We've grabbed a lot of attention the last few races because of the number of cars we've passed on race day. It has been similar situation in the championship: from nowhere after the first four races, we've arrived at 10th in the championship, ahead of cars from Ganassi and KV Racing.
I like that; it's a metaphor for the progress I feel is being made by Dreyer & Reinbold Racing since we got a Chevrolet engine and a partnership with Panther Racing. However, although I like the fact that we have gained 89 places from start of races to the ends – 11 cars pers race on average – don't get me wrong: I'd like to start nearer the front!
Practice for the Indianapolis 500 was our first taste of Chevrolet power, although in oval spec, the engine had less power than the Lotus had in road course trim – that's the rules. Still, right away I was impressed with the throttle response, the engine management and the shifting. Similar deal with the chassis: Indy practice was my first try of the Dallara DW12 on an oval, we were lucky because our new partners, Panther, had already tested there so we were not starting from scratch. We could use their feedback, and from the word go, our car felt pretty good.
However, we had a technical issue on Fast Friday when everyone was allowed the new power level for the first time, so we weren't able to run a single lap that day. Then we had to change the gearbox in the hour of practice before the qualifying runs on the Saturday, so the changes that we made to the car for qualifying were untried, and the car was super-loose. Coming around to take the green flag, I spun on the exit of Turn 4, as you probably saw.
I have to say, that's probably the time I've been most scared in a racecar, because when I spun, I knew I was sliding toward the pit wall. Even though Indianapolis Motor Speedway is very safe and has SAFER barriers, I didn't want to hit the end of the pit wall sideways: It's probably the worse possible impact you can have. I knew I was going toward it, but with the smoke I didn't know my exact trajectory. As it happens, I was lucky because although the spins looked spectacular, they scrubbed off speed there was not huge energy in the impact. In fact, it's the first crash I've had on an oval that didn't cause me to next day have a headache or a sore body. So whatever product is used in the attenuator at the end of the pit wall did its job.
From a practical view, though, that put us behind because on the Sunday, we had to focus on qualifying for the race, which of course we did comfortably, but you still wish you could be out there focusing on race setup like the top 25 could because they were safely in the field. It takes three to four hours to change back from the qualifying boost to the race boost, so that accounted for too much of Sunday for us. So our practice in race trim was pretty much restricted to Carb Day, the following Friday, and we made a lot of changes that really showed good pace and encouraged me that even though we were starting 27th, we could advance strongly on race day. 200 laps, 500 miles…that gives you a lot of time to pick your way through.
What we didn't need was a tire deflating in the first stint of the race, so the unscheduled pit stop meant we lost a lap. With a long race ahead, it's best it happens early on, but the way the yellows were falling, they were always coming right after I pitted, so there was no way of getting the lap back.
I got bored spending two hours just keeping out of the way of the guys on the lead lap, but then finally, our last stop worked with a caution period, and I got my lap back. By this time, we had a good car, because at every stop we worked on it, adjusting the wings and tire pressures and there were 30 laps to go. Man, was I ready: at that point, the green flag was a red rag to this bull!
I think I drove 30 of the best laps I'd ever driven, and cut through to finish fourth, and I only wish we'd had 10 more laps. I really felt we had a great car. It was awesome because it was 1) our first race with Chevrolet, 2) our first race with Panther 3) our first race with Mecum as a sponsor – they'd just signed the week before, so they were very happy! And 4) it was our first chance this year to prove how strong the Dreyer & Reinbold team is. Look at the excellent job my crew did in the pit stop competition on Carb Day! You don't get ready for a pit stop competition in a day, there's no magic. That performance showed they'd been practicing daily since before the season started.
So overall, Indy gave the whole team a boost, because it's one thing knowing you're good and another thing to be able to demonstrate to everyone that you're good.
Then it was straight to Milwaukee for a test there. Penske and KV Racing were very strong, but I'd like to think we'll be in the mix too. I've always loved the challenge of that track and how hard the racing is. Finishing on the podium last year despite a bad pit stop was a really satisfying feeling.
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