Both Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Oriol Servia tend to fly under the radar at Indianapolis all month.
Then on race day, with 20 laps to go, suddenly it seems an RLL car is in position to win and Servia’s running in the top five.
So add the two together and this year it should be perfect for Servia to pull the popular upset akin to what he nearly did at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis two weeks ago, right?
“That’s been what’s happened the last few years, but this time, I’d like to be at the front the whole time. Maybe I’ll change the pace,” Servia told MotorSportsTalk during Thursday’s IMS media day. “The 2011 year felt so good and was so much easier with only 2-3 cars ahead instead of 20.”
One other thing about 2011 – when Servia started third and finished sixth driving for Newman/Haas Racing – that was the last year Servia had an uninterrupted, not fragmented season where the Indy 500 was a transitional point of his year.
In 2012, he finished fourth in the ‘500 in his first race with a Chevrolet powerplant at Panther DRR after the team switched from the underpowered, woeful Lotus following the first four races. Last year, he ended 11th in what was just DRR’s temporary swan song.
“You know I promise you, it seems to always be my situation, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” said Servia, who said RLL is working on meetings with potential sponsors to add more races to his 2014 slate.
“You would think I get used to it – I don’t. All you can do is keep working at it for the results and hope that people want to jump in with us.”
Servia’s setup expertise is widely renowned in the paddock, through all the teams he has raced with. Finding the sweet spot is a challenge, but he’s optimistic they can do it.
“There’s a sweet spot this car has where all of a sudden it behaves a lot better,” he said. “When the field is so competitive as it is now, you need to be in the sweet spot or you don’t have a chance. It moves. Changes with temperature, things influence, ride height, things like this.”
Servia starts 18th and teammate Graham Rahal, in his first Indy 500 with National Guard sponsorship, 20th on Sunday. Rahal took time to preview Sunday’s race on Friday’s edition of The Dan Patrick Show on NBCSN:
If they match their past accolades, expect the two of them to lay low, then arrive in contention late in the running.
“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 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.”