Barracuda Racing, aka Bryan Herta Autosport, found itself in a precarious position going into this weekend's IndyCar doubleheader at Toronto.
Coming off a string of forgettable performances and costly crashes, the Bryan Herta- and Steve Newey-owned team would normally be in high spirits as its driver, French-Canadian open-wheel veteran Alex Tagliani, returns home to race in front of the partisan Canadian crowd. But a dismal run since the Indy 500 has the single-car team reeling, and with just one finish inside the top 20 and four crashes over the past seven races, the smiles usually worn by BHA team members have been noticeably absent in recent months.
A dark cloud has also descended over Tagliani. His performances so far in 2013 have looked nothing like what the fiery pilot delivered once the team switched to Honda power in 2012. After parting with the ill-fated Lotus powerplant, he became a near-permanent fixture in the top 10, usually qualified in the Firestone Fast Six and gave every impression the momentum would carry into the new season.
To provide some context on how bad Tagliani's season has been, he came into this weekend's event 21 points behind Oriol Servia in the standings. Servia, who lost his full-time ride after Indy, has missed four races since May!
Now the question is whether Barracuda-BHA can pull itself out of the nosedive in time to end the championship on a high note. With Tagliani sitting 22nd in points, the team is in jeopardy of missing the cut to receive the $1 million Leader Circle contract from the series for 2014. Like many IndyCar teams, the Leader Circle subsidy is vital to completing BHA's budget, making each of the eight remaining races a pressure-packed situation where strong results are a must.
On a personal level, 39-year-old Tagliani, who ranks as one of the most popular drivers in the series, turning his season around right now is critical, as questions regarding his tenure with the team have increased in number and intensity during the recent downward spiral. But as Herta told RACER, getting the team back on track with its current driver is the priority.
“Nobody is looking to get rid of Alex – I want to make that clear and put that speculation to rest,” he said. “But we also have to be honest about where this program is today and where it needs to go. Alex has high expectations just as we do and none of those expectations are being met right now. We all need to see that tide turning quickly.”
The Barracuda team started the year off with a 10th at St. Pete and an 11th at Barber, but five months into the championship, those finishes continue to serve as the best results recorded by the No. 98 entry.
“It goes without saying that the season hasn't gone the way we hoped or envisioned,” Herta continued. “At this point in the year, we're already kind of looking ahead a little bit, to steady the ship and get some good solid results back underneath our belts to start just building some confidence again.”
With a program that's essentially unchanged from last year, exactly how that confidence has disappeared is a mystery. It could be that Honda's slow start to the season started the decline, and with each subsequent crash or poor performance, it's likely Tagliani's bravado has diminished. How he rediscovers his mojo is a question that only he can answer, although Herta appreciates his driver's efforts.
“I think half of our races have ended in accidents. That's the problem," he admits. "And we've had a lot of times where we're 23rd and we know it's not a 23rd-place car. Everybody is a part of this. The team are working their butts off trying to make things as good as possible for Alex, and he's trying hard, too.
“This is one of those situations that can't be solved by anything other than better results. As an organization, all you can do is pull together, do your best to stop what's going wrong and start living up to your potential. That's the only thing I'm concentrating on right now.”
Single-car teams face an especially hard time when trying to recover from a slide like Barracuda-BHA has been experiencing, because without data and alternate setup options to review from a second car, finding the right path takes longer than desired. Pressed on the topic of exactly how he'll turn the team's fortunes around, Herta wouldn't be drawn on specifics, but made it clear that he won't rely on hope and faith to make Barracuda Racing a contender.
“Are we happy to continue doing things the same way and hope that that will change? No, we're not,” he said. “Something better change, and we're actively working on answers.”
On the topic of Tagliani continuing with the team beyond 2013, Herta stated: “I will tell you that no decisions have been made.”