I think it's just as well that we've decided that I should write these columns after every two races, because trying to remember everything that happened to the No. 22 Z-Line Designs car in Sao Paulo and St. Petersburg is hard. I suppose almost all my rivals can relate to that, though, and I guess that's what made the opening rounds of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series so good for the spectators and TV viewers. Everyone was entertained – although the Brazil race was little bit too
entertaining if you were sitting where I was.
We qualified well, and took third on the grid, but the start was a mess for everyone except the front-row guys, Dario Franchitti and Alex Tagliani. At Turn 2, Briscoe got into the back of me and cut my tire so I had to pit. With the pits officially closed, we, of course, had to suck up the penalty, and called in for a second time, so we were playing catch-up from that moment on. Just as well it was a good circuit to pass on.
Then, after we'd restarted following that brief monsoon, we really wanted to pit for dry tires when Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power did, but there seemed to be a lack of communication between IndyCar and us. I thought they'd told us that first time past the pits they would be closed, and the second time around they'd be open, and then we'd get the green flag. But first time around, half the field pitted – and I'm not sure anyone was aware of what was or wasn't permitted, because no one's radio was working properly at that place.
Still, I thought to myself that maybe it wouldn't be a big deal because the track was still pretty wet and we were about to get the green…except we weren't! Four laps later, the track's drying out rapidly and we're still behind the safety car. My positive outlook turned to, “This sucks!” On top of that, the way the pit lane there was laid out meant that those who pitted lost hardly any positions because everyone still on track was running at safety car speed.
Amazingly, things found a way to get worse for the Z-Line car. There's a pin that holds the head-rest support in place and that had popped out; under the final caution for Briscoe's shunt, I was trying to stick that back in but it was impossible with all those bumps, so I just had to jam it in place with my arm. And then my left-rear tire was gradually deflating in the last stint – the long stint, of course! – so traction on corner exit was terrible, and every turn leading onto a straight seemed to be a right-hander, so I went from having too much understeer for the majority of the race to suddenly having a lot of oversteer. It became really apparent in the last 10 laps and by then, we were dragging the floor of the car all down the straight – and that's a bumpy track to be doing that. We ended up 11th.
Oh, wait, I almost forgot another little hitch we had. Remember that Simpsons episode where Homer's got no windshield on his car, and he's following the garbage truck and a used diaper flies out and hits him in the face? Well, when I was trying to play catch-up after that terrible start, I was following another car – Helio's, I think – and his rear wheel pulled off a loose bit of one of the trackside advertising banners. It was bizarre: it came at me in a big square, and hit my visor (fortunately, it came off instantly) but then it got caught over the on-board camera and covered part of the airbox – which, of course, cost us power and cooling – so, for the next three laps, I was passed by at least one car every time I went down the back straight. By now, I was thinking “This can't be happening…”
Anyway, at my next pit stop, as I came to a standstill in the box, this bit of banner fell off the airbox and into my lap. Obviously, the team could see from the telemetry that the engine had been running hot, so while I'm stopped, I'm watching my front-right tire-changer ripping off the carbon fiber cover over the radiator to improve the engine cooling. I want to tell him not to bother because I've got the answer here in my hand, but I can't because the radio was so poor, so I just screw up the plastic, chuck it out of the car and drive off.
So, you understand why we only finished 11th? Considering Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's pace, considering how well my race engineer Matt Curry and the whole team had worked for me and considering everything we'd learned about and improved on the car, we left Brazil feeling…well, feeling weird, to be honest. On the one hand, we'd been massively unlucky, but we also felt encouraged. I think we had given ourselves enough evidence that the day it all goes right, we could be in with a shout of victory. And so I think for D&R, the second round, at St. Petersburg, was fulfillment of the promise that we'd shown in between the incidents at Sao Paulo.St. Pete is a circuit I like a lot, a real challenge – cambers, crowns in the road, bumps, a blend of quick and slow corners, and there are opportunities to pass. It's interesting to try and get the car balanced so that all those features on the track surface help instead of hinder you. Sometimes a lot of what we do as drivers is missed, but I noticed from the race footage that the low camera heights and angles at St. Pete really help show some of the finer details of what we go through.
Again, we qualified on the second row, and the early laps were interesting, with everywhere slightly damp but with us all running on slicks. We all spent the early laps just trying to find our limits – all of us except Marco Andretti, who went past everyone! He made it look like the rest of us were just on a Sunday afternoon drive, and honestly, for five minutes I thought, “Wow, this is going to be Marco's day.” But six laps later, as we finally got some heat in our tires, his were going off and he went the other way at the same rate! The tables can turn so quickly. Firestone made the red option tires pretty soft, so there was a bigger difference between them and the blacks.
What pleased me was that when the reds went off, it felt like it didn't affect my car as much as it did others, and then I could catch people up, and start re-passing them. It was quite a tortoise-and-hare effect. I find that if your car is dialed in, the reds just make the car go quicker – you can lean on that extra grip. But if you've got an imbalance, the reds will exaggerate that (like what happened to Marco). My balance was close, although the car was a bit loose in places. Matt and I have been working on getting the front more positive, and I remember one lap at St. Pete, going through the quick right-left at Turns 11 and 12 when suddenly the front bit hard. I was on the steering lock-stops to catch the tail of the car, and trying to gather it up felt like slow-motion – enough time for me to think, “Er, this isn't good,” – and by then I was past the brake zone for the final hairpin. It had turned into one massively long moment, and I was fortunate to get away with it.
On that last restart, with 25 laps to go, I was second behind Power but ahead of the other two Penskes, and I thought, “Uh-oh, we'll have to work hard to even get on the podium.” But when we got the green, Will took off well, so it meant I could, too – my car immediately felt good and I was able to lay down a quick lap. Coming onto the pit straight next time through, I gained a lot of confidence from seeing that the gap back to Briscoe and Castroneves was actually bigger, so I thought, “OK, I can handle them, let's get to work on Will now.”
I was able to put him under pressure at least: I had stored up my push-to-pass, and I used one a lap to see if I could get any closer, but it didn't make the difference I needed. A few laps from the end, Will had his own sideways moment on a tight left-hander and laid down some big dark lines and I thought, “Yes! This is it, this is the chance!” But he gathered it up. I needed him to have made actual contact. I think Will had between two and three tenths on everyone at St. Pete – he could pull a quarter-second on any of us pretty much whenever he wanted over the weekend – and yet we finished less than a second behind him, and we're proud to have beaten two Penske and two Ganassi cars!
In my last column, I said that the road courses might offer Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's best chances of winning this year, and I wasn't so sure of street courses. (You can't be sure because you can't test on street circuits: by definition, they're temporary!) So as we finished second in a street race without any help from good fortune, then what does that mean for this weekend's round three at Barber Motorsports Park, a natural road course? Let's say I'm optimistic. Both in Sao Paulo and St. Pete, Matt and I made good progress to tune the Z-Line Designs car to suit my tastes – and there is still more to come. Our car's already pretty good now and we know we can make it better, so that has given the whole D&R team a major lift.
I've been going back and forth with Matt, who was asking me whether we want to run the weight distribution as we did in Barber's preseason test, or run it as we've run for the past two races. Well, in the test, we were running 25lbs overweight, which costs about 0.2sec per lap, so taking that out should put us even closer to the front, in theory. If we can get the weight distribution sorted so it handles as well as it did in the test but without those 25lbs, then we're looking good. Let's hope so, because it's going to be very difficult to make passes at Barber.
I'm pretty positive for Long Beach, too. I took pole for the last-ever Champ Car race there in 2008 and, given the way we're going already this year, qualifying in the top four and finishing on the podium should be the very lowest of our targets.
Just so long as we don't have another race like Sao Paulo.