Alex Tagliani (No. 61) and a Sahlen's DP car. (AIM Autosport photo)

Passion for Ferrari fuels Tagliani’s first start for R.Ferri/AIM at Kansas

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Alex Tagliani’s been through several peaks and valleys in a dozen-plus year IndyCar career, and maintained resilience and composure through it all. He’s been on pole for the Indianapolis 500, and also been unceremoniously dumped more than once.

And yet, the nerves struck the popular Canadian in an entirely new way when he strapped into the No. 61 R.Ferri/AIM Motorsport Racing with Ferrari F458 Italia GT car at, of all places, the Kansas Speedway “roval” for last week’s GRAND-AM Rolex Series race.

“Honestly, I’ve never felt the way I did like I did last weekend,” Tagliani told MotorSportsTalk in a Monday interview. “I was more nervous than at the start of the Indianapolis 500! It was a bit stressful at first.

“There was more to it than just, you drive, get in the car, do your best and see you later. It was, I’m driving a Ferrari red car, wearing a Ferrari red suit, having had passion for the brand since I was a kid and growing up with Gilles Villeneuve in a Ferrari as my idol. When you put the suit on you know what you have to represent, because they have a job and certain standards to respect because they are representing Ferrari.”

Tagliani was a last-minute substitute for Max Papis in Kansas as co-driver to Jeff Segal, defending Rolex GT class co-champion, as Papis had NASCAR obligations in Mid-Ohio. The No. 61 is a new car this year, joining the sister No. 69 AIM/FXDD Ferrari in the AIM Autosport stable, and won its first race with Papis and Segal at Indianapolis in July.

Tagliani couldn’t fill in for Papis a week earlier at Road America with his own NASCAR Canada commitments in Trois-Rivieres, and fellow Canadian Kenny Wilden did so admirably.

Team principal Remo Ferri, a several-decade motorsports veteran, Ferrari dealership owner and Italian who now lives in Canada, described the process of providing Tagliani this opportunity.

“Through our racing department, when we found out he was no longer driving in IndyCar, we reached out and contacted him,” Ferri said. “It was fantastic to see a Canadian of Italian descendents driving the car. I’m Italian, I live in Canada, and it was great to put a great Canadian driver in our car.”

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Alex Tagliani (AIM Autosport photo)

Tagliani’s enthusiasm bled through the phone when I asked him the same question.

“Never in a million years would have I turned the offer down, because it was too good to be true,” he said. “When I started racing in IndyCar, well I thought it was almost impossible at my age. I was dedicated to North American racing, and IndyCar was my series. So the chance of driving a Ferrari car, in a professional series, was long gone in my mind. I was not thinking about it. But then this did happen, and it was the best thing that could have happened.”

Almost immediately, Tagliani gelled with the team, which also includes two of his other late-1990s Atlantic rivals besides Wilden, Andrew Bordin (AIM Autosport team co-owner) and Anthony Lazzaro, who co-drives with Emil Assentato in the No. 69 AIM/FXDD Ferrari.

Tagliani and Segal began working through data, with Tagliani able to feed off Segal’s expertise of the GRAND-AM spec Ferrari F458, yet still able to provide his own insights that he thought could make a difference.

“I didn’t feel like I was subbing; I didn’t feel like it was a one-race event. I want to do more,” Tagliani said. “I got involved with the team right away in looking at setups, trying to see if we could develop the car in a different way.”

Ferri spoke highly of Tagliani’s feedback but acknowledged that it was difficult to learn too much from just one race.

“I can tell you he did a good job, and I praised him at the end of the race,” Ferri said. “I know he is a good driver, but let’s find out a little more.”

Things couldn’t have gotten off to a better start as Tagliani scored the pole position on Friday. But unfortunate issues on a pit stop late in the race truncated what had been a promising debut, where the No. 61 led laps throughout the night.

The biggest takeaway I took from my near 30-minute conversation with “Tag” – you hate to cut so much of the chat out – was his passion exuded for Ferrari. In an era where commercialism and corporate interests rule heavily, the simple concept of a driver falling in love with a car, its history and what it represents speaks volumes compared to a driver merely thanking his or her sponsors and getting on with it.

Tagliani explained the rationale behind that logic: “Anything I’ve raced before has layers: it has a race suit and the sponsor. You’re driving a Ford Cosworth-powered car with Player’s on the chassis. You’re driving a Honda with Barracuda Racing as the sponsor. But when you drive a Ferrari, with a Ferrari suit, you’re driving a Ferrari first.”

Understandably, Tagliani is looking toward the future and he may be examining making a home in sports car racing full-time with Ferrari in 2014. Without reading too much into things, both Tagliani and Ferri seem optimistic that Kansas wasn’t just a one-off.

“I was very happy,” Tagliani said. “I think I fit well with the brand and the team. I’m very thankful and appreciative that I had this opportunity once in my life and that it could open more doors than I could have imagined.”

Ferri likened it to the beginning of a relationship.

“I like the guy very much; we’re just beginning to date each other, like a couple,” he said. “And if we go out again, and again, and again, eventually, we might get married.”

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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