Last year Alex Tagliani drove the best season of his Indy car career. Consistently qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six once Bryan Herta Autosport had dumped Lotus for Honda, Tag also made fewer mistakes than ever and only mechanical failures robbed him of victory in two – possibly, three – races.
And his demeanor reflected that. Although, as ever, he always seemed to be rushing between sponsor commitments and team debriefs, press conferences and autograph sessions, he was clearly happy. In between the intensity, there was a serenity that I hadn't seen in him since his first year at Walker Racing back in 2005. A contented man in the paddock and a fast driver in the cockpit, the twilight of his open-wheel career seemed to be the happiest phase, and he was relishing the atmosphere at BHA, despite the team not being at the rich end of the paddock, and despite it being a one-car outfit at a time when everyone was trying to get on the fast track to comprehensive knowledge of the Dallara DW12.
At Mid-Ohio, we sat and chatted for almost two hours and in the course of the conversation he admitted that, unless a Roger Penske came a-knocking, he was at a team with whom he'd probably end his open-wheel career in two or three years' time. He felt that Herta, as a former racer himself, was simpatico, that his race engineer Todd Malloy was very smart and underrated, and that the team had great potential. A couple of months later, at the end of the season, although frustrated that the No. 98 car's results had been ridiculously unreflective of its competitiveness, there was no negative talk from Alex. All his thoughts were on the immediate future, the 2013 season, when he felt sure that he could grab three or four wins and make a strong run at the title.
This week the IZOD IndyCar Series is at Mid-Ohio once more and the Tagliani/BHA partnership is no more. On the surface, there's no mystery. It appears Alex has been let go for lack of performance and/or too many accidents; BHA co-owners Herta and Steve Newey are naturally worried that they won't get the Leader Circle money for 2014, as Alex lies 21st in points and only the top 22 entrants get the $1m bounty. What is mysterious though, is why this has happened.
Is the car competitive? Well, Malloy hasn't forgotten how to engineer. However, he and Tagliani, like many of the driver/engineer combos, have been left mystified by Firestone's 2013 tires which degrade far slower than in 2012, increase understeer and (as several drivers have complained about) are not as consistent from set to set as they'd expect. Initially, Andretti Autosport alone seemed virtually impervious to the spec or quality of the tires and reaped the benefits, winning half of the first 10 races. Finally, at Toronto, Chip Ganassi Racing and Dragon Racing appeared also to have found a setup that “switches on” the 2013-spec front tires and thus sharpens turn-in, and it was their turn to make hay.
Is it a coincidence that the most successful squad this year is a four-car team? Probably not. The amount of work that needs to be done on a race weekend, especially given the tight restrictions on testing, will always favor a multi-car outfit over the single-car teams. But that alone can't explain BHA's dive into the mire of mediocrity. After all, Josef Newgarden, a solo sophomore, has been making quiet but very noticeable progress in terms of consistency this year, and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's No. 67 carries less consistent sponsorship than Tagliani's car. Besides, this is Tagliani's 14th season at this level and he's got a deeper level of technical understanding than many of the engineers he's worked with in the past. If ever a one-car team should work well, it's one based around a fast veteran.
So, is the driver competitive? Well, Tagliani hasn't forgotten how to be quick since last year; that can be dismissed immediately. But a change has come over him this year. Outside the cockpit – between the autograph sessions, the corporate schmoozing and (*cough*) the beaver suit – he's been looking distracted and agitated in a manner that reminds me of times past when he's (usually justifiably) felt downtrodden by team owners. I've known Alex for nine years, and apart from the usual post-race discussions, we generally have two or three major downloads per year and in the course of these he's always terrifically open about everything going on in his career and his life. I trust him to tell me the truth, he trusts me to know what is said on or off the record.
But on the reasons for this disastrously fractured season, Tag has remained resolutely mute. His answers to technical questions have been atypically general, too, muttering about damper programs or tire compounds, but without going into the kind of detail descriptions that he normally revels in. I get the impression he's bursting to say, “But the real problem is…” yet he won't or can't (and I couldn't presume to) finish that sentence. The situation is as puzzling as the one official comment he made last week was baffling and nonsensical.
Less puzzling is that this distractedness has resulted in desperation and overdriving in the cockpit. Last year, he drove naturally, made only one serious blunder, and showed the pace and bravery of youth yet also the maturity of a veteran. This year, he's made rookie errors and taken less-than-half-chances.
But for now all we can do is speculate about what might have caused this switch from nirvana to nadir for Tagliani. Finally I got a text last Sunday: “I can only think about the future,” wrote Alex, at which point I decided to let my arranged call to Herta go cold. I've often turned to Bryan for intelligent opinion on various aspects of IndyCar racing – he's a smart dude – but on a matter as potentially controversial as this sorry mess, there's no way I'm going to quote one side of the story when the other has chosen stoic silence.
Tag's follow-up was: “Got any ideas?”