Just in time for this weekend's opening round of the IZOD IndyCar Series in Sao Paulo, Brazil, RACER.com is delighted to welcome another addition to our stable of driver columnists – Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Justin Wilson. -Ed.
Yes, I'm optimistic for the IZOD IndyCar Series season ahead. Yes, we were fast at the Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park. And yes, it was insanely cold. The next time we go back there, the temperature will probably be in the 90s (at least), so it was very strange to go to Alabama and be looking at skies that you'd expect to see over Norway in winter.
I understand why Firestone was a bit dubious about running there: it's to save the teams from themselves! It's not so much to do with the grip level; I don't think that's affected much – maybe the first half of an out-lap is a bit trickier. It's more to do with the information that the teams are able to collect in such cold conditions. We never race in those kinds of temperatures, so the information about tire wear and tire heat is only useful or relevant to a certain point. You have to be very careful with it. The tire reacts very differently when the temperature (factoring in the wind chill) is 25 degrees, compared to when it's 100 with a track temperature of 150. The chemicals in the tire react differently and so the car's responses feel different and the wear rate is night-and-day different.
Still, it was good to get out there and get two solid days under our belts. Considering the last three rounds of 2009 were on ovals, and there were restrictions on testing, most of us hadn't driven an Indy car on a road course since Sonoma. That's last August! It made me even more glad I raced at Daytona for the Rolex 24 Hours, just to remind myself how to take right turns. I love that event and it helps get your mind back on track, literally and figuratively, and this year it was great to drive for the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates squad.
I know that extra pit stop I made has raised a few questions, but the team personnel were fine with me. I actually got more of a hard time from the media expecting me to get a hard time from the team! Looking back, yes: we could – maybe should – have won; we had a 10sec lead. But I can only explain what I did at the time. I came out of the Bus Stop chicane, heard a big bang and the whole car jumped in the air a little bit, especially the front. Suddenly everything goes through your mind. “Wow! What was that? Did I run over something? Did I blow a tire? Did I break the splitter off? Did I damage the radiator?” They're things that can happen so easily at Daytona.
Then you start thinking, “If I did blow a tire, I'd better come in now, because I don't want to do a whole lap with the rubber smacking the bodywork and damaging the car.” Or, “If I do another lap and it's the radiator that's gone, I'm going to blow the engine up.” Well, I took the safe option and pitted.
Looking back, I still feel like I did the right thing. I'd done seven endurance races before that one, and I'd never experienced this weird sensation. Even now, I don't know if I ran over a giant piece of rubber, a car part, or a torn-up piece of curbing. In addition, when I touched the brakes, they were making a weird noise, and they felt strange for the first two or three laps after that pit stop. But that cleared up and the car felt strong, and I'm just left scratching my head – and wishing it hadn't happened. I felt Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Max Papis and myself had done a good job for the whole race. Once we'd all settled in and done a stint each, we then realized we were in the hunt, turned it up and ran flat out for the rest of the race. To come so close to the win was really frustrating.
I hope I made a good enough impression that I might be invited back next year – and you know racing for Ganassi/Sabates really puts you in the hunt for victory at that event. The team is so strong, and it just proves there's no magic in being a successful squad: get good people with good brains and who work hard. That's what Chip and Felix do.
In the offseason, my training regimen was strict – a lot of mountain-biking and road-biking, lifting weights at the gym and changing diapers. Having a second daughter has kept me and Julia busy, but it was great that she arrived in the offseason so that I was able to take in the whole parenthood thing, instead of seeing her for nine days and then flying off to another race. And Julia has promised me to have her sleeping consistently by the time I get back from Brazil. A great arrangement.
Anyway, the fitness certainly isn't an issue. I heard that some people had a problem with the g-forces at Turns 10-11 at Barber, but to be honest, I think the main problem is getting the car hooked up to the apex through there. However, I'm confident that with my new engineer, Matt Curry, we'll get those kinds of things sorted.
It's interesting that we call this a spec series, because coming from Dale Coyne Racing to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, I can make a direct comparison – and there are differences. But this is my fourth new team in as many years, so I'm getting quite experienced at building up new relationships with people I haven't worked with before. As long as we know what each other's talking about – when I say “understeer” I mean “push,” etc. – then I know we'll be fine.
That lap we put in at the end of the test looks promising. We ended up just 0.2sec off Will Power's time. We put our fresh tires on late, and we still need to work on the car, trying to get the feel that I'm looking for. We're not quite there yet, but I see that as encouraging – that we're so fast when I haven't got the balance that I want yet. I'm pretty optimistic that once we work some more together, the team understands what I want and I'm able to describe it to them a bit better, then we could be the lead car and we'd have those three Penskes behind me – on road and street courses, anyway.
One of the things that should help me is working with my teammate, Mike Conway. So far as road courses are concerned, it looks like we're pretty close in driving styles, and the speed traces almost match each other in overlays. As a result of that, we like similar setups up to a point, though maybe we'll go in different directions on, say, dampers. Everything Mike had developed through his rookie season felt pretty quick and good for me straight away, and then I made a couple of changes which Mike tried out on the second day of the test and he went quicker and liked the improvements as well. So that will help D&R as a team, I believe. It will certainly reduce the amount of track time we need to find the answers we're looking for. We can divide up the workload. After last year, it's good to have a teammate again, and the fact that he's a quick teammate and one I can rely on is a bonus.
Mike's pretty quiet, but in some ways I think he's a bit like myself. It takes him a while to feel comfortable around new people, and the more time we spend with each other, the better we understand each other and build a rapport. I think it's going to be fun, and it's going to be productive fun.
At the first race, I'm going to have two teammates, though, as Ana Beatriz will be driving a third Dreyer & Reinbold Racing car in front of her home fans in Brazil. I have to say – actually, I don't have to say it; I mean this truthfully – she did a good job at Sebring. She kept working away at it, got quicker and quicker with every run and I'm confident she'll do well in Sao Paulo. It's a new track for us all, so that will help her, too. I think the past couple of years in Firestone Indy Lights have proven she's not just a good oval racer: she qualified top six in road and street courses, too.
Looking ahead to the first few rounds of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, we have two new circuits, and they're two of the first three races. Having now driven around Barber, I think it's going to be very, very hard to overtake, and that's a real pity because it is a great drivers' track set in what is possibly the best facility we race at. (The museum's fantastic.) Getting on pole, getting good track position, getting good pit allocation… The list of what you need to get right just goes on. These things are important for every race, obviously, but at Barber getting them all perfect will be crucial for the win.
As for Sao Paulo, I think it will be a good chance for us to win. I don't know if it will be our best – I have high hopes for places like Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma and Long Beach – but Brazil should still see us mixing it with the front runners. It's going to be an interesting circuit, that's for sure. I haven't seen it in reality yet, but with a straight which I hear is nearly a mile long, there will be a big braking zone. When I first heard that, the question that immediately ran through my mind was (to phrase it politely), “Will certain drivers get carried away?” Well, I think that's a near definite! The important thing for us all is that the “certain drivers” don't lose their perspective on the first lap when we're all bunched together, otherwise half the field will DNF in the space of 10 seconds…
I can promise you we'll be doing everything in our power to have the Z-Line Designs No. 22 car starting from the front, out of harm's way. I'll get back to you soon, hopefully with – at the very least – a podium or two to talk about.