YES, THAT'S THE OTHER SEB IN SIXTH
Sebastian Saavedra knows he needs to improve his race results, but so far in 2013, the 23-year-old Colombian has been a revelation in qualifying. Today's run for the pole at Milwaukee saw Saavedra take sixth behind four Andretti Autosport cars and Team Penske's Will Power, to give Dragon Racing its best starting position of the year and his fourth top 10 qualifying performance from nine rounds.
He also owns the team's best finish, a 10th at the second round in Detroit. His celebrated teammate, four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, sits 21st in points, three spots up from Saavedra's 24th in the standings, but it's hard to ignore the momentum that continues to swing in the direction of his understudy.
“We've always been strong – since St. Pete,” Saavedra told RACER. “We've had good qualifying sessions at most races, but have been unlucky in many situations during the race. First, it was big issues in the pits at St. Pete. We ran out of fuel in Brazil. I got bumped out at the first race in Detroit (which led to his $30K fine for flipping Marco Andretti a double bird on live TV). Without all of that, I think our record would be a lot better, but I've never questioned what we're capable of.”
Outside of what the Chevy-powered No. 6 team has achieved as a whole this year, Saavedra looks nothing like the wide-eyed rookie at Conquest Racing who tried to get by on raw talent and a miniscule budget in 2011.
“On my side, I really think something has clicked for me lately,” he explains. “We came to the deal so late that we spent the first couple of rounds just getting to know each other, how to work together as a team. But now that we've been doing so much racing lately, I'm really comfortable with everyone – my crew, my engineers, and everyone. The motivation is super high for me and I see we can have big goals and expect to meet them.”
Saavedra's abbreviated debut with Conquest (he ran out of funding with three races to go) and limited 2012 schedule (three rounds with Andretti Autosport) has the TrueCar-sponsored driver feeling like 2013 with Dragon is a bit like a reboot with all the support and resources he lacked in 2011.
“Even though I'm not a rookie, I feel like this is my rookie season,” he says. “This is the first time I've had the freedom to just drive, with a good car and team, and not have to worry about money or the budget. Last year it was just three races, three shots, and that's big pressure with no chance at a championship.
“At Conquest, it was race-by-race deal, and we had no money to compete with the big teams. Here, I have a sponsor that's really happy and supports me, my teammate is a champion, and everyone is really hungry. It's a totally different dynamic to when I started out in IndyCar. This is what I always wanted.”
Coming out of last weekend's race in Texas, Saavedra's name was introduced to some new fans thanks to the comical promo banner featuring him and fellow IndyCar driver Will Power giving their middle-finger salutes that made the rounds on social media.
“Yeah, a lot of people noticed that, didn't they,” Saavedra said with a laugh. “I've had a very positive response. To be honest, I haven't seen a negative response yet. It's nice that people get to see that I'm going to show how I feel; (Dragon owner) Jay Penske says I have no filter. Maybe I don't, but it isn't meant in a bad way. I just don't want to be boring…”
Panther Racing drafted in former Milwaukee winner Ryan Briscoe for his second stint with the team after making his debut at Detroit, and it certainly required some extra travel on the Aussie's part.
Signed to do the full American Le Mans Series season for Level 5 Motorsports, including next weekend's 24 Hours of Le Mans, Briscoe's bounced back and forth from his home in North Carolina to Europe multiple times in the past 12 days – including a test at Le Mans last weekend while Oriol Servia was handling the No. 4 Panther car at Texas.
“It's been busy for sure!” he told RACER after qualifying 19th one the one-mile oval. “I've been to England twice between Detroit and now to spend time on the (Wirth Research) simulator, plus testing at Le Mans and now here in Wisconsin. It's great being here and I'm flying back to Paris tomorrow night!”
Briscoe's recent IndyCar activities, starting with driving for Chip Ganassi at the Indy 500, has kept him in plenty of hotels and passing through numerous airports as he pulls double duty. And as much as his Level 5 team might like the idea of having a current IndyCar driver in the fold, Briscoe says they also want to make sure he stays fresh for the challenges of endurance racing.
“I think there might be some mixed emotions there,” he admits. “They're excited for me in one way – that I have opportunities and such – but I'm not sure how they feel. It's kind of a ‘make sure you have your head in the game when you get back here' thing, and that's not a problem for me.”
Mistaking Level 5's HPD ARX-03b P2 car for Panther's Dallara DW12-Chevy is also not a problem for Briscoe.
“It's so different driving both cars that there's no way you can ever get the two confused,” he says. “Apart from possibly top speed might be close to each other. It's funny though, because I've jumped from car to car a lot in my career and I've never really thought about the differences. You just adjust right away and drive to the maximum.”
Driving the slower prototype has not diminished Briscoe's reactions, as witnessed by the scary slide and catch he made during qualifying on the Milwaukee Mile.
“It was good to know my reflexes were still correct when I was turning right…between Turn 3 and 4…on an oval…” he says wryly. “I really wanted to give the Panther guys a good qualifying result, and the car was awesome on the first lap, but it stepped out on the second and thankfully I caught it.”
Once Briscoe returns to Le Mans, he'll head straight into scrutineering and before long, will be starting his first-ever race at La Sarthe.
“It's really cool,” he says of getting his first taste of the legendary event. “It's cooler than I was expecting it to be. I didn't really know what I was getting into. I've done the Daytona 24 Hours before and thought it might be like that – but it's nothing like that. It's quite narrow, so old school, and so fast. With all the hospitality clustered together there, it feels like a Formula 1 event. I can't wait to go racing there. It's such an honor and such a cool thing to participate in.”