The dispersal of most of the Newman/Haas Racing team not only left the IZOD IndyCar Series community reeling, but also – so soon after the shutdown of Kenny Bernstein Racing in NHRA – came as a sharp reminder that even the legendary teams of motorsports are still feeling the aftershocks of the economic crisis. Our hearts go out to all those who lost jobs.
For CART/ChampCar/IndyCar veteran Oriol Servia, it's a tough blow, too, for he and James Hinchcliffe were the ideal pairing for this team in 2011 and the results proved it. This story from July now makes poignant reading.
Servia and Newman/Haas enjoyed three stints together – 2005 when he subbed for the injured Bruno Junqueira (and finished second in the Champ Car point standings), 2009 when he replaced Robert Doornbos with five races to go, and 2011 where he did the whole season, got a handful of podiums and finished fourth in the championship. RACER editor David Malsher caught up with Oriol to get his thoughts on the recent past, and his own prospects for 2012.
RACER: Did you know this was coming?
Oriol Servia: It wasn't a total surprise, in the sense that, I'd been at the shop for the previous three days and I knew the situation was not easy. Basically, we thought we had a sponsor until about 10 days ago. It was a big sponsor, and it was definitely what we needed. It gave everybody hope, including the team owners, because this last season cost them money. When all of a sudden the sponsorship didn't arrive, it was too big a hill to climb too quickly. We hadn't signed an engine contract yet or a tire contract, and had to hire some people. There was a big up-front expense, so unless you knew the sponsor was there, basically it was either we have cars or we don't.
I honestly thought they were going to invest in the future, I know they wanted to continue, win the 500 and go for the championship. I really thought they'd put it together. But I got the call to say that it was too much. So that was a bit of a shock.
Q: Do you find it particularly ironic considering how well you and James Hinchcliffe did in 2011 with you finishing fourth in the championship and Hinch winning Rookie of the Year?
OS: I do, because we were basically the team starting to get Penske and Ganassi nervous, and it was encouraging what we could accomplish because we know the financial means that they have compared to us. We didn't spend one day in the wind tunnel or on the shaker rig and limited testing. So it definitely gave us hope for next year. I wasn't saying we'd have beaten them next year, but with the new car offering a level playing field, and with the right budget, we'd have given them a run for their money. It is strange and interesting how life goes. But we had a great year and at least Newman/Haas is leaving the championship on a high note.
Q: Would there not have been an option to run just one car like they did for most of 2010?
OS: I don't think they considered it. This is Newman/Haas: they either do it right, or they don't do it at all. I know Hinch was close to a couple of big sponsors from Canada, and it was looking very good, but they kept delaying their answers. And in the end it just got to a point where the team felt they had to make the call. Sad.
Q: Knowing this was a possibility, have you spoken to other teams?
OS: I have been speaking to teams all along and telling them exactly what my situation was. Newman/Haas had an option on me that they had exercised just a few weeks ago, but it was a funny option where we agreed on the terms but there was a way out if the team decided not to do the 2012 championship. So I explained that to other teams, so yes, I've been talking to other teams.
Q: Do you'll think you'll be in extra demand given your experience and technical knowledge, in a season where everyone's working on a new car?
OS: Well, it's never nice to not have a job, but right after the year I had, I hope people will want me, yes. There were some races the team did in 2010 [with Hideki Mutoh] like Iowa and Indy, where they had to park it in the race because they couldn't get the setup right and this year they were two races where we contended for the win. So, yeah, I hope I do make a difference after all these years.
Having a new car should help my value to people. I don't always know how to get the changes the car needs, but for sure I know what the car needs to work at its best. And it's the guys who are quickest at figuring that out who are going to start up front. I'm excited by the new car.
Q: On that note, the Rahal family seem to be big fans of yours. Graham couldn't sing your praises high enough regarding your car-sorting abilities when you replaced Robert Doornbos midseason at Newman/Haas in '09. But earlier that year, Bobby Rahal said – after running you at Indy – that if he could find a budget to run a car for a full season, you'd be his choice of driver. Does that still hold true? Considering he's bought two new cars, is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing one of the teams on your radar?
OS: Yes, for sure. I had a great month of May that year. Even before you join, you know it's going to be a good team, but when I joined I was still highly impressed with everyone, from Bobby and Scott Roembke down. So, yes, that's one of the teams I've been talking to. As you know, it takes more than just desire to make these things happen, so there are a few things to work out, but for sure that is one of the teams I'd be happy to join.
Q: On a more philosophical note, is it annoying that apart from 2005 when you subbed for Bruno Junqueira at Newman/Haas, there has never been a time when you could just be plugged into an already competitive team? It always seems you join teams that need you to drag them to the front or, when you do join a strong team, it all turns to nothing in the off-season.
OS: Yeah, couple of days ago I was thinking, ‘Why the hell does this keep happening to me?' But what I realized is that it happens to many drivers, and after the second or third time they either give up or they just don't get a chance to do it again. So I guess you could say I'm lucky in that I keep fighting and have the resources and will to get in another ride. You can see it both ways, really. I get unlucky that things don't work out due to sponsorship or whatever, but you could say I was lucky to get other opportunities. It's by trying and working hard at it and making it happen.
Fortunately, I'm usually able to get a good job and by helping them produce better results than they had before, the process continues.
The truth is, the economic crisis we've had for the last five years has made life difficult for drivers – and also in NASCAR, Formula 1 and World Rally. You look at World Rally and you have maybe only five guys being paid by manufacturers. It's just tough, so you have to be really lucky in the racing world to be in a position where things like this don't happen. At Newman/Haas, we were so close to such a big sponsor that would have made the whole scenario very different. It just didn't come quick enough.
Q: Was Telemundo not satisfied with their coverage this year?
OS: They were very happy. Telemundo has expressed to me that not only were they happy, but they would like to continue with me. It's a program they wanted to grow through the years, and it was like a marriage that worked very well. So I'd bet they would be on whichever car I went, but it's just not enough to support a whole car for a season.
Q: So the deal was never as big as it looked on the car in 2011?
OS: Your words, not mine! What I know is that Telemundo is committed and trying to get the Hispanic rights to broadcast the races, so they're certainly not thinking of going away. The opposite, in fact.
Q: So what will you remember as your highlights of 2011?
OS: By far, qualifying on the front row at Indy 500. That was amazing because it was Indy, because it was the Centennial and, to be honest, because we didn't really think we had a shot. We were happy to reach the Fast Nine in qualifying, and thought by risking things we might be top six, and instead we got on the front row. So that was awesome.
And leading for 20 laps of the race was amazing, not just because I can say I led the 500, but also because of how realistic our hopes were to win the race, depending on how things went in the final stint. I had too much downforce, but on old tires and if conditions got slippery, I knew that I'd have a real shot at winning. I was thinking, “Man, in 100 more laps, depending how this goes, I have the car to beat.” You can't ask for anything more in racing, I think, than to have a feeling like that at the biggest race in the world. We were unfortunate that the yellows didn't fall the right way for us, but still, the feeling I had during those 20 laps was unbelievable.
New Hampshire had ups and downs, of course, but that whole weekend we were so competitive it was awesome. Also, Milwaukee was great as we came back from bad pit stops to finish on the podium. So the highlights happened to be on three ovals. But we also got on the podium in Baltimore and we were strong in Long Beach.
Q: Any other thoughts?
OS: I have to say that that although this is definitely not what I wanted, I have not one bad thing to say or bad thought to have about Newman/Haas Racing. Every time I drove in that team, the performance of the cars they've given me, the effort that they put in and most especially the treatment I got from the owners from 2005 right up until three nights ago, it was so special. I consider myself very lucky to have had three different stints with them. The people at Newman/Haas were just a class act in the way they operated as a team and in the way they were as human beings.