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Beyond the Cockpit: Àlvaro Parente on PWC, Factory Racing and Travel

Àlvaro Parente is a 32-year old racer out of Porto, Portugal.  He is a factory racer for McLaren, racing 650S GT3s on a regular basis both here in the United States and in Europe.

Prior to his transition to sports car racing, Parente was a standout in open-wheel feeder series.  He won the British Formula 3 Championship in 2005 and claimed the Formula Renault 3.5 Series Championship in 2007 before moving up to the GP2 Series.

In GP2, Parente won in his first career start in the series at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona in 2008.  Despite that luck, his best finish in the championship were a pair of eighths (2008 and 2009).  After a disappointing 2011 campaign, Parente transitioned to sports car racing, primarily racing McLaren products.

Last year, Parente came to the United States to race in Pirelli World Challenge for K-PAX Racing.  He took the series by storm, winning six races (Long Beach, Barber Park No. 1, both Lime Rock races, Mid-Ohio No. 1 and Laguna Seca) en route to the GT Championship.  For 2017, Parente is back for more with K-PAX Racing, in addition to a deal with Strakka Racing in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup.

At Lime Rock, Frontstretch’s Phil Allaway sat down with the defending Pirelli World Challenge GT champion to talk about his season, his travels as a McLaren factory racer and the grind involved.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch.com: We’ll start with a look at your season.  You’re currently third in the overall championship (Note: This refers to both Sprint and Sprint-X races).  Got a couple of victories, including a dominant win at Long Beach.  How would you describe your year to this point?

Àlvaro Parente, No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3: We started off really well.  But, the whole format’s really different this year.  We’ve got five race [weekends] with a teammate and five with a single driver like last year.

So, that’s a bit different.  We had to adjust to that a little bit working with the team.  A bit trickier.

I can’t com plain about how the season started with the single drives on street courses.  Maybe the second race at [St. Petersburg] didn’t go so well for me in the turn 1 braking zone.

I fell back to sixth or seventh and came back to fourth in a race where I felt I could have done really well.  Maybe even another win.

Since then, we had a really tough first race at Virginia.  Had a solid second race, second-place wasn’t too bad.

We struggled quite a bit [at CTMP], to be honest.  We just didn’t have the speed.  I think we lacked speed on the straights.  We lacked grunt coming out of the fast corners.

Some tracks, we’re going to be strong, while other tracks, we’re going to be less strong.  [CTMP] wasn’t the strong point for us, then we got taken out when we were about sixth.

I think a realistic result there would have been seventh or sixth.  Still a lot of points, which are important to get, but unfortunately, we got taken out.  The yellow Ferrari ran into Ben [Barnicoat] and pushed him out of the way in the last corner.  That was very bad.

Lime Rock last year was the best weekend of my year, won two races.  It would be great if it could go the same way with Ben and me driving.  Different format, as I said before.  Looking forward to the weekend so that we can get the best result possible.  It’s wet and tricky, unlike last year, so we’ll try to do the best that we can do.  It should suit us better than [CTMP].

Allaway:  Last year, Sprint-X was more or less an experiment.  They only did it at three race weekends (CTMP, Utah and Laguna Seca) and they still had GT Sprint races.  K-PAX Racing did not participate.

What do you think of the Sprint-X format as compared to other series such as Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup in Europe?

Parente: Compared to the Blancpain Sprint, it’s a pretty similar format.  Two 60-minute races.

The only different is that the grid for the second race is not [set] by the lap times.  It [is set by] the finish of the first race.  That’s the biggest difference.

Allaway: They allow tire changes as well, right?

Parente: Oh yeah, they don’t have tire changes here.  Here, it is only the driver change.  Over there, the tires are changed as well.  Its a big difference.

That’s one more variable to make a result over there.  If you have a very good team at doing pit stops, you can gain positions.  If you’ve got a bad team, you’ll probably end up losing positions changing tires.

Here, we only have a 60-second mandatory pit in to pit out, which makes it a lot easier, and for some, less interesting.  To me, it’s less interesting because the team is not as much involved in a big part of the end result of the race.

Allaway: Do they have mandatory pit deltas in Blancpain Sprint?

Parente: No.  Just go as fast as you can go.

Allaway: This year, you have Ben Barnicoat as your teammate.  What’s it like working with him?

Parente: Its good. Ben’s a good guy.  He’s young, it’s his first full season in GTs.  He’s very talented and a fast driver.  We’ve raced together many times in Europe and over here.

Its going well.  We’ve had a second so far [at VIR] and let’s see what else we can get from there.

Allaway: This is your second season with K-PAX Racing.  What’s the biggest difference that you’ve noticed since coming to race here in the United States as opposed to Europe?

Parente: I felt most of the differences last year and had to adapt then.  There were some very different things going on.  Obviously, I learnt it all of last year very quickly, so now its more normal and I know what to expect.

2017 Long Beach PWC Alvaro Parente Car Phil Allaway
For Alvaro Parente, the street races, like here at Long Beach, have been great to this point. (Photo: Phil Allaway)

Allaway: You’re a factory driver with McLaren.  Obviously, they’re going to want you to drive their stuff as much as possible.  How does that work in regards to rides?  Does someone from the company call your phone and say, “Alvaro, we want you to go race this and kick some butt.”

Parente: We obviously have a plan and get together at the beginning and end of each season to decide the plan for the series in which we will be competing.  There could be the sporadic race where I’m needed somewhere urgently.  In that case, [the call comes].  “Can you be here?”

It happens sometimes, but obviously, you have a plan.

Allaway: If those emergencies arise, are your transportation costs covered, or are you on your own?

Parente: I think it’s part of the contracts that factories have with drivers.

Allaway: Do you commute to all the races from Portugal?  It must be a rush to make all those flights.

Parente: The travel can be a bit much.  I’m used to it now.  Getting on the plane all the time, airports, airports, its fine.  But, when it gets to be too many in a row without a free weekend, then you start to get ‘Ah, I need a weekend off.’

In the past, I’ve always been able to get a weekend off or two, and then I’m fine.  This year, it’s been all in a row, so its been a real tough one.

Allaway: In addition to Pirelli World Challenge, you’ve been racing with Strakka Racing in Europe in the Blancpain GT Series.  Are you full-time in both series (Sprint and Endurance)?

Parente: No, I’m full-time in Sprint, but there was an emergency for the last Blancpain Endurance race, so I had to attend that at Silverstone.

Allaway: How has your Blancpain Sprint season been so far?
Parente: We’ve had two race weekends so far, Misano and Brands Hatch.  Misano was a bit of a disaster.  We had a puncture, contact.  It didn’t go so well.  It was horrible.  Tough one.

Brands [Hatch] was looking very promising.  We had a car that was not a top three car, but we were almost there, P4 or P5 in the Main Race.  We finished sixth in the Qualifying Race.  That was ok.

We were running fifth in the Main Race with a potential fourth or third [on tap] because we were faster than the two guys in front of us.  We didn’t have a P1 car that weekend, but we were doing very well.  Then, we lost everything in the pit stop.  12 seconds, which happens.  One of the boys dropped one [wheel] nut and dropped one [air] gun.  We lost 12 seconds and dropped to 13th.  We finished 10th.

So, it should have been one really [bad] weekend at Misano because we had contact and a puncture and it should have been a solid fourth or third-place at Brands Hatch.

It hasn’t really been going well.

Allaway: Under those circumstances, 10th at Brands Hatch is pretty good.  It’s very difficult to pass there since it’s narrow.

Parente: And we didn’t have a front running, P1 car.  Some tracks, we’re going to have that car, some tracks, we’re not.  That’s the interesting thing in GT racing.

Allaway: As a factory driver, do you get to play any role in developing the street cars?
Parente: Not so much.  All my time is invested in the GT racing program.  Obviously, if I’m asked to do something when I can, then I will.  However, they’ve got their own developing engineers for the road cars.

I’ve done two or three events.  Not developing the road car, but events, publicity.  But not much because we’re off racing all the time.

Allaway: You’ve got 21, 22 major race weekends a year, plus some of the stuff that’s outside of major series like Bathurst.

Parente: Yeah, Sepang, maybe Laguna Seca at the end of the year.

Allaway: That’s the new eight hour race they’re having there.  That should be interesting.

Note: The Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca race weekend was the final Pirelli World Challenge race weekend of 2016.  It still is for the Touring Car classes.  However, it will serve as the third round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, a collection of endurance races in which GT3 cars are the primary class.  The Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour in February was the first round.  Round No. 2 is the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup’s Total 24 Hours of Spa in July.  The season ends in Sepang in December.

Parente: Very interesting.  Lots of new stuff.

Allaway: I believe Pirelli World Challenge GT teams are invited [to the Intercontinental GT Challenge race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca], but I’m not sure how that’s going to work.

Parente: It’s too early to know.  You only know when you’re more on top of things.

Allaway: What would you consider to be the strengths of the McLaren 650S GT3?

Parente: Braking.  Change of direction on slow corners and long radius, second-gear corners.  For example, take the last corner at St. Petersburg.

Allaway: The last corner where you’re turning onto the runway?

Parente: Yeah, but its kind of a wide, long corner.  In that type of corner, we seem to be ok as compared to other cars.  We go through the corners with a higher minimum speed.

Allaway: The car has really good brakes, but if you don’t have to use them as much as the others, all the better.

Parente: In some of the really slow corners, the hairpins and chicanes, we use them well.  Regardless, they are one of the strong points.

Allaway: Are you doing the Total 24 Hours of Spa this season?

Parente: No, because we are racing at Mid-Ohio that weekend.  Its the same weekend, so I can’t do it.

Allaway: That’s obviously the biggest race weekend for the Blancpain GT Series.  They put a lot of stock into it.

Parente: Yeah.  Apart from last year, I’ve been doing it for the last three or four years, apart from last year.

It’s a race that I really enjoy.  My best result there was fourth in class, seventh overall.  It’s a shame [that I cannot go].  I’ve qualified third twice there.  It’s a really, really good race which I hate not to go to, but I’ve got other commitments and I’m racing anyway.

That’s racing.

Allaway: As a factory racer, you’re a pretty busy guy.  But when you’re not racing, what do you do as a hobby, or just to relax?

Parente: Surfing a lot at home.  Going out for dinner with [my] girlfriend.  Hanging around with friends during the daytime.  More surfing, working out, anything sports related.  I’m easygoing.  I like to do a lot of stuff.

Allaway: With a job like yours, you have to be easygoing.

Parente: We’re away so much this year, its tough.

Allaway: Your primary job is in the United States and you live in Portugal.  Even when you’re not in the U.S, you’re racing all over Europe.  Of the major championships, there’s maybe one race in Portugal at Algarve?

Parente: Not even that one now.

Allaway: That’s a shame.  Nice track, though.

Luckily, traveling in Europe is somewhat like traveling domestically here in the United States.

Parente: Most of the time, less.  In two hours [by plane] from Portugal, I can go to almost anywhere in Europe, apart from the more easterly venues.

Its two hours from Portugal to anywhere in Western Europe.  Italy, two and a half.  Hungary is two and a half.  All the rest are two hours.

At Lime Rock, Parente and Barnicoat finished third in both Sprint-X races.  A solid result after the wreck at CTMP that ruined their weekend.

Parente was quite pleased with the performance.

“It was a solid result. It was good we didn’t get involved in that accident in turn one. I was on the far-left, so I really couldn’t see what was happening. But, we got through there in fourth. After that, we really didn’t have the speed to attack the guys up front, but we had a good pit stop – better than yesterday. Ben did a good, clean stint and I think it was the maximum our car had available. We’re happy to come out of here with two podiums. We always want the top-step, so hopefully that’s coming. We’re going to keep working, and we’ll see for the next race.”

Those runs put the McLaren duo seventh in Sprint-X points.  Parente continues to lead the Sprint points and remains third in GT overall points.

The next time that fans will see Parente on track will be this weekend in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Parente will be driving the No. 60 Ferrari 488 GTE for Clearwater Racing in the GTE-Am class.  However, Parente never had a chance to test the car prior to the weekend.  The No. 60 Ferrari will start 12th in class.

For Pirelli World Challenge, they return to action at Road America Jun. 22-24 for the first Sprint races since Long Beach in early April.

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