It’s wrong to say Oriol Servia is an underrated driver. Far from it. Ex-teammates, team owners, knowledgeable fans and journalists all appreciate he’s a very talented racer. He’s also a pleasure to deal with outside the cockpit, be it in the garage, with the fans or with the media.
So although he doesn’t behave like a superstar outside the cockpit, there have been enough days when he’s driven like a superstar that it’s obvious there is a talent worth exploiting. Given some consistency in his career – two complete seasons with the same team might be nice! – he could take a serious tilt at the IndyCar title. There are very few drivers who can show their best each race if they’re worried their job’s on the line: flair and talent will simply get stifled by caution. Success breeds confidence which breeds success which breeds security which breeds more success.
Servia, each year it seems, is standing on shaky ground. In a typical season, around September he’ll be saying that he wants to stay at his current team, let’s call it Team A. By December he’ll have been told by Team A that he’s still in the running for the ride but it needs more money, so maybe he should look elsewhere. So he speaks to Team B and Team C: they’re interested too, but again only if he brings money, and in March he shows up with Team D, where he spends the season punching above his weight and then the whole process starts again.
Or he doesn’t find a car at all…
Until this year’s Indy 500, Servia had never brought money and so had slipped into a new role – the driver who team owners go for towards the end of the season when their previous choice has crashed too often or his money proved fictional. Servia steps in, re-proves himself for the umpteenth time, and everyone wonders (again) why he didn’t have that ride in the first place.
Even though Oriol was the highest-finishing driver in a “transition team” (in other words, an ex-Champ Car team) in the 2008 IndyCar Series, he found himself dumped by KV Racing, as it shrank to a one-car outfit and took on Mario Moraes.
Anyway, back to 2008, I’m teammates with Will Power, it’s going to be the year we go for the championship, but then the merger happens. Still, I’m really happy, KV Racing [as it’s now known, post-Dan Pettit] does a great job, we start getting up to speed, even on ovals, and throughout the season, I’m the first of the transition drivers, ahead of Newman/Haas/Lanigan, and it’s a super-high achievement. It’s like we won a championship within a championship! I know how good that N/H/L team is, and yet we beat them. I’m thinking we can continue our momentum in 2009, and then suddenly there’s a super-crisis, where no teams have money. Not just KV: no teams. No one can hire a driver. My teammate last year was Will Power who I know is a great driver, but I finished ahead of him in points. He outqualified me on ovals, but I outqualified him on non-ovals. He is “Super Power”, the fastest man in the paddock – I have heard that so many times – but I outqualify him, yet now he is at Penske and I have no ride!
I just don’t know. I have to make the most of whatever comes to me and maybe one day I will have the ride I deserve, and the pay I deserve. But I don’t want this to read like a long whinge: make sure you write that I said all this with a smile on my face, and with the emotion that, “I just don’t understand”, rather than “Everything terrible happens to Oriol Servia”.
The truth is, there must be something more that I’m getting from racing, because I’m a happy man, you still see me at all the races even if I don’t have a ride. And I’m as happy as a rookie to get this Rahal Letterman ride without seeing a dollar. I don’t want this to sound like a pity story or a self-pity story. Other drivers who really have made it with lots of wins and long contracts aren’t as happy as me! I just know I love what I do and I get a great joy when I’m able to perform, which is exactly what I’ve been able to do the last few years.
I was thinking yesterday: Helio’s been with Penske 10 years, Scott’s been with Ganassi eight years – that’s what makes a champion and lots of race wins. I would like some continuity. I work well with teammtes, I work well with teams, and I do my job on the track. But because every industry is hurting just now, not just racing, I have to take the same attitude as them – this is a survival year, and I have to show that I can do a good job when I get the opportunities, like this weekend.
Who knows? Maybe I can be like Brawn GP in Formula 1 – a last-minute deal and then suddenly beat everyone! I know there are five or six favorites, but who knows how the race will go? Scot Roembke can call a great race, Rahal Letterman has given me a good car, and I can do a good job so maybe it will all come together!
R: You brought the DAFCA deal with you. That’s a change in policy, isn’t it?
OS: Yeah, I guess that’s one way in which I’ve been lucky: in 10 years I’ve been lucky enough to get paid and not need to bring a sponsor. But DAFCA saw a good opportunity and recognized it. It’s a sponsor’s market right now, honestly: what they get in exposure for the money they pay is great, especially in this case. The car was on the David Letterman Show on Friday, the car is in the Indy 500 which is the biggest race on the planet. It’s a bargain, a great opportunity. With Paul Tracy, GEICO’s probably got 10 times what they paid in exposure, as well.
R: So let’s talk about the Dallara. How demanding is it around Indy?
OS: Well, I admit when we first came over from Champ Car, there was no question that we didn’t feel it was fast: the Champ Cars were a newer design and had more power and more downforce. But on ovals these Dallaras are very demanding, especially in traffic. It is so, so easy to screw up. But I hope that in the new cars whenever they’re coming, they will accelerate harder, and maybe even have to brake a little. If we were able to do that, it would be better for the fans and more of a challenge to the drivers. But I tell you, it is fun to drive the car around Indy, it really is.
R: And how has the car been, switching from qualifying setup to race setup.
OS: I’ll be honest, we did 90 percent of our running on race setup, because we knew the speed was in the car to make the race, and we were already in the second week so the highest I’d be able to get was 23rd. Well we straight away could see that we had the car to qualify between 23rd and 26th if we didn’t screw up, and we only had three days available. So we decided to just go for race setup and I’m happy with that.
The truth is, we had our worst day yesterday [Carb Day] – I think a lot of cars were diabolical, for some reason. I think we know why. We did no big changes but many small ones and one made the car behave very different, so we went back on that one thing and the car became solid again. We don’t have the speed like the top six. But there are 10 other cars after that are very similar, and it will come down to who can do the right fine-tuning for the conditions.
R: You’re at a tricky part of the grid, in that you have to decide whether to follow the leaders’ strategies, or go off strategy at the first available opportunity…
OS: Well, Scott Roembke isn’t afraid to take risks, and remember, we aren’t going for any points. This will probably be our only race together this year. He’s not going to go completely off-strategy, especially at the beginning of the race. Not like Bruno last year, driving for Dale, when they skipped the pitstop at the first yellow just so they could be leading a couple of laps. It’s only if you get really lucky that that can pay off. But in a 50/50 situation, he may take the off-strategy option.
R: And will DAFCA be interested in continuing even as far as Milwaukee?
OS: I don’t think so. We haven’t even talked about Milwaukee. I mean, if this race is a success for us, then there could be something more for the future, but Milwaukee is only next week. I mean, remember, this Indy deal was only one of the reduced-program packages.
R: If RLR wanted to run you in a BMW M3 for ALMS, would you be interested? Or do people who make that switch get labelled sportscar drivers and never come back to open-wheel?
OS: Yes, that is a problem. I don’t know if I’d do it. This may be stupid of me because I am unemployed, but I have not made one phonecall to any series outside of IndyCar, because I believe last year proved to myself that I’m still on the top of my game that I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be here until I decide not to. Teams don’t choose me because they can’t afford to have a driver who doesn’t pay. If teams have sponsors and they don’t choose me, then it will mean I am not doing my job right and I move on. But I am not at this stage. When Tony Kanaan decided not to go to Ganassi last year and stayed at Andretti Green, Chip told me that I was on his shortlist. And I was on the shortlist at Penske when Helio couldn’t drive. They went for Will… Obviously I think I’m better but I think he is a great driver and a really, really good guy so he deserved it. Then Ganassi put Franchitti in, which also makes sense because he is a great driver.
Sorry, to answer your question, if Rahal wanted to put me in the M3s, and the alternative was staying at home in my apartment in Miami, then sure I’d do it. Those BMWs looked nice when I saw them at Long Beach. But sportscar is not what I want to focus my career on yet.
R: Okay, so you’re 34 now. By the time you’re 40, what will make you happy with your open-wheel career? Do you need 30 wins, or are you content with knowing you could beat a Will Power or a Paul Tracy as a teammate?
OS: I don’t need to end with 30 wins. Maybe that’s why I haven’t got 30 wins. But I really would like to win the Indy 500, and make a little bit of money. This is a short career. And even though everyone is hurting right now, this is a series where you can make a bit of money if you’re successful. But really I just want to work with a good team and work with them for a while for 2 or 3 years, and go for a championship and win the Indy 500. But if I could win the Indy 500 with Rahal Letterman Racing and DAFCA…Well, you know, that just might help to get me a full-time deal!