So, where do we start?! As you'll have read in another story, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's partnership with Lotus is over, we have signed with Chevrolet and we're partnering with Panther Racing for the rest of the season. Apart from that, nothing much has changed. ;-) It's an amazing turnaround and it's hard for me to communicate how excited I am.
Let's explain one thing first: I really liked the Lotus and the Judd personnel – they worked very hard and they are good, smart professionals. It is truly unfair to judge them on what we've seen so far in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012, because it's not their fault that the budget was so severely lacking. I was pleased that we were able to finish our relationship with our best finish of the year in Brazil.
But now we open a new chapter. I think letting Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport go free will improve our team programs but also improve Lotus' situation by allowing them to focus on their remaining teams. The fact that this change is happening before practice for the biggest race on the planet is good timing. It's a race I love and I do well at, and last year with Newman/Haas Racing I got a small taste of what it would be like to win, because I started on the front row and led quite a few laps. So I go into these two weeks feeling that at least we have a shot. Dreyer & Reinbold traditionally have good cars for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Panther Racing do too. Partnering with Panther will help make up for our D&R's lack of testing with this new car.
Since 2008, I've had several long discussions with Panther about joining them, so this new arrangement feels kind of natural; John Barnes, the owner, Chris Mower, the team manager and JR Hildebrand, the driver – I know all of them pretty well. We started the season in an alliance with Bryan Herta Autosport while we were both with Lotus, and the shared information was a benefit, and so I believe we can build a similarly useful partnership with Panther. They have a tremendous record at Indy, finishing second for the past four years, and they have good funding; we bring a lot to the table with good people and great experience so it should go well.
I think it makes sense for JR, too, because since he joined the series full time in 2011, he has been running solo except for a couple races last year, mainly at Indy where he worked with Buddy Rice.
As a rookie, you don't know exactly what an IndyCar is supposed to feel like. If an experienced guy gets in an IndyCar and says, “This feels as good as it can be, but it's 2mph down so we need to find that speed here, here or here,” then at least that gives the team a clear technical direction. But if you just don't know where you should be looking, it's very, very tough because you end up exploring wrong avenues before you find the right one. Rookies like Nigel Mansell, Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya have achieved success quickly because they were in a top team with a top teammate and had plenty of test miles. The competition is too tough, too intense, to achieve wins quickly if one of those elements is missing.
It also cannot be emphasized enough how much of a time-saver it is to have two cars, because it cuts in half the basic workload; once the basic setup is found, you can spend the rest of the time fine-tuning. With race weekend sessions feeling shorter and shorter, it makes a great deal of difference if one guy is trying a different roll center, and the other guy is trying different springs and then you compare notes and go with the better option.
Look at Will Power who, as we all know, is a guy with tremendous speed and who has been untouchable in qualifying for the last two or three years. I am a big fan of his, but I promise you he would not have achieved the same degree of success if he'd been in a one-car team. Having Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe as teammates, even though he beats them 95 percent of the time, must be a big help, because he probably picks up one or two tenths of a second from them, and that helps him take pole.
So I think I can be a big benefit to JR and Panther, and he and Panther can be a big benefit to myself and Dreyer & Reinbold. JR has the speed and he's smart, so I expect him to give me at least as hard a time as James Hinchcliffe did as my teammate last year. JR will push me, I'll push him, and I expect us both to be at the front and fighting for wins.
If there's one race where you want to be starting an alliance like this, it's Indy, where you have 10 days of practice to develop your potential: you don't have to perform fastest on the first day but you want to be at your quickest on the 10th, before you head into Pole Day.
I think JR has run six times at Indy with this new car, so I hope Panther's base setup for the Speedway is going to be very decent. I do expect us to be up there from the start, but if we're not, there's no panic; there's time to work on improvements. I'd be more concerned about, say, Belle Isle which follows just a week later. The weight of the engine, the weight distribution and therefore the setup will be different than what we had with the Lotus engine, so I know a lot less about what we'll have. But as I said, with information coming from two cars, and the combined technical knowledge and experience of our two teams, we should feel happy.
The outlook is positive for myself and for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. I have to think that we can start producing the performances that I was able to achieve with Newman/Haas last year. I'm very happy with our group, and with Panther Racing working with us, we're only going to get even stronger. And on a basic level, we now have the same tools as the guys who have been winning every weekend!
OK, I realize that we're effectively four races behind so I don't know how realistic it is to aim to finish in the top five in the standings like I did last year – but at this point, I don't care. I want to go out and win a race or two and be a major competitor every weekend. How soon I can win, I don't know – I hope May, of course! – but I'm sure we'll be challengers very, very soon…
Thank you for your support.
Follow Dreyer & Reinbold and Oriol Servia on Twitter at @drrindycar, @oriolservia