This year I’ll be doing the entire championship with Wayne Taylor Racing (WTR). After such a great 2020 I got many offers from various teams and amongst them was WTR. I had no idea they were looking for drivers and this was a new and winning project for the team because WTR was going to handle the Acura for the first time. For what I was told, while at the Paddock, they got advice from the engineers, drivers and teams about my profile and my skills before they reached out to me. It was good to be given this opportunity.
This move of mine to WTR caught many people by surprise who thought that Ricky Taylor and I wouldn’t be on good terms after what happened, back in 2017, in the last lap of the Daytona race. It’s fair to say that we did have our quarrels on the track and, at the end of it I still believe he should have been penalised. However, if I were to blame anyone, I’d put the responsibility in the race director and not the driver. Back then we cleared up the air: he called me and I told him: “Listen, we’re going to be fighting over the next 5 to 10 years. This time you came out on top, next time it will be me.”. I never had any problems with Ricky Taylor and thus why I decided to join WTR. Actually this is a funny story because it really shows how much this is a small world and why we should never close any doors. Respect is the most important thing.
In the last few years I feel the new year starts when I am packing for the official 24h Daytona test, also known as the Roar before the 24. I went to Daytona highly motivated and looking forward to measuring our pace while also understanding how the championship would balance the cars. The Acura had never won in Daytona, not even an endurance race and, as such, there were some fears regarding possible mechanical issues. Truth is: being fast is not everything.
This year there was a twist as the qualifying session turned out to be a qualifying race: the Motul Pole Award 100. The results of this race defined the starting grid for the 24h Daytona. That race was thought through to even out the performance across all cars. It wouldn’t be that bad if our car wasn’t indeed the best because the race’s organization analyzes everyone’s telemetry in order to balance out the cars with more weight or less power, considering the retrieved information. However, at the end nothing changed and our car remained the same. We didn’t feel defeated, rather we just focused on the race and doing our best with what we had. We knew we had to be the best Acura on track, we had to stand out. Our first competitor is the other team with the same car.
The races in the US are different from the WEC (World Endurance Championship) or ELMS (European Endurance Championship) ones. The tracks are more narrow than the ones in Europe, as they are also older and have not been yet rebuilt or updated. The grid has around 50 cars, there are more incidents and the constant yellow flags regroup the cars and make it possible to recover and to fight until the end. It’s quite frequent to see several cars fighting the victory until the very last few minutes.
Truth to be told, in the US and in Europe the passion is the same, what changes is the way the audience experiences the race. In the US, the paddocks are used for people to camp on and bring their motorhomes, even on the interior side of the track as in Daytona. The boxes are completely open, so the teams cannot hide anything and fans can get close enough to the drivers. In Europe, the fan base is tremendous, many people camp out and spend a whole week having fun in Le Mans but there is a tendency for exclusivity and secrecy, even though the championship’s organization have been getting close to providing a wider offer of paddock passes so that fans could see the drivers and the cars up close. This is all about cultural differences with their own advantages and disadvantages on both sides.
Racing during these pandemic times lacks the enthusiasm of the people at the starting grid, wishing us all good luck. The environment that the audience brings to the track is special. But as soon as the practice sessions or the race starts, we get abstracted from everything else.
One of the first people I met once I entered the paddock was my former engineer, Iain Watt, to whom I wished good luck. I have great respect for him, as well as the whole team where I raced with, over the last few years. We never know what tomorrow may bring, today is where destiny brought us. Many drivers do not share this vision but I like to always end things on a good note, I never go home with something unsaid, what they will hear will always come directly from me. Everything is resolved up front with sincerity and that is how you earn respect. The name I built in the paddock comes from that respectful attitude towards everyone.
Daytona got to be my first contact with the team and my new teammates, Ricky Taylor, Alexander Rossi and Hélio Castroneves. When there is respect for one another, when each driver is talented and there are no egos to deal with, automatically everyone is aligned, there is friendship and mutual admiration. I like to bring in that attitude to the team this behaviour.
The team is very organized, there is room for the drivers, the clothes are taken care of, they invest in the team’s marketing and communication, and physiotherapists to make sure nothing is missing. WTR invests in areas where other teams try to cut costs. The car preparation is also very good.
When I arrive at a new team I like to watch how everyone operates, how people think and how they see me. I like to relax and let the environment loose by using a couple of cheesy words like “honey” and “sweetheart” to break the ice. These small gestures have a goal, I bring my attitude to the team. Throughout the week we spent the whole time together, it was good to get to know each other better.
When we kicked off the race we soon realized we had no pace against the Cadillacs. We would be on the defense all the time and depend on the other teams’ pace who, on top of that, were 4 very competitive cars. But the truth is that the quickest cars do not win all the time, rather strategy plays a decisive role, etc. My colleagues and I did our best to hold our place during the race, always playing our cards right but not feeling too much pressure because we had time to recover, just like the other cars.
In this race I managed to sleep a lot. We are not superheroes but we can maximize our strengths. In the beginning I spiralled, pushing hard to improve on each lap, doing more and giving everything I had in the first 3 stints to come to the conclusion that what we needed was luck to win. I slept right after my first stint until midnight. At 4am I managed to sleep another 4 hours until 8am and then I stayed in bed until it was time to get back in the car, at 11am. The other drivers were all very good, they all had really good pace so I felt at ease. By the end of the race I was feeling fresh and energized for all those final stints. This is the outcome of deep focus and sleep discipline: if it is important to sleep, I’ll go to sleep.
When I wake up, I get dressed but I don’t usually like to head down to the box to watch my teammate driving. If I start following the race I start to feel nervous and that, for me, is a waste of energy. I like to be called when they need me: I get there half an hour before entering the car, I put on my helmet and gloves, I get in and I do what I have to. I do not need to understand what is going on, only the necessary information. This is how optimize myself.
The final rivalry with Renger Van der Zande for the victory was intense. I knew things were going south for me when I saw that Renger was going to try a crazy and aggressive overtake, since he was waiting for the final laps in the final stage. I was ready for it, I knew it was bound to happen and we could eventually hit each other. I was fully focused and I also knew his opportunity would only come if he got close enough. That would only happen if I caught enough traffic that could cost me time. On his first attempt, at turn 4, a GT stood in the way but I managed to hold my position. Then I managed to get some distance from Renger because I did not catch more traffic and got 2 seconds of a head start. In this final phase my engineer told me through the radio “come on sweetheart, you can do it.”. We got to that point when he could not do anything but believe in me. That detail was the result of that one week of team bonding.
When Renger blew up his tire, I realized we had a big chance to win the race but in that moment I was the first one to call out on the radio for everyone to keep cool. “This isn’t over yet, there is still a lot that can happen, we have another 6 or 7 laps to go”. I was already thinking about all possible scenarios like a yellow flag, where all cars could regroup and everything could happen. It is when we relax that we make mistakes and I only feel relaxed when I flat out on the finish line. Only in that moment I embrace the victory. Once I crossed the finish line I felt a massive joy. It is a clichê but so true: it felt like pure happiness after so many hours of hard work and such a competitive and tough race. The other Acura finished 5th, just one minute behind us.
I offered the Winner Daytona Rolex watch to Nuno Couceiro. We had previously kind of agreed that this watch would be his. He kept asking me: “When are you winning Daytona? It seems like I won’t be getting my Rolex any time soon”. I always replied that he had to have faith in me. It felt so right handling him this watch since Nuno did a lot for my career and in my life in the past. When my father got sick he was the one that supported me and guided me as a young adult. His role in my life is priceless. Beyond work we became friends and I ended up being like a younger brother to Nuno and Pedro. I even got to put the pacifier on Nuno’s youngest child, João – that is how much of a family we are to each other. They guided me, they told me the hardest truths, they have always been there for me, I grew up with them.
After this result I was invited to go to the Belém Palace, the official residence of the President of Portugal. That special visit took place on February 4th 2021, alongside those who I love the most in my life, my wife Joana and our two daughters Carolina and Maria. I was awarded the Commendation of the Order of Merit by the President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. I felt incredibly proud and also an added responsibility and sense of duty to honor this award and my country. I had never thought about this up until that moment.