Championship a major boost when it announced it would enter the series, but its ambitions don't stop there. JACK COZENS examines its programme, the S60 and what its arrival means for the WTCC
The 2012 World Touring Car champion says he never had the money to race cars. Yet 2015 is his 11th season in the WTCC. He talks STUART CODLING through his journey from motorsport fan to paid professional - for little more than £100,000