Welcome to my day-by-day diary for one of the most exciting events of the IZOD IndyCar Series season – the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. And it's a great feeling to arrive in sunny California in April with thoughts of being in contention for victory. It's been too long!
Our season so far has been pretty good with the IZOD No. 37 Andretti Autosport car, and we've shown quite a bit of speed. At Sao Paulo, we were in the top five pretty much all weekend and finished a close second; in St. Petersburg we were top 10 all weekend, and Barber…Well, we were lacking something in the preseason test there and we never found it on the race weekend, so we take the rough with the smooth. It's still annoying, though. Natural road courses like that – Road America, Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen – have traditionally been tracks where I'm very fast. But we just couldn't nail it last weekend.
And it's not like we were miles off! My Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti qualified fourth and he was, I think, 0.35sec faster. This year's IndyCar Series is so incredibly tight that if you miss a couple of tenths, it will be the difference between moving on in qualifying rounds, or sitting halfway down the grid. Speaking to Tony Kanaan on the flight home, he was saying this year Indy car racing is as tight as it's ever been in his experience, and he's been in it since the late 1990s when CART was in its heyday, and he was racing Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Montoya and so on.
That being the case, there's real satisfaction – and relief! – to be in a strong team like Andretti Autosport. These guys really want to win races, and that's the most important thing for a driver to do: surround yourself with people who would do anything short of selling their kids in order to win. They don't miss any detail and it's really neat to see a four-car team work so well. I think the best is yet to come, too: They're really ramping it up, and I think everyone can see the progress toward taking on Penske and Ganassi and giving the series a “Big Three” again, same as it was three years ago.
I feel I've made some contribution to that progress, because as a four-car team, we've all given our input. For example, where we were in Brazil was a direct result of our preseason test at Sebring (where you can, to an extent, practice street course setups). We went in a new direction of development, and it paid off in Sao Paulo and got the year off to a good start. That brings home to me again how having the combination of competitive teammates while in a competitive team is something that you can't put too high a value on. You just feed off each other so easily, having four times as much data as you would if you were running solo. It's my first time having that situation, and I really am trying to take full advantage.
Fortunately, Tony and I are similar in terms of driving style and therefore what we want from a car. We want a car that's somewhat loose, and we absolutely hate understeer, because we want to be aggressive with the car on turn-in. Some guys can deal with understeer, but that kills a driving style like mine and TK's.
I'm pleased to say that things are looking very positive for completing the remainder of the season. As you know, I'm good through the Indy 500, and although it's going to require certain pieces to fall into place, I'm really grateful to the team for its efforts. Michael Andretti has even put his neck out and personally invested in me and the IZOD No. 37 car, so I can't thank him enough. I think that also shows his optimism in making this, at the very least, a season-long campaign. Having said that, a deal is never done until it's done – especially not in racing – so we won't regard it as confirmed just yet.
At the time of writing this, I'm just impatient for this weekend to start. I love the Long Beach circuit, and always have. Back in my Atlantic days, I remember setting a track record around there and I'm also confident that the direction that Andretti Autosport is taking in terms of setup will make our cars fast around there this year. It's a circuit that tends to make your car understeer, so if you can get the front of your car to bite – as I always want my cars to do – then you're going to be well set. The key to a good lap around Long Beach is getting the pace onto the straights. For example, the corner onto the back straight is one that can very easily have your car going from push to snap oversteer, because you'll often struggle for grip in the middle of that corner with your fronts, and then as your rear goes over the same patch, they can struggle to put the power down. Get it right, and you can really feel the difference all the way down the straight.
You, of course, need to be lucky, too. You know what I mean – no yellow flags near the end of qualifying sessions that mean you don't get your final hot lap in, no traffic on your hot lap, no carnage at the first corner of the race, and so on.
Our push to pass will make a difference down the back straight, East Seaside Way, but will have a bigger effect on the long pit straight (which famously isn't really a straight at all but a long, very gentle right-hand curve), Shoreline Drive. We all wish the extra power boost was just a touch more, but it will still be enough to make the difference between passing and not passing along there.
By the way, I'm also going to be in the ORECA LMPC car in the American Le Mans Series race, so I'm looking forward to that, too. As I discovered at Sebring, that car's a lot of fun, and the ALMS practice session on Friday morning will give me a heads-up on track conditions before heading out to practice an hour or so later in the Indy car.
Sitting here right now, I'm feeling confident. As one of the few Americans in the IZOD IndyCar Series, I appreciate the support we always get at such a prestigious event as the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. I'm seventh in the championship right now and I'd be disappointed to leave on Sunday night without improving on that – hopefully substantially.
I'll get back to you on Friday evening with my next installment, by which time I'll have a clearer idea about whether my optimism is justified. In the meantime, wish us luck!