Some Servia is better than no Servia for 2014

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It’s the line that best sums up Oriol Servia’s IndyCar career – often times interrupted, but never defeated: “Where will the wind blow next?”

The Catalan has had perhaps the most circuitous route to navigate over the last 15 years, dating to his rookie year in the then-CART championship in 2000.

In order, the team breakdown is: PPI Motorsports (2000), Sigma Autosport (2001), PWR Championship Racing (early 2002, the former PacWest, and forerunner to KV), Patrick Racing (2002-03), Dale Coyne Racing (2004-05), Newman/Haas Racing (2005, part 1), PKV Racing (2006, initially PK and before KV), Forsythe Championship Racing (2007), PKV again (2007, part 2), KV (2008), Rahal Letterman Racing (2009), Newman/Haas/Lanigan (2009, part 2), an off year, Newman/Haas/Lanigan (2011, part 3), Lotus DRR (2012), Panther DRR (2012-13), Panther Racing (2013), and now Rahal Letterman Lanigan (2014, part 2).

It says something about the quality of person and driver Servia is that through this maze of different teams, through three different series (CART, Champ Car, now IndyCar), his presence on the IndyCar grid continues to endure in some capacity.

Servia’s stats are not otherworldly. In 191 career starts, his only win came in 2005 in Montreal, then filling in for the injured Bruno Junqueira for Newman/Haas in Champ Car. There have been 18 other podium finishes.

But he’s dependable and always extracts the maximum from his machinery, if not overachieving altogether. In his full seasons dating to 2003, Servia has finished in the top-10 in points on six of a possible eight occasions (11th in 2006 and 13th in 2012 were the only exceptions, and he missed most of 2009 and 2010).

Think of all the various teammates, crews, setups, chassis, engines and seat fittings that Servia has gone through over the course of his career, and that’s in part why he’s as well respected and liked as he is.

In any instance, Servia could be frustrated about the situation presented to him, but he tends to laugh it off, roll his r’s, and move onto the next opportunity.

When you think of any open ride on the grid, the first name that comes to mind is Servia’s. When you think of a fill-in driver needed, Servia’s name emerges. When at the end of a season, a team closes, or a manufacturer pulls out, Servia’s often been the one left on the sidelines… yet he’ll likely re-enter the frame at the next available opportunity.

There’s a likeable underdog story about Servia in that for all of those 14 years, he’s really only had one shot at the best level machinery – when he was plucked from Coyne to replace Junqueira at Newman/Haas in Champ Car. And that year, he finished second in the points only behind teammate Sebastien Bourdais.

In nearly every other instance, he’s been a part-time role, fill-in role, or a last-minute change of team or equipment either at the start of or during a season.

Some of the standout races he’s put together in those roles in recent years include finishing second at Long Beach 2007 subbing for Paul Tracy at Forsythe, finishing on the podium for KV later that year at Mexico City, ending fourth for N/H/L at Motegi in 2009, or achieving any of the “ghost” top-fives he did in 2012 once DRR dumped its Lotus for a Chevrolet. It proves he still has what it takes to get the job done well at this level.

In 2011, his last proper full season, he was fourth in points with an NHL team operating on a comparative fraction of a budget compared to Penske, Ganassi and Andretti.

Just this past year he was ninth in points after the Indianapolis 500 driving for DRR, before that team too shuttered operations. And when he filled in down the line at Panther, he was seventh on two occasions in a car that had little business finishing that high.

He’s worked with big-name teammates such as James Hinchcliffe, the 2011 rookie-of-the-year, Graham Rahal, Will Power (who Servia beat in points over the course of the full 2008 season), Tracy and Bourdais, among others.

It’s rare to find someone like “the people’s champion” with such a high approval and popularity rating in the paddock, and it was interesting to watch the congratulatory messages flow in this morning.

And so, fittingly, Servia’s deal thus far for 2014 is part-time, four races and part two of his journey with RLL, and Graham Rahal as a teammate.

Servia will probably overachieve, score at least one top-five finish, maybe contend for a podium, and still there will be no guarantee of further races after the month of May despite the desire many will want to want to see him continue.

For Servia, it couldn’t happen any other way.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.