Australia's James Davison is making his IndyCar Series debut this weekend for Dale Coyne, ending up 20th overall on Friday, but before the series would allow him to take part in an official practice session, a bit of help was required from countryman Ryan Briscoe.
"Yeah, my brand-new Arai helmet isn't carbon fiber, and that's what IndyCar demands all the helmets to be, so I had to find one and Ryan was kind enough to lend me his," said Davison.
The sight of Davison sitting in the No. 18 DCR car with Briscoe's helmet caused this writer to do a double-take when walking past their pit stall for the first time, and after caught up with Briscoe later in the afternoon, the injured Panther Racing driver couldn't wait to have a bit of fun at Davison's expense.
"Maybe I need to go talk to him...I'm not so sure about my helmet being out there running around in 20th..." he said with a big laugh.
Team Penske's Will Power continues his search for the dominant form he used to overwhelm the field at most road and street courses from 2010-'12. After setting the fastest lap at Mid-Ohio on Friday, the Aussie told RACER he's getting closer to finding his mojo, but it won't happen overnight.
“I'm just disappointed in myself for not being as on top of things this year like I have been,” he said. “I'm just now starting to work like I used to work.”
That working style, which made Power a near-lock for poles and wins, hasn't been seen very often in 2013. The 32-year-old was once able to out-drive the competition by reaching levels of intensity that were mentally exhausting, but tapping into that zone has been elusive, scoring a pole at the season opener and Texas but zero wins so far this year. He was on pole for the Mid-Ohio race last year, and seems to have marked the event as a place where reverting to his old methods will become the norm.
“For whatever reason, when I started the season, it just wasn't there,” he explained. “If you're not careful, it can just creep away from you. I probably did dial some of that [intensity] down, but you've got to get yourself up and on it, really on it. The top guys are pushing so hard and you have to match that, at least, or go beyond that if you can.
“At the end of the day, the competition is really tough. It's not just if you've got your damping right or the tires figured out. As a driver, if you're just a tiny bit off, you're back in 10th."
Power also points to working on chassis setup to improve his fast-but-not-fast-enough season to date.
“To me, it's still about me getting the car right,” he added. “Whenever the car's right, we're as quick as you like. Like here in that session or at Brazil; when we can get the car right, and the balance is just right, I'm right on the money, every time. We're still searching for why we're not as fast as we have been.”
The conversation turned toward whether Power should look to develop his driving style to better adapt to a car when it's not quite perfect. Target Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon is renowned for his ability to wring speed out of a recalcitrant car, but Power wasn't so sure he needed to emulate the Kiwi. Further developing the No. 12 Verizon Wireless car to his needs, however, is where he'll continue to focus his efforts.
“I don't know about that with Dixon,” he said. “When we went to the first few street races he was way off. When the car's right for him, he's mega. It's about getting it right for you. If you look at Dario and Dixon, they drive totally differently, but they're both fast. So it's not like one setup works for both of them. They have their own style and so do I. I know I need to get back to that place I was before, but having the car where you need it is also important.”
Coming into the Mid-Ohio IndyCar weekend five years ago, a former driver-turned-team owner had a tough decision to make. His star driver, an old friend who was in the twilight of his career, wasn't performing up to the standards the team expected and was parked in favor of a younger driver.
Fast forward to Mid-Ohio 2013 and that driver, Bryan Herta, who was replaced by team owner Michael Andretti in his Acura ALMS LMP2 team just prior to the 2008 Mid-Ohio round, found himself in Andretti's shoes and delivered the same news to Alex Tagliani…an old friend in the twilight of his career, who was replaced for this race with Italy's Luca Filippi (with Herta, ABOVE).
“Man, I never connected that before,” Herta told RACER. “Having gone through that myself, and I guess it's within just a few days of being right on five years when that happened, it's made things harder and easier with Alex.”
Having gone through an abrupt change to his employment status in 2008, not to mention the humiliation of being dropped mid-season, Herta knows the range of emotions Tagliani is going through right now.
“It sucks, and I know it sucks for him,” he admitted. “At the time, I was so angry with Michael [Andretti] and wanted to blame a lot of people and things, but it became easier to deal with in time our relationship is really good.
“I totally expect Alex to be mad at me and to blame me. But I have no second thoughts about the decision we ended up making. My biggest hope is that he can eventually get to the place I got to and move to the next stage of his career, his life, and continue on.”
The IndyCar Series, with cooperation from chassis supplier Dallara, has made an optional steering arm available to teams — one made from aluminum, rather than steel — with the hope they will break more easily in an impact and reduce the numerous wrist and finger injuries seen in recent months.
Six drivers are reportedly using the lighter steering arms at Mid-Ohio, while a few other teams this writer spoke to said they would not use them due to the lack of data on deflection and other strength and durability concerns. As a result, the series has yet to mandate the pieces.
“Instead of saying everybody must have this, we said that those who want to try them, you can use them and get some information on using them,” said IndyCar president of competition Derrick Walker.
Other alternatives are being considered to reduce the shock levels being transmitted through the steering wheel on the Dallara DW12 chassis, and it's possible the aluminum steering arms could be replaced by a yet-to-be-determined solution.
“We're looking at two other things at the moment: shock absorbers on the steering rack; a hydraulic device that will take the impact. The other is a steering effort [item]: power steering. That will reduce the load and slow down the rate of the shock.”
Whether either item will appear on an Indy car is unknown, but it's clear that Walker and his competition team are taking a creative approach — beyond making steering arms from a material with a lower threshold for bending or breaking--to solve a problem that has far too many drivers nursing steering-related injuries.
VAUTIER'S WILD FF RIDE
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Tristan Vautier spent last weekend driving a Honda-powered Formula F1600 car at Mid-Ohio, putting on a show during both of the double-header events.
RACER caught up with the promising IndyCar rookie after practice on Friday and asked which car he's enjoyed driving the most over the past few days.
“That's a tough question,” he said with a grin. “Both cars are a lot of fun to drive, and the Formula F car was a nice change because it requires driving the entire time. It has no downforce or anything like that, so the driver has to do all the work to make it go fast, so that part I really enjoyed the most.
“My IndyCar is also awesome; how could it not be, really, but it's just so different — different in a fun kind of way.”
Vautier's girlfriend Ayla Agren currently races in the same Formula F1600 series, and the Frenchman says she has potential to move up the open-wheel ladder.
“She's very fast and very smooth,” he said, offering the kind of praise one would hope to see extended from two people in a relationship. “She's still working on her race craft a bit, but I think she can go far in the sport.”