It's Indy time again, so mentally, we're all about looking ahead to a pretty intense couple of weeks of action. But for the sake of this column, we have to look back, too. And there's a positive vibe at Andretti Autosport at the moment, with Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. But you know, the No. 26 Venom Energy car could have broken the team's winless streak a week earlier…
Definitely a win went missing at Barber Motorsports Park. As well as the pace of the car in qualifying, the other thing we had going for us was the nature of the track: when I had to save fuel, it was easy, because that track doesn't have a lot of big braking zones. As long as you can exit Turns 2 and 3 fast, you can keep people behind you, so it was easy to control the race. My pass on Helio Castroneves early in the race was just being confident on cold tires and grabbing what we could when we could. Once a Penske gets dialed in, it's a lot harder to pass.
But sadly, we didn't have enough gas for the strategy we were running, and we ended up a few laps short. We really needed a full-course caution and that never came. The major positive we can take from seeing a win turn into a fifth was our pace. I think we should be looking good on permanent road courses like Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Infineon.
Long Beach was a complete contrast for the No. 26 team though. As you saw, we paid the price of going our own way on setup. Often that's a good thing, as I've discussed in a previous column, because each of us Andretti drivers are tailoring our cars more to suit our own styles. But by not trying what Ryan Hunter-Reay was running in the No. 37 car, we kinda shot ourselves in the foot! Yeah, I want the car to suit me but I guess we shouldn't have just ignored how fast Ryan was, especially over the course of a whole weekend. So I spent the next week kicking myself for not at least trying what he was running. Still, it was a good day for the team, not just because of the win, but the because it's given Andretti Autosport a good template to work from in terms of shock and damper setups for the other bumpy courses coming up – like, say, Toronto and Edmonton. And I guess it gave me a life-lesson, too: if one of the team's cars is going way quicker, try his setup!
For Kansas we again went on our own, setup-wise, and that sounds a bit of a risk, but remember all we had was a two-hour practice. And although Ryan probably ended the race with the most comfortable of the five Andretti cars, I surely didn't predict that after two hours on track when he was only 22nd quickest!
I had to start from the back, anyway, though, because I dipped beneath the white line during qualifying, and I was bummed that a little more common sense wasn't used when the officials made their decision. Where I crossed the white line, it wasn't as if I was cutting a corner and shortening the distance and gaining anything by it – it happened on the straight so I actually made my lap longer! The reason it happened was because I was wrestling with the rear bar that kept defaulting to a different setting. After it did it several times, I looked down at the lever in the straight to figure out why it kept doing that, and that's when the car bobbled over the white line.
As it happens, where I started didn't make much difference: In the early laps, I pretty much climbed to the position I would have started anyway, and stayed there the whole race. On cold tires, again I was just getting what I could, but then the car showed its true colors and I was just hanging on. John [Andretti] and I ran the most downforce of the five cars on the team that weekend. If you've missed on the balance, then OK, the downforce can mask that while you're on cold tires, but then eventually you've got your balance wrong and you're also slow. Not a great combination.
So last week we went to test at Texas Motor Speedway, not for Indy, but for the other high-banked ovals we'll go to, working on gaining mechanical grip. And I think in race trim, we're looking good, but there weren't many cars there and it's hard to make progress if you're on the track by yourself. I mean, exiting the pits, I didn't lift at all, and my first timed lap was 212mph. Well my fastest lap of the whole test was 213, so you can see there's only so much we can do from within the cockpit at a track like that. For our oval races, IndyCar mandates the wing angles permitted, so although earlier on I was saying that John and I ran more downforce, than the other Andretti cars, they're still pretty trimmed and there's not a huge difference between them.
Indy is a whole different ballgame: no mandated wing angles. You find as much mechanical grip as you can and lay down the wings for more speed. That can leave you more affected by crosswinds, but that's not too much of a problem if you've got the car handling comfortably. Well, when I've been able to get through Turn 1, that policy's worked for me so far…
Well, we're going to find out soon enough whether the gains we made on Penske and Ganassi on road and street courses have also been made in ovals. There's been a lot of wind tunnel work, and I don't think Kansas proved much for Indy.
I like the new qualifying procedure: I had to make two runs last year anyway. Well, I didn't have to, but I chose to and it moved me up a row. The way it is for 2010 has changed my outlook on things. Before, I'd just attack the racecar, and then when it came to qualifying, just trim it out and qualify. Now, you get points for qualifying and you really want
to qualify twice. And I'd expect to be in the Fast Nine.
Depending on how it feels on the Saturday and Sunday sessions this weekend, that will determine how we divide our track time next week between race and qualifying setup. We have to always remember, though, that this race can be won from anywhere on the grid. My dad qualified down in the 20s back in 1989, but spent the race fighting for the lead with Emerson Fittipaldi – until, of course, his engine let go and Emmo won the race.
That's the other thing about Indy: there's so much luck involved, and our family hasn't had the best of it through the decades. So when I say we'll need luck, I mean it in May more than at any other time…