Ryan Briscoe didn't endure a tumultuous 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season, but it was far from a dream year as he went winless for the first time since joining Team Penske and finished sixth in the final standings.
While some rumors suggested Penske could downsize, those were put to bed with confirmation that the same three-car armada of Briscoe, Will Power and Helio Castroneves would run again in 2012. Armed with the new car and renewed confidence, Briscoe is determined for his sixth year with Team Penske – and fifth full IndyCar season – to match his near-title year of 2009.
Q: How much of a relief was being confirmed at Penske for 2012? Was there ever a point when you weren't in the team's plans?
Ryan Briscoe: As the season went on, and we were looking toward next year, I didn't have any indication from the team that we weren't moving forward with programs for myself or for Helio. I think there was a lot more doubt from the outside. When the team said they weren't sure whether they'd run two or three cars, some media blew it out of proportion. Personally, the team always told me it had 100- percent intent to move forward with both of us, so long as we had the sponsorships. I know I have to do the best I can for both me personally and the team, and that's it.
Q: Well, you had sponsorships, but often it changed week to week what they were. Was there ever difficulty to you on the inside moving from brand to brand, knowing you had to not only represent Team Penske but whatever your primary sponsor was that week?
RB: I think the companies Roger Penske chooses to partner with always have high qualities. I never have to change my image for one or the other. With Penske, it's always about being professional, well presented and acting in the manner he expects – whether we have 10 sponsors or none on the car. The expectations don't change depending on the sponsor. You always have to perform at 100 percent and do what's expected. It's not an act I have to put on to represent them well. That's a part of what Penske looks for in a driver.
Q: Speak a bit about your relationship with Roger, as you two have formed a very good relationship.
RB: That's the biggest part of my career. Having been under the wings of Roger all that time, since the beginning of 2007, he's called all my races bar just a handful when he was unavailable. I learned so much from him overall and on the pit box, and also from Helio and Will as teammates and [team advisor] Rick Mears. I hope we can keep that going.
Q: Will's largely been the leading driver in Team Penske since he earned his full-time ride from 2010. How did his presence affect you and how did it force you to change your game?
RB: It didn't change the mindset. Having an extra car on the team adds more info and data to the team, and bringing Will and (Power's engineer) Dave Faustino opened up the possibilities of setups a bit. I think it was good for us all, and we learned a lot more on street and road courses.
After 2009, I'd had a really good season, so going into 2010 I didn't want to change too much. But 2010 was a bit of an eye-opener. Will was really good on the street and road courses. I wanted to look at how I could improve my performance to match him, and switching to left-foot braking was it. I changed it going into this year, and spent a lot of time at the shop seeing how I would adapt and how I could improve my performance in doing so. It was a breakthrough. My performance was very close to him and it was a good improvement over 2010.
Q: What would you say about the year just passed, having to go through a winless season?
RB: Honestly, I look at this past season as it was still a strong year. I was very competitive, and made the (Firestone) Fast 6 qualifying at most street and road courses (eight of 10 races). I had the speed to win on most occasions, but more often just had so much bad luck that hurt my championship chances, and Helio had the same. We just pushed each other to be up there fighting for wins.
Q: You haven't tested it yet, but what are your thoughts about the DW12 for next year? You last ran a turbo in Champ Car for a couple races in 2006…
RB: 2012 is gonna be a whole new ballgame. There's going to be much more innovation and things to work on, with development happening at a steep rate. It will be a learning experience for everyone, and should take a different style to adapt in setup and engineering. I can't wait to get my hands on it, and I should be testing at Fontana in a couple weeks.
Yeah, I think the feeling of the engine will be like the old Champ Car (LEFT). It might not be the same on horsepower, but I think the car will be a little unique. It's hard to comment too much before driving. The biggest thing going forward is the rate of development and it's gonna be awesome.
Q: You're in a unique position to talk about safety after your spectacular accident at Chicagoland Speedway in 2005. What were your immediate reactions to everything that happened at Las Vegas and, in terms of both the car and fencing, what do you think can be done to improve the safety of the sport?
RB: Unfortunately, sometimes it does take a tragedy as a bit of a wake-up call. Sometimes, we forget the situations we get ourselves into, and how dangerous it is. Even before Las Vegas came around, there were lots of concerns about keeping the cars on the ground and what measures would be taken to prevent them from going airborne. Beyond SAFER barriers and how to race on high-speed ovals but keep it safe, it's hard – I don't think there's any quick fix. The whole motor racing community, since Las Vegas, has said, “Look, we need to change and make sure it never happens again.”
As it moves forward we'll see changes, although I'm not sure what yet. The new car will be safer. That will fix a lot of problems. The biggest thing I don't like on these ovals is the catch fences the way they are, with pylons that won't budge. At the speeds we race, we could always get up, and we have to minimize the possibilities; and if they do it doesn't become a tragedy.
Q: Maybe it isn't an immediate fix, but what are your thoughts on enclosing the cockpit with canopies?
RB: For sure, I threw the idea out right after Vegas and it's something I've thought about for a long time. I'd take the modern day Le Mans Prototype cars as an example. I think the Peugeots and Audis are both state-of-the-art vehicles and awesome-looking cars. If you look at major open-wheel injuries in the past decade, they have come because of an open cockpit. It will take a lot of time, design and testing to make it work because there isn't much room right now. You have to incorporate the cockpit area, driver extraction and the engine cowling; it's a lot more involved than just putting a roof over. But maybe it's just natural that's where we'll end up going.
Q: Finally, how's your mindset going into 2012 in dealing with how 2011 ended, and your opportunity to restart a championship challenge?
RB: I'm already in that ready-to-go mindset. My head's in the right place. I'm as determined and motivated as I've ever been; it's the strongest yet in my career. Getting locked down at Penske was the first step of it, and the confidence and drive it gives me to push harder. I feel like every time I hit the track, or go to the shop, I'm learning something. I need a good year, and we need to get the championship. I just can't wait for it all to get started.