With the restrictions on testing, over the winter I did a lot of go-karting to keep the senses and reactions alert, and then a lot of training down in Florida. But…man, there's only so much running on treadmills you can do before it starts driving you crazy! Without A1GP, I was a lot more bored in the offseason this winter than last winter.
So the big news for me in the offseason came just in the last couple of weeks: I'm going to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year and we had a fairly productive couple of days in the IZOD IndyCar Series open test down at Barber Motorsports Park.
First, Le Mans. It's a great feeling to have been chosen – thankfully my manager had his phone turned on at the right time – and now it's sinking in. Racing there is something I've aspired to for a while, and two things have driven me. First: our family hasn't managed to win at Le Mans yet, so to break that jinx would be completely awesome. Second: one of the most enjoyable races I've ever done – although we didn't make it all the way through, unfortunately – was the Sebring 12 Hours in 2008, driving for Dad's Acura team. Sports cars have way more downforce than an IndyCar so, for a driver, that makes it that much more fun because you can carry more speed through the corners – always a good feeling.
Neel Jani and Nicolas Prost, who are going to be my partners, are guys I only sort of know on a head-nodding basis from when we were racing together in A1GP. I don't remember much wheel-to-wheel stuff, but I must have turned their heads a little bit, because I think they were the ones who pushed for me to be their teammate. It will be cool to be alongside Nicolas – he's obviously got similar circumstance to me, being a 20-something with a famous name.
It's gonna be great just to try out the car. This week I fly out to France to test at the Paul Ricard circuit for my first test with them, and then fly back and get half a day in Florida before heading to Sao Paulo.
The Barber test went reasonably well for us, but being quickest of the Andretti Autosport cars isn't enough for someone like me. I'd say we're chipping away at the gap to Penske and Ganassi, though, and that's because, development-wise, we're heading in a new direction. Or to be honest, an old direction. The way I'd summarize it is that, by the end of 2007, we were a little bit off on the road courses, so we felt we had to reinvent the wheel when we really didn't need to, and so we went in the wrong direction in 2008 and '09. Now we've taken a policy of trying to get back to basics. When I stepped up to Indy cars in '06, right away I was running with the guys who were contending for championships. So we know they're beatable: we just need to figure out how to get our cars working for us like they were back then. I'm driving the same racecar I was back in '06, I'm not less skilled than I was back then – I'd like to think the opposite – so why not go back to our roots and what we know works? So that's what we're aiming for in 2010.
We've got to make these cars comfortable for ourselves. One of our biggest problems is that, although we can race these cars all day, when it comes to putting new tires on and putting a time down, our cars are too on edge at either end. So if we chase and cure understeer, we mess up the rear, and if we're loose and we fix it, we mess up the front end. So what we learned in that open test is that the car is feeling a lot better, and I can hustle it and it's responding like a racecar; we're in its setup zone. I think if you asked anyone in the pit lane, they'd tell you that when your setup is way out, it's really hard to make little improvements on these Dallaras: They become numb to the extent that you can't feel differences. Now we've got the No. 26 Venom Energy car responding well, like it should, so I think we're definitely making gains on road courses. However…we're still eighth, so we've got a lot of work to close up that half second to the Penskes.
I think I'm feeling like myself again, a contender, and working with my new engineer, Tino Belli, has been great. He's really listening to me, and that's the key to making the cars better, I think: listen to the driver of your car. The team is putting a lot more into my hands, and I like that and I'm really responding to it. I like to be able to make some calls for the team. But I do have three words to sum it up: there's no magic. Hitting the right setup is about the driver-engineer relationship.
My teammate Tony Kanaan is one of the best in the business at dealing with an ill-handling racecar but, long term, none of us can, if you know what I mean. You could be the best driver in the business, but that's not going to allow you to compete with very good drivers in Penske and Ganassi cars if their cars are working for them and yours isn't. So we want to make our cars better, make our grip better so that Tony, Danica, Ryan and myself don't have to use our ability to carry ill-handling cars. The last couple of years, if you could run parallel in-cockpit shots from our car and a Ganassi car – man, you'd see how hard we were working in comparison…and all for a mediocre lap time!
That's why I'm more positive for 2010 after that test. I felt as a driver that I was making a difference in the lap time, and Barber Motorsports Park – which is one of our race venues this year – can also be compared with Sonoma and Mid-Ohio. However, Barber is also really fast: aside from Turn 5, the hairpin, you aren't going to find passing places, no real heavy braking zones. Turns 10 /11 are sixth gear, and it's everything your arms can do to get that car turned, because the steering loads up so much in the compression. But considering we started to get our heads around road courses toward the end of last year – I qualified fourth at Sonoma – and then add the positives from this last test, I'm thinking we're in for a stronger season.
The weakest part of our game has been street circuits. That's where we needed the biggest improvements, but it's not easy finding a circuit than can truly replicate a temporary street course to test different shock and damper setups. And obviously we can only use so many days of testing in Indy cars…which is frustrating for a guy like me. I mean, everyone at Andretti Autosport knows that my phone's always on if they want to test – hell, I'd test their golf cart if they asked. So I'm gonna go down to MSR Houston with our Indy Lights car – which, as we know, has been pretty successful the last couple of years – and see what we can find. Any experience is good experience, and anything we can find out is going to be helpful.
One thing I haven't done over winter was test on an oval. But because it's 80 percent car, that doesn't matter so much to me from the driving point of view. Let's be honest – on a superspeedway, a driver isn't going to carry a car that's not working. So hopefully we can roll off the trucks with good setups. I'm sure we'll have a day of testing before Kansas. We want to have the No. 26 running as competitive on all the ovals as we did at, say, Texas last year where I was ahead of the Ganassi cars and threatening the Penskes.
So Andretti Autosport has been super busy working on the aero package. We're one of the very fortunate teams to be able to lock down strong sponsors in this economic market, keep steady programs going there, and then use that money wisely. We have some of the best guys in the business in our R&D department so I hope they can make those things happen.