Four years ago, after he wound up driving for four different teams in one Champ Car season, I suggested to Mario Dominguez that he'd become the series prostitute. “I don't think so,” he replied, grinning. “I don't even do it for the money! There's a different word for me.”
As I recall, there were quite a few, but many were positive. “People don't appreciate how hard it is to do what Mario's doing,” said Tyler Tadevic of Pacific Coast Motorsports, where Dominguez ended that season. “He has all this experience from racing for Herdez and Forsythe, and he applies it each place he goes. From Forsythe to a rookie team like us is a big step down.”
Similar thoughts recurred this year when Sebastien Bourdais, Champ Car champion 2004-'07 with Newman/Haas Racing, signed with Dale Coyne Racing for all the road and street course races for this year.
“Dale was on my butt for over a year trying to get me to join,” recalls Bourdais, “and when I finally agreed, there was virtually no one left on the team! But then suddenly Neil Fife [highly rated veteran race engineer] joined us early in the season, and that really helped us learn what should or shouldn't be done on these cars. It became a different deal. It was hell at the start of the season but if you start putting the right people in the right places it suddenly comes to life.”
The first sparks of life were when Bourdais (LEFT) got into the top 12 in qualifying in Brazil. For the ovals, he's been giving the car to Alex Lloyd (another guy who deserves a full-time ride) but on his return in Toronto, Bourdais finished sixth – a result he replicated at Edmonton, Sonoma and Motegi. In between times, he broke into the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying at Baltimore.
Contrary to rumors that Bourdais and his wife Claire had decided ovals were too dangerous, “Seabass” insists his Peugeot sports car commitments prevented him doing a full campaign in 2011. It's something he wishes to remedy in 2012.
“Claire wouldn't be thrilled to see me do the 1.5-mile ovals,” he shrugs, “but I'm pretty good at it. I won the Las Vegas Champ Car race twice. Sure, for me, banked ovals don't create good racing. It's dangerous and it doesn't allow good drivers to shine. All they show is that you're as stupid as anyone else, as brave as anyone else and, if you win, it shows you have a faster car than anybody else. So, do I like them? No. Am I good at them? Sure – I'm as stupid as anybody else out there.”
Tomas Scheckter (RIGHT) has the opposite problem to Bourdais: He's perceived as a star on ovals and a backmarker elsewhere – totally perplexing if you'd seen him racking up wins in European open-wheel racing.
“I just need three solid test days on a road course to figure it out,” he says. “It was the same in Formula 3. In my first 10 test days, we were never in the top 10, but then we changed something around, and the next day I was quickest! Something had clicked…and I haven't had that happen in IndyCar yet.”
His European background is perhaps part of the problem. The current IndyCar, in road or street course trim, is a bastardization of an eight-year-old oval-racing design and demands manhandling.
“Watching Will Power's onboard footage at Sonoma, he looked all over the place. A European open-wheel driver would look at it and think Will was losing time, when actually he'd just taken pole. And from Justin Wilson's data in Toronto last year, it looked like he was going to crash three times on his qualifying lap! You have to be a bit of a rally driver to get the time out of these cars, and I lose a lot of feel when the steering load gets higher, like on [grippier] red tires. Hopefully with next year's car designed from the start to be for roads as well as ovals, it may work in my favor.”
Scheckter's best 2011 performane was his incredible start at Loudon, standing in for the injured Wilson in the No. 22 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing car. As he soared from 18th on the grid to third in the space of four green-flag laps, Scheckter reminded us all of his innate ability to simultaneously find the right revs, a high groove that works and the limit of adhesion on cold tires.
However, he's competing for the same vacancies with road course specialists such as Giorgio Pantano and Simon Pagenaud, both of whom have also raced the No. 22 this year. Pantano, the 2008 GP2 champion and a former F1 driver, was unsurprisingly quick in his first test for D&R in Sonoma.
“It was not that difficult,” says the Italian. “Finding the limit of the car takes maybe 20 laps, but then I was there. My style is a bit different from Justin's, but the team was good at adjusting the car for me.
Qualifying for the race in 11th was a bit of a disappointment but he explains: “It's because we changed something on the setup, not because of the red tires. In the race, I could feel where the reds gained me time over the blacks – more grip overall, both lateral and for traction out of slower corners.”
Pantano says he's given up on Europe because he can't afford a good ride and he likes the relative parity of the IndyCar scene. “Here, a driver can make the difference between good and bad lap times,” he states. “In GP2, that's impossible. OK, in IndyCar you have Penske and Ganassi, but Dreyer & Reinbold is not far off at all, and next year there will be a new car and everyone starts fresh again….”
Meanwhile, Pagenaud (LEFT) seems almost to have sought to throw himself in at the deep end in 2011. The '06 Atlantic Series champ has been without a ride in topline U.S. open-wheel racing since the Champ Car/IndyCar merger in '08 but he jumped at the chance to sub for D&R's Ana Beatriz at Barber Motorsports Park when she broke her wrist at the season opener in St. Petersburg.
“It was difficult,” he recalls, “because I knew that was my chance to show what I could do, but I didn't have everything in place to do so. I'd never driven the car or the track! In the end, it went pretty well.”
A charging drive to eighth on race day earned him kudos, but his next opportunity didn't come until five months later at Mid-Ohio, when he was strapped into the other D&R car after Wilson broke his back in practice. Pagenaud's first laps were in qualifying, wearing equipment borrowed from various of his new rivals.
“The driving position wasn't bad,” recalls Pagenaud, “but it was unfortunate that my lower back wasn't in contact with the seat, so I struggled a little bit to feel what the car was doing on corner entry. So I just hung on for dear life.”
On Sunday (now with his own gear) he was fourth quickest in the morning warm-up, and although he had a small off-course excursion in the race he finished 13th and his quickest lap was sixth fastest. A few races later, he stood in (at the last minute, of course!) for Simona de Silvestro in Sonoma, and thoroughly impressed HVM Racing team owner Keith Wiggins.“I've long been aware how good Simon is,” he shrugged. “I'd have been more surprised if he hadn't been great.”
Pagenaud and his sports car teammate Bourdais are the temps who've made the best cases for a full-time ride in 2012, but there are many just burning with the desire to prove themselves. For all of them, another year playing substitute doesn't appeal.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the November 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.