Tagliani should never be left without a ride
Around lunch-time on April 18 last year, I got a call from my good friend and colleague David Phillips. He had just finished watching the opening practice session for the 2008 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which, as you'll recall, was the finale of the Champ Car World Series. Office work precluded my attending that day, so I'd asked Phillips if he could give me regular updates.
He had stood watching from the curved left-hander that leads to the hairpin at the end of the lap. From there, you can also see the 90-degree right at the end of the back straight. It's one of those places that shows you who's on it and who's tentative, who's overdriving and who's flowing, and how well setup the car is.
With decades of motorsport journalism to his name, DP hadn't needed to go back to the pits to check the live timing. He flipped open his phone and called. “I'd say I'm 99 percent certain Wilson and Tag are top,” he said.
I'd been watching the live timing, so I knew he was right. “Spot-on, old man!” I replied. “Have to say, it's great to see Tag put Walker Racing up there.”
“Oh yeah!” said Phillips, with something approaching a nervous giggle. “But you wouldn't be surprised if you'd been standing where I was. Through this sequence, Tag was just flying. I would go so far as to say it was actually breathtaking.”
That conversation came back to me last week as I watched Alex Tagliani lead the Honda Indy Toronto race, apparently with ease. It was such a convincing performance that a mere podium finish would have been a slight anti-climax. He looked like he was heading for the win. And though it had taken Dario Franchitti's pit problem to put the No. 34 Conquest Racing machine from runner-up position into the lead, Alex had actually preserved his soft red tires in the first stint better than Dario. The Ganassi car had gone six seconds up at one stage, but had overheated its tires and then got reeled in. Franchitti had to dive into the pits nine laps earlier than Tagliani.
However (there's always a “however” in a story about Alex), with the wave of a yellow flag – or rather, the rule regarding pitlane closure at the start of a yellow-flag period – Tagliani and Conquest Racing's dream result expired at the second pitstop. Sure, that rule screws everyone at some point in a season, and I'm aware that it is just the luck of the draw. But Alex has only done five races this year, and that rule cost him and the Conquest team a third place in Long Beach and a win in Toronto! Both team and driver deserve better, and it was amazing that Tag and Conquest owner Eric Bachelart remained dignified after another race in which Lady Luck had kicked them between the legs.
Luck has favored Tagliani just once this year, when Conquest was able to withdraw Bruno Junqueira from the Indy 500 to ensure Alex could start. But it was only a miscalculation/bad gamble – call it what you will – by the team that had created the situation where its full-time driver could be bumped from the grid. He should have started 25th on merit: not 33rd through good fortune. It was good that, in typical fashion, he maximized his opportunity by eventually claiming Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.
In terms of results, that remains the bright spot in Conquest's 2009 season; the rest have been a case of woulda, coulda, shoulda. Owing to the team's severely constricted budget, Tagliani has been on a consistently fractured learning curve with the IndyCar Series' Dallara-Honda package. He was shipped in as Conquest's rescuer in the middle of race weekend at Detroit last August, when former F1 driver Enrique Bernoldi's wrist injury turned him from merely lackluster to downright slow. With Bernoldi's teammate Jaime Camara rarely looking comfortable away from the ovals, Conquest team-owner Eric Bachelart was at his wits' end: how could he and his race engineers know if they were making progress when they had no quality feedback and no real pace?
Tagliani fulfilled both requirements, as he usually does. Robin Miller and myself high-fived when, following Alex's first practice session and debrief with the team, Bachelart remarked to us, “We learned more about this car in the last half hour than we have all season.” You see, the problem of proven talents being overlooked in favor of wealthy mediocrity is often at its most acute in U.S. open-wheel racing, and writers regularly feel obliged to point this out. Sadly, though the pen may be mightier than the sword, it ain't no match for a bulging wallet, so Tagliani's late employment by Conquest was seen as something of a victory for our cause.
With limited time to get the car how he wanted it and with no prior knowledge of the track, Tagliani sensibly played the caution card in qualifying, but he made great progress on raceday, and only a long pitstop to rectify a gearbox problem prevented a top-eight finish. And he still set fifth fastest race lap. At Chicagoland, the team was always going to struggle without the latest and greatest parts for ovals, but then came the non-championship race at Surfers Paradise where Alex qualified seventh and finished fourth.
Over the winter though, there was little money coming into the team's bank account, and though Conquest tested for two days at Homestead with Camara, the Brazilian was on his way to retirement from racing. At St Petersburg, then, Tagliani was like a cork ready to erupt from a champagne bottle that had been shaken for five months, and he qualified seventh, ahead of IndyCar champion Scott Dixon. Sadly, his race was compromised by the first corner shunt. At Long Beach he started ninth and should have finished third, but a badly timed full-course yellow/pit closure punished those who had made the best fuel mileage. Since then, there has been Indy, Texas (a nothing race for all those who aren't in Penske, Ganassi or Andretti Green cars) and most recently Toronto.
Even before the Toronto race, I was considering writing this column, and it had been triggered by Gil de Ferran's observations in his midseason review. The Brazilian Indy car great wrote: “We must stress how hard it is to be a part-timer from both the team and driver standpoint. Your game improves the more you practice, so just to get thrown in the deep end is tough: you are always a step behind everyone else at the start of a weekend… So I think Alex is doing well; I'm not sure many other guys could have stepped into that sort of situation and done a better job. He's very experienced and still hungry and, of course, talented.”
Right. But for some reason, Tagliani is always struggling to get a ride before the season starts. Other than lack of money, there is no excuse for this. Let's answer any potential questions.
Age? Not an issue. He's just a few months older than championship leader Franchitti, he's probably as fit as he's ever been, as brave as he's ever been, yet now has almost a decade of U.S. open-wheel experience. At 36, Alex has at least 5 good years of open-wheel racing left in him.
Speed? Not an issue. If we accept that the two Ganassi cars, the two (occasionally three) Penske cars and Tony Kanaan have been the kingpins of the IndyCar Series for the last few years and the ones you aren't surprised to see occupy the first three rows of the grid, it's worth noting that Tagliani has claimed major scalps at each of the last four street courses he's raced on. At Surfers, it was Kanaan; at St. Pete, it was Scott Dixon; at Long Beach, it was Kanaan and Briscoe; at Toronto, it was Dixon, Castroneves, Briscoe and Kanaan! It does beg the question as to what he might achieve with one of those top teams – or even what Conquest might achieve if they competed in every round…
Racecraft? Excellent. He's one of the best at tire management and fuel-saving, because he knows how to think while he's driving. Consequently, his overtaking maneuvers almost always yield results: if it's feasible, it happens, if it's not, he won't try it. (That overambitious effort on Tomas Scheckter in Toronto was a rare lapse, born of frustration at losing the lead, and then being forced down an escape road by the squabble between Moraes and Viso).
Attitude? What a team dreams of – massively intense and hard-working. Bachelart has united Tagliani with a race engineer (Brandon Fry) who shows a great deal of respect to his driver, yet also helps guide him, steers him away from technical cul-de-sacs, and knows what Alex needs from a car to give his best. Consequently, Tag trusts Brandon's judgment, too. Alex's power to recall a lap is excellent and on race weekends, it's not unusual for he and Fry to exchange setup ideas via text message from their hotel rooms, deep into the night, as their wives lie sleeping beside them. Their work together, and Tag's unusually deep engineering knowledge, have helped speed up the team's data acquisition on the Dallara-Honda package. And that applies over race weekends, too. I actually can't think of a team who so consistently makes such strong progress from Friday to Saturday to Sunday.
Public relations? Alex is good with fans, although finding him not in the transporter discussing setups and tire behavior can be tricky. Still, I've seen him interrupt his meals in the team awning in the paddock in order to walk over and sign autographs, and if he has to hurry away to team/series appointments rather than pose for pictures with fans, he apologizes to those who he has to rebut.
Media relations? Very good. Alex's power of recall can turn a journalist's quest for a post-race soundbite into a 15-minute analysis. But hey, better too much to work with than not enough. And what he says is always original and entertaining.
Sponsor relations? He knows how to get them and knows how to keep them. I defy anyone with a million bucks to spend on a racecar driver not to be reaching for the checkbook once he or she has listened to Tagliani talk about his job with such fervent passion. The only active driver I've encountered with the same ability to hook a listener with a description of his sport is NHRA Funny Car legend John Force.
This isn't supposed to be a hard-luck story (though on read-back, I realize that sentiment has seeped through frequently). It's more a “Wise up!” message to all the IndyCar Series teams who are suffering slumps in form and wondering why they keep being upstaged by a part-time team with severely limited resources.
Roger Penske has an embarrassment of in-cockpit riches at his disposal at the moment, Chip Ganassi is probably pretty content with his drivers currently holding first and second in the IndyCar Series points table, and we know Dale Coyne is delighted with Justin Wilson (why wouldn't he be?). But look beyond that and you find multi-car teams in downward spirals and single-car teams that have reached a plateau and would hugely benefit from not only Tagliani's speed, but also his many other qualities.
To my mind, these underperforming ICS teams have a choice. They can either continue making internal changes that are merely swapping like with like (which, over time, looks increasingly like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic), and then spend 2010 wondering why they're flatlining.
Or they can employ Alex Tagliani.