Welcome back to the beginning of the end of this chapter of the IZOD IndyCar Series, the final year of the current Dallara-Honda package. The restrictions on testing mean that the Andretti Autosport team has been working hard to fine-tune, trying to get us on the level of the Ganassi and Penske cars.
The last test at Barber Motorsports Park shows we've still got a way to go, and in the end, all four of us – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway, Danica and me – all reverted back to my qualifying setup from last year, which put the No. 26 Venom car fourth on the grid. With testing, you have to make sure that any changes you make are an improvement on what you have when you roll off the truck, and I can tell you that the first of the two days nothing was better, and I was only 14th quickest.
So, then some good changes were made overnight and I got a good lap in on one particular set of tires, which meant I sat quickest for a while, but we didn't make a second step forward and others did. So overall, I'd say it was mediocre. We got a lot of stuff done, but there weren't enough positives. Between us, we attacked it four different ways, but Barber is really finicky and that can be frustrating. At Sebring, if you make a positive change, it reflects immediately in the lap time and even though the tires are older, you'll go quicker. Well, at Barber, the tires change so much that you can be 0.3-0.4sec slower every run, so it's hard to keep a change that the driver feels might be better when the lap time you produce is slower!
It's an unusual situation, because I know it's not a problem with the tires and I don't think it's the track surface that causes it. I just think it's the loads that the cars take there; the ups and downs really load the fronts, you have the compression through turns, and you have to put more lock on, and it all means the front tires really take a beating. It's so bad that you can start out with a loose car and after just a couple laps, you find that it's balanced because the front's washing out. I think certain things that we tried – some of the positive changes that we tried the second day – could carry over to Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, but we'll have to try it and see. Other than those, Barber's demands on a car are pretty unique.
I've got to admit, I left the track really frustrated, because I was 0.6sec off fastest time, and last year I qualified 0.4sec from pole. Those are facts that can't be argued with, so I don't think we made as much progress through the second day as the others did. Whatever, we can't afford to be losing ground at this stage, especially when I had to work so hard for that eighth place.
I think 2012 is going to be a bit more of a level playing field; it's going to come down to who gets their act together quickest, but at the same time, it's also about whether you pick the right package in terms of engine and aero kit. I'm just praying we do.
You'll have read that Danica and I have switched engineers, with Tino Belli going to work on the No. 7 car, and Eddie Jones rejoining me. He worked with me back when I was good! In 2006, '07 and '08. People forget that in '08, we led half the races and led a lot of laps and looked pretty strong. There were a lot of potential victories, so I think Eddie was pulled off my car a bit prematurely – the reason being that I was trying to engineer the car too much instead of just reporting what the car was doing. I'd tell him, “I think we need to soften the front spring,” rather than just tell him that the car's understeering.
Now I think this combination can be better, with Dad on my Venom car and at the pit stand, because he can say, “Yes, go with what Marco suggested,” or, “No, let's go on with the test program and try something else.” I think there's real hope that this combination can be good.
Obviously, there's been a significant change in the Andretti Autosport lineup this year as Mike Conway has replaced Tony Kanaan. Will the team miss TK? I really don't think so. The frustrating thing for me over the years was the perception that he was the godfather of the team. Well, just because I wasn't Tweeting about it doesn't mean I wasn't doing the work. I had a lot to do with the setups on my car.
Don't get me wrong, I respect Tony's raw talent; in terms of getting the best out of a car that's not working properly, he's one of the best in the business. But as far as setting up the car is concerned, Ryan, Danica, Mike and me can work as a team now. The four of us get on really, really well together and we're all real people. If one of us is upset with another, we'll tell him or her right away and get it sorted out. We'll be genuine and we won't go behind closed doors to stir things up. This year I think there's a chance we can have the same sort of chemistry that existed when things were good with this team.
I have to give Ryan props for bringing a lot to our team from the standpoint of street course setups. Him and his engineer Ray did a great job last year – obviously, Long Beach, but also Sao Paulo and Toronto – and that setup has been further evolved. In our team, Ryan's the guy to beat on the 90-degree corners on street courses, and on road courses I've been more at home, so he and his engineer bring us their setups and we bring them ours, and we work out how to beat each other, then the whole team can move forward now.
So it seems like I'm being hard on Tony, but it's nothing I wouldn't have said to him. I don't like holding back anymore because that's been killing me, to be honest. If I let people talk and I don't talk, then the perception he puts out there becomes reality. Well I'm telling you, it's not reality. TK would work with Ryan behind closed doors so they had the same setups, and I don't agree with that way of working. If I'd gone with Ryan's setups, I'd have been just as quick as him, but the way TK operated took away Ryan's confidence in me.
OK, we're drivers – we're all selfish people – but that kind of thing doesn't help Andretti Autosport. It just helps one car – not three – improve to the level of the best car in the group. When you don't have the confidence in your teammate, you're not going to buy anything that he's saying, which makes it difficult for the whole team to gel together. If I find something and I'm absolutely adamant it makes a positive difference, but I can't get the other three to try it, then we can't evolve it in the restricted track time available to us.
With Ryan, Mike and Danica, I can get a second or third opinion, weigh up the pros and cons, do a back-to-back comparison with a different part. Now, when Ryan and I go to a test and I put four tenths on him, he's able to think, “OK, Marco knows what he's talking about,” and he gains confidence in me, just like I have in him. That's good; that's how teams are supposed to mesh.
So, while I left Barber knowing we've got work to do, I'm confident that between the four Andretti cars, there's going to be a completely open exchange of information, and we can work toward a common goal. We want to be clicking, so that we can all show our potential. And I hope to be doing that in the No. 26 Venom car right from the start of practice at St. Petersburg.