Alex Tagliani will be working for RACER.com this year, answering reader's questions with his new “Ask Tag” column (see the end of this story). However, RACER editor David Malsher thought he'd jump in and get the Canadian IndyCar veteran to give a review of his season so far – the first, since the one-year-old FAZZT Race Team got rescued by Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
Q: It's an interesting development for your team in 2011. There haven't been the same highs as in 2010, but there appears to have been more consistency across the board.
AT: You're right. I think because it's more competitive this year, we need to get our ducks in a row and get more of our stuff together. Unfortunately, in the first four races, there was always something that didn't go quite right exactly when we needed it. For example, we had a decent qualifying session in St. Pete and qualified 10th, and we were close but we were coming from far back. During Friday, we were really out to lunch, so we had this recovery at the last minute, we put the reds on and the car was better. So we noticed that our setup has some major issue on blacks compared with reds, and we were thinking maybe we needed to fix it with some adjustments and be prepared for it, but perhaps we weren't aggressive enough with the changes. I think we were 0.25sec from getting in the Fast Six, but we were pleased we'd made a good recovery.
Then in Barber, a place that had been a big problem for us last year, gave us the same problems this year…but the car was better. We qualified 12th, which was a huge improvement because last year we were far back. What puzzled us was that in the race, we had the opposite problem to St. Pete: we put the reds on and we struggled. I had made a good start, and although I was not blocking Helio [Castroneves], I was definitely in his way, and thankfully it's a tough track to pass. Anyway, I destroyed the front tires in a flash and basically the same thing that happened to Danica happened to us; we slipped to 1.5sec off the pace. We put the blacks on and the car was better balanced, but not as much speed.
So, two races and opposite problems happening to us on opposite types of track – one a bumpy street course, the second a smooth road course – but we applied what we'd learned when we reached Long Beach. That goes to show the quality of this Sam Schmidt Motorsports team. Right away, instead of being out to lunch like in St. Pete, we were a lot closer. We were between P4 and P7 the whole time.
Another problem was every time I put new tires on, I couldn't put a lap in. My times were better on scuffed tires with one outing, than on a fresh set of tires. You think, "OK, maybe we got the tire pressures wrong, or maybe I didn't put all segments together, or I hit traffic," and so on. You start second-guessing yourself. But, in reality, what was happening, I think, was that we again were missing a little something on the primary-tire setup. We over compensated with the alternate reds, so we just missed that Fast Six – by much less than in St. Pete.
Q: Yeah, you were actually less than 0.1sec from getting through which is pretty good considering you're up against three Penskes, four Ganassis, four Andretti Autosport cars, two Newman/Haas cars and Justin Wilson.
AT: Right. In Qualifying 1, I did a 1:09.5, in Q2, I did 1:09.6, and my earlier time would have transferred us.
So like you said, we have been a bit more consistent. Barber on race day was my mistake: I should have walked out of there with a top-eight finish and been pleased with the points, but we had a loose car, I got surprised with the balance on blacks and lost the car in Turn 16. Totally my fault. And, in Long Beach, I think we had a decent car – not the fastest one when we needed, but it was OK in the second segment on blacks when I was behind the two Ryans, Briscoe and Hunter-Reay. But when we put on the reds, we weren't as quick as Mike Conway, Hunter-Reay and Will Power.
Q: So, like a lot of teams, you've had quite a re-learning process this year.
AT: Yeah, we've learned a bit more on tires, a bit more on balance and the right stuff to have on the car at the right time to try and maximize every qualifying lap. Because the level of competition is higher, you cannot afford to second-guess yourself on setup – and that's especially important for us as a single-car team. The problem is, you look at Andretti, Penske, Ganassi and Newman/Haas – our main competition – and they have multiple entries. They don't second-guess and they never take risks. When Conway didn't like his car in Long Beach, he took Hunter-Reay's setup. And it's not just that he gets given a good setup: his own problems mean Mike and his engineer then also know what doesn't work, and so you've halved the work. Both drivers know that Conway's setup doesn't work and both know that Hunter-Reay's does. So when they're looking for direction in how to get a better balance, they've narrowed down the elements that take the car closer to what the driver needs. For us, it's different: 99.9 percent of the time, it's considered as a risk, because we don't have proof of what works and what doesn't. Every adjustment we try, we tried ourselves, by trial and error; that's the only way we'll know.
Q: And that's hard if you're in the top 10 in the championship so you don't get that extra practice session on Friday morning.
AT: Exactly! I can tell you how many changes you can make in just two practice sessions – not many! You do 12 laps, and you'll do one change. Then you go back to the trailer, and you prepare for the Friday afternoon session, when you maybe do three or four changes. Then you go back to the trailer and discuss it…but don't try and reinvent the wheel. You can't dare try something in the Saturday morning session in case it doesn't work, and then you haven't enough time to both fix it and also try setups for qualifying. No. Instead, that whole Saturday morning session needs to be dedicated to qualifying simulation and nothing else.
So you see why one car is at such a disadvantage to multi-car teams. That is exactly why Allen [McDonald, race engineer] always warns that there's only a 50/50 chance a change could work, especially when you make a change before qualifying and especially when you make changes for tires which we may not have tried before. Firestone provides us with great tires, but there are some differences between some compounds compared to last year and there is a bigger difference between blacks and reds this year. This is super-positive because it makes for great racing, but when the level of competition is so tight and 0.1sec can decide whether you are sixth or ninth, you don't have room for even the slightest error. Sometimes we're reluctant to make a change because it could swing either way: If we do 1:09.5 at Long Beach, a slight alteration could take a tenth off, which will put us into the Fast Six, or it can add a tenth and drop us three places on the grid!
Q: I guess in those circumstances it helps having a team like Sam Schmidt Motorsports around you – they're still what was the FAZZT team last year, and that's a pretty special blend of experience in there.
AT: Oh, yeah, between us, we all have done a lot of miles in IndyCar and CART, and last year, we did a season together, so we can use our experience. And also, we all know how to be smart and take note of everything we learn and then use that at the next race. For example, we took our knowledge of St. Pete and Long Beach and used it in Brazil.
However, there are still surprises that we have to conquer. Because the tires are different this year, and the track surface in Sao Paulo was different this year and the track layout was quicker because Tony Cotman had opened up a couple of corners, our setup from last year [which helped put Tagliani on the front row of the grid for FAZZT's first race! -Ed.] was not so appropriate. So it took us all the way to the practice prior to qualifying to finally put a great lap together, and we were P8. However, a couple of the cars in front were on reds, so we were realistically about P5. The reason some drivers were on reds? Because the multi-car teams wanted to know how the reds would react to the new track surface. And there was about 1.5sec difference; that's huge!
But I'm not in a multi-car team, so I can't ask a teammate to do that. So what we relied on was what we learned about the reds on two previous street courses, applied it and – bam! We had a fast car, and really, really neutral handling. And then it went wrong: coming out of Turn 6 on my third lap in Q1, I tagged the wall with my rear tire and bent the suspension, and I finished the lap with my car kind of crooked. I came into the pits, and we discovered I'd bent the bolt in the suspension, it took longer than usual to replace, so when they released me to go back out, it was checkered flag.
Man, I'm telling you, I felt so bad for the boys because I know the car was capable of so much more. You don't feel very proud when it's such a stupid mistake, and that if you'd had the chance to do one more lap it would have been the one to get us through to Q2. As it was, we were P3, but then with 20sec to go, we got bumped out. We probably left a whole second on the table there.
On the Sunday, the first 15 laps were just about staying clear of chaos, and everyone started on dry setups because they thought it would get better but then it started pouring like nuts. On Monday, there was the possibility of going full-wet, intermediate or dry setup with just a couple of changes to help you. And, to tell you the truth, I think we were so anxious to run on the dry because of the disappointment of not showing our full capability in qualifying – we had been just 0.2sec from Will Power! – and that influenced our decision. Everyone peeled off into the pits when we had that rain on Monday at the start, and took on wet tires, and we were passing lots of cars and got up to fourth or fifth. But then when the rain came down hard, I was spinning the wheels in fifth gear. When Marco passed me down the back straight, he must have been laughing because the rear was trying to break away in a straight line!
I have to admit, I was very sad when I left Brazil, because the car was a development of St. Pete and Long Beach and I think, by qualifying, we had it fairly close to where it needed to be and I'd hit the wall. Brother, I still am angry at myself. $#&^! I just don't do that kind of thing. It's not my style. So we left there really bummed out.
On the other hand, I think we've narrowed things down a lot. After our three street races, I think we've made the progress that multi-car teams make in three practice sessions and I'm looking forward to going to places like Toronto, Edmonton, etc. There are a lot of things we're running on the car that we didn't run last year, and different philosophies on setup, too. I told Allen and Rob [Edwards, team manager], “Man, we are so close. We're not out to lunch. It's just small things, and I tell you, I would not be surprised if Sam Schmidt Motorsports can threaten Penske on road courses and street courses. For example, last year at Sonoma, I'd never been there before, we skipped the test, but we were in the window right away. We were third or fourth every outing and we qualified fourth. We thought, OK, that's the type of weekend we need! And I believe those type of weekends are coming – weekends where we just make tiny adjustments.
Q: That's great to hear. But for now, it's ovals. I'm looking forward to watching you at Milwaukee, because you should have put Walker Racing on pole there in 2006. And Indy…well, you got in among the Ganassis and Penskes.
AT: I think we were on the money at quite a few ovals last year, but I'm really hoping our Month of May is going to resemble what it was last year, because when you have a good car on an oval, it's such a pleasure to drive. Last year at Indy, we felt in control: we knew what the car was doing, I knew what I was doing with the car. At other ovals, you get a good setup on your opening run and you'll have it for the rest of the weekend. Indy is different; you can have a good car on Monday, and have it all turn to crap by Wednesday.
Because of the size of the complex, the wind affects your car a lot. So you keep an eye on the wind sock, and if it is pointing into your face as you go into Turn 1, your car's handling will be on the nose. But because the car was always in the range, I could be very precise with the tools inside the cockpit to fine-tune the car for track changes and wind direction changes, and so on. In the Top Nine shootout, we probably went a little too far in one direction, like the Ganassi boys – a bit too tail-happy – but we were fairly close to the pace. And that proves what I said earlier: If we're inside the window, this Sam Schmidt Motorsports team has the ability as a team to stay there, because we're strong. If we're outside the window, then being a one-car team makes it a challenge to catch up.
So the great thing about us here in Indy is that we are a multiple-car team. I think it's very interesting to work with Townsend Bell and Dan Wheldon, because I don't usually have that luxury. It's nice to have that exchange of feedback.
Q: Is there a chance of Sam bringing in a teammate for you after Indy? He's got a reputation of picking the best young drivers, and you'd be a good teacher for them, because of your dedication to the detail work.
AT: I don't know, I really don't. I think maybe the ideal teammate would be a guy with experience – quick but experienced and knows what the car should feel like, knows what the red and black tires are going to do. You don't want someone to just give good feedback – most drivers at this level can give you that. You want someone who can make suggestions and predictions based on their experience. But hey, I'm not going to be demanding or anything like that. I think we're doing fairly good on our own and this Sam Schmidt Motorsports group has the potential to be excellent. I keep telling Will, “Watch out, we are coming, you will see!” And I truly believe that.
Alex Tagliani is always happy to talk racing and cars, drivers and tracks, fitness and marketing, and, well, pretty much everything connected with IndyCar racing. So now's your chance to put your questions to him. E-mail him at AskTag@Racer.com. And look out for your questions answered here by Alex in the months ahead.