Last week's Sebring test shined a light on promising talent on the periphery of the IZOD IndyCar Series, relates Jeff Olson.
Shortly into his first IndyCar test last week at Sebring, Conor Daly found himself gaining on Helio Castroneves. He took a moment to mentally record the scene.
“One time I was catching Helio and I was like, ‘What is this?'” Daly said. “These are guys I've looked up to and seen for years. It was really cool. We had a great day overall. It was interesting to get in the car for the first time and get used to it. I thought it would be very different. I thought it would take most of the morning to get in a competitive range, but honestly we were quite competitive pretty early.”
Meet the two newest must-haves for the IZOD IndyCar Series. Conor Daly and Tristan Vautier. Everyone has heard of Daly, the 21-year-old son of former CART and Formula 1 driver Derek Daly, the can't-miss kid who spent the last two seasons in GP3 and has people whispering again about an American in F1. But Vautier, last year's Firestone Indy Lights champ, is a bright and personable Frenchman eager and able to advance in class without losing speed.
Listen to Sam Schmidt Motorsports team manager Rob Edwards, who shepherded Vautier's one-off test in Simon Pagenaud's No. 77 SSM Dallara-Honda:
“Tristan's comment when he first got comfortable with it was that it was just like a big Indy Lights car,” Edwards said. “Certainly there are a lot of things he has to come to grip with, like the engine control system and the variables there, and all the tools in the cockpit, but from a feel point of view, the car feels very similar. You've just got a lot more to do to extract the best out of it.”
So there you have it: IndyCar's odd, against-the-current secret. For as much as we complain about direction and lack of interest in the series, it has at its beck and call a breadth of young talent. Some have gotten through, but most are still waiting. For every JR Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden that land an IndyCar seat and show their talent, there are 10 just as capable waiting to get their test day at Sebring.
“That's exactly what you need,” veteran Oriol Servia says. “It's sad in a way, but it's necessary. You need 10 really tough guys in Indy Lights to make that one who gets through. If you don't have those 10 tough guys, there isn't one IndyCar team that's going to hire the Indy Lights champion. You need depth of talent. These guys in the paddock know what's out there. They know who's good and why. If you win a championship against a strong field, these guys know you're going to be good.”
That's why both Daly and Vautier are hot commodities. Both have solid experience against the depth of talent that's out there, both in Lights and GP3. They're capable, as were those before them, of advancement, and they proved it by stopwatch at Sebring.
“It's about finding that last tenth or two,” Daly said after his session. “Will Power is very good at getting everything out of the car. On the first day, we showed that we can be on the pace and be right there, but it's just about putting the whole package together. That's what the guys with experience have. That's what we, as young drivers, need to learn.”
Ask Hildebrand, whose first test in an IndyCar also came at Sebring, during his championship run in Indy Lights in 2009 (with James Hinchcliffe on the podium at Toronto, LEFT). At first, he was surprised by the effects of additional horsepower, grip and brake. It can be argued that the Indy car on a road course is easier to drive than the Lights car because of those reasons. But on an oval? Different story altogether.
“Driving the car on an oval for the first time was a completely different experience,” said Hildebrand, who tested at Kansas Speedway later in 2009. “I had to completely ignore my survival instincts in order to keep the car flat for those first couple of runs. That extra 25 or 30mph on the ovals is like night and day. On the road course, I was expecting it to be tougher, but it wasn't. It had more tire and more brake and more speed, but because of those things it was easier to drive.”
Vautier echoed those sentiments.
“It feels like a big Indy Lights car with a few things to change in the driving style,” Vautier said. “I tried to improve throughout the morning, and the engineers were very good to help me. They made quite a few changes to see how I reacted and we moved forward. I'm just happy and honored to be taking this step with the team after they brought me the Lights title this year.”
Two possibilities, two potential outcomes. Both drivers are important to the future to the series, just as were those who came before them. Daly, of course, would be a coup for IndyCar, and it's not out of the realm. The talk is F1, but the reality is probably far closer to IndyCar.
“There's a special place in my heart for IndyCar,” he said. “All my friends are here – Hinch and Graham [Rahal] and all these guys; they're great friends of mine. I'd love to be here racing against them, but I don't know what will happen next year. We have to see what we can work on. I'd be a happy person if we could put an IndyCar program together.”
So, too, would IndyCar. But the seats aren't there for a large-scale influx of young talent, and the recently witnessed upward mobility of young drivers doesn't help. Talk to someone who's been there.
“There are different ways to look at it,” says Hildebrand, who signed with Panther Racing after his Lights championship. “The series growing and having more seats available is one way to open up seats for the younger guys. It will be interesting to see how the sports car merger plays out to see if that creates more avenues for guys who have done open-wheel.
“I'd be a proponent of these cars becoming more difficult to drive. We saw that this year in the changes on ovals that made the cars harder to drive. It definitely thins the herd a little bit. I'd like to see them a little bit more like that on road courses, as well.”
Hildebrand adds that the very closeness of the competition that is so evident in IndyCar qualifying sessions on road courses has some negative connotations.
“Part of the reason the qualifying sessions are so close is part of the same reason why it's not so hard for a rookie to come in and be fast right away. The power-to-grip ratio is too close together,” he says. “But you're asking a question that's probably been around a long time. Testing limitations are a big reason why young guys don't get looked at as much as they should. When I got signed, I looked at that as a risky move, and I'm sure John [Barnes] did, too. Same thing with [Josef] Newgarden getting the Fisher ride. A part of the reason that doesn't happen more often is because there's almost no testing anymore. It puts a pretty high value on guys who have experience.”
Perhaps that explains the immense interest in Daly, whose level of experience gave way to the odd sight of a kid who's never been in an IndyCar helping a team upgrade its road course setup last week at Sebring.
“I was happy to help them and see what we could do, and they learned a lot from the things we changed on the car,” Daly said. “That was my goal, to help them as much as possible and to get familiar with the car. We accomplished that, and now it's going to be an interesting road to next year.”
When asked if his first few hours behind the wheel of the DW12 could determine his immediate future, Daly avoided specifics but left room for hope.
“It couldn't hurt, that's for sure,” he said. “I think we had a good day. It went by too fast. I wish we had a second day.”
He's not the only one.