Editor’s note: This column was originally published in the May issue of RACER, on sale at newsstands now. Danica’s driver column appears exclusively in RACER every other month, alternating with that of Sam Hornish Jr., also exclusive to the magazine.
Hello again. I’m writing this right after our first test of the year, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which last year was the IndyCar Series’ season opener but this year will be our finale. The venue isn’t important so much as just getting back in the car and trying out what the Andretti Green Racing engineers worked on over the winter.
The good news is that the test was productive for us in some areas, but we didn’t have the pace we were looking for. OK, so we never trimmed the car out to qualifying spec – just put fresh tires on and ran the bottom groove – but 14th on the time sheets tells you we didn’t quite have it. Still, we considered it a lot more important to work on the race setup. At Homestead last year, we had the No. 7 Motorola car on the front row but went backwards at the green flag because my car wasn’t able to use all the track, so I was sort of pinned on the bottom groove and had terrible understeer. So, in this latest test, we really worked on running second groove, third groove to give ourselves more options on race days.
It would be fair to question the relevance of the latest test times, too. There was so much dirt on the track that the car looked like it had been sandblasted afterward, I was going through visor strips like they were bottles of water, and there were a lot of yellow flags from people cutting tires. Then there are the ambient conditions and track temperatures to consider: We’re going to be racing there at 4 p.m. in October, not at 10 o’clock on a February night.
Still, it was a good exercise in working with my new engineer for this year, Eddie Jones, who worked with my teammate Marco Andretti last year. First and foremost, Eddie is a great engineer. Second, we get along really well, joking and having fun to the extent that we can go to dinner, have a glass of wine, relax and not talk about racing. As an engineer, he’s a little bit more hands-on than what I’ve been used to, a little bit more about preparation and that’s good: I’m ready for the change and the fresh approach.
Apart from a one-day test at the start of April, that Homestead test is the last time I’m on an oval until the Kansas race, our third round. Next is the open test at Barber Motorsports Park road course, and that’s where Eddie and I will go pretty much in our own direction in terms of setup. On an oval, everyone tends to look for the same thing from their cars – a secure rear end but not too much understeer and good in traffic. But on a road course, driving styles vary hugely. If I may be so bold as to compare myself to him, I’m more like my old teammate, Dario Franchitti in that I brake earlier but lighter, and concentrate on rolling speeds and keeping it smooth. Tony [Kanaan] and Marco barrel it into the corner, hard on the brakes, then off, turn it in, hit the throttle – all a bit more aggressive. So, a car setup that suits them often won’t suit me.
I’m well aware that I have to improve my road course form. Some people have tried to say I’m too small or not strong enough. Well I’ll be honest, strength is not the problem – I can walk away from those races looking fresher than the men. No, if you want me to be super-critical of myself, it’s just a matter of getting better on road and street courses, period. Race pace isn’t so much of a problem as qualifying. Two years ago, I had a couple of front-row starts, but last year we got all the ex-Champ Car guys in and they’re pretty darn good, so overnight there were a lot more people to beat on the road courses than before.
At the end of last year, in practice sessions I might be faster than my teammates, but then in qualifying, Tony [Kanaan] would be a second faster! I said, “Jeez, where do you find that?” He said it just comes with experience: You drive hard in practice, but you leave that last little bit for qualifying and you also know how to get a bit more out of the car. I have to learn that now, because I need to qualify up front.
For the ovals, it’s almost the opposite challenge: we’re working really hard on race craft; putting more tricks in my pocket so I can better maintain front-running pace. It’s one thing to be able to run up there for a stint and it’s another thing to be able to run up there when you’ve got traffic and you’ve got challenges and you’ve got pit stops. You have to stay up there the whole time if you want a shot at the win, so the car has to be good in traffic. In 2007, I qualified midpack and I’d be so frustrated and pissed, but then in the race I would run top three, top five, and I’d come away from the weekend happy. Last year I qualified on the two front rows, then I’d come to the race and I wouldn’t be able to keep my foot in it. I’d much rather take a car that’s good in the race for the entire 200, 300, 400, 500 miles than I would a car that’s just fast in qualifying.
So, looking ahead, do the time sheets lie? Is it again going to be Penske versus Ganassi with Andretti Green being the closest challengers? In all honesty, the time sheets are not usually that big a liar. They looked like they had a slight edge. But, this is a long season and we haven’t really even begun yet. And, I have a lot of faith in me and my teammates to be right there fighting with them for every possible point.
For me, personally, I don’t want to get into specific goals, because then I’m just riding for a fall. The best judgment yardstick will be my teammates. I hope I’m able to emulate them: If they win a couple of races, I hope I win a couple, too. I really thought I would get more than just the one last year, but we didn’t have the speed and the luck as a team to make that happen.
I guess that sums it up: I have to compare myself to my teammates’ performances. But if I were to answer honestly, I would say I’d love to win a few races.Danica’s next column for RACER will appear in the July issue of the magazine, which mails to subscribers on May 15.