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?”
While Bryan has a couple of options lined up for the No. 98 car, it's inevitable that it's harder for an out-of-work driver to find a ride for a partial season. But Alex deserves to be the leading candidate for any available seats. His dedication to the job from the engineering room to the autograph tents to the gym and to the hospitality tents is legendary. He understands the big picture as well as anyone and better than most – that being an IndyCar driver is not just about showing up and driving fast. He's enticed so many companies, big and small, into the sport, and he's been the key guy to making them want to stick around, because his enthusiasm is infectious. As I've said before, Tag's only equal in making his job sound like the greatest on earth is NHRA legend John Force.
And the going-fast part? With his equilibrium restored, Alex is the real deal and, like Dario Franchitti, is arguably quicker now than when he was 20. His technical acuity and experience at this level usually helps him to find a setup where the car is doing the work. If not, he knows too, how to adapt his style to suit the car. That's what he did at Long Beach in 2008 (BELOW) when, in a one-off race for Walker Racing in the Champ Car finale, Derrick gave him a car set up for its previous incumbent, Will Power. Tag qualified on the front row…ahead of Mr. Power!
So imagine what an asset he might prove for Team Penske in the weeks ahead. Helio Castroneves is leading the title race, but Ganassi's Scott Dixon has the championship momentum and is a favorite for Mid-Ohio this weekend. Having a competitive third entry – which we know Roger's team can field and crew – could only be a benefit to The Captain's ambition of ending his seven-year championship drought. Being an ex-Champ Car driver, Tagliani also has experience of the Houston track which, being a double-header, offers more than 100 points. Having his skills and knowledge to help rob Dixon of points there would surely help too.
And Penske won't yet count out Andretti Autosport, either. Reigning champ Ryan Hunter-Reay and teammate Marco Andretti have a deficit of less than 70 points to Castroneves, and RHR has proven how well he fights when his back is to the wall. There are six races to go, over 300 points up for grabs, so Ryan could yet take this title fight to the final round. For Penske, having a Tagliani on the grid to get between Castroneves and the AA boys must be an appealing prospect. Heck, Alex even has previous form with RP's team, having driven its NASCAR Nationwide car brilliantly in Montreal back in 2011.
Ganassi we should probably dismiss for now, for it would involve Chip reviving the second half of the “G2” team, which has dispersed since Graham Rahal's departure at the end of last year. Tag would make an interesting addition for 2014, though, considering how hard Target is marketing in Canada…
What of Andretti Autosport itself? Well, Michael – who Alex still cites as the greatest driver he ever raced against – has run five cars before and Tagliani could again be beneficial in the championship hunt. But unless Hinchcliffe departs for Ganassi in 2014, there's unlikely to be a hole opening up in this team.
KV Racing has long been a team in need of a technically-minded driver, something it's lacked since the days of the Power/Servia combo. Simona De Silvestro needs to recapture her early-season form, while Kanaan's pace in qualifying at Toronto appeared to be at the cost of race day consistency. Having a third perspective from Tagliani in these remaining rounds would make a lot of sense.
Dale Coyne Racing has a revolving-door policy on the No. 18 car, and Mike Conway – who's shown very strongly at Sonoma in the past and of course won for the team in Detroit – would be a logical choice. But the Englishman is no magic bullet any more than DCR is Conway's golden ticket; at the Toronto event, this combination of talents was surprisingly off the pace.
Panther, of course, has Briscoe and Servia at its beck and call this year, and if Barnes could be persuaded to run more than one car at an event outside of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you'd assume it would be both these drivers who'd fill the seats. But how about 2014? It's actually getting harder for single-car teams to thrive in IndyCar now as they chase the minutest of details, and Panther has been in desperate need of a two-car lineup for years. Even Barnes finally accepted this last year, hence the partnership with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, but with DRR not necessarily returning full-time, it may be time for JB to spread that National Guard money between two cars.
And then there are other single-car teams like Ed Carpenter Racing (which needs and deserves a strong road/street course driver to supplement Ed's skills on ovals), Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing which would vault forward with two fast pilots, or AJ Foyt Racing whose loss of pace since Brazil is primarily down to getting left behind by the multi-car operations.
Yet the team arguably most in need of a fast but consistent baseline is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Bobby has boosted and rearranged his tech team, but until Graham Rahal is happy and confident and James Jakes' flashes of pace are more frequent, RLLR is surely going to spend a lot of time up blind alleys. Someone like Alex Tagliani could shorten that quest for success. When Eric Bachelart shipped in the Canadian at the last minute at Belle Isle in 2008, to sub for his injured long-term driver, he was amazed. At the end of Saturday qualifying, I asked Bachelart what he thought. The Belgian didn't even hesitate. “We've learned more about this car from one practice session with Alex than we've learned in a whole season with [ex-F1 driver] Enrique Bernoldi,” he smiled.
That kind of quality doesn't go away. Maybe if Tag hadn't spent 2012 as one of the most convincing drivers out there, matching and sometimes outpacing the likes of fellow Honda-engined runners such as Dixon, Franchitti and Simon Pagenaud, I'd accept that, at aged 39, his time's up and he should go quietly, maybe run just the Indy 500 for a few years. But the guy who could/should have won last season's finale in Fontana hasn't lost any of his skills in the intervening nine months. Treated with care and respect, the guy's still got it. And that “it” is something that many teams could benefit from right now and in 2014.