From there we headed to Detroit and…ugh, that crash in practice could not have been more my fault! A rookie mistake. On Friday the car had felt great, and I was again impressed with Chevrolet, now in road course trim – strong in power and drivability. And we were top six until others put new tires on near the end of the session. I had a good feeling. But then Saturday morning, first lap of practice, I pushed too hard on cold tires and did it at the fastest corner on the track and hit the wall pretty hard.
So not only did I make my guys work extra hard to get the car setup for qualifying but we missed that whole session which meant we were a session behind everybody else. At a street race, where we only had one session because the first was rained out, then the lap times from Friday to Saturday were three seconds faster because you're getting the setups right, the track is rubbering up, and so on. So we went into qualifying with major unknowns, guessing how much the track had changed and with me trying to make it happen in four laps. Not surprisingly, we missed the setup – the car was a little too loose, and I didn't do the best job, either, so we ended up starting 16th – all because of my mistake on Saturday morning.
It was a tough spot, but again in the race, the car was the best it had been all weekend, a very good setup. At the end of the first half, I saw people struggling to keep their tires together and we were definitely stronger than them, and that's a good sign that your setup is kinder to the tires. When the race was stopped because of the track falling apart, we were 10th. At that moment, we didn't know if they were going to restart the race or not, but once they said there were only 15 laps to go, I knew it was going to be wild. I was excited but at the same time, it's exactly those situations when you can lose everything.
But Graham Rahal had his clutch issue, Helio spun and I passed Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan. At the end I was fifth, so a 12-place gain in a shortened race…that's pretty good. Again though, I should thank the team because they showed that even when I screw up and crash, they worked hard, gave me a good car, a good pit stop and we got our reward.
At Texas Motor Speedway, we had a filter problem, where not enough was reaching the fuel injector, but we had a strong race – when I stopped, I was ahead of Justin Wilson who went on to win the race – and so I should have again been in the top five at the end. And yes, like any racecar driver should, I approved of the racing.
I have said to Firestone for some years that to create good racing, you needed tires that were much stronger at the start of a stint than at the end, so you got pace drop off and those who weren't smart and drove according to this process would suffer compared to those who tried to be the strongest throughout a whole stint. Well, you look at the road courses, the street courses and now the ovals too, and we've had good racing. The downforce levels at Texas meant we were harder on tires because we were sliding and we saw a great race.
Next year, I hope the engine manufacturers will be happy to give us at least the current road course boost levels on ovals, because at the moment it's not the power but the lack of aero that is causing us to slide at places like Texas Motor Speedway. I think to really get everything right, I'd have a little bit more downforce and a lot more power. But definitely the balance is good at the moment.
Milwaukee was our biggest surprise of all, because after practice and qualifying, we were struggling big time with the car. The test 10 days earlier hadn't been bad but it wasn't great so for race weekend we put a completely different setup on the car, and we were just nowhere. I never felt comfortable and it showed in practice and qualifying. So we stayed until 9 p.m. at the track, talking things through with the engineers, and decided to change it completely again – a bit of a gamble considering these days we don't have a raceday warm-up session for oval races.
The cars are so sensitive on ride height and even to just half a turn of front wing, so throwing a totally different setup at it could be a big risk. And when I say “totally,” I mean it! Rollcenters, springs, cambers, toes – even wheelbase – were different, and it was a high-stress job for my guys to take this sink-or-swim attitude during a race weekend. But considering what we'd had on the Friday, and the fact that I couldn't get my Panther DRR teammate JR Hildebrand's setup to work with my driving style, I thought it was worth the risk.
Sure enough, at the beginning of the race it felt OK (so a lot better than previously!) but after a couple of pit stops, when we'd grabbed the opportunity to fine-tune it, it became alive, and we were very strong, and we worked our way through to third place. At the very end, we lost a little bit of steam and the three guys who finished ahead were faster, and so was EJ Viso who finished just behind us. But from starting 20th and taking that big gamble, we made it pay off. I was very happy. Again, it showed the strength in depth of this team, with lots of smart people involved.
Of course, we want to win, but as I always say, to think about podiums, you need to be in the top five regularly; to think about winning, you have to be on the podium regularly and I think we are taking that first step. If we can start races in the top five…well who knows what we could achieve?
Miss by a little like myself and even Dario Franchitti did in Detroit, for example, and you're nowhere in qualifying. You need a perfect weekend just to start and finish in the top six! The fans are really benefiting by this, because the races are very energetic, a lot of movement and order changes. I hope you'll see something similar at Iowa this weekend, and then into the Canadian races in July.
Thank you for your support!
Follow Panther/DRR and Oriol Servia on Twitter at @PantherDRR, @oriolservia