It's mere moments before the start of qualifying for the TUDOR United Sportscar Championship race at Laguna Seca. Both drivers of the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 458 Italia GTLM car are seeing red. Having just missed winning in the closing laps of the last race in Long Beach, the team is hungry to score its first win of the season. 2015 marks the fifth year Risi has competed with the now-aging 458 Italia. The manufacturer and team wring everything out of the car that they can by adding a new aero kit and engine tweaks. The Risi team hasn't tested the new aero package yet; it's only been run in Europe. The first few days at Laguna Seca are spent coming to grips with the new setup. The changes include a modified front splitter, aero work underneath the car, and a new engine enhancement increasing the car's throttle response. While all this may hopefully create more downforce and quicker acceleration, the team is battling with its recent dose of Balance of Performance (BoP) regulations, which have included a decrease in the size of its air restrictor and an extra 15 kilograms of ballast.
BoP has taken the fun out of engineering for the team's engineer, Rob Mayer. "You have to be really careful," he explains. "If you have a good setup, happen to be really innovative, and hit it right that weekend, it can be seen as an advantage in BoP." The Texan team has a long history of success. Started in 1997 by Giuseppe Risi, owner of two Ferrari dealerships, Risi Competizione has won its class at Sebring three times, the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, Petit Le Mans once, the Team and Driver Championship in the American Le Mans Series, as well as multiple race wins as recently as last year-all by running Ferrari's GT cars.
Early into the weekend, a win here is looking unlikely. After practice, the garage is full of furrowed brows. The team has placed last in the session, a full second behind the leading BMW Z4 of Team RLL. The team is having a problem with the new aero package right out of the gate. The setup requires a lower ride height than what's possible at Laguna Seca given the sharp drop at the Corkscrew. The new throttle response is also taking the drivers a little time to adjust to. The drivers, Italian F1 winner Giancarlo Fisichella and German sports car racer Pierre Kaffer, express their concern to Mayer once the first practice concludes. After the second practice, the car is only four-tenths off the pace of the leading No. 912, a Porsche North America works car. The car is still not 100 percent in setup, but the drivers are more comfortable.
After practice, Fisichella and Kaffer practice driver changes with stopwatch in hand. Initially, the drivers are swapping spots in 17 seconds. After about five minutes of practice, they shave 4 seconds off their pace. Pit stops have consistently been a strength of Risi Competizione. It's something the team practices during spare moments every race weekend.
After the final practice the next morning, the team is sixth fastest, nearly five-tenths off the leading BMW.
Saturday evening at five o'clock, the car heads out for the 15-minute GTLM qualifying session. With only 2 minutes left in the session, the team is running seventh while both BMWs dominate at the front. In the Risi pits, smiles are in short supply. However, right near the end they match the lap time of the second place BMW to the thousandth, placing them third on the grid on race day. The welled-up emotion explodes in the Risi pits. Sometimes it isn't the size of the victory, but the work that went into it.
The atmosphere on the grid Sunday morning is always something special. It's here you see teams chattin, sharing jokes or even prayers, reminding the spectator they're all part of the same circus. There's Mayer talking to BMW driver Lucas Luhr, and even IndyCar champion Danny Sullivan catching a conversation with Sims. Fisichella signs a Ferrari flag for an enthused fan and poses for pictures. Kaffer appears relaxed and smiles with the team outside the car, yet is fidgety once inside.
It will be a difficult race with 35 cars in four classes on the track. Risi is limited in its strategy given it's a one-car team; the factory-supported BMWs and Porsche have the advantage of splitting strategy with two cars each. It's almost cliche, the underdog privateer versus the factory giants.
At the start of the race, Kaffer gets stuck in First gear, instantly losing two positions dropping to fifth. He claws back one spot in just a few laps, moving to fourth. He starts eliminating the gap to himself and the three lead cars, two BMWs and a Porsche. While going for the pass, the No. 911 Porsche closes the door on the Ferrari, narrowly missing its front bumper. The car is sliding more on the track as the laps continue; Kaffer warns Fisichella over the radio to watch the sliding. Premature tire wear will drop performance dramatically. After the first 45 minutes, the yellow flag waves and pit stops begin. The driver change comes in the first pit stop, and suddenly the extra practice pays off. The Ferrari storms out of the pits in first, leaping both BMWs and the Porsche. The crew is wildly enthusiastic and the usual poker face of Sims breaks into a grin as he gives the team a thumbs-up.
On the restart, the No. 24 BMW launches past Fisichella. While trying to tell Fisichella the green was out, the radio malfunctioned, delaying Fisichella's jump on the gas. Unfortunately, it's only downhill from there. After a third yellow, a Prototype Challenge car gets in front of Fisichella and stays there, despite the Ferrari being faster on most of the track. Fisichella screams over the radio, "It's slowing down me!" The team is enraged; the crew thrashes and flails while watching the onboard camera, desperately willing the Ferrari around the amateur driver in the prototype. Sims leaves the pits to tell the PC team to move aside. The pass is finally made, but the Ferrari is down 8 seconds to the BMW.
After the first hour, they are down 14 seconds. Later, the No. 911 Porsche passes the Ferrari, dropping Fisichella to third. The leading BMW's sister car later passes both Fisichella and the No. 911, demoting him down to fourth by the last pit stop.
The stop goes smoothly once again and Kaffer is back in. He's gunning for the final podium position held by the Porsche. He reels it in quickly, but that's the easy part. His first attempt at a pass results in the Porsche slamming the door on Kaffer, nearly missing contact.
"When I get close to him again, I'm going to hit him and turn him around," Kaffer steams over the radio. The crew barks back, "No, no! Don't do that!" The radio response may be stern, but a chuckle rolls through the pits.
Unfortunately, traffic gets in the way once again, causing even more frustration from the driver's end of the radio.
"We have lost a lot because of this (insert clumsily assembled compound expletive) traffic!" Kaffer yells. The gap ebbs and flows to the Porsche over the next handful of laps. With half an hour to go, the Ferrari is only 1.7 seconds off the Porsche when Kaffer makes a rare mistake. He sends the right tire bounding over the curbing on Turn 4, pitching the car straight off the course, narrowly missing the wall before rejoining the track.
For the rest of the race, Kaffer focuses on bringing the car home in one piece, still salvaging fourth position despite the error. After crossing the finish line, Kaffer, always the professional, is instantly apologetic for the missed podium.
"It was my fault. I'm sorry, guys. I don't know why I hit the curb."
It's a race of missed opportunity for the team, but there are huge positives to be taken away. The car set fastest lap for GTLM and the team was also fastest in the pits. Plus, they scored another trophy for being the "greenest" car during the race.
"Where's my trophy?" Kaffer asks when Sims returns with the prize.
"It's right here," says a mechanic holding up a busted suspension arm from Kaffer's curb catastrophe.
The team's first win of the season isn't to be this weekend, but the team is still optimistic about its chances, especially at tracks that favor higher downforce setups like: Virginia International Raceway, Watkins Glen, and Road America. With the fighting spirit of Risi and the performance both on the track and in the pits, that win is probably just around the corner.
Five With Fisi
During the TUDOR United Sportscar Championship race at Laguna Seca, I had a chance to talk shop with Giancarlo Fisichella. Here's what followed:
Ryan Jurnecka: You drove for Ferrari in F1 and are still racing the marque. What is your association with Ferrari nowadays? Are you a works driver?
Giancarlo Fisichella: Yeah, I'm a factory driver. I am doing the [TUDOR USCC] championship here in America with Risi, and I do some designated exhibitions with the Formula One car sometimes, and some tests, too, but with the old car, not the new one. Really, that's about it. I really enjoy the championship here in America, and in June I will be at Le Mans for the 24 Hours with the AF Corse team, as their driver there. It's been a pretty good season so far.
RJ: How is the driving experience different? What is it like jumping from F1 into sports cars?
GF: Well, the first time I drove a GT car after the  season in Formula One, I was a bit shocked because it was a big difference in terms of power and grip. You need to adapt your driving style for the GT car, which is completely different. So I spent nearly a year trying to understand the right direction. Now I am very comfortable in the car, and I've won the championship; I've won the 24 Hours.
RJ: Do you have to be more reserved as an endurance driver as compared to the full attack in sprint-style races? Has it been difficult to balance those two styles?
GF: It's a very tough championship. Even sometimes in a race like 12 hours or 24 hours, until the end you never know. It's like a sprint race always, especially in a race like tomorrow, for 2 hours and 40 minutes. It looks long, but at the end I think that until the last lap it will be very close, very tight.
RJ: What have been your impressions of the '15 Ferrari 458 aero kit that has been put on the car for the first time this weekend?
GF: It's a good package, but we've lost a bit of power because of the restrictor, and it's 15 kg heavier. We are still learning the right direction to get the right setup. We've improved quite a lot, but I think we have something more to improve, and hopefully for tomorrow, especially today in qualifying session, we'll make another step forward.
RJ: How does a team like Risi Competition differ from another Ferrari team like AF Corse?
GF: Well, they're both fantastic teams. They've both won lots of races and have a lot of experience. The big difference-the crew of the Risi team is fantastic. They do a fantastic job so far. In every pit stop, we are usually quicker, there is a very good atmosphere, very professional. They are very friendly. So, it looks like a family.
RJ: If we could go back to F1 quickly, I think 2011 was the last time you had Italian drivers racing full season with Trulli and Liuzzi. There's only been one Italian driver this year so far, and that was in a practice session. Why do you think we aren't seeing more Italians in F1?
GF: Well, I don't know. It's a difficult question. Probably now it's a big problem with crises in the world with money. Especially in Italy, it's a big problem. Half of the drivers in F1 need money to drive. In Italy, it's quite difficult to find money, and I think that's the main problem.
RJ: So difficulty in finding that local sponsorship to aid the aspiring drivers?
RJ: Is there a big difference with North American racing and circuits compared to European series, or is it fairly equal?
GF: I really like the atmosphere in America, and I really like the tracks in America. They are fantastic tracks. The difference in America and in Europe may be the safety. Some [places] here in America, the track is a little bit unsafe, but they are great tracks. In Europe, they pay more attention, they spend more money for safety, but the shapes of the new tracks in the last couple of years is not great. I prefer the old-style tracks.
RJ: Being at Laguna Seca, what's your opinion of this track?
GF: I love it. It's a great, great track. It's very challenging and I love driving it. I'm looking forward to driving it [in the race].
RJ: It's been a year now since you've teamed up with Pierre Kaffer here at this track. You've worked with some pretty high-profile drivers, such as World Champion Fernando Alonso. How does he compare and how is your relationship?
GF: Yeah, he's good. I have a really good relationship with him. We did very good the last part of the season last year; we won two races. And in 2011, I won with him at the Petite Le Mans. He's a very good, experienced driver. He doesn't make mistakes, which I think is important for these kinds of races. Together, we are doing quite well.
RJ: It's supposed to be cooler tomorrow. AIM Autosport told me last year that the cooler weather tends to favor the Ferrari. Have you found that to be the case and therefore expect the conditions tomorrow to benefit you more as a team?
GF: Well, the conditions should be cooler, but not too much cooler than today. Our problem so far is just to find the right setup for this package for this race and also in terms of tire compound.
RJ: Lastly, do you watch F1 at all and follow the current season?
GF: A little bit. I'm actually probably going to be at Monte Carlo coming up.
RJ: Glad to hear. Best of luck this year.
GF: Thank you.