Newman/Haas' enthusiasm for Servia is reciprocated, but Oriol says that lying fourth in the championship at the halfway point of the season is a welcome but unintended by-product of his preseason aims.
“Before the season started, I told my race engineer Bruno Couprie that I really don't care about the championship,” says Servia matter-of-factly. “This was for two reasons: 1) we didn't feel we had a realistic shot at winning it, and 2) personal experience. Going into the last race of the 2008 season, I could have finished top six in the points, despite that being my and KV Racing's first year in the series. And yet I didn't have a ride for the next two years! If I'd actually won a race, maybe I would have had a job for '09.
“So, at the start of this year, I thought more about the potential of Newman/Haas Racing winning a race. It's ironic that the combination of the way the cards have played, our efforts to be sensible even though our ambition is to win a race and the experience of the whole team have allowed us to capitalize on what we have and here we are.”
That fourth place in the standings could have been higher still: at Long Beach, Servia was delayed by Helio Castroneves' infamous tangle with Will Power, as he headed, he believes, for at least second place. Instead he got sixth. At Milwaukee he took third, despite having to charge back from 12th following a slow pit stop. And a disastrously long pit stop at Iowa again cost him third or fourth. So it's even more remarkable that the No. 2 car was headed only by the two Chip Ganassi Racing drivers and one Team Penske driver at midseason.
Couprie, an assistant race engineer in the Toyota Formula 1 team before joining Newman/Haas in 2006, concurred with Servia's policy at the start of the year – and shares his optimism for the second half of the season. “I think that wins are feasible,” he says. “Oriol can always land on his feet, because he finishes races and finishes them well. He's really strong, so I feel more confident taking risks and gambles for him.
“So a win would be awesome. But now I want to keep up this championship performance, because I think it's very good considering how competitive the field is now. If we finished top five at the end of the year, it would be amazing considering there are three Penskes and three Ganassis if we include Graham. But seventh would be good, as well. I don't want to be too greedy.”
If Servia was an obvious choice to head Newman/Haas' revival, Hinchcliffe's route to the Lincolnshire, Ill.-based team was more circuitous…yet no less logical. Hampson, who took a shop-based role in recent seasons to spend more time with his wife and young children, has once more hit the road to serve as the Canadian rookie's race engineer. He says “Hinch” was a revelation from the start.
“James was the best available rookie,” says Hampson, “so we tested him in December at Sebring and he was quicker than we expected. Immediately we started looking at ways to make this work out.”
The preseason test at Barber Motorsports Park saw Hinchcliffe star, comfortably inside the top eight on both days. He missed the first race of the season while the team was still closing car No. 06's sponsorship deal with Sprott, a Canadian asset management company, but since then “Hinch” has continued to impress the team. He also makes fewer errors than most rookies.
“There are times when his lack of experience will show,” says Hampson. “He won't know you need x amount of understeer in the car for a race, that sort of thing – but he's learning on the fly. Compared to 15 years ago, when a rookie would get thousands of test miles before his first race, it's unfair on James. He hasn't gotten any solid testing under his belt, particularly on ovals. Every race weekend, we throw something completely new at him, but he's unflappable, and that serves him very well in his current situation.”
Part of Hinchcliffe's unfazability is his excellent rapport with the whole team. The other part? He was – and is – reassured by discovering from the inside that Newman/Haas' core quality remains intact, whatever recent years' results tables show.
“It would have been easy to look at the last couple of years and think they had slipped a bit,” says Hinchcliffe, “but they set up a meeting with me in Chicago last September, and I remember leaving the place thinking, ‘Wow, this is still the team I watched win all the time.' I went into the meeting not knowing what to expect; I left knowing there was nowhere else I wanted to be.”
And that truly is the key to this story being written, because in 2011, Newman/Haas Racing, still governed by Carl and Bernie Haas (the venerable Mrs. Haas is at the shop every week day), is starting to show signs of returning to the form that earned the respect of every rival and every U.S. open-wheel racing fan.
“The reason behind our resurrection,” says Couprie, “is that we have two good drivers who communicate well, we have a very strong team bond, and no one should underestimate our engineering depth.”
Says Hampson: “We are fourth in points because Oriol is a very reliable driver who brings the car home and gets the most out of whatever's on offer that day. We are not fourth on pure speed – there's a lot of work to be done to become the fastest, and it's not going to happen with the current car. But that has to be the ultimate aim.
“At Newman/Haas, we don't want to be any old team. We want to be champions.”