So far, it looks like my optimism for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was justified. We were fastest in second practice today, and it's great to put the IZOD No. 37 Andretti Autosport car into prominence at one of the IZOD IndyCar Series' crown jewels. Long Beach is one of those tracks that helped to make Indy car racing great, so to be fastest here is a satisfying feeling.
We rolled out with basically the same setup that made us fast in Sao Paulo, and it's nice to see that translate in a logical way. What should make Michael Andretti proud is that all
of his Andretti Autosport cars are doing better here than they were last year, while for me, personally, it's satisfying to go quicker than I could last year.
The difference? Compared to 2009, the amount of front grip my car has is phenomenal. I have a racecar I can really hustle, really push and turn in sharp and hard, putting a lot of energy through the front tires. That's exactly what I need for my driving style, and exactly what any driver wants from a car on this circuit. In fact, if anything, my car was a bit too
loose. We need to tie the rear down a little bit.
We only did two-and-a-half runs this morning, but didn't change anything much before the afternoon. The track was so gripless in the first session, we had to wait for it to come to us and that takes a certain amount of discipline, patience and confidence, because you only have so much time and the competition is so strong. Look at the timesheets from this afternoon: the top 15 cars – on a 70-second lap – are covered by just 0.8sec. I think we've seen qualifying sessions on 25sec ovals where the top 15 were covered by more than that!
Anyway, in the second session the times were more meaningful. We started changing the platform, moving things around and we found some adjustments that work for us. Suddenly, there we were at the top of the times.
Right now though, we're working the car pretty hard, so we need to make it more “long-stint-friendly” for the race. Being able to drive a car with full confidence in it, strangling its neck, is what every driver wants to do. You can't give your best if you're thinking, “Uh-oh, it feels like it might step out on me.” We need to adjust it so it's not quite as nervous on corner entry, but without nudging it toward understeer. If you're having to do a lot of counter-steer on a street circuit, it's only a matter of time before it catches you out by just swinging that little bit too wide and tagging the wall.
So the Andretti Autosport boys are taking the No. 37 apart and changing a whole bunch of stuff again. That's the point of being with a strong team: we're in a position to anticipate, not just react, so we can make a good car even better. Our technical debriefs are long, because my guys are so interested in even the smallest details, and that's fantastic for me. They're so thorough, pulling up every trace imaginable and dissecting it, and that in itself is confidence-inspiring for the driver. It means he's with a team that recognizes how to be the best in this sport, and that's the only way to take on teams like Penske.
You'll have seen the afternoon session wasn't totally straightforward, because I had a half-spin and tagged the wall. We were trying something that really added a lot of grip to the front, and I didn't quite catch the tail on one corner. I tried to get reverse gear and couldn't, so at least we know to fix that for the race (not that I plan to use it on race day!). But it was no big deal. In fact, I'd say my closest call in the session was toward the end when Scott Dixon drove into the tires at Turn 1; I was very close to him at the time and I almost followed him in.
Speaking of tires, we've been pleasantly surprised at how well Firestone's primary (black) tires are lasting. We were still able to pump out good lap times even with a full stint on the rubber. So I'm not bothered about finding a qualifying setup, as such, for tomorrow. A good car is a good car and that's what we have, so strapping options (reds) on it won't alter its balance: they'll just give it more grip but retain the car's fundamental characteristics. And if those characteristics have changed as a result of what the guys are doing tonight, then we should be in good shape to fight for pole position tomorrow.
How will the reds last during the race? Well I don't know what the weather might bring us, temperature-wise, and it also depends on full-course cautions. Last year, with a full stint of green-flag running on the reds, I toasted the rears off the car, and I think I lost three positions in the final lap. I couldn't even get power down in fourth gear, which was…interesting, to say the least!
But if you get a lot of yellow flag laps while you're on the option tires, that can adjust the heat cycle to your advantage. Not only do the reds come up to optimum temperature quicker than the blacks, they also have more grip, period, but perhaps most important is that altering the heat cycle means you won't blister them. There are a lot of low-gear corners here, and when you're exiting those, you ask a lot from the rear tires, and that can really beat up the reds. So a cooling off period under caution really delays that process.
By the way, it looks like my American Le Mans Series drive won't be happening now, because of a rules adjustment regarding guest drivers and part-time cars. It's a real pity because, after the 10 minutes that I got in the car this morning, we were P1 in the LMPC class. That little ORECA car is fun and I was looking forward to throwing it around tomorrow night.
Still, my main job is to keep the IZOD No. 37 car on top of the time sheets, so that's what I'll try and do. I'll report back tomorrow evening, hopefully with even more positive news…Ryan