On the back of a season as fiercely intense as 2016, trying to sum things up is one of the last, big challenges. With Felix jetting across the Atlantic for his first taste of American racing, debuting in the DTM, dipping his toes into the waters of GT competition and bursting onto the electric scene in Formula E, picking out the cream of the crop from a year lived literally flat out is far from easy.
Yet in this December special, that’s exactly what we’ve set out to do. Portioned out in steps leading up to Christmas, we’ve presented the definitive top five highlights of 2016 – each personally selected and ranked by Felix, and described in his very own words.
Now, there’s just one single moment left to dissect…
The 24-hour road to recovery
Event: 24 Hours of Spa
Category: Blancpain GT Series
Car: Mercedes-AMG GT3
Location: Spa, Belgium
The GT3 programme with AKKA-ASP in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup was the first thing I signed this year, and in the end it was the only full championship I did. I shared a Mercedes-AMG GT3 with Tristan Vautier, and it’s actually quite funny it ended up that way.
I met Tristan the first time in 2009, when we had a little fallout after I inadvertently blocked him in qualifying for a race at Snetterton (pictured below). At that point I’d never have thought we would end up being team-mates, but life surprises you sometimes and Tristan and I turned out to have a lot of fun together this year.
We also made a very strong combination by the end of the season, winning the finale in Barcelona. It was great to get acquainted with GT racing at large; it exceeded my expectations and I can understand why it’s grown to such heights in recent times.
The 24 Hours of Spa was definitely the highlight of the GT season. It was actually not part of the Sprint Cup, so technically it was a one-off for me in the Endurance Cup which packs together the longer races on the Blancpain calendar.
Our team boss, Jérôme Policand, put so much effort into Spa. You could really tell that he wanted to do well in this race, and obviously so too did the rest of us. We got Renger van der Zande on board as our third driver, which was a “known unknown” for me – we’ve both been part of the Mercedes family for many years, so it was good to have him join us for the 24 Hours.
I remember being surprised at how much fun it was to drive the GT3 car at Spa. It’s a lovely track, but it was almost a bit boring in F3 with all that amount of downforce and not a lot of power. In GT3, the car/track combination was really awesome.
I think especially Eau Rouge and Blanchimont were particularly challenging in that car, and I will never forget when I managed to do Eau Rouge flat out in the Super Pole qualifying segment, where we ended up P3. I told myself earlier in the weekend that I had to do it, and it was greatly rewarding when I did.
Shortly after qualifying, however, all AMG cars ended up getting a strange penalty which I still honestly do not understand to this day. We were told it was because of Balance of Performance reasons, but I really don’t know how that happened.
Anyway, all AMG entries – which included us – had to start from the back of the grid, and serve a five-minute (!) stop and go penalty at the start of the race. It was a massive, devastating blow.
Tristan, Renger and I sat down and discussed how we were going to tackle the race, and after we got through some words probably not appropriate to mention in this context, we eventually settled down and decided to just give it our everything and have a lot of fun. People often say “everything can happen”, and so did we on this occasion. I don’t know if we believed it, but I know one thing: we did have fun…
We started the race by standing still for those five minutes in the pitlane, watching the others lap us two or three times. Terrible. Then we started to work our way slowly up the field. After my first stints in the car, I had a nap, and when I woke up three hours later I realised we were actually getting somewhat in the mix, being P30 or something like that.
I ended up driving for almost half the race, and the final double stint that I did was something very special. I decided that I would treat it like a qualifying run, where every corner, every overtake had to be done in the quickest possible way – which meant taking a decent amount of risk every lap. I remember overtaking some people in the grass after Blanchimont, flat out at 250 km/h, just to save a couple of tenths. That was the mode I was in once I realised we had a shot of getting onto the podium.
When it started to rain in the last 20 minutes, we were P4. The heavens just burst wide open – typical Spa – and it mixed everything up. We managed to pass two cars during the final round of pit stops and take second place, finishing on the same lap as the winners. It was surreal in every sense of the word.
Spa really got my eyes opened for endurance racing; it’s a very cool form of motorsport, and it gels you together as a team like nothing else.
I think what no one can understand is the enormous commitment that goes into a 24-hour race from every person involved. It’s little or no sleep at all, and everyone must be millimetre-precise during that whole time. To end up on the podium after that initial, massive setback was just very hard to believe, and it took a long time to understand what a crazy thing we had accomplished.
That combination of emotion, from a big low to a massive high, and the actual driving performance that allowed for it, is what makes this my number one moment of 2016.
Previously on the list:
Felix Rosenqvist’s 2016 cars