In case you didn't know, Le Mans is awesome. I love the atmosphere, the track is one of the coolest circuits I've ever driven on and, as I told my my father and grandfather, the sports prototypes are amazing. I told them both they should try out one of these modern prototypes because they're so much fun with paddle shift, strong grip, high downforce and so on. As a driver, I was just striving to have as much fun as possible at this year's 24 Hours, and I did.
As a competitor, it kills you inside to know that your car isn't going to be running with the big dogs in LMP1, but this is a young team and for all of us it was just a matter of clocking up hundreds of miles and gaining a lot of experience. After we lost an hour in the pits, I regarded it as just a huge test session that just happened to be taking place during one of the most important races in the world and we continued to give it 101 percent. At least I feel that I really know the track if a team wants to invite me back again next year.
I felt I compared well to my more experienced teammates at Rebellion Racing, and that was another of my targets. It was me who had set the fastest time in the car at Paul Ricard in the pre-race test, so I had no real doubts, but you're aware that you want to give your teammates the best support you can. It's harder to compare lap times at Le Mans because it comes down to how much traffic you get – and where you catch it – on your flying lap. And you can be sure there's always going to be quite a bit when you're talking about an 8.5-mile track! Anyway, from what I can tell, I was right with them on pace.
Did it all go smoothly? No, but none of us were expecting that. You always want to try and better yourself and the environment that you're working in, and I'm the kind of guy who jumps all over anything I don't think is right. But then at the same time, I try and catch myself and remember that I've been invited here – it's Neel Jani and Nicolas Prost's full-time gig – so the important thing is to be the back-up guy for them and do my job.
Compared to the Acura LMP2 that I raced a little in 2008 for Dad's team, the Rebellion Lola was faster in a straight line but, handling wise, I think the Acura was better. Actually, looking at how quick David Brabham and Marino Franchitti's Highcroft HPD was in LMP2 at Le Mans, it might not be a bad idea for Dad to bring his car out of hibernation and go for class honors at Le Mans next year!
My stint was a long one – I think I did three-and-a-half hours, and you feel that afterward, but definitely not while you're on track. To be honest, once the adrenaline's pumping and you're into a rhythm, you don't want the team to call you in! Passing backmarkers becomes second nature for all prototype drivers, but because we were down on straightaway speed compared to the competition, we were pushing like it was qualifying to try and gain on them, and being decisive when dealing with traffic was the best way to do that. So that was fun. I certainly never felt like we were just stroking: it always felt like a race.
Before the car quit altogether, on my first two stints I was yelling on the radio to the team to please check the center of pressure – the aero balance – because the car felt so loose. I was convinced there was something wrong. But they said, “No, you're doing fine, mate!” so as a driver, you start wondering whether you're asking something from the car that just isn't there. But when I came in after two stints – we were already an hour down because we'd had a gearbox issue – they decided to give it a good check over, and discovered I had a broken rear wing! That would explain the “interesting” handling! When they told me that, I was just pleased I'd kept it off the wall. Ultimately, it was the transmission failure that pushed us out of the race, but for a relatively new team, a 24-hour race is always going to be massively demanding. Rebellion has a great bunch of guys on its staff, I was very happy to be racing for them and for sure they'll have made progress by next year's Le Mans 24 Hours.
To be taking part at Le Mans just a couple weeks after the Indy 500 has made the last month pretty special for me. I'm sure I'll look back on 2010 as a significant year. Considering the highs and lows that my teammates went through over the course of the two weeks at the Brickyard, I was definitely OK with a third-place finish. I'm a racecar driver, so I'm not going to be real happy without a win, but I think we got the maximum we could on the day with Andretti Autosport's No. 26 Venom Energy car. But at the same time, I honestly never doubted that we could. We know that qualifying is always a different deal than the race, so I never let my head drop when we qualified mid-grid. In qualifying, we know that the Firestones really hang on even with a real aggressive, trimmed-out setup, so the variables that come into play on race day just make it a total do-over. You've got long stints, you've got full fuel loads, you've got restarts on cold tires, and so on. So that was part of the reason I was confident on the Sunday morning. Another reason was because I'd had a relatively trouble-free practice and qualifying, so I'd been doing most of the team's race day setup work and had gotten a good feel for how it would be when it mattered most. My teammates were bummed about the speeds and how far off we were, and I was telling them, “Guys: we can win this race.”And the third reason I knew we'd be fine was through experience. I remembered how the car felt in 2008 – which is when I did my best work at Indy as a driver, in my opinion – and I felt that this year the Venom car was as good if not better than that. And I stayed on that upswing throughout the race. If it was going to go the distance under green, I thought Dario was human in traffic and we were coming through, for sure. Now, though, that's in the past, and all I can say is that I had fun that day because I had a great car beneath me, and I'm happy that my teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway weren't more badly hurt in that shunt at the end. That accident could have been far worse.
The race at Texas was good for Andretti Autosport – we got all four cars in the top seven, and I was happy to get another third, which moves me into ninth place in the championship. I guess I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here, but it's the same story at every track: when everyone's absolutely flat-out in qualifying, teams like Penske and Ganassi have something over us, no question. But when it comes to handling and balance on race day, in the dirty air, we hit it right a lot of the time. And the Texas race was one of those times. Actually, that was a strange first stint (possibly because of the intense heat?), we were all having to lift off the gas a lot, which is unusual there. We were driving Texas Motor Speedway almost like we would a short oval, but the balance on the Venom Energy car was good enough that we were able to deal with that, and come through the pack again.
At Texas, I did my usual deal where I set it up to be able to run the high line, so when other people were lifting, it makes me look good! Obviously there's an increased risk that you're going to hit marbles up there and then the wall, too, but you quickly learn how high is too high. We had to battle through I don't know how many times, so it was vital that we were able to run the outside groove. That's the luxury of TMS: you're never out of it, so even when our wheel came off in pit lane, we were able to battle back through and get another strong result.
Next up is Iowa and I'm definitely optimistic, because traditionally Andretti Autosport cars have run well here. It's a unique track: we can't bring another track's setups here, so I think as a team we've just always hit it spot on from the moment we rolled out of the box. I credit a bit of that to Dario Franchitti from when he was here in 2007. I won't lie – I went straight to his setup that year, and we ended up 1-2 on the grid, so he must have been doing something right! I've been on two steps of the podium at Iowa but not the one that counts, so let's hope this weekend we can break the Penske/Ganassi grip on the ovals.
Then we head back to the road and street courses, starting with Watkins Glen. Again, it's important that we're quick right out of the box with it being just a two-day weekend, but again I'm upbeat about that. Last year we got a fifth place there, despite being run into and given a puncture, so hopefully a podium is a real possibility in 2010. I'll get back to you after that race.
Finally, I just want to add that I've really come to appreciate both the U.S. and European fans' support over the last few weeks. Thanks a lot.