It is very difficult for a rookie to come into the IndyCar series and make an impression in his or her first year, especially this year. The series is so competitive right now that the margin for error is smaller than ever before. Just a slight lift on an oval or a bit too much curb on a road or street course can make the difference of 10 places on the grid.
One thing that has always amazed me in racing is the actual difference in lap times between the first 10 or so cars at most tracks. Take Iowa, for example, where the top 10 cars in qualifying were covered by less than 0.2sec. Heck, if you press a stop watch as fast as you can twice, that takes about 0.2sec, so how can you have 10 different drivers in 10 different cars with probably thousands of different variables on their setups producing lap times that are blink-of-an-eye close? What makes that more poignant is the guy at the top will feel like a hero (as Takuma Sato deservingly did at Iowa) while Ryan Briscoe (10th) probably felt like someone shot his dog…as a Penske driver that low down the grid deservingly should! It is hard to comprehend the range of emotions that is encompassed in those two tenths of a second.
This is what we expect from racing these days; it is the norm, especially in IndyCars, and this is also what makes being a successful rookie even more demanding and less likely than ever. Rookies are racing against veterans who have done thousands of laps around the tracks we race on where one crash can cost more than the average mortgage. But we, as race teams, crew members, fans and even other drivers tend to overlook the learning curve the novices are on – the testing restrictions, the unfamiliarity, the uncertainty of the new drivers you are racing against. This is the most competitive racing in the world at the moment and it all makes success even more difficult to comprehend. Six inches too high up the track between turns 1 and 2 and the bump will make you lift more than everyone else. If you have never driven an IndyCar around that track before, how are you supposed to know? Can a teammate (if you have one) really tell you where that sweet spot is and if he or she can, do you think they will? Would you?
So when these rookie drivers do run up front, it is probably because they have done everything right, as JR came so close to doing in this year's Indianapolis 500. One difference for him at Indy was at least he had a teammate he could run things by – a former 500 winner, no less! – and Buddy Rice had a genuine interest in making sure JR considered certain things he may not have thought of had Buddy not been there. The youngster could ask the vet about uncertainties and put his mind at rest if he had any doubts about the car – “If it feels like that, will it get worse?” – the type of things only a smart veteran driver would know about at a track like Indy. On race day, though, it is every man for himself, and I'm sure Buddy would have raced JR just as hard as the next guy had they been fighting for the win.
Anyone in the paddock knows Panther can deliver good cars for Indy but so can Penske and Ganassi. It doesn't really matter how good the car is if you can't rely on the driver. Fortunately for us, JR did everything we expected from him and even more for the entire month. Even the crash on lap 200 in Turn 4 can't be blamed entirely on him; could we have given him more information on Charlie Kimball ahead? Could we have given him the gap back to Dan Wheldon as he went into Turn 3? If we had, would it have made a difference? Who knows? But one thing for sure is that JR drove a perfect race up until that point, and I am sure no one can be harder on him than he's been on himself for not accomplishing what a driver only has one shot at, winning the Indianapolis 500 in his rookie year.
Even from the inside of a one-car team running a rookie, it is difficult to track progress, but I would say judging from results on both road courses and ovals, JR is coming along nicely. Look at Long Beach, a hard weekend for us, and compare it to Brazil. I'd have expected JR to struggle more in Brazil since it's a track he has not driven on before, but we were pleasantly surprised at our result there. I believe that shows our driver left Long Beach, thought about what was happening and changed things for Brazil. In Milwaukee we struggled a bit but I think JR was on a steep learning curve; then he took what he learned in Milwaukee to Iowa and did a great job qualifying and finishing fourth in one of the most exciting oval races IndyCar has had for a while. In Toronto, JR did an excellent job of staying out of trouble when it seemed even the veterans had difficulty in knowing how much room to give or how hard to push.
To us JR's progress and how quickly he is able to learn confirms he is gaining more confidence with each race. Without a doubt what we are missing the most compared to other teams is data. If we were running two cars and could compare both chassis and driver data, we would have a better indication of which direction to go with the set-up or be given clues to how JR can slightly change his route through a corner here or there to make things better. Running two cars literally doubles the amount of things you can try, your choices in which direction to go…and, of course, gives you twice the chance for a decent result. We do have Dan's data and notes from the last two years, and that's useful on the ovals. However, these days when we are talking about such a small margin that determines whether or not the weekend was a success, the slightest breeze or temperature difference can render the data incomparable.
I think if you look at the entire season thus far, you would have to say JR and Panther are progressing, but there won't be any rest until we celebrate our first win together. Who knows what will happen next but if we can continue in the direction we are going at the moment, 2011 will just be the beginning of something big.