For 2011, Oriol Servia has returned to what many felt was his natural home. Back in 2005, subbing for the injured Bruno Junqueira, Servia took a win in Montreal, and went on to finish second in the Champ Car World Series. Now, despite the powerhouses of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport accounting for 11 cars in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Servia and Newman/Haas Racing currently lie third in the championship. Can he keep up this momentum and can he and rookie teammate James Hinchcliffe (with Oriol, LEFT) lead this famous team's revival?
R: Simple question, complicated answer I suspect: How exactly did you reach third in the championship?
OS: Hmmm…I would say we have just stuck to our plan, which is to not think long term but just do our best with the Telemundo car at every single race. I had a conversation with my engineer Bruno Couprie at the beginning of the year, and said, “I really don't care about the championship this year.” This was for two reasons: 1) We didn't feel we had a realistic shot at winning it; and 2) going into the last race of the 2008 season, I could have finished top six in the points, despite that being mine and KV's first year in the series – a major accomplishment when you consider how the ex-Champ Car teams had joined at the last second before the season started, OK? And yet I didn't have a job for the next two years! Yes, I realize there were a variety of reasons for this, mainly budget, but my thinking was that if I had actually won a race, maybe I would have had a job for 2009.
So, at the start of this year, I thought more about the potential of Newman/Haas Racing winning a race – of having a strong car, maybe taking a risk, playing our cards right with strategy – and that would be a bigger deal than what position we finished in the championship. So it is ironic that the combination of 1) the way the cards have played, 2) our efforts to be sensible even though our ambition is to win a race and 3) the experience of the whole team – and myself, I hope! – have allowed us to capitalize on what we have and here we are, third!
I think at Long Beach we definitely had a car that could challenge for the win, because when I was fighting Helio and Dario, I could tell I had a better car than they did. I think it was maybe the first time in my life that I felt I had a better car than a Ganassi driver and a Penske driver! Unfortunately, on the last restart, Will almost got taken out and we had to avoid the mess...and we still finished top six. So I'm extremely proud that we are consistent enough to be only behind the best horse of Penske and the best horse of Ganassi. Even if they have three and four cars, and feel superior because of their recent results, we are still right there.
But what makes me excited is that we haven't even peaked yet. At the start of the year, talking to Craig Hampson [Chief Engineer], I was talking about finishing in the top six and qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six, and he was saying, “Listen Oriol, the past couple of years the competition has stepped up a notch, and we need to be realistic. We have to consider it a success if we're in the top 10.” But look, we qualified fourth in Long Beach. On the other hand, we qualified 15th in Brazil. All the drivers say what I'm about to say – and people think we say it so we don't look so bad when we screw up – but really, it's super-competitive out there. One session you're fifth, next session you can be 15th if you don't nail it.
We have really good chemistry in the team, and it's been a huge factor that although we spent a few years apart from each other, we knew what we could do together. No second guessing. When the team says something to me, when I say something to the team, we all pull in one direction. As you know, James Hinchcliffe is a good addition – young, smart, willing to learn, willing to push and he's super-fast. So the fact that I took a year off last year – not out of choice! – has put us all in a mental situation where there's just no negative. I'm not trying to say we make the right calls all the time: from setup, strategy or any point of view. But one wrong decision puts us just one step behind, not two, which is usually what happens. So I think that's what's allowed us to move forward maybe more than the other teams.
R: So is Craig overseeing the whole engineering team these days?
OS: Craig is chief engineer for James and Bruno is mine. Bruno had been assistant engineer at Newman/Haas for five or six years, and he's a younger guy, more my age – super-young like me! – and he is super-dedicated and very smart. And it's a perfect setup, I think, because Craig has a lot of experience and is with the rookie, and you have me with more experience with Bruno who has less experience as a race engineer. Honestly, I think getting that perfect balance is what has made the four of us work so well together.
R: Is it the same quality Newman/Haas that you encountered when they were at their peak – or one of their peaks – in 2005?
OS: That is a great question. It is the same quality; it's just that we are less superior on this machine. When I was there six years ago, they had the Lola (LEFT) sooooo dialed in – and it's not like they had special titanium pieces, or a special differential or anything like that. Newman/Haas Racing's strength is, and has been for many years, the way they optimize what they have. It's based on how much analysis they do, how much they understand every setup change and how they can then move forward from there. So after so many years with the Lola, they knew exactly what the car needed at all times, how to change the attitude of the car, how it behaved, how it used tires – absolutely total understanding. And they had good budget to do seven-post rig tests, wind tunnel tests, and so on.
Now, I find the same quality of people, attitude, brains, mechanical understanding and work, but they've had a lot less time on the car than the biggest teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series right now, and they didn't have the budget during the off-season to do the wind tunnel and shaker rig testing that others did.
R: OK, so you knew the quality of the people was still there, you knew the car was pretty good after testing, but the deal for you to actually race with the team came together late. At that point, what were your expectations, and did you feel confident that you'd be able to jump in and quickly get the car dialed in to your taste?
OS: Man, I didn't know what to expect. I knew how the guys worked, I knew I still had the speed. I've told you before, as hard as it was the past two years to not have a solid ride, and then see my former teammate Will Power be the new revolution – and honestly, we matched each other in 2008 at KV – that was tough to digest. But, at the same time, that kept the fuel and the confidence in me, because I saw how well he was doing. And then I was telling Newman/Haas over the winter, “Look, if in 2008 we were already able to get in the mix with the big teams in street and road courses – myself and Will in KV, and Newman/Haas with Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal – I have no doubts that if we are able to do our jobs, we will be right there.” But the truth is, until you do it, there's always a little question mark.
And, honestly, we're still not at our best yet. We've been consistent in the finishing results, but in qualifying we are still not so consistent. To be fair, the only guy who is there every time is Power. Look at Briscoe: he was quick through practice in Long Beach, but in qualifying he was 12th. It really is a fine, fine line, and like I say, it's only Will who is up front in every session. Why? Because he's super-fast, he's with a super team, and he's been with the same engineer for six years. All that together makes him very, very strong and I'm prepared to say, not only on road and street courses but on ovals, too. I believe last year Will's performance on ovals was already excellent, but his team made a few little mistakes. As an oval driver, he was very strong and so he's going to be up there all the time, I have no doubt.