You can tidy up speed, you can't speed up tidiness, as the old racing adage goes. And it's one that keeps our hopes high for Mike Conway. Most of his accidents this year -- and there have been too many, as he will admit -- are linked with his unfamiliarity with the IndyCar Series circuits (and oval racing as a whole) and his over-ambition.
Why is that his mindset? Well, aside from being a typical rookie wishing to prove himself asap, Conway is also a man used to winning: he triumphed at Pau and Macau in Formula 3, and at Monaco in GP2, and those circuits are ones that will always hurt a fast driver who makes mistakes. So there is real speed and real discipline in his racing heritage. And he is aware of how to accumulate points and win titles: Conway took the British Formula 3 Championship in dominant fashion, and as any driver will tell you, that is not done by making errors. Yet in IndyCar, there have been frequent occurrences when he tries to run before he can walk. Dreyer & Reinbold has given him a good car this year, and he has exploited that, but rarely for the extent of a whole race.
However, few would deny he has immense potential, and as the adage goes, you can tidy up speed. When we caught up with Conway in Sonoma, it came just a week after he set fastest time in testing here.
RACER: So has IndyCars been tougher than you expected?
Conway: Well, I was under no illusions that it would be easy, obviously. There are a lot of good guys in this championship. But in terms of finishing races and getting results, there have been mistakes on my part and a few other things that have caused disappointments. There are so many races we should have finished and finished well, and that would have put us further up in the championship - but I guess that's easier said than done. There are so many people who can say, "If I'd finished, we'd have been further forward." So yeah, overall, it's been a disappointing season in terms of results.
R: In Long Beach, when you were at or near the top of the times quite often in practice, some media people were asking, "Who is this kid? How's he so quick?" and I just said, "Check out his resume: he knows how to drive." And I've been able to stand by that comment on most of the road and street courses this year. But Mid-Ohio looked a struggle for you. What was going on there?
Conway: It was a really strange weekend for us. When we rolled off the truck, the car was really nervous in the high-speed corners and we didn't know what was causing it. We took front wing out and did lots of changes to the rear end, but it was still the same problem. We never did get to the bottom of it, to be honest, but by the race, it was a bit better. Slow- and medium-speed stuff, the car wasn't too bad, and we looked OK on the split times, but on the fast stuff, we were losing seconds. High-speed corners are where you usually only find small things. You're never that far off.usually. But at Turn 1, we were losing half a second just in the first corner!
It was surprising, because roadcourse have normally been fine for us, especially if you look at Watkins Glen. And then we came straight here from Mid-Ohio for the test, and we were quickest!
R: What's the mood within the team? They must be happy with your skill level, at least.
Conway: Well, we changed our engineer through the year to Yves Tourand, and he's been really good, a great help, and that's been a turning point for us. Obviously, though, they've been disappointed also with the results, even though we've had great speed. They want to see an end result, and so they're probably as frustrated as I am.
R: Were the cars a little bit of a culture shock, coming from GP2?
Conway: Well yeah, maybe a little bit. I tested for Panther last year, so I sort of knew what I was getting into. This is an old car, designed back in 2003, and if it had been developed each year since then, it would have moved on. It would probably be seconds a lap faster, just from the way you can develop a car aerodynamically.
There's also a different way of engineering it, compared to what I was used to in Europe. Back then, you'd disconnect the front or rear anti-roll bars for street circuits, but here you don't do things like that. I'd say, "I'm sure we should disconnect the front bar," and then you try it and sure enough, you're slower! The Dallara was initially designed just for ovals.That's just the way it works.
R: How do you assess your performances on ovals?
Conway: For sure I need to work on it. Indy was one of our best races in terms of moving through the field, and we had a quick car. But a lot of the other ones we struggled for pace, really. I've been learning through mistakes: trying to pass people on the outside when the circuit wasn't clean enough on the outside lane, so I've gone on the marbles and hit the wall. That's happened a couple of times now, and I at least know now that I don't want to do that again. I've been following other drivers and learned how the car reacts to traffic, and so on. I think oval racing is very much about reading the track ahead, and anticipating what's coming up.
R: At Iowa, you made some bold passing maneuvers that worked -- where there were two cars side by side, and you dived on the inside to make it three-wide. One of the moves I remember thinking was a bit late -- I was sort of holding my breath -- but anyway, you looked really confident. Even if the results haven't been there, has your confidence level on ovals improved?
Conway: Yeah, Iowa was a good one. I think my confidence has definitely gone up with experience. But they are weird: on street courses, you're manhandling the car, forcing it into turns, and then on the ovals you're letting the car do its own thing. You're not a passenger, but.it's still fingertip stuff. I've always been pretty relaxed in the car, and I think that helps things come easier to you on an oval. When I've made mistakes this year, it's not been through trying too hard, or doing anything different. I've just.made a mistake, for whatever reason.
I think the team has done a good job of giving me a comfortable car for the ovals: it's certainly never scared me. The crash at Indy was a bit of a worry, but I got over that pretty quick.
R: I guess it would have helped to have had a proper, experienced teammate like Tomas Scheckter for the whole season, right?
Conway: Ummm....Well, Tomas has been great, and when Darren Manning was on board for St. Pete and Long Beach, that was good for me too. He knew what the car needed to go fast, and he could make little changes - like tweaks to the brakes, and so on - that really helped. Tomas was the same, and his performances on ovals showed me what the car was capable of. He wasn't really any faster, especially on the mile-and-a-half ovals: he helped show that the car was capable of a certain level, he was a good reference point. It's all about the direction you need to go to get a good car, and that's what a good teammate can help with.
R: So you've proven to a lot of people that you're fast. What's the situation for next year?
Conway: Well, we're working on next year to stay in IndyCar.
R:You're not tempted to go and try GP2 again?
Conway: No. I think that would be a backward step. There's more opportunity for me here. It's a good level of competition, it is tough, and I.just really want to be here, you know? There's more sponsorship around, and the sponsors we have already are here in America. TLX are already looking forward to next season, so that's a good sign. They have been away from it for a few years and they're really enthusiastic now they're back in.
R: Would you stay with Dreyer & Reinbold?
Conway: Yeah. We [Mike and manager, former Indy car winner, Mark Blundell] have already started speaking to them about it, and we're also keeping our options open too.
Given his speed, Conway really does deserve a second year in the IndyCar Series. He's been expensive in terms of crash damage, but his racing history shows that this shouldn't be a long term issue for him. And what he should also remember – and what must motivate him into reining in his exuberance when necessary – is that there are drivers who have arrived in the IndyCar with less impressive racing resumés than him but who have gone onto become race-winners. If he gets a second year, he must make the most of it.