Basically, I’d been driving it like an old racing car with no mechanical or aerodynamic grip. I was overdriving it on the throttle and making it slide because that’s how you drive old racing cars, barely using the brakes because a 1965 Falcon doesn’t have any. For once, I listened, and discovered the brakes are so good that at a downforce-enhanced 160mph, there is literally no amount of pressure my leg can exert that will trigger the ABS, and I’m 6ft 3in and no waif.
We got data from the other cars too, because the rules allow it, and noticed the quickest driver – Mia Flewitt, wife of McLaren boss Mike and a massively competitive, capable and experienced driver – was exiting Eau Rouge at the same speed as me but still going quicker down the straight. So we wound off some wing and fixed that little problem. And Benny and I, with a lot of help from Bruno and the wonderful team of Tim, Tom and my race engineer Hansel Crasto, chipped away at it, fiddling with dampers and tyre pressures, absorbing data, working on the set-up of both car and driver.
And it worked. Without trying any harder, I started to carve huge chunks of time out of every lap, just by applying what I’d learned about driving the car and track. Which meant for the first race I lined up not last but fifth. After a decent start, I exited the first corner in third and within a lap lay second. I could see Mia but could do nothing to catch her. My bigger concern was McLaren group executive chairman, the startlingly rapid Sheikh Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa, closing in on me.
But then he got baulked by a lapped backmarker and I a got away. And that’s how it finished, me on the podium, spraying champagne over Mia and Sheikh Mohammed (I apologised and he was very gracious). A day earlier, I’d have bet all I had that was not going to happen. It sounds like one of those ghastly things all drivers say when they’ve done okay, but I really do owe it all to the team in general and Benny in particular. Yes, everyone had the same data and, yes, everyone had professional driver coaches, but none I am sure had such unprepossessing raw material to work upon as he.
But not even Benny could stop me messing up the second race the following day. Convinced it was going to be wet, I went the wrong way with the set-up, had a scratchy, inconsistent qualifying run and lined up seventh. The race was actually dry but this time I got an average start and could rise only as high as fourth. Another 30 minutes and I may or may not have got to soak the sheikh again, but it was not to be. My only consolation was a fastest lap 0.2sec slower than Mia and 0.3sec slower than Benny’s original benchmark, although there is no doubt he could have gone far faster.
Even so, given I started over six seconds slower than him, I thought that represented reasonable progress over 48 hours.