Yesterday we examined Marco's marked improvement year, but Blair Perschbacher's role in his inaugural season at the top is no less impressive. RACER editor David Malsher asked Blair for his views on a highly promising but frequently heartbreaking season so far.
R: How has it been to step up from Indy Lights, and did it help that you were at least staying in the same family?
BP: It's been quite a bit of work and adjustment, because although it wasn't exactly a last-minute change, the decision was made in January. If we'd known about it at the back end of last season, we'd have had more time to prepare. So I'm learning as I go. If I was to sum it up, I'd say it was difficult but also interesting and fun.
R: Alongside Ray, Michael and Craig and in the reigning championship-winning team, is there extra pressure?
BP: Not really. They've all been helpful, and having people who've been there and done it and won it means there's less pressure on me because I know I can turn to them when I have questions. I think we work together well as a team.
R: Marco had a pretty horrible 2012, Iowa apart, and he certainly didn't look as competitive as he had in the final year of the old car in 2011. Was it a daunting prospect for you to come in as a rookie at this level and try to get him fulfilling his potential?
BP: Well actually, I think the fresh-start approach has been pretty helpful. Marco worked really hard in the offseason to improve his driving style and came into 2013 with a very positive attitude. I came in with a clean sheet of paper and with no preconceptions. Well, actually, I'd worked with him a bit on the Team USA A1GP program, but he's come in with a different attitude and not hampered by any traits of the old Marco. He knows it's not going to happen by just driving the wheels off the car. He sees how hard Ryan and Ray work together, and the little details Ryan goes after to maximize the potential of the car. Marco has seen that he has to step up his game in the engineering room in order to compete with Ryan, who's the reigning champion and has proven that his method works.
R: And does Marco's adjusted driving style come a little more naturally to him now than at the start of the season?
BP: Yes, I do think so. In the preseason tests and a couple of the early races, we did keep reminding him, “Hey, this is what you need to do at these kind of corners,” and yes, since then it's become more second nature to him. And we try to start with similar setups to Ryan, and when we get the data back, we see if or where he or James or EJ might be faster and focus on those areas. And what Marco wants from his car is actually now quite close to what Ryan or James run, and that helps the team. It means that each change we make for the better is something that all four of them can build on.
R: Given how 2012 went for Marco, did you expect that in your first year, you'd be fourth in the championship with a fairly reasonable chance at the title?
BP: When we first went into it, no, probably not. For the races where he'd run mid pack, sometimes at the back of the mid-pack in 2012, our ambitions were quite modest. We were looking at getting top-10s. At the stronger races, top fives. But as we've gone on, and we showed good consistency, yes, our ambitions rose. We left Indy in the lead of the championship, and from there on, we were always aiming to put ourselves in a position to go for wins. And I think we achieved that. The fact we haven't won yet is not a reflection on the driver or the car. We've just had issues.
R: And then some. I know “if” is one of the least popular words in racing – everything is what it is – but the No. 25 car has had some terrible luck while running in the top three or fighting for wins this year. For example, where might you have finished in Texas without that slow pit stop?
BP: Yeah, that race is one you look back and realize that we were ahead of Helio [Castroneves, eventual winner] at the point where we had our problem. And Ryan finished second so, if we'd have run clean, we could have been second, maybe gone for the win. Then Milwaukee, we ran up front, had a pit stop issue again and then an electrical problem that brought us to a halt. But Pocono was by far the most disappointing, though.
R: Yeah, if you consider the lost win there, possible lost wins – or at least second places - at Milwaukee, Iowa, Texas….you should have a huge lead in the championship, right?
BP: Well, you try not to look at it that way, but…it's hard not to, sometimes. You look at Helio who's completed every lap so far this year and wonder if he's due for some of the bad luck we've had.
R: If we say Mid-Ohio is closest to Barber in terms of grip and track characteristics, and Marco qualified and finished seventh at Barber, is this weekend one where he could qualify in the Firestone Fast Six and claim a podium?
BP: Looking at the data from last year, and looking at his record here, yes, I think this is definitely a place where Marco can gain points on at least one of the guys ahead of him in the championship.
R: But street courses have been more of a bugbear for Marco in recent years, and with Baltimore and two races at Houston coming up, what is a realistic goal for him? I guess I'm asking if he can actually beat Scott Dixon and Helio on those tracks, and maybe take the title battle down to the wire.
BP: I think he's made quite a bit of progress, and street courses are the ones where we need to find the most in order to be a front-runner. But every weekend we get to know and understand each other more and more, we get used to each other. Houston will be key, as a double-header, like Toronto was for Dixon. Hopefully we don't have a bad weekend.
R: There are a lot of observations being made about Firestone this year: 1) The sets are more inconsistent from set to set, and 2) the fronts give up earlier in the cornering phase so the cars have a lot of understeer. Have the 2013 tires meshed particularly well with Marco's driving style?
BP: I don't feel we've found either of those problems as much as others have. But yes, if you push hard on turn-in, you get more understeer and I think that, if nothing else, these characteristics have helped persuade Marco to drive more within the limit of the tire and work harder on keeping it neat on corner entry.
R: In a year in which everyone's searching for really minor tweaks as a degree of separation from their rivals, especially given the lack of development allowed, is the fact that Andretti Autosport is the only four-car team a big advantage in getting more work done in each session?
BP: There was a lot of hard work achieved in the off season, a lot of confidence was built up, and the four drivers follow similar setups. So that was one advantage. But yeah, on those double-header weekends when you only have one practice session before qualifying, it's great to be able to share out the setup work and get more accomplished. We split up the things we want to try and then at the end of the session we pick out the best of each car and apply it to everyone. We can skip steps because we've seen one of our teammates use it and he's discovered it works, so we'll take that, and we'll have tried something that he can then use. Definitely, with the numbers advantage and with the smart guys on this team, we're maximizing what we have.