It's been a hell of a long time since I wrote last, because I wanted to have a good result to boast about for the No. 22 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing car and, unfortunately, that was a long time coming. And now it looks like it will be a long time before I get to drive that car again.
That's such a pain because, even though we'd had difficult season, I looked at the championship table after Edmonton and I was less than 30 points outside the top 10, only 35 outside eighth! From those numbers, you can see it's been a very peculiar year, with only a couple of drivers (guess who) racking up consistently high finishes. And that is a reflection of the closeness of the IZOD IndyCar Series as a whole.
Edmonton weekend was a tricky one, with the terrible weather causing everyone to lose the first day of practice on a brand-new track layout, and then a poor result in qualifying for us.
That was down to simple miscommunication between my engineer Yves Touron and myself. I didn't know we were only going to get two timed laps, so on my out lap, I didn't do anything extra to bring the tires up to temperature quicker, and I thought I'd just bring them in gently, the right way. Then as I came out of the final hairpin, the team came on the radio and said, “OK, this is your last lap.” I said, “What do you mean? This is my second lap.” And they said, “Correct.” Uh-oh…
So with the tires still cold, and skating around, I missed getting through to the top 12 by less than 0.1sec. That's why we started 15th and not somewhere more representative of our pace. I think you can see that Dreyer & Reinbold gave me a good car by the way our race went; from our worst qualifying position of the year on a road/street course, we translated that into our best finish with a fifth place. One of life's little ironies. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure we'd have finished any higher. Well, maybe we'd have beaten Tony Kanaan to fourth, but Dario Franchitti (third) was very fast in that final stint.
Anyway, we had some good battles with Dario, TK and Sebastien Bourdais. It was a good track for racing, but I think they've removed the flow in the new layout: we need some of those fast corners back – that's what Edmonton was known for. But I also understand the constraints Tony Cotman was under when he made the new design.
Indy and Texas were bad for us, I think mainly because we struggled for straightline speed, but also because we need to find a better balance. It was nice to have Davey Hamilton backing up what Ana Beatriz and I were saying: He's got a lot of experience on ovals, so he knows what's needed and can say “OK, this car is a handful.”
At Milwaukee, things started looking better though, with Ana and I qualifying 11th and 13th, and then in the race our pace looked pretty good. Once Helio had his puncture and was on the same strategy as us, I was able to race with him and although he was a fraction quicker, it wasn't by much at all and I think it was more down to track position. It was one of the best-handling cars I've had at Milwaukee – very similar in characteristics to the RuSPORT Champ Car I drove to second there in 2006. I think in other years, it would have been a top-five car but, I repeat, with the field so deep and tight, that's not enough in 2011.
Iowa was a struggle for us, which is strange because we were quick there last year. This year was difficult because the handling wasn't great and partly because of “That Bump” between Turns 1 and 2. Eventually I found a technique for dealing with it consistently, and although it wasn't particularly quick, my chances of finishing were better, and that's what was needed. A couple of times I'd felt the back end go, even on fresh tires, and I realized I'd be backward into the wall before I'd even felt it go loose if I carried on like that. It was very strange that despite there being four or five cars in the wall by the end of the night, there was only one set of skid marks…but overlaid four or five times!
A couple of changes in the car helped and then it came down to survival. That Bump gets worse every year, and it's now at a stage where it directly or indirectly causes over $1m in crash damage, so I think they need to fix it. It feels like each lap you have a 50/50 chance of getting through, so when the race is 250 laps, those odds aren't good. And, if they fix it, I believe it will improve the racing as well.
I had high hopes for Toronto, since we sat on pole there last year, and the car actually felt nicer to drive this year…and was quicker. So was everyone else, though and, in fact, 20 cars set faster laps than my pole time from last year, largely because of a change in the red tire compound. Still, I felt we had a car for the top two rows of the grid. In the Fast 12 session, we didn't change the car at all from the first round; I wanted a second go at it, so I went out…and went half a second slower. Unfortunately, it turns out there was a fault with a rear tire, so it started deflating and that was that. We were left in 11th but with a good car. That Saturday night, I was wondering if we'd get a chance to show it on race day…
And we did – up to a point! We had some good dicing, made some good passes, we kept our nose clean, and although the balance would drift away toward the end of a stint, it didn't matter too much because we kept getting bunched together by cautions because there was so much idiotic driving out there. Certainly the marshals were kept busy that race, and they must have been doing a good job cleaning the track, because I don't think anyone got a puncture from the debris. Or maybe it's because the debris was coming off in such big bits…