So you'll have seen it's been quite an adventure for us in the opening rounds of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season. In between collisions, though, we've been quick, so I'm very pleased with how the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing No. 22 car is going. We certainly got a bunch of air time for our principal sponsor each time, TranSystems at St. Petersburg and Charter at Barber Motorsports Park. But I'd like our circumstances to have been different, I've got to say.
Considering we started fourth and finished second at St. Pete last year, we headed into the first round in a positive frame of mind and with a couple of changes from last year. Unfortunately, we went down the wrong path on Friday, so we were just one or two steps behind for the rest of the weekend. Yeah, I know how often you've heard a racecar driver say something like, “If we could have started the weekend with the setup we had by the end of qualifying, we'd have been much higher.” Well, of course, that's true! But we got ourselves out of a hole during Saturday morning practice and were able to qualify in the Firestone Fast Six. I was really happy with the way the team and the engineers worked through it and deciphered what was going on and we got a good car again. We peaked at the right moment. I'm hoping that same methodology and work ethic among our engineering staff will allow us to make more steps and carry on closing the gap to the big teams throughout the season.
Part of our challenge – everyone's challenge, actually – is that the Firestone tires have changed slightly, so the setups have had to evolve. The softer reds now give the car a really positive, reactive turn-in. For our part at DRR, we are about right on stiffness, I reckon, so I think it's maybe more a damper issue that makes the car a bit of a handful on the harder black tires. When we put the reds on in St. Pete, the car came to life and was good – until we bent it halfway through the race. We had made the fuel last to the same lap as Dario and Will, so that's a good indication of how fast we were. On reds, I dropped off a little bit sooner than Will, and that allowed him to pass me pretty easily. At that point, I was just making sure I preserved the tires as much as I could. I think we had the performance to finish third.
However, now it's all ifs, buts and maybes. The incident that broke the trapezoid in my left wrist was when I clashed with Alex Tagliani in the final restart. We were fighting for fifth at Turn 1 after a restart and he thought he was leaving me room, and he did…but only as far as the apex. Then he slammed the door in my face. I had to drive over the inside curb, and the front of my car pitched up in the air – at which point there isn't a whole lot of braking going on – and I hit the side of his car. Weirdly, I have no idea how I did the damage to my wrist, though, because the doctors say that damaging the trapezoid is pretty rare and normally comes from a compression, like when you're punching something and the index finger knuckle gets pushed back. It's way back in the wrist where it gets squashed.
Anyway, it hurt and although I was able to downshift OK with the left lever, the hardest thing was pressing the radio button. Pulling is fine; it's pushing that really hurts and so it's difficult to make steering corrections, too, because when you get oversteer, you have to kind of push and brace yourself. At Turn 4, about four laps from the end of the race, I tried to pass Servia but with one hand it's not easy to do. Normally it wouldn't be a really big issue but I couldn't hold on to it with one hand and I had to use the escape road.
This is the first time I've damaged the left wrist. I know that because I took out all the carbon braces and supports I've had in the past and made a grisly lineup of them (should have taken a picture, actually) and they were all for the right hand. It's bad enough doing this at any time, but in the first race of the year it really sucks – especially when we have a string of four road courses! Long Beach is going to be hard, especially down at the final hairpin. And you've got to feel sorry for the team, obviously, because in the same race, my teammate Ana Beatriz busted her scaphoid, and I know how painful that is. She's a rookie and that's the last thing she needed, especially when there are such heavy restrictions on testing.
I had a carbon brace made and it really did support in the pushing motion, so I figured it would be OK for Barber which is a relatively smooth track. It's also a fun track that puts a lot of demands on the car and tires, so I was really pleased at how the team progressed since our preseason test there. Back in March, we had the setup that Mike Conway had used to get on the front row last year, but it wasn't working on this year's tires. So we made some modifications that gave us a nice balance, but we sacrificed performance: I think at that test we were only 14th or 15th. But again, the engineering staff dug in, did their research and last weekend they gave the Charter car both balance and speed. We're still not Penske or Ganassi, but we were in the mix up front and got into the Firestone Fast Six again. Knowing the team has this capability is what makes me happy that I re-signed with Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl last winter.
Unfortunately, as you know, the race ended with a broken car when again we probably could have been top five. I had been battling Oriol Servia, and gone a lap longer than him on the first stint, and the idea was to go two laps longer on the second and jump him that way. But Takuma Sato and I touched on the first lap after a restart, which broke his front wing and gave me a left-rear puncture. I used all the road because I didn't realize he still had the nose of his car alongside me even though, being a bit taller, the way I'm positioned in the car means I can see 90 degrees either side! I could not see anyone to the side of me, and it's not an oval where you have spotters to help guide you.
It's down to the driver on the outside to be far enough alongside, so the driver on the inside knows he's there. If you loiter around on the outside rear corner of someone on the exit of a turn, you have to be ready to take avoiding action. When I'd been put in Takuma's situation – where the car ahead runs me out of road and puts me on the grass – I've had to lift and steer out of his way. It's just the risk you take when you're trying an outside pass. There is a reason that outside passes have such a low success rate…
Then the crash with Raphael Matos was what finally put us out. As we went into Turn 5 wide, he tried the outside pass. Rafa did a good job as he was ahead and gave me plenty of room on entry, but on the exit he changed his line just slightly. My mid-corner understeer meant I couldn't tighten my line any further. I was thinking if I gunned the throttle, my wheel would make contact with his sidepod and just knock him wide, but my natural instinct is to save my car, so I tried to tighten my line. Unfortunately, it washed out and my front hit his rear just enough to start turning him. Rafa's obviously upset and thinks it's my fault, but if he'd run just another six inches wide and we'd both survive and he wins the corner. I'm gutted that I didn't see it coming, but once I was in the trap, I felt there was nothing more I could do to avoid the situation.
I guess these are all effects of the side-by-side restarts and we are now finding situations that are happening five or six times a race that would normally happen two or three times a season. The racing has changed and I don't think any of us have really appreciated that it has. We are running side by side for half a lap – and that never used to happen before.
I think the fact that all the drivers and teams are finding this season even tougher than last year has proven some preseason theories wrong. Some people thought the teams would try and save money for the new 2012 car but, no, they're used to the mentality that every year counts. Everyone's going for it. This year's IZOD IndyCar Series championship means just as much as next year's and just as much as last year's. It's good competition and the development process does not let up.
Last weekend, Simon Pagenaud was my teammate and I think he did an excellent job substituting for Ana, considering it was his first ever race in an IndyCar. His feedback was good, the two of us worked well together and we split the load. He's already done a year of Champ Car (although four years ago!) and he's been racing in the ALMS in high-downforce LMP cars, so I thought the team's choice of him as Ana's sub was totally logical. I think Ana did the right thing by resting her scaphoid: I've broken that bone before and I know she'll get back sooner by resting it. Missing Barber was a smart move on her part.
I'm looking forward to Long Beach, one of the IZOD IndyCar Series' true classics. Of course, it helps knowing that I had a really good car there last year (qualified third, finished second) and that we've done a few things since then that could help us further. I'm hoping to put the No. 22 Z-Line Designs car right at the front again. Sure, all the usual suspects are going to be strong, but I really believe we can put it on the front row. And if we're doing double-file restarts, I want to stay in the top two from start to finish. Believe me, Turn 1 at Long Beach is going to be BUSY this weekend – and, I suspect, so are the Turn 1 corner workers.