Exclusive Q&A with GP2’s Conor Daly

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After speaking to Alexander Rossi in Canada, MotorSportsTalk got the chance to speak with the other young American forging a path towards Formula 1 – Conor Daly – in England yesterday.

The son of former F1 driver Derek, Conor rose through the junior ranks in America before moving to Europe to race in GP2 and GP3. Having finished third in GP3 last year, he endured a tough winter as he went in search of a seat, but finally secured a place in GP2 with Venezuela GP Lazarus for 2014.

After a difficult winter and beginning to the year, we sat down with Conor to talk about his season so far, his career, his thoughts on F1’s revival in the USA and the role that his father played in getting him racing.

It’s been a difficult start to the season, but how do you think things have progressed since the beginning of the year and since last winter? 

Conor Daly: I knew it would be a big challenge coming in as a rookie. Fortunately I got to do the first race last year which was kind of cool, and it went really well, so I didn’t think that it would be going as badly as it has gone so far. But you know every team is different and every situation is different so it’s definitely been a challenge, but I feel like we’re definitely improving. To finish 10th in Monaco after qualifying at the back again; to make up so many positions there, I felt, as a driver, satisfied with the racing and the same again in Austria. I got good starts and passed a lot of people, and ended up 11th and right near the top ten again. It’s tough because last year having went so well and being so close to getting a championship and now we’re fighting again just to score points. It’s different but we can only do what we can do so we’re gonna keep trying to work at it and improve.

And you felt that the GP2 race you did in 2013 helped? You sort of knew what you were coming into when you stepped in the car this year?

CD: Well it did help because I knew I could get in the car immediately and be competitive and fight for the top five, so now, as difficult as it has been and as much as we’ve struggled with the car, I’m very confident in the way I’m driving these cars because of that first race. We have to do a lot of work with the car to get it in the game and get it in the zone, get it where we need to be competitive. It’s been a good kind of benchmark, that’s for sure.

How did the deal with Lazarus come about, because you had a really tough winter trying to find seats and it was quite a last minute thing…

CD: Yeah that’s kind of one of the biggest mysteries. It was the worst winter ever. A lot of things I thought I had never happened. This deal with Lazarus came up when they called me up to do the test, and I informed them of our situation, sponsorship-wise and all of that which is basically the main thing that anyone wants to know about. They were passionate to have me in the car and they wanted to get me in and after the first test they wanted to continue to have me there so we just tried to work with their partners, what they have and the Venezuelan partners that they’ve got and some business in America. Obviously Powerful Yogurt is on our car now, which is a business based out of Miami.

I’ve never really been with a European team that’s really worked on the business side to keep a driver in because for me, I still don’t have the sponsorship from my end. There’s a situation where I obviously still have to bring a portion of the budget, combined with what we’ve put together business-wise, and I don’t have what I need. But we’re all still working together constantly, and that’s great, but it’s kind of a shame at the same time because I wish that there was one year in my career where I could have total security. But it is what it is – that’s racing. I’m not fortunate enough to have governments behind me or oil companies, so it is what it is and I’m happy to be here and we’ve done every race so far so all is well. I can’t be more thankful to these guys for the opportunity.

So over the winter, what other avenues did you look at? Did you look at IndyCar or WEC? 

CD: I was actually totally ready for IndyCar. I was focusing on IndyCar because for GP2, I lost my funding, I lost everything. All the teams I’d spoken to are like “here’s how much it is, you have that, or we’re not going racing”. There was no team that was like “well we’ve got a little bit of sponsorship, we could maybe help you out”. It’s like money or nothing. In IndyCar, at least all of the teams know who I am and they’re really helpful in trying to put things together. However, I still didn’t have enough money for there either.

It was just a really sad situation to see rides that I’d been working on going to other people, just because of a money number. It was a difficult winter only because of seeing things that you’re close to going away, but then all of a sudden, a chance came up and I’m in GP2, which of course overall that was my goal. I just kind of put it on the side because I didn’t know exactly where I could find however many millions of dollars that I needed to get here. The right opportunity that I really wanted eventually came up.

So if I right now put an IndyCar contract on the table, would you take it? 

CD: That’s a difficult question. I get a lot of tweets about that. I can’t say yes or no right now, because I’m in the middle of the GP2 season and that’s my focus, and I don’t know what’s happening in Formula 1. Obviously Formula 1 is the dream for anyone, and still for me as an American because we need an American in the sport, but we also need someone to help an American get to the sport, so that’s the difficult thing. I love IndyCar, but right now, my focus is to get through the GP2 season and to finish that and see where that takes me, but I definitely have a love for IndyCar, for sure.

Of course you did the Indy 500 back in 2013, you couldn’t do it this year though. Was it something you were trying to work out? It clashed with Monaco GP2 of course, so was that the only thing in your way?

CD: Monaco was the only thing in the way, but it would have been good to just focus on GP2 as well. I could have got in the 500 at some 33rd entry, but I don’t want to do that again, I already did that with Foyt. That was an interesting deal, and it was awesome, but I’d like to go back there in a position where I’ve got the experience, I’ve got the testing going in, the right way. It was good to just focus on GP2.

Really looking ahead, is the next chance you’re going to have at the 500 going to be if you’re in IndyCar? 

CD: Yeah for sure. The only chance I’d do the 500 is if I’m in there full-time.

Between GP2 and IndyCar, what kind of differences are there between the two cars when you’re behind the wheel? Is there a big change?

CD: Not really actually. The cars are quite similar on road courses. A lot of people say that GP2 cars would be faster around a road course, but I’m not sure I believe that. I know that IndyCars are constantly getting a little bit quicker with a little bit more horsepower. They’re definitely very close. IndyCar is a little bit heavier, GP2 is a little bit lighter and nimbler but the tires are obviously completely different animals. I’d say they’re quite close which is helpful for me if I were to go either way.

Now the big thing everyone is talking about at the moment is Haas Formula coming into F1 as an American team. You must be excited as an American to see this possibly going ahead? 

CD: Yeah it will be really cool. Gene Haas has obviously done a lot in NASCAR which is really cool, and I like the guys that he’s got in NASCAR. Tony Stewart is a good friend of mine, he’s awesome. Kurt Busch is obviously very cool and him doing the 500 was awesome. I didn’t really get to talk to him much but I introduced myself at the banquet and that was cool for me because I’m a racing fan. We’ll see how it plays out.

Obviously it’s a big challenge, it’s a big thing to do, and it was unfortunate to see what happened with USF1 when they obviously tried to do it. I have a lot of confidence in him because he seems to be fairly gung-ho about going after it, so we’ll just see how it plays out. I would love to be a part of it as an American.

Have you spoken to Gene about it?

CD: I haven’t spoken to him personally, no, he’s very hard to get a hold of! I know my Dad met him in Montreal, but it’s gonna take someone else other than my Dad because he doesn’t want to be the one who’s just like “oh he’s just his Dad”, so we’ll have to kind of get in touch with them a different way. At least my Dad met him and said hello. I have to say he’s aware of both me and [Alexander] Rossi.

Yes of course, he has said he wants American drivers involved with the team, that must fill you with confidence?

CD: You know it does, but racing is a weird animal so I just never know what will happen. 

So say in 2016 if they offered you a role as a test driver and you could do that in tandem with GP2, would that work?

CD: That would be something for sure, depending on how it worked out, absolutely. You can be affiliated with a Formula 1 team and have a legitimate shot, not just being a reserve driver but having a legitimate shot at a race seat, that’s alright. But again, we’ll just have to see how it plays out. I’m ready for it if it comes, that’s for sure.

Being an American youngster at this time must be pretty fantastic. We’ve had Austin come back, New Jersey, Long Beach, they all get thrown around. You must be pretty pleased that you’re the ‘right’  nationality at the moment?

CD: People keep saying that but me and Rossi are still here in GP2, and we’re not getting those calls to jump up. I love being American, I happy being American, but we can’t keep seem to generate the support that other nationalities get from their pure countries – not moral support, financial support. I get so many people who are so passionate about seeing us there, it’s so cool, I love seeing all the tweets and messages I get because I love it too, I love what I do, I’m pretty thankful, and I would love to represent the USA in F1 or on a world level, but it’s gonna take a lot to get there.

It’s awesome that we’re in Austin because Austin’s a great race and the possibilities of more races, fantastic. We’ll just have to continue to see how it plays out, and even if it’s Alex and not me, that’s awesome, I’d love to see Alex there. I was just staying at his house over the weekend, so it’s gonna be cool to see how it plays out, but we cannot stress enough that we need help to get there for sure.

On your way up the ladder with racing, was it just a matter of karting and knowing this is what you wanted to do?

CD: Yeah. Through karting, it was like this was just something I was like “yeah we’re doing it”. But then when we got to the really high levels of karting, and then I started getting into cars and I was like “okay this is definitely what I want to do”.

Your Dad, Derek, must have been a huge influence. Were you pushed into racing at all or was it something you found on your own?

CD: Never pushed, that was one thing my Dad never wanted to do is never push me into something I didn’t want to do. It was actually one of our neighbors who wanted to start go kart racing and they obviously called upon the help of my Dad because they knew about him. So I was like “I wanna go too!” and sure enough I got in and I was like “wow!”. Sure enough, I went for it and the rest is history.

And even to this day he must be a huge influence and a huge help?

CD: Yeah, as soon as I got into it, he was a huge supporter, really enjoyed it, but he was very tough on me all the time, making sure this is what I wanted to do. He almost tried to talk me out of it because of how difficult it is, but that was to make sure that this was what I really wanted to do. As difficult as it was growing up, I’m glad I went through it because of how much I love the sport now and how much I love what I do.

If you’ve got a message for the American fans and people watching you race, what would it be?

CD: Just keep waving the flags, keep supporting us. All the tweets, all the messages, and any form of social media, we appreciate everything.

JR Hildebrand shines at Phoenix after return from injury

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JR Hildebrand had one of the best weekends of his Verizon IndyCar Series career at the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. After returning from a broken hand suffered at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Californian qualified a career-best third and went on to finish third. The result is his first top five since Long Beach in 2013 and his first podium since the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Hildebrand explained in the post-race press conference that he knew Ed Carpenter Racing would be strong on short ovals, and he felt pressure to make good on their potential. “I was definitely anxious to make good on the speed. The team has a great short oval package,” he revealed. “I’m excited to get the result. The car was bitchin. I think at the end of the race, we might have had the best car on the track. It feels good to have that in it. It’s a strong result heading into May.”

And if not for traffic at the end, Hildebrand might have been able to pass Will Power for second. But, as he described, battling traffic was a main theme the entire night, especially with lapped cars battling each other for significant positions. “For me the race ended up coming down to how you managed traffic. Guys are a lap down but racing for top-10 spots. Usually when you’re lapping guys on a road course there’s no stress. Here they were racing even harder than we were. It is a difficult thing to manage. It became about picking opportunities to pass guys,” Hildebrand explained.

In regards to his hand injury, Hildebrand described it as a non-factor and does not see it being an issue going forward. “In my hand, there was no stress. (It’s) good for (Gateway International Raceway) on Tuesday and then the whole month of May.”

Hildebrand now sits 13th in the championship standings, ten back of tenth place Ed Jones.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Pagenaud breaks through for first oval win in Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Simon Pagenaud parlayed a combination of pace and longer fuel stints to win his first career Verizon IndyCar Series race on an oval, in the next logical career step for the 2016 series champion.

After starting fifth, Pagenaud advanced to the lead and led 116 of 250 laps in Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix in the fourth race of the 2017 season in his No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

He’s the fourth winner in as many races, has four top-five finishes to kick off the year, and has now moved into the points lead. It’s his 10th career win.

In a Chevrolet-dominated affair, Pagenaud led teammate Will Power, who finally broke his duck of five straight races outside the top 10, JR Hildebrand, who finished on the podium in his return to action, and Helio Castroneves, who again lost the win from pole position but banked his fourth top-10 straight.

Team Penske dominated, leading all 250 laps themselves – the first time a team has done so since Penske did in Detroit last year.

Scott Dixon completed the top five finishers, the top Honda.

In an attrition-filled race, only 13 of 21 starters finished, with five cars going out in a first-lap accident.

More to follow…

RESULTS

Bourdais among five cars caught up in Turn 1 pileup at Phoenix (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – A massive five-car pileup has dwindled the 21-car Verizon IndyCar Series field in tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix down after a first turn accident.

Points leader Sebastien Bourdais, rival Mikhail Aleshin (the two have collided several times before), Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Max Chilton were all involved in the accident.

Aleshin, who started seventh in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, lost control coming through Turn 2 and collected the others. Bourdais, in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, tried to avoid to Aleshin to the outside but crashed into him. Andretti, in the No. 27 Oberto Honda for Andretti Autosport, spun behind him after contact with Bourdais. Rahal, in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda, tried to split the gap but got caught up. Chilton’s No. 8 Gallagher Honda has also sustained enough damage to be sidelined.

All drivers were out of their cars after the accident, and have been checked, cleared and released from the infield medical center.

Quick quotes are below, Aleshin, Rahal and Chilton talking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Andretti to Marty Snider and Bourdais to Kevin Lee.

“Unfortunately when I started to turn into Turn 1, the rear went and I couldn’t do anything. With full lock, I understood that was it. Snap oversteer. Couldn’t do anything about it. It was obviously my mistake. I am sorry for the guys who hit me as well. That’s racing,” Aleshin said.

Andretti said, “I want to be able to just finish a race. Everyone was trying to miss Mikhail. It looked like he had more downforce. Ryan just missed it. I tried to spin to miss him, then my smoke is why Graham couldn’t see. He hit me. It’s not ideal seeing blue smoke with most of the field coming at you. Glad everyone is OK. It was a product of Mikhail losing it and us trying to avoid it.”

Rahal added, “I didn’t have a perspective. I don’t know what happened. The spotter yells go low, Chilton’s spinning in front of me, I tried to go above him, and his car came up the banking. Legitimately I don’t know what happened. Our luck right now. Need to go to New Orleans for a voodoo doll. Spotter yells one thing. Where else do you go? This is what happens when you qualify at the back. Our sponsors, mechanics don’t deserve this. A lot of work to be done ahead. You’ve been around this long enough – you, PT – you’re just doomed. I was wrong place, wrong time.”

Bourdais said, “You’re just along for the ride. I was too close to brake. Marco was already in there anyway. Ryan cleared it barely. Not much you can do. It was a pretty big slap. It was a shame. You have to have wiser moves on the start like that. Everyone gets caught up in the moment and we were collateral damage. Our Sonny’s BBQ car is busted on the left and right side.”

Chilton concluded, “We had a pretty decent start. I was sort of tensing because four-wide is never good on a short oval. Mikhail lost his car. You only need one car to make a mistake and it’s a disaster. I did the normal human reaction. I spun, as I came back, I got collected by Rahal. Frustrating way to end the day. But so much downforce and these races are so boring, everyone tries to overtake on Lap 1.”

A quick video of the accident via the inside of Turn 1 is below along with the main video above.

WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below: