First of all, thank you to the well-wishers regarding my hand injury which I got in a wreck during qualifying at Mid-Ohio. Now it's in a brace, my thumb feels OK. It doesn't hurt too much: it's more of an annoyance because I don't have the strength in it to do too much. I normally drive with my thumbs over the steering wheel spokes, but can't do that anymore with the right hand until it heals. For the race at Mid-Ohio, I just had to have my hand at the top of the wheel, like Jean Alesi used to do with both hands.
In the Sonoma test, we eventually found a comfortable arrangement which gives enough support and still allows us to be competitive. While I miss being able to use my thumb while driving, out of the cockpit it hasn't been so much of a worry: I don't feel the urge to give a thumbs-up to any of our results recently, except that pole position in Toronto.
That was a strange weekend of emotional highs and lows – and both those feelings were there from the moment the track action started on Friday. After our first run around the streets of Toronto, I pulled into the pits and I probably had a shocked look on my face. I told our team, “The car's terrible, it's a nightmare to drive, we've got a lot of work to do,” and so on. And they looked at me a bit confused and said, “Well, you're P1 by about seven tenths…” That was a climb-down for me. I said, “Oh… Well OK, it's not that bad. Maybe we can just tweak it a bit…” Funny how quickly your perspective changes.
It just seemed the No. 22 Z-Line Designs car was ultra-fast from the moment it hit the track, and I think the secret was to free it up at the rear to get the quick changes of direction. It was a bit too loose at times – I had a little spin at one point in practice, I think – but it gave us quick lap times. Understeer around that track is just a killer of lap times. So from the balance point of view all we had to do then was increase the mechanical grip and settle down the rear end without blunting the front-end bite.
By the time qualifying came around, we were confident of running our Q1 session on the harder black tires. I wasn't so confident for Q2 but I think we were quickest in that session on blacks, too. The downside of that is that we hadn't yet tried the option reds, and that nearly bit us in the Firestone Fast Six showdown, because you don't have time for two runs. It was a now-or-never situation and the reds brought in a little bit of mid-corner understeer – they increase the grip at the rear more than the front – so we couldn't quite get the turn-in we wanted in some of the high-speed corners. But we still took pole and if there'd been time for a setup tweak and a second run, we could have easily broken into the 59s.
So, at that stage, it looked like we were heading for a good weekend and we led the opening stint. Then, after Dario's strategy had worked for him, he led the middle of the race. It was a tough middle stint, with Dario, Will and myself catching a group of backmarkers all fighting among themselves. Dario dived into the pits first without getting held up by them, and at that point we thought he'd played it just right. However, then Will and myself went flat-out and we lost a little bit of time behind the backmarkers – but not too much – and as we came around that lap, my team came on the radio and told me we had three laps before the in-lap. I got back on the radio and said, “No way; I'm pitting this lap.” And we came in, the team gave me a great pit stop, got me out ahead of Will and both of us emerged ahead of Dario so I had the lead.
We were in the lead and about four seconds up on Will and Dario when the yellow came out on lap 66, and I expected on the restart that I'd be able to pull away again. We'd been running lap times of 62sec flat and pulling away from everyone, taking it easy on the equipment, saving the tires and brakes and I felt I had plenty of speed in reserve if Will caught back up in the event of a full course caution. Well, sure enough, we got a yellow, and I worked my tires that whole yellow period of four or five laps, keeping them clean. Yet all through that last complex before getting the green on the pit straight, it was like I was on ice: I could barely keep it on the track. So coming through the last corner, I had a huge moment, thought I'd hit the wall, and Will drove past me even before we got down to the braking zone.
At that point I think, “Stay calm, it will be fine,” and I see Will almost drive it into the wall. Then down to Turn 5, Will almost hits the wall again and before I know it, I'm following him in on the same line! I even ask the team on the radio whether I have a puncture, the handling's that bad. I get into Turn 6, and just after turn-in, the rear steps out and I hit the lockstops on the steering, trying to save it. Somehow it comes back, I get back on the power and again it steps sideways. At Turn 7, it hangs on longer, but then it gets sideways, and I never get it quite straight enough again before I need to hit the brakes for Turn 8, and that locks the inside rear. I have to decide, “Do I come off the brakes and stove it into the wall, or stay on them and spin?” So I choose the second route….It was so frustrating how I lifted early, braked early and still couldn't get it stopped. It was a case of the tires not being clean – they'd just picked up too much rubber during the caution period, and I needed to drive about one percent slower. But there's no point in coming up with excuses like “the tires were dirty” because a) who's fault is that, and b) I was the only one who spun! The difficulty of the track at that moment was such that I thought I could perhaps pressure Will into making a mistake, but instead it was me who went over the limit. We clawed back up a bit in the closing laps, but obviously it was an anti-climax to a weekend where the Z-Line Designs car had looked strong enough to win.
At Edmonton, we never had such high hopes after the first practice sessions on Friday. Penske and Ganassi seemed to have it all under control, and we just didn't have a good balance. It took a long time for us to find what the car was looking for at that track. Eventually we found a couple of things that gave it a little bit of speed for qualifying, improved it in the warm-up and slightly better again for the race. But it was never as good as we'd hoped pre-weekend. On blacks I was able to keep up with Ryan Hunter-Reay on reds, although he was getting held up by EJ Viso at the time. But we pitted at the same time and I hoped that on reds I could put him under pressure and maybe sneak by…
Ultimately, we had a suspension problem that required a mid-race change of damper. Unfortunately, the new damper that got fitted was a different type altogether from the other three and was much too hard. Initially it felt fine, but when the tires came up to temperature, I had another alarming moment at Turn 9 so pitted again, because we were already two laps down by this stage and Edmonton is not the place to have an accident. One of the mechanics jumped out, and softened up the new damper to get it close to matching the other three, and then we went out and were able to set fourth- or fifth-fastest lap of the race on prime tires. I was quite proud of that!
Mid-Ohio was more frustrating, to be honest, because it was interference from outside that screwed us. OK, we weren't fast on Friday – certainly not compared to our very good test there beforehand – but actually the car's main problem was the rubber laid down by the ALMS cars which knocked our setup out of contention. So we chased it and we got there in time for qualifying. I'm confident we'd have been in the Firestone Fast Six if Ryan Briscoe hadn't sent me off the track on my final run. We'd made a good change before that run: I needed to find 0.25 compared to my previous best, but we only had time for four laps because the change had taken a little longer than we wanted. As you know, in qualifying the timing line isn't the start/finish line; at Mid-Ohio it's before Turn 11. On this crucial lap, through 11, 12, 1 and 2, I was already up 0.2sec, so I thought, “OK, I need just 0.05sec from the next six corners and I'll be in the Fast Six.”
On the negative side, I'd seen Ryan pull out of the pits, which is odd considering we were coming up to the checkered flag: he wasn't going to get a timed lap in. I caught him pretty quick down the straight, pulled over just to show myself in his mirrors. As we went into Turn 4, I had a face full of his rear wing, and as we got on the power out of the turn, he kept to the right. I thought, “Great, he's letting me go – although it would have been better before the corner, but at least I'm clear now.” But he told me afterward that he didn't realize I was there and he was just going wide to set up for the next corner. I went up the inside into Turn 5, turned in and suddenly I felt hard contact. I was bemused and couldn't work it out. I could also feel that I'd done something to my thumb. I got hard on the brakes, put my hands on my chest and hit the wall. Then I tried to work out how on earth that happened.
Ryan came over later to apologize after he'd had a chance to watch the replay. He said he thought he was going to make the timing line before the checker and didn't realize that wasn't possible. On the grid he also apologized to my crew, which meant a lot. Whatever, it meant we were starting artificially far back, in 11th, and at a track that's pretty tough to pass on. So come race day, we started on primes and passed Marco Andretti to take 10th on lap 1. After a while, it became pretty clear I was getting held up by Viso who was on reds, which at the time I found amusing as I was also effectively driving with one hand.
Then he started to make little mistakes which slowed me up even more. I was hoping he'd eventually make a bigger mistake so I could get through, or he'd stop driving by his mirrors and just get his head down and allow us to start catching back up to the pack ahead. But his pace started to get worse and worse, so I decided I'd have to pass him.
When I saw him run wide at Turn 2, I thought, “OK, time to go.” I drafted him down the straight, pulled out, got three-quarters of the way down the inside of him before we got on the brakes. We both braked pretty late, but already I could see him coming across, aiming straight for the apex. So I kept on the brakes all the way in, went on the inside curb, and still I wasn't getting the room I needed to avoid contact.
There are two points I want to make here. One is that, OK, EJ won the braking contest, and we were at a right and then a left sequence. If he'd given me a little more room at the right-hander, he'd still have been on the inside for the next corner and would have won the battle – for that lap at least – and we'd both have been able to fight on. But he chose to not even give me the room to hand the corner back to him!
The second point, is the difference between seeing the incident in a simplistic way and actually watching and understanding the sequence. Afterward, there were some strange comments from people who I thought understood racing and who just looked at the fact that our points of contact were EJ's right-rear wheel and my left front and they decided that therefore I wasn't far enough alongside him. Well, I certainly was when we went into the braking zone! The reason I then lost ground to him was because that's as much as I could do to back out of the maneuver once EJ decided to drive like I wasn't there.
So, on reflection, I actually wish I'd not backed out of it as far as I did! I'm not saying we wouldn't have rubbed wheels, but if I'd hung back just enough to hit his sidepod with my left front and barged him out of the way, it would have been a more square-on hit that wouldn't have flattened my left-front suspension. But with a right hand that's just resting on top of the steering wheel, the last thing I wanted was to have any kind of contact at all…
Even now as I'm writing this a few days later, I wonder if I should have just leaned on him and tried to complete the pass. Sure, we might still both be out of the race, but at least there wouldn't be people looking at this snapshot of the moment of contact and then passing judgment that I just ran into the right rear of Viso's car like some kind of overambitious amateur. It's very annoying.
“Annoying” doesn't begin to describe how everyone on the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team feels right now. Four races that we thought would be our bread-and-butter and would see us at the very least getting on the podium a couple of times and fighting for a win have now passed us by without even a top-five finish. There's a twisted way of looking at it positively, I suppose – that we have enough potential to have our goals set so high. But when you can't follow that through with results, that means the frustration is multiplied for us all. The important thing for us now, though, is to use that frustration to fire ourselves up even more and come home with the goods at Sonoma next weekend.
One good thing to report is about my latest teammate. (With one of my thumbs out of action, I'm not sure I can still count how many teammates I've had this year.) J.R. Hildebrand is an easy guy to work with, I believe he has a lot of potential and I quickly came to trust his judgment. We could divide the workload in testing and practice and therefore make faster progress, because I discovered I could rely on his feedback. That's impressive for a rookie; it shows he isn't at all out of his depth in the big cars and can still think while driving at the limit. As Indy Lights champ, he deserved a full-time ride this year and all credit to D&R for giving him his break. After Mid-Ohio and Sonoma next weekend, hopefully he'll have shown every team that he deserves a full-time ride in 2011, too.
For myself, Sonoma is my last realistic shot at victory this year because I still think that Ganassi and Penske will have the edge at the four ovals that round out the season. Dreyer & Reinbold got on the podium at Sonoma last year with Mike Conway, and although it may take a little luck to reach the top step this year, I think we deserve that luck. This team continues to work hard and hopefully we've shaken off the bad luck that has dogged us since Texas. Our pace should have put us higher than ninth in the championship and it's time we turned that pace and potential into a hard result, the sort we achieved in St. Pete and Long Beach.