Craig Hampson (second from left), an 18-year veteran of Newman/Haas Racing and the man who race engineered Sebastien Bourdais to four consecutive Champ Car titles 2004-'07, often has the demeanor of a man who lost 10 bucks and found a quarter. While this outlook perplexed outsiders back in the days when SeaBass was winning approximately half the races in a season, it became fully justified for much of the last three years since Champ Car folded and its teams joined the IZOD IndyCar Series.
After two wins in that first merged year, courtesy of Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson, and a more consistent season with Rahal in '09, the team reached its nadir last season when Hideki Mutoh finished 18th in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Necessary though his Honda Formula Dream dollars were, and nice guy though Mutoh was, he'd reached a performance plateau long before he joined NHR – and that plateau wasn't high. Not by the standards of a team which, in its 28-year history, had racked up titles with Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Cristiano da Matta and Bourdais.
Brian Lisles, team manager, says: “Although this is supposed to be a sporting and engineering endeavor, the reality is that it's all driven by money. If you don't have the dollars, you can't do it, and we suffered several blows in 2008. Primarily, the demise of the series we were in, followed by the loss of an iconic team owner, Paul Newman, who was very influential in all matters outside of the team's day-to-day functioning, particularly in terms of introductions to raise sponsorship. They were a couple of rapid hammer blows and, just surviving 2008, we didn't have time to lift our heads and recognize we were in a different world business-wise and so we were slow to react.
“Last year, when we were running a single-car entry and weren't achieving anything like the results we strive for, everyone from the team owners down said we needed to do something about it, and we made several changes to improve our situation as a business. That allowed us to then look at the sporting side, and get drivers in the car who would help us deliver the kind of results we were after.”
The arrival of Oriol Servia (RIGHT) and rookie teammate James Hinchcliffe for 2011 has turned Newman/Haas Racing right side up, not only in terms of results and consistent performance, but also morale. Says Hampson: “You must have top-notch drivers to do well in this championship. A good driver leads the development of the car, guides engineers, pumps up the crew, entices sponsors, keeps the owners enthusiastic and does the job on track. So having drivers like Oriol whose performance always reflects the progress you're making as a team, and James, a rookie we can see making progress at every race, revitalizes Newman/Haas from top to bottom.
“What was also nice about Oriol, other than the fact that we respected him highly from when we'd worked with him before [in 2005, subbing for the injured Bruno Junqueira and in '09, as a late-season replacement for the disappointing Robert Doornbos], is that his Spanish background enabled us to put together a good marketing platform with Telemundo, and we're now reaching a wide audience via that conduit. Oriol's performances are really important, but he's also bringing new fans to the sport and bringing attention to the team.”
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.”