It's been a tough couple of races for everyone involved in the No. 22 Z-Line Designs car. Certainly the Watkins Glen race result didn't represent the potential the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team had shown in practice and for most of qualifying, and Iowa became a nightmare after some encouraging progress in qualifying. Thankfully, we still have eight races to go so we can climb back up the leader board. I want to give this team its first win in 10 years.
That win wasn't going to happen at Iowa, but I did think that track would be one of our best chances for a strong finish on a banked oval this year. Unfortunately, though, I got to watch a very interesting race from trackside!
The weekend started OK. Both Mike Conway and Tomas Scheckter had told me that the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing setup was good around there, and they were spot on. It was good, and in practice we made just a couple of small changes – driver preference stuff – and I was quite happy when we qualified 11th. I thought we had a good chance for the race, but then it all came to an end rather suddenly.
I had been sitting the same distance behind Danica for the whole first lap, and we went down to Turn 3 and everything seemed good, but close to the middle of the apex, the rear came around. We'd put in a couple of turns of front wing before the start and maybe the headwind caught that and pinned the nose down; perhaps we'd been that close to the edge.
It seemed like it took ages to crash – it felt like I was trying to save it forever – but I also knew from the moment it stepped out that it wasn't going to be catchable, that the rear wasn't going to dig in. I was very disappointed, and sad for my crew, because I think if we'd made it through the first few laps in the dirty air, we could have had a decent run. Now though, that's all ifs, buts and maybes.
We bounced back quickly from that, though. We were heading to Watkins Glen next, where last year I'd won and Mike had given his D&R car a great run into the top six. Even though we hadn't had a chance to test there this year because of the weather (see my last column), we were still optimistic. But, in the end, we had a difficult time and we were gutted that our changes to the car over the course of the weekend didn't make the positive difference we needed. It's so disappointing when that happens, because you can feel your chance slipping away – and the chance to take on Penske and Ganassi doesn't come along often for anyone in the IZOD IndyCar Series.We did start off with a strong car, though, to the extent that we were fast enough to be confident in not using a set of reds in our Q1 segment, which gave us an edge on everyone. Then Will Power did the same thing in Q2 – stayed on blacks – but we still went into the Firestone Fast Six feeling that we had a real swing at the front row, considering four of the other cars were on used reds. But then….nothing. I just couldn't make it happen. We did make a minor change before that session, but I don't think that was the problem. For some reason, I just couldn't hustle the car and couldn't turn in the lap times we were expecting, and so we wound up sixth. If you think the IndyCar field is close, the top six is that and then some. If you miss by a little bit, it costs you a lot.
Interestingly, that was the same set of tires I started the race with, and once they were up to temperature, it was the same sensation again. They just couldn't take the loads I was trying to put on them. I thought, “This is odd, but maybe I just need to try harder,” but when I did, the tires didn't respond. So then I thought, “OK, maybe I'm over driving, I'll back it off a little,” but then I just went slower. I honestly don't know what the issue was: maybe it was just a rogue set of tires. All I know is that after not being able to really lean on the car, I then found the fronts were wearing out way too fast, just like my teammate for the weekend, Paul Tracy, described in his blog. As he said, it was like there was grip there up to a point, and then in one lap, it just fell off a cliff.
It was a shame because it was an excellent race – in fact, there was a lot of good dicing going on up and down the field. Myself and Takuma Sato swapped positions three or four times in two laps! But when I started to feel the fronts going, I decided to take it easy on them, and leaned a bit more on the rears which maybe bought me an extra couple of laps. But it soon became pretty apparent I was just hanging on, so I radioed to the team, “The fronts are gone, I'm in trouble, I need help,” but I knew we had to get to at least lap 18 to make it a two-stop race so I was just hanging on, trying to limit the bleeding.
When we all pitted, the team gave me two extra turns of front wing which definitely made a difference…I was really loose for a few laps after that restart, to the point where there must have been four or five times when Adam Carroll who was following me probably thought I was about to crash. Funny thing was, if you could live with it, being on the edge of snap-around was definitely quicker than suffering terminal understeer through Watkins Glen's long corners, so I started to think in terms of getting back toward the sharp end. Unfortunately, we had had an uncharacteristically slow pit stop – I made the restart in 14th or 15th and the car just wasn't quick enough to overcome that.
Given the high-stress job that my crew do, I always accept when, once in a while, I get a bad pit stop. It happens to everyone at some point in the season, so you just suck it up. I was actually far more disappointed that we didn't have the performance to compensate for it.
So, now that's something we're all going to work on and try to understand and move on. The key, in times like these, is to analyze correctly and, rather than come up with the easiest answer, come up with the right answer. Fortunately we will have the chance for that careful analysis before the next two pure road courses because we're going to test at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma before our races there. That should help put us in strong contention for those events, even though I realize how tough the opposition is. (Of course, those tests will only give us a chance to benefit if the weather behaves for us, unlike in all our other tests this year…)
Before that though, we have to do some heavy thinking because we certainly won't want understeer issues at Edmonton. That's a circuit where that problem would really hurt your lap times, because you're turning for about 50 percent of the lap! Having said that, I think our Watkins Glen problem was more of a track-specific one. That's why I'm pretty positive heading to Toronto this week. For one thing, it's a bumpy street course like St. Pete and Long Beach where we qualified and raced really well back in the spring. Secondly, it's a circuit that's been good to me – I scored my first win in Champ Car there in 2005, and I've never started outside the top six. And thirdly, Mike put Dreyer & Reinbold Racing into the Fast Six here last year.
I've won in Edmonton, too, and again, D&R was pretty strong there last year, so I think we'll arrive at both Canadian tracks with good ideas of what we need and want from our cars, and again it comes down to analyzing data and making methodical progress through the weekend. If we do that, I believe we can take a very big haul of points from those races.
The other interesting aspect of Mid-Ohio and Sonoma is that I will have another new teammate, in J.R. Hildebrand. I don't know J.R. that well but I've seen him in Indy Lights, and for everyone who cares about open-wheel racing in America, it's a relief that the Lights champion is finally going to get in an Indy car: that's the way the Road to Indy process is supposed to work! He's clearly a talented guy and did a good job last year and I hope he will be very helpful to us. He knows Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, too, so I think he'll get up to speed quickly, and I don't think these cars are too difficult to learn. Once he finds the limit, his information and feedback will be very useful.
It's always a help to have a good teammate. I've had a quite a few this year and, fortunately, they've all been pretty good in the car and good guys out of it. Working with Paul Tracy at Watkins Glen was good: we got on well, he was very focused and worked hard and, interestingly, our feedback was virtually identical. If he'd had a test day beforehand, he'd have been farther up the grid, I'm sure. Just two one-hour sessions to work everything out after 10 months away from road courses put him in a virtually impossible situation. I think he did a great job, and just kept chipping away at it in the little time he could get.
Obviously P.T. goes back to KV Racing for the two Canadian races, so Tomas Scheckter will be back with us for Toronto, and he's fun to work with and a good driver. I'm not sure right now who will be in the No. 24 in Edmonton, but anyone I've partnered so far this year will be fine.
I'll get back to you after the Canadian races and the Mid-Ohio test. I'm pretty confident it will be a much more upbeat column. Fingers crossed.