Hey, hope you’re as well and positive as I feel right now, as I’m writing this two days before the Kansas City race, third round of the IndyCar Series.
Look at the last two races and you might wonder what I’m feeling positive about. But I’ll tell you here and now that the result in Long Beach was not a fluke, not just getting a break with the full course cautions. There was real progress. I’ll agree that it took a lucky break for us to get into a position to show our pace. But look at the data, and you’ll see that we were one of the quickest cars out there – and that was a place where I thought it might be super-tough for me to perform. I’d never been there before and, as any driver will tell you, it’s a circuit that requires you to build confidence – and that confidence can only come from knowledge.
It was a good feeling coming away from Long Beach having performed well and with a sixth place to show for our efforts with the No.26 AFS Andretti Green Racing entry. It feels like I have some good momentum heading into a long stretch of races on circuits where I had already expected to do well. I think my engineer Pete Gibbons and myself have nailed down what the problems were during qualifying at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. And the weird thing is, I’d say it was the struggles we had in qualifying in last week that benefited us.
I better explain that comment. At Long Beach, the way I looked at it was that we could have tuned a not-so-good car into a mid-grid car, and got 11th, where my teammate Tony Kanaan qualified. But we were at a point where we were far-off enough that we just tried lots of difference concepts, quite radical adjustments and by race time we had hit on something. I don’t think we’d have found that if we’d been doing just the small changes.
Obviously by the time we sorted ourselves out, the damage was done and I was struggling up from near the back, but now I have really high hopes for the street courses for the remainder of the season. I am so glad we approached it like that. The field is so tight this year, we need to make those kind of jumps.
Compared to Tony, we were only out by a little in each corner at Long Beach, but obviously that adds up. Once we have a car that suits me, all of a sudden the little bit that I’m down at each turn becomes a little bit that I’m ahead. Small gains can push you a long way forward. Working with my race engineer Pete Gibbons is going well, and we’ve made good strides towards finding setups that suit my particular style. That’s the goal for every engineer/driver combo, and it’s a case of so far, so good. I know we’re gonna have a lot of good cars this year.
You know, even in practice at St. Petersburg we were second or fourth in practice, and then we made just one change and bam! We’re out of it. The IndyCar Series is super-competitive, and we need to put an emphasis on getting it right first time for qualifying.
I’m enjoying one of the IndyCar Series’ new changes for this year, which is switching between Firestone’s prime and alternate tires. It really does mix it up, and gives you more options. Some people set the car up to be at its best on the reds [soft compound], others for the blacks and each can end up struggling on the other compound. I welcome that. In the past, my driving style has been pretty hard on rear tires, but I think one thing that helped me reduce that trend in the off-season has been racing in the A1 GP series.
That A1 car’s front tires are so dominating the rears that I was forced into learning how to really baby the back end of the car, to make them last for the race. That was huge for me, and improved my discipline as far as throttle application was concerned. I’m a lot less aggressive. I’m still keeping my style, but trying to be a bit smoother. And so far it seems to have worked: I was able to run the whole race on reds in Long Beach, when you’d have been expecting them to burn off, and we were still pretty quick.
Speaking of A1 GP, the decision has been taken to not do any more races in that series this year. We decided that we need to keep my schedule sensible. Before, we were just looking at the series as giving me mileage during the IndyCar off-season, but it’s not the off-season any more, and I really need to stay focused on the task at hand. I was all for going over there because, frankly, I’d be happy to drive a racecar every day. But my team and I believe we’re going to be in the running for the IndyCar Series championship, and I can’t afford to wear myself down right before Indy. We can’t take our eyes off our main focus, and doing A1 would have meant something like 13 straight weekends of racing and therefore 13 or 14 weeks of travel, including testing and so on.
So the team just wants me to go to Miami and sit on the beach, work out, and forget about racing between IndyCar races. Sure, we’re race drivers, we’re ambitious, and we’re always trying to make gains so it’s pretty impossible to do. But at least we can try and distract ourselves.
I think I said in my previous column that your reputation to the outside world can swing backward and forward so quick, and so I’m not really listening to people who have been bad-mouthing me this year; they’re gonna keep saying what they want to, whatever, and nothing I say will change that. My only answer will be to perform well on the race track, which is what you’ll be seeing me do.
We’re now eighth in the championship only 39 points off the lead. Considering where we qualified for the last two races, that’s closer than I might have expected. I’d say my goal would be to lead the championship after Indy. Looking ahead, I’d say this weekend a podium is definitely possible, and taking that momentum into Indy, we’ll be able to focus on the biggest race in the world. If we win that, we’ll come out of there with the points lead.
The Indy 500 is like a championship in itself during the month of May, and that’s a big reason why my team wants me to keep out of the cockpit of other cars and get some down time, clear my head. It’s a stressful month, but I can’t wait to get there.