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…
But then on that last restart, it all turned sour for us; I'm not sure there was enough room for a car to come up the inside of me and stay there all the way through the corner. However, there were two cars there, and I think you know the rest of the story. Crazy and frustrating.
The huge outcry from drivers, media and fans following that race probably had an effect on Race Control's hard-line stance at Edmonton. One issue that won't go away so easily is the debate over taking a defensive line to a corner. I understand why the series has that rule, and it makes a lot of sense, it's black and white and it works – providing there are other rules in place to back it up, so that it's not a case of the lead car getting hung out to dry. But at the same time, I feel defending – not blocking but defending – is part of racing and you've got to do it well to be a complete racecar driver. That would have the extra benefit of stopping some of these half-hearted moves down the inside, where drivers don't have a proper run going but stick the nose of their car in anyway, just to see what happens!
In Champ Car, I remember the rules allowed you to choose any line as you came onto a straight, but then you couldn't deviate from it, so you could force the chasing driver to go the long way around. Well, interesting idea but then it got manipulated by the drivers – just as the Formula 1 drivers manipulate the one-move rule. So it is a tough one. But I think the priority is to be consistent with the rules and enforcing them. If there were no police, there would be rioting in the streets; if there are no rules to punish bad driving, then everyone steps it up, takes the law into their own hands and exacts their own revenge.
Having said that, I very nearly embarrassed myself at Edmonton. Tony Kanaan and I had been on Versus' pre-race show talking about driver etiquette and while I was battling him in the race, at one point I pulled out to pass and then about halfway through I thought, “Actually, I haven't got this; I'm not going to pass him.” But as I got on the brakes I locked the front tires up, and suddenly it was, “Errr, OK, I am going to pass him! Well that's typical,” I thought. “I open my mouth about bonehead maneuvers, and now I'm going to crash into TK!”
So I had to come off the brakes completely and dive past him to at least let him know I was there and so he could see I was in trouble. Then I braked again, and he could safely do an up-'n-under move and re-pass. Fortunately there was enough room to do that there. I was thankful I was racing Tony, who was smart enough to instantly assess what was going on and realize that I was in trouble. Certain other drivers would have turned in anyway and ended both our races with that attitude of, “We're both out of the race and it's not my fault.” To which I always think, “Ummm, yeah, but we're still both out of the race….”
Like I've said before, there's no point in being in the right but in the wall. There has to be a moment where commonsense and car preservation come into your thinking, and I think if it doesn't come instinctively, it's something that comes with experience. That's why TK could instantly read the situation.
So, next we headed to Mid-Ohio, a circuit I really like, now with some momentum behind us. Our test there was interesting but, unfortunately, I had a couple of offs. The first one happened as I was just coming over a crest and the back stepped out. I caught it, it stepped out again and I caught it again and then…wow – the car hooked up so quick and I shot off to the right. I clipped a wall, so that meant a bit of down time while we fixed a front wishbone. Not sure what I did wrong, but it was driver error.
The D&R team got it fixed and I went back out for the afternoon session, and the track had become about two seconds faster, and I think we were fastest at the time the second incident happened. I got on the brakes at Turn 9 but I could hear the motor still going at the same revs. I had the front wheels locked up, the rear ones still pushing me on. Fortunately, the car spun sideways so I just bounced through the gravel and hit the wall sideways. The problem? A panel down by my legs, which had been behaving itself by staying in place and just doing its job for the past 18 months decided this was the time to flex and lodge itself on my throttle pedal. Weird.
It's been a long time since I've had a throttle jam open – it's quite the adrenaline rush, I can tell you, and it was an embarrassing radio call to the team – “Hello! I'm in the wall again!” Actually, we got lucky. When we got back to the pits, my team did another great job of installing a new steering rack, resetting the toes and cambers and changing the front-wing endplate skirt. They did it quick enough that I got back out on track.
We didn't do a lot of tuning, setup-wise; we discovered last year that it's a little bit pointless because Mid-Ohio's track conditions vary so much that what works at the test could be useless by race weekend. So this year we focused on testing a lot of items that we'd wanted to try for quite a while but that you don't dare test at a race weekend because track time is limited. So we tried lots of parts and said, “This one's an improvement, this one isn't,” etc. And we found some stuff that worked well.
So despite it being a far from smooth day, it was a productive one, and I think last weekend you saw that Dreyer & Reinbold had given me strong tools to do the job. The car was good. Had everything gone smoothly, we were definitely fast enough to get into the Fast Six and maybe onto the front row. But, of course, everything didn't go smoothly.
So, last Saturday morning…. We had made a change that gave the car just a little more understeer, and I kept my foot in the gas, as previously, to see how hard I could push going through Turn 1. It didn't recover as quick, obviously, but I just thought, “Well, I'll drop onto the grass and get back on.” It's the sort of incident that happens on the exit of a corner several times in any session at any track. But, I dropped onto the grass, and that's when it happened. I hit bumps. There were three vertical g-load spikes, according to the data – one at 70, one at 65 and one at 50. I don't even remember there being three; I just remember a sharp pain between my shoulder blades, and that was the crushing of my T5 vertebra.
I remember it all too well. I come to a halt and I couldn't breathe, it was so painful, and that's when a bit of panic set in. I undid my belts, took the steering wheel off, and I waited – I didn't want to get out myself. But there's no one coming to rescue, the track hasn't gone yellow, and I suddenly think, “It's such a mild-looking incident, they probably think I'm OK and they're just planning to leave me out here until the end of the session. I've got to get out.”
So I try to get out, but I can't get the headrest off – I can't get my fingers behind the duct tape that holds the pins of the headrest. So I try to get out with the headrest still in place (something I can normally do) but with my back now killing me, I can't push, can't brace myself, can't get any leverage. And I still can't breathe well enough. Thankfully, they throw a full-course caution, and the Holmatro Safety Team are able to come to the rescue and do their usual excellent job. And so then it's the hospital in Mansfield, and then fly to Indy to visit Terry Trammell. No surgery needed, but a back brace that has put me out for the next few races.
The real bummer of all this? Despite the fact that some teams are being careful with their spending for 2011 because of the new car coming, Dreyer & Reinbold has just kept working so hard on this year's car and have made some big improvements for the ovals. I think we could have been right up there for Loudon this weekend and Kentucky in October – and that's why I'm really hoping I can come back in time for the Las Vegas finale. The items they've found are such a step forward I was looking forward to qualifying in the top 10 and racing for top-five finishes. And I think, obviously, we'd have looked strong at Infineon, Baltimore and the Motegi road course. I can hardly believe how terrible the timing of this has been for myself, the team and the sponsors.
In the meantime, I wish my sub Tomas Scheckter and my teammate Ana Beatriz the best of luck for this weekend. I hope Tomas can do as good a job in the No. 22 car as Simon Pagenaud did filling in for me at the last minute at Mid-Ohio. And I must also thank all my family, friends, fans, D&R colleagues and my rivals for the “Get Well” messages. I'm going to do my best to look after my back so there's a chance of making that Vegas race. I'll keep my fingers crossed and my back straight.