Oriol Servia: IndyCar's most overlooked talent?
On the eve of the Indy 500, RACER caught up with Oriol Servia to talk about his chances in the world’s biggest race – and to discuss why he’s only got a one-race deal...for now.
It’s wrong to say Oriol Servia is an underrated driver. Far from it. Ex-teammates, team owners, knowledgeable fans and journalists all appreciate he’s a very talented racer. He’s also a pleasure to deal with outside the cockpit, be it in the garage, with the fans or with the media.
So although he doesn’t behave like a superstar outside the cockpit, there have been enough days when he’s driven like a superstar that it’s obvious there is a talent worth exploiting. Given some consistency in his career – two complete seasons with the same team might be nice! – he could take a serious tilt at the IndyCar Series title. There are very few drivers who can show their best each race if they’re worried their job’s on the line: flair and talent will simply get stifled by caution. Success breeds confidence which breeds success which breeds security which breeds more success.
Servia, each year it seems, is standing on shaky ground. In a typical season, around September he’ll be saying that he wants to stay at his current team, let’s call it Team A. By December he’ll have been told by Team A that he’s still in the running for the ride but it needs more money, so maybe he should look elsewhere. So he speaks to Team B and Team C: they’re interested too, but again only if he brings money, and in March he shows up with Team D, where he spends the season punching above his weight and then the whole process starts again.
Or he doesn’t find a car at all…
Until this year’s Indy 500, Servia had never brought money and so had slipped into a new role – the driver who team owners go for towards the end of the season when their previous choice has crashed too often or his money proved fictional. Servia steps in, re-proves himself for the umpteenth time, and everyone wonders (again) why he didn’t have that ride in the first place.
Even though Oriol was the highest-finishing driver in a “transition team” (in other words, an ex-Champ Car team) in the 2008 IndyCar Series, he found himself dumped by KV Racing, as it shrank to a one-car outfit and took on Mario Moraes.
However, this month, Servia broke the habit of a lifetime and did his own deal with DAFCA (a cyber security company). Rahal Letterman Racing, making a one-off return to the ICS having lost its Ethanol sponsorship over the winter, thus did a late deal with the Catalan, that allowed the combo to comfortably qualify the No. 17 car on the second weekend of Indy qualifying. Of all the one-off entries to the 93rd Indy 500, the Servia/RLR combo is many people’s choice to show the best, and perhaps even win, given the “anything can happen” reputation of the world’s biggest race.
RACER.com caught up with him on Saturday evening, and set the recorder rolling…
RACER: How quickly did this deal come about?
Oriol Servia: It came really quick and really slow! The Rahal Letterman team and myself had been talking since 2002, 2003 and there had always been intention from either Bobby Rahal’s side or my side. Every year there would be talks. Then at the end of last season, there were talks when they thought they’d have sponsorship, and I was also looking at them, but also talking with KV. And then to cut a long story short, St. Pete came and they didn’t have a car, so neither did I. Both the team and me deserved to be there and I think we’d have been contenders but it didn’t happen. So it was natural that we’d both try hard for Indy. I was talking to other teams and they were also talking to Buddy Rice, but at the end, it just happened that it was us. It happened quick and easy in the end, but it was the result of many years.
And since I’ve been there, it has been really easy! I told Bobby after my first day of driving, “This is such a waste of a good car and good people. They have everything sitting there already. Scott Roembke runs a fantastic operation, and I knew him for many years. Always funny, always ironic, and I always assumed he was also a good guy to run a team, but now I have proof: he is a freaking winner! He is so determined. You see it in the way he approaches everything. From organizing the team, how he talks to me, how he talks to the mechanics, how he talks to Bobby. He has one thing clear in his head, and that is probably what makes him call good races too. He’s the man.
The engineer we got in, Chris Finch, came from Dreyer and Reinbold and was Townsend’s engineer last year, and we clicked very good right away. I sat in the car last Thursday, and I was flat on the gas on only my third lap doing 218.5mph, which was pretty good. It was spot on from the beginning.
R: So how frustrating is it that so many years you come late to the party, but as soon as you’re brought in, you perform?
OS: Oh, sheesh, I don’t know. It’s more than just racing, I think it’s life! No, really, I’m telling you: thinking of it that way is the only way I keep my sanity. I don’t think there’s an explanation. After I won the Indy Lights championship, my rookie year in CART was teammate with Cristiano da Matta. He got their first win, and then PPI goes to NASCAR, Cristiano goes to Newman/Haas, and I don’t have a ride. I get with Sigma, but it’s a new team, low budget. So 2002, I sign for PacWest, my big break, and I’m Scott Dixon’s teammate.
The truth is, I was faster than him – maybe only by 0.1, 0.2sec – but still faster than him in every session, official and unofficial, and was ahead in the points after the third race when Bruce McCaw decides to shut down the team. Scott was young, had a contract with Toyota, so he goes to Chip Ganassi and Servia has no ride! Eight years later, he has so many wins, poles, two championships. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great driver, and last year in particular he was amazing, but here he is with eight years as a Ganassi driver… Then Patrick Racing, Dale Coyne and then the break with Newman/Haas in 2005, when Bruno Junqueira broke his back at Indy.
I finished second in the championship that year, the best I would have been allowed to, and I won a race. I have only good things to say about them and how hard they tried to find a budget for a third car once Bruno was able to return for 2006, but it didn’t happen. So I went to PKV as it was called then, we had a fairly good year, but then Kevin [Kalkhoven, co-owner of PKV] ran into some financial issues and had to have two paying drivers for 2007. I went to Forsythe, and took over from Paul Tracy after he had a back problem, but when he came back and we were teammates, I still beat him. But he’s the great P.T., so for the last two races, because they need a Mexican, I get kicked out and I end up back at PKV as it’s known then. I kick Neel Jani’s ass but now he’s won the A1GP and here I am with just one race confirmed for 2009.
Anyway, back to 2008, I’m teammates with Will Power, it’s going to be the year we go for the championship, but then the merger happens. Still, I’m really happy, KV Racing [as it’s now known, post-Dan Pettit] does a great job, we start getting up to speed, even on ovals, and throughout the season, I’m the first of the transition drivers, ahead of Newman/Haas/Lanigan, and it’s a super-high achievement. It’s like we won a championship within a championship! I know how good that N/H/L team is, and yet we beat them. I’m thinking we can continue our momentum in 2009, and then suddenly there’s a super-crisis, where no teams have money. Not just KV: no teams. No one can hire a driver. My teammate last year was Will Power who I know is a great driver, but I finished ahead of him in points. He outqualified me on ovals, but I outqualified him on non-ovals. He is “Super Power”, the fastest man in the paddock – I have heard that so many times – but I outqualify him, yet now he is at Penske and I have no ride!
I just don’t know. I have to make the most of whatever comes to me and maybe one day I will have the ride I deserve, and the pay I deserve. But I don’t want this to read like a long whinge: make sure you write that I said all this with a smile on my face, and with the emotion that, “I just don’t understand”, rather than “Everything terrible happens to Oriol Servia.”
The truth is, there must be something more that I’m getting from racing, because I’m a happy man, you still see me at all the races even if I don’t have a ride. And I’m as happy as a rookie to get this Rahal Letterman ride without seeing a dollar. I don’t want this to sound like a pity story or a self-pity story. Other drivers who really have made it with lots of wins and long contracts aren’t as happy as me! I just know I love what I do and I get a great joy when I’m able to perform, which is exactly what I’ve been able to do the last few years.
I was thinking yesterday: Helio’s been with Penske 10 years, Scott’s been with Ganassi eight years – that’s what makes a champion and lots of race wins. I would like some continuity. I work well with teammates, I work well with teams, and I do my job on the track. But because every industry is hurting just now, not just racing, I have to take the same attitude as them – this is a survival year, and I have to show that I can do a good job when I get the opportunities, like this weekend.
Who knows? Maybe I can be like Brawn GP in Formula 1 – a last-minute deal and then suddenly beat everyone! I know there are five or six favorites, but who knows how the race will go? Scot Roembke can call a great race, Rahal Letterman has given me a good car, and I can do a good job so maybe it will all come together!
R: You brought the DAFCA deal with you. That’s a change in policy, isn’t it?
OS: Yeah, I guess that’s one way in which I’ve been lucky: in 10 years I’ve been lucky enough to get paid and not need to bring a sponsor. But DAFCA saw a good opportunity and recognized it. It’s a sponsor’s market right now, honestly: what they get in exposure for the money they pay is great, especially in this case. The car was on the David Letterman Show on Friday, the car is in the Indy 500 which is the biggest race on the planet. It’s a bargain, a great opportunity. With Paul Tracy, GEICO’s probably got 10 times what they paid in exposure, as well.
R: So let’s talk about the Dallara. How demanding is it around Indy?
OS: Well, I admit when we first came over from Champ Car, there was no question that we didn’t feel it was fast: the Champ Cars were a newer design and had more power and more downforce. But on ovals these Dallaras are very demanding, especially in traffic. It is so, so easy to screw up. But I hope that in the new cars whenever they’re coming, they will accelerate harder, and maybe even have to brake a little. If we were able to do that, it would be better for the fans and more of a challenge to the drivers. But I tell you, it is fun to drive the car around Indy, it really is.
R: And how has the car been, switching from qualifying setup to race setup?
OS: I’ll be honest, we did 90 percent of our running on race setup, because we knew the speed was in the car to make the race, and we were already in the second week so the highest I’d be able to get was 23rd. Well we straight away could see that we had the car to qualify between 23rd and 26th if we didn’t screw up, and we only had three days available. So we decided to just go for race setup and I’m happy with that.
The truth is, we had our worst day yesterday [Carb Day] – I think a lot of cars were diabolical, for some reason. I think we know why. We did no big changes but many small ones and one made the car behave very different, so we went back on that one thing and the car became solid again. We don’t have the speed like the top six. But there are 10 other cars after that are very similar, and it will come down to who can do the right fine-tuning for the conditions.
R: You’re at a tricky part of the grid, in that you have to decide whether to follow the leaders’ strategies, or go off strategy at the first available opportunity…
OS: Well, Scott Roembke isn’t afraid to take risks, and remember, we aren’t going for any points. This will probably be our only race together this year. He’s not going to go completely off-strategy, especially at the beginning of the race. Not like Bruno last year, driving for Dale, when they skipped the pitstop at the first yellow just so they could be leading a couple of laps. It’s only if you get really lucky that that can pay off. But in a 50/50 situation, he may take the off-strategy option.
R:And will DAFCA be interested in continuing even as far as Milwaukee?
OS: I don’t think so. We haven’t even talked about Milwaukee. I mean, if this race is a success for us, then there could be something more for the future, but Milwaukee is only next week. I mean, remember, this Indy deal was only one of the reduced-program packages.
R: If RLR wanted to run you in a BMW M3 for ALMS, would you be interested? Or do people who make that switch get labeled sports car drivers and never come back to open wheel?
OS: Yes, that is a problem. I don’t know if I’d do it. This may be stupid of me because I am unemployed, but I have not made one phone call to any series outside of IndyCar, because I believe last year proved to myself that I’m still on the top of my game that I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be here until I decide not to. Teams don’t choose me because they can’t afford to have a driver who doesn’t pay. If teams have sponsors and they don’t choose me, then it will mean I am not doing my job right and I move on. But I am not at this stage. When Tony Kanaan decided not to go to Ganassi last year and stayed at Andretti Green, Chip told me that I was on his shortlist. And I was on the shortlist at Penske when Helio couldn’t drive. They went for Will… Obviously I think I’m better but I think he is a great driver and a really, really good guy, so he deserved it. Then Ganassi put Franchitti in, which also makes sense because he is a great driver.
Sorry, to answer your question, if Rahal wanted to put me in the M3s, and the alternative was staying at home in my apartment in Miami, then sure I’d do it. Those BMWs looked nice when I saw them at Long Beach. But sports cars is not what I want to focus my career on yet.
R: OK, so you’re 34 now. By the time you’re 40, what will make you happy with your open-wheel career? Do you need 30 wins, or are you content with knowing you could beat a Will Power or a Paul Tracy as a teammate?
OS: I don’t need to end with 30 wins. Maybe that’s why I haven’t got 30 wins. But I really would like to win the Indy 500, and make a little bit of money. This is a short career. And even though everyone is hurting right now, this is a series where you can make a bit of money if you’re successful. But really I just want to work with a good team and work with them for a while for 2 or 3 years, and go for a championship and win the Indy 500. But if I could win the Indy 500 with Rahal Letterman Racing and DAFCA…Well, you know, that just might help to get me a full-time deal!