Alex Tagliani, the hardest-working driver in U.S. motorsport, has managed to cram something else into his days: writing exclusively for RACER.com to bring you his diary from the 35th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
I don’t want to sound like “Oh, I’m the unluckiest guy in racing,” but really, what the hell do we have to do to catch a break, man? Remember yesterday when I said I wanted to be fighting for the podium? Well trust me, that’s exactly what we should have been doing, could have been doing, but what I’d say was a strange call in Race Control ruined it for Conquest Racing – and others, as well.
Okay, let’s start from the top. Today, we did some good work in the morning warm-up, and my engineer Brandon Fry and I went into the race pretty confident. The balance was better, it was turning in better too, and power-down was okay. The rest comes down to race-craft and strategy from us as a team. Well, at least that’s what I thought.
At the start, I got past Helio Castroneves into eighth, but down at the hairpin coming onto the pitstraight, I put the power down too early, got a bunch of wheelspin, and got it sideways. I think the Penskes were running a little bit less downforce so he got a good run on me into Turn 1 and I had to let him go.
But we were saving fuel and our strategy looked pretty strong. In fact, we were very happy with our pace considering the mileage we were getting, and together with good work by the team, we beat a couple of guys. So after the first stops, we were running seventh, and I’m thinking, okay, we’re looking good here. I was running with Dixie [reigning IndyCar champ Scott Dixon], and when I saw Will Power go in the pits just ahead of us, I realized he was struggling to make fuel mileage, so was Dario Franchitti, and Tony Kanaan behind me. They had pitted, and so it was Castroneves, Ryan [Briscoe], Dixie and me who had made our fuel last, and were running top four.
We were just half a lap from coming in and then a full course yellow comes out and the pits are closed. The four of us were nailed from that moment, because that allows everyone who had pitted to pack up behind us before we could come into the pits. It’s like we had been penalized for doing well. Jeez… On top of that, I got a little bit confused with the release from the pit stall, and left the pits with the fuel hose still on, so that was a penalty. But by then our race was screwed anyhow.
Brandon was reminding me that in Champ Car, on a close call like that, our race director Tony Cotman wouldn’t let the top four guys get screwed like that – he’d delay throwing the full-course yellow, and so leave the pits open a little bit longer. That was the sensible thing to do. Mario Moraes today came out a lap or two down, knowing he can’t do anything in the results, but with a set of soft tires and go and try and get fastest lap, and he stuck it in the wall. Well, why should that dumbass driving kill the chances of the leaders? I just think it’s not justice. Now we have this example, maybe the four of us need to go speak to [IndyCar race director] Brian Barnhardt.
With the penalty, we got dropped further, so we had to fight our way past a bunch of cars. I had good battles with Darren Manning, and Graham Rahal who both did a good job and were very fair. And I know on TV they showed my last-lap pass on Ryan Hunter-Reay, but you should have seen the one on Vitor Meira: That was really sweet, as he’s the guy that ruined our race in St. Pete. Today we showed him it’s possible to make a clean pass, instead of just driving into someone and puncturing his tire!
The positive to take from Long Beach is that we did a good job as a team: it was bad luck that robbed us. We recovered from a tough first day, we had a lot of electrical problems, it was certainly not a clean weekend – there were a lot of little issues we had to fight. But we worked super-hard, we fixed them all, we had a reliable car on raceday, and again we had the pace to put us on the podium.
But… you know, with Eric [Bachelart, team-owner], Brandon, and the whole Conquest Racing team, I could say those positive things every weekend, about overcoming bad sessions or bad days. The team has proved it in the past, I have proved it in the past, and together…Well, we keep proving that we can come from a bad situation and show really good form.
But people who just look at the results of a race won’t see that from Long Beach or St. Pete. So we want to give the world real hard evidence on paper. That’s what we’re here for. We just need to catch a break. Look at third, fourth and sixth place finishers today – Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti. They were there because they got insanely lucky with the yellows: they didn’t have the speed or the fuel mileage to pass me on the track, as everyone could see today. So you see why I think we could have been fighting for the podium.
Okay, let’s think positive thoughts, and think that it must turn around for us soon. We’re not going to Kansas next weekend, because we’re going to focus on the Indy 500, the biggest race in the world. I’m going to be bringing you RACER.com readers updates after each race I do this year, but maybe we can sling in one after qualifying at Indy, too.
So – back with you soon, friends!
People, I’m happy again, not so much because we put the No.34 Hard Rock Hotel & Casino / The Joint car into P9. We all know we could have gone better if the weekend had gone smoothly. But from where we were at yesterday to now, we should be dancing in the streets of Long Beach, because this is a real tribute to this Conquest Racing team, and I really want my engineer Brandon Fry to get some good visibility from this diary. We’ve split the Penskes – just behind Helio, just ahead of Ryan – and we’re ahead of all the Andretti Green cars. Now that is what I call progress!
You know it’s a real tribute to the IRL what they have done since the merger. Because look at us – Conquest Racing, HVM, Dale Coyne Racing – these are all teams on a low, low budget, some of us just clinging on by our fingernails, and look at the big-budget cars we can still beat through being innovative, or smart, and analytical. Look at us, yesterday: our car was bad and we were 17th, and we were only 1.025sec off quickest time. This is strong, exciting, close, close racing.
Anyway, today, let’s do something different: here’s a transcript of when RACER came to ask the questions, and Brandon and I tell the story.RACER
Okay, so after such a horrible day yesterday, when did you guys leave the track last night?Brandon
About 9 o’clock, and we were still texting until, what, 11? The last text I sent him was about dampers, and he didn’t respond, and I thought “Uh-oh, he’s pissed at me” so I went to bed!Alex
Brother, I was sitting up in bed but I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and Bronte [my wife] was already asleep. I had to shut the phone off. So when I got to the track this morning, Brandon said “Are you okay?” and I said “Yeah, yeah, but I had to sleep.” RACER
Alex, are you saying you ever actually sleep?Brandon
No, I reckon he just plugs in and recharges.
Anyway, we made some changes to go back to our Detroit ’08 race car. That’s when Alex joined us, last August. But I was also just trying to simplify things; we didn’t want to do anything trick. We just tried to keep it simple, knowing at the end of the day that Alex is going to drive the wheels off the thing, so there’s no point in outsmarting ourselves.Alex
Here in Long Beach we’ve been fighting a lot of electrical issues, downshift issues, which didn’t make our life easy. But other than that, the weekend is similar to St. Pete situation. But what I think is happening here is that we go after the car and the track and find something that is decent, and make the best of it. But if we went back to St. Pete now, we’d get in the Firestone Fast Six and be fighting for the pole. We’re limited with the amount of experience we have with the car, and the amount of testing, and seven-post rig work.
So yesterday we were fighting with lack of grip, lack of this, lack of that, but today we have more grip than we’ve had all weekend, but the tendency is that we’re not just fighting understeer all the way through, or oversteer all the way through. It varies from corner to corner as to whether it’s understeer or oversteer. The balance is not right, and because like I wrote in the diary on Thursday, this circuit is so much about flow that if you don’t have a balanced car, then it makes it really, really tough to get a good lap.
So consider all that, and then see that we are just a tenth of a second from getting in the Fast Six shoot-out, with the car we have. I mean, we’re so close to being in that shoot-out, and yet we still have so much potential, so much more to get out of the car. That’s really encouraging. If I had been sitting here saying “That’s the best car I had ever driven in my life,” then you’d think, okay, it’s going to be tough to get in the Fast Six. But you know, it’s just one little thing that will click to get more balance (not more grip, we now have that) and then the car would be more consistent so I could be more aggressive. Then suddenly we would have that tenth of a second.Brandon
The thing is, Alex came on board with us in the middle of Detroit race weekend last year – two races before the end of the championship. And from that point, it was really a fresh slate. The reason I say that is, at one point we were struggling at St. Pete, and so we put on the setup that Franck Perera used in 2008, and we were crap. I don’t know if it’s in the differences in the driving styles or because the series as a whole progressed in the middle of last year, and we didn’t have Alex in the car with his feedback. The result is that at each circuit we come to, we’re still a step behind. As a transition team from Champ Car, last year we didn’t really learn anything about the Dallara until he got in the car at Detroit. It is amazing
how different we run the car this year compared to last year, and if we try anything that we used in the bulk of 2008, we get nowhere.Alex
We finished the weekend at St. Pete encouraged with how fast the car was at the end of the race, and if we go back there, we’d be a real step up. Well, it’s the same thing here. I wish we could go back 24 hours and start where we are right now, because then can you imagine what we could do in qualifying? Oh man…. So that’s a little bit frustrating and encouraging at the same time!RACER
And that undulating problem that you had yesterday: is that solved now?Alex
Yeah, pretty much. Today, on the last run we had some downshift paddle issues, where the gas would stay on and push the nose out in the corner, so that’s not helping the situation. And I was also getting my foot off the brake real quick so we don’t flat-spot tires and stuff like that. So we didn’t really have it easy today.Brandon
Yeah, St. Pete went smoother as far as solving issues was concerned.RACER
So what do you think you can do tomorrow?Brandon
Well it’s now time to go through the data and see what the car’s now doing, and what are the next logical steps.RACER
Isn’t that a high-risk game because…Alex
No because the worst we can do is go back to what we have now.RACER
I meant in terms of not having a lot of time before the race starts to try the new changes.Brandon
Yeah, well we’ve got a half-hour practice, so we’re now close enough that it’s small things to correct. We’re not going to go out on a limb majorly like we have a couple of times this weekend. Alex
With a 70.1sec lap, we’re within three or four tenths of where we need to be, so at least we’re in the window where an adjustment or two can be made to get us right there. Last night we made so many changes because we were lacking a lot. Now we’ve at least brought the car to a point where it’s much more competitive , and we’ve reduced the issues down to the fact that it’s unbalanced: that’s our biggest issue right now. We have to make it consistent all the way through the corner. My fight right now, is that you turn in, you have what I’d call a 2 out of 5 amount of push, and then you get to the apex, it snap oversteers, and when you should be getting back on the throttle, you’re spending a few tenths correcting and then getting back on the throttle. So obviously that’s losing me time.RACER
So you’ve narrowed the field of what needs to be changed compared to yesterday?Brandon
Yeah, it’s small stuff now. Probably something with dampers. Sometimes it can be just a better damper combination. Maybe a different front to what we’re running in the rear, or the other way round. It might be one of those situations where the problem is at the rear, but in fact it’s being caused by what’s going on at the front.RACER
So just to clear up, what was it made you miss 20 minutes in this morning’s practice? Did the gearbox break?Brandon
Not mechanically, no: we had a wire break.Alex
Yeah, it was not sending a signal to the compressor pump to downshift so I got stuck in gear. Nothing mechanical.Brandon
And that was a shame, because…Alex
What we found out now, in qualifying, we could have found out this morning, and then we could have made the change ready for the start of qualifying.Brandon
Absolutely. Because we got one run on old tires in the morning practice, and Alex said, “Hmmm, I’m not so sure about this.” And yet when we went back and looked at the data, he was quicker on almost every turn except Turn 2, so we thought “Okay, maybe we finally found something, let’s work on it a little bit more,” and then the wiring issue stopped us.Alex
Right, and so we didn’t really get to evaluate and evolve our idea until qualifying. Yeah, you’re right: that was probably very costly.RACER
One other thing you mentioned Thursday was that you had to change the steering arm so the car could get round the hairpin… What was that about?Brandon
Well yeah, we thought we might have to, but it turns out we didn’t.Alex
But the front suspension had to get changed.Brandon
Oh yeah, Dallara had to give everyone new suspension because these cars wouldn’t have turned through that hairpin. In fact, the reason the two-seater car hasn’t been out this weekend is because it couldn’t get through the hairpin! For the race cars, though, Dallara had to come up with new steering arms, new wishbones. To be fair to them, they did a good job.Alex
Just as well they thought about it! Who brought it up?Brandon
Oh, the old Champ Car teams told the Dallara rep about it. I still warned Alex while we were on the track walk on Thursday.Alex
Yeah, on Friday morning Brandon said, “First lap out there, be careful and just see if you can make it – don’t come flying in there thinking you can get round!”
As I hope you can see from this conversation, me and Brandon were way happier about the car today. Like I said, if we could only start the weekend in the situation that we find ourselves in by qualifying, we’d have time to make those last little tweaks and be in the Fast Six every time. That’s how good this team is, and I am just so, so desperate to reward them with a podium tomorrow.
So wish us luck. Eric Bachelart, Brandon and our sponsors really deserve it.
Hey, supporters. Thank you for tuning in again. But I have to apologize too, if you were hoping for some wild and positive update from our Friday practice sessions. Check out the times: we’re only 17th!
Don’t worry, it’s not quite as bad as all that. The track was probably slightly quicker at the end of the afternoon session, and we had put new tires on the No. 34 Conquest Racing car about halfway through, while others had waited. So our tires weren’t as fresh as theirs when the track was quickest.
But I have to admit that we’re really puzzled. I mean, we are way out of the ball park, and the weird thing is, other people who were quick in St. Petersburg two weeks ago, like Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal, are also way down. I mean, how can it be that we had strong cars for one street circuit – okay, an airport one – but we suck so bad at another? It doesn’t make sense.
For us at Conquest, I can say that there are lots of things wrong. I can’t brake deep, I can’t put the power down at the exit of the hairpin onto the pitstraight and it doesn’t seem to have any grip in the low-speed corners. The grip problem is so bad that in the high-speed corners, I need to under-drive it. If I drove Turn 1 like I want to drive it, I’d hit the fence.
Turns 9 and 10 – they’re normally “my” corners, the key places where I gain time on everyone. But I’m having to go bah-bah-bah on the throttle, applying the power and then coming off it to allow the car to grip again. It’s just so weird. It’s not that the rear is moving too much; I just don’t have the grip. I’ve tried following the fast cars, but, pah – forget about it. We’re not even close. Yeah , yeah, I know the field is seriously close so we’re only a second slower than Will Power who was quickest today. But man, I outqualified that guy here last year! So I expected to be a front-runner today in practice.
This is when it becomes very, very important that we focus as a team and go through the problems methodically. It’s good that we have another practice session tomorrow morning, but we need to make sure that we use it well. There is a lot of work to do tomorrow. My engineer Brandon Fry seems to have some possible solutions. We spent 20 minutes in the pits this afternoon making a change with the dampers and it did help a little bit, but because some of our other problems have made us so far out we don’t yet know how good that damper change might be. (I hope that makes sense to you).
So I guess we have to hope it’s like Saturday at St. Pete, where we sucked in practice, we then made a change, we got it right, and all of a sudden the car came alive and we were fast. The weird thing is, how can it be that we’re at a track where both myself and the Conquest team have gotten so much experience, and we’re so way off? Maybe we’ve gone too ambitious on setup, tried to reinvent the wheel, and we need to go back to basics. Maybe the steering rack change that I mentioned yesterday has got something to do with it. That’s the crazy thing: it seems like anything is possible at this time.
I feel sorry for [team owner] Eric Bachelart, because here we are, knowing we’re not going to be racing again until Indy, so we’re trying to make as good an impression as we can, and we’re getting beaten by people who this team and this driver should never in a 100 years get beaten by.
It’s not like I am 0.3sec off and I have one problem that we need to fix to find that. We have a big problem spread over a wide range of areas, and that bothers me. For example, the hairpin is a slow corner, where there is nothing really a driver can do to make the difference. So say you’re entering it at 38mph, there’s nothing a driver can do to make it 40 or 42mph. But we’re not doing that. I’m having to go 35, which is too slow. If I did try 38, it wouldn’t make the turn.
Another example: under braking for Turn 1, I’m already not at my limit or the track’s limit, but I try and brake just five feet deeper and I end up in the run-off. I suppose to put it another way, the car’s limit is just too easily reached. I ended up in the run-off areas three times, just from braking five feet deeper: the car just starts undulating, the tires lock up and I’m gone. In St. Pete, by comparison, I didn’t lock one tire the whole weekend.
I didn’t want this to turn into an angry diary entry, but our brains are just exploding trying to figure this one out. If nothing else works, Brandon better get his magic stick out and hit the car. But now I have told you what’s going down, it’s time to get back with the team and work out how to go up. We’ll be working late…
Race fans: Welcome to my diary from Long Beach! If you can’t be here at the track, I hope to give you some flavor of what we go through at Conquest Racing this weekend, as a team and a driver, working together to truly fulfill the potential that we know we have, and which the racing world saw a piece of at our last two races – at Surfers Paradise last autumn, and at St Petersburg two weeks ago.
Here on Thursday, after we announced that ODW Logistics and TorcUP of Canada were supporting us this weekend (thank you so much, guys), it became just a setup day, no track action, so I was able to work with the team on the front suspension and steering rack – I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow. Now, sitting here in the Conquest transporter as the evening starts to fall, I can think about the great times we’ve had here, and which I think we can have again this weekend.
One of the reasons why I’m so positive is the way we went at round one. I was maybe just a little bit surprised by how quick we were at St. Petersburg; I think [team owner] Eric Bachelart was more surprised than me. There’s always a little bit of anxiety for a driver just showing up at a track when all his rivals have tested recently whereas he hasn’t been in the car since last October. But I was so surprised because after just three laps I felt ready to push.
I was very happy the way the team worked; we had only known on Tuesday that we were going racing, and in those situations, you can find a million excuses why you’re not quick. But we were quick. I hadn’t been to the circuit for six years, but it wasn’t as difficult to learn that as it is to get used to the car. Remember, I’ve only had four races in these Dallara-Hondas.
The Dallara is a flat-bottomed car – no downforce tunnels like the Panoz Champ Car – so there is a different method to balancing the car, and of course with a normally-aspirated engine, the torque characteristics are way, way different from the turbo Cosworth. So at St. Pete, it was about getting the maximum out of the car rather than learning the track. That was the big thing: progressing with how the car wants to be driven, to get the best from it.
Well, I think we did pretty well. In group 1, we set the second quickest lap of the whole weekend, a 62.3, so in group 2, we left the car alone. But the track was changing, so I couldn’t quite reproduce that and got a 62.6. The Penskes set 62.6 too, a few hundredths quicker. So that’s how we dropped to seventh.
But hey we still outqualified the champion, Scott Dixon, who’s racing for Ganassi and I think that really made a statement. In a race, all kinds of crap can happen – as we saw, unfortunately! – but in qualifying, in terms of speed, we were with the fast boys and I think that is a tribute to my race engineer Brandon Fry and this whole Conquest team. At Surfers, when we qualified seventh and finished fourth, people might have said “Oh well, he knew the track from Champ Car, and the IndyCar boys didn’t.” Well, St Pete was the opposite and there we were, still mixing it with the fast ones.
Looking at what I’ve just written, I suppose actually Long Beach is a pleasure and pain thing for me: I love the circuit, I love that I’m quick here, but it’s a real shame that I’ve only had one podium to add to that win in Atlantics. I am really desperate to change that this weekend.
So the biggest question is, can we? Well, I think Conquest has a good car for street courses, but Long Beach for some reason is the type of track where you need everything – and I mean everything to be perfect to get the race win. It is also a track where a lot of the corners are flowing, so if you get one wrong, you can’t make it up at the next three corners, it will affect you all the way through. A lot of street circuits are stop and go, stop and go, where if you screw up one corner, it doesn’t affect your apex speed at the next one. But Long Beach is a circuit where the corners are so free-flowing that if, for example, your tire pressures are slightly wrong, it will lose you 0.6sec in just the first five corners.
I think we have the potential to be up front, but to actually nail that win, everything has to be right – the pitstops, the in-laps, the out-laps, when you hit traffic, and so on.
The passing opportunities are at Turns 1, 6 and 9, although of course we had push-to-pass boost in Champ Car. It will be interesting to see how the aero package on the Dallara works round here, how close we can run to each other and so on: I hope it’s good, because that’s what we need in order to have the same passing places in this car.
To be really, really honest with you though, I hope that won’t matter to me. In my mind, I’m thinking, “I’m going to be on pole.” I just don’t want to be caught up in the sort of crap we saw at St. Pete. I want to get away into the lead and do what I’ve got to do.
For me, qualifying on Saturday is gonna be balls to the wall – that’s a promise to you, to the team and to myself. Between now and then, though, Friday practice will tell us a lot about how realistic it is to expect pole position. I’ll be back to you Friday evening.