Well, at least the first few laps of St. Pete were good for everyone who supports our Andretti Autosport Venom Energy No. 26 car. A little bit of silver lining to the bad luck cloud that's been hanging over us. I mean, sure, we're not yet up with Penske and Ganassi, but we're a lot better than 17th in the championship shows: A couple of ridiculous accidents means the points table doesn't reflect our improvements over our 2009 cars. And it's absolutely not what my guys deserve.
OK, first things first. I'm almost through with talking about that dumb Sao Paulo accident; everyone knows my opinion of what happened, and I think anyone would agree Mario Moraes just screwed up. It was upsetting for two reasons. One is that I felt I'd done the sensible thing in carefully steering away from the chicane to avoid the pile-up that Takuma Sato was causing when I just got nailed. And secondly, it was a bummer that I'd had to start at the back anyway, and that's kinda been lost in all the fuss about the Turn 1 crash.
What happened is that I had been on a flying lap in qualifying, and I was 0.6sec up on my best of the weekend which would have put me well into the next round of qualifying. I had one more turn to go, and I saw ahead of me Matos went sailing off down an escape road, so I thought, “Cool, now I just need to bring it around.” And then he comes shooting back onto the track in front of me which messed my lap up, and obviously his was screwed now, too.
So then I got a run on him going onto the next straightaway and I'm alongside and he starts turning in on me. I thought, “Man, you've gotta be kidding me.” I got up on the inside curb to try and avoid him, but you're a bit of a passenger then. The car wouldn't turn, I end up spinning Matos around, so the officials took my best laps from me – and that was my weekend finished right there. It meant I'd start toward the back of the grid, right in Moraes' line of fire.
The best attitude in that situation is that things can only get better, and in St. Pete they did…sort of. We qualified sixth, and then I worked my way through to the lead.
However, that was just about what I could get out of the cold tires, and then once the they came up to temperature, the car showed what we really had, which was not enough. We were definitely struggling with the handling compared to the best of the competition, but even so, I felt we had enough performance in the Venom car to get us into sixth or fifth, between Dario Franchitti and Alex Tagliani – but then my teammate Tony Kanaan got into the back of me! That meant we needed an extra pit stop and it ruined mine and Tony's race. We ended up finishing 11th and 12th.
I've got a feeling we could have still looked better if we'd tried going off-strategy at that point, but we just stayed on the leaders' strategy so we ended up losing a lot of track position. But that's a minor deal in the circumstances, I guess: it's not like I lost a podium finish, and a top five wasn't really on from the moment I got that flat tire.
Pace-wise, we're chipping away at the gap to the leaders, so for that kind of incident to happen is just totally disappointing. We can't be making those kinds of mistakes, especially within the team.
Like I say, we've narrowed the gap in pace to the frontrunners in qualifying, but a gap is still a gap, and add that up over 100 race laps and it means we're still not in a position to threaten for victories on street courses. I'm still convinced that the Penske and Ganassi cars are doing something over the bumps that ours aren't; as drivers, TK, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica and myself are just having to work too hard compared to the best cars. On the flip side, our cars are feeling a little more predictable than they were in 2009, so we're able to hustle them, at least. But that's something you do over a flying lap; over a race stint, it will chew up the tires.
My car has had its own particular problems, though. Normally, when you have understeer and the tires are cold you can still really hustle the car, because your car's nice and predictable, but then once the fronts come up to temperature, the understeer gets worse. I've been trying to turn the car with wheel spin, kicking the tail out by stabbing the throttle which might look good for the spectators, but I tell you, I'm finishing some of these races absolutely knackered!
My race engineer Tino Belli has been a real rock for me. We didn't expect to find the magic ingredient right away – we were both realistic about that from the start – but we're going through a series of tests to keep chipping away at it. I think there's an underlying problem that's been built into my setup, because I was going in my own direction setup-wise. We've proven it wasn't really working for long runs, and so we're about to make a fairly significant change that takes us back toward the setup we had in 2006, my rookie year, when we were pretty strong and brings us more into line with what my teammates are doing.
I think that means we'll make some gains in the future and will definitely help us when we get to round 4, in Long Beach, another street course. When we get there, we'll need to be pretty decisive about which way we go setup wise. The way it works is that we sit there and evaluate the circuit – for example, in Brazil we guessed that it was going to be low-grip because of the track surface and we were going to be fairly trimmed-out downforce-wise because of the long straightaways. Beyond that, it comes down to what you've learned already from other circuits with similar characteristics, and what you know works for you in terms of setup.
That's two steps ahead, though. Right now, we're thinking about Barber Motorsports Park, a track we've never raced on before, and you know what? I'm feeling pretty positive, pretty confident. We went reasonably well there in testing, and it's our first natural road course of the year, so it's going to be interesting to see if that brings us closer to the Penske and Ganassi cars. Will Power's seemingly in a league of his own at the moment, but I think the opposition is human. There's no one we can't take on when we get everything 100 percent correct.
There's no magic to this: it's about getting it right on the weekend, especially in qualifying. Everything has to go right – the right tires, the right setup for the compound you pick, the timing of when you put the lap in, catching the slow cars at parts of the circuit where you can pass without losing time, and so on. And that's just for qualifying. On race day, on a track as narrow as Barber with only one major brake zone, it's all going to be about being smart with strategies and gaining track position. And yeah, a bit of luck, too.
If we get all of that right – and Andretti Autosport is definitely capable of that – I don't see why we can't win at Barber. I'm serious.