Like fellow IndyCar rookie class-of-2014 alumnus Jack Hawksworth, Carlos Munoz’s results haven’t matched his pace and potential this year.
And while on the surface it looks like there have been a handful of mistakes this year for the third-year Colombian driver – and there have been – Munoz’s efforts to improve are probably being overshadowed by the overall team struggles at Andretti Autosport.
In a case where stats don’t tell the full story, Munoz’s finished eighth, 22nd, 12th and 14th in the opening four races – the 12th at Long Beach was the only time where he was highest of Andretti’s four cars. That’s left him 15th in points, five spots back of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay but two and three clear of Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi, respectively, heading into the month of May.
Starts of 12th, 21st, 10th and 15th also tell a similar tale, although he’s been the highest starter of Andretti’s four cars in the last two races at Long Beach and Barber.
He’s been particularly quick in practice, though. He has top-five practice results of third (Barber FP1) and fourth (Barber FP3) and a handful of other top-10 results. Like others, nailing the balance in qualifying once on Firestone’s red alternate tires has been challenging.
Incidentally, his best finish of eighth at St. Petersburg came after a misguided passing attempt drew ire from Graham Rahal and created a parking lot in Turn 4.
Yet his best drives have come at Long Beach and Barber, where Munoz has been the quickest of the Andretti quartet through most of the weekend.
“I’ve been driving so good and feel so emotionally good in the car,” Munoz told NBC Sports. “You could see it in Long Beach; I never drove so good. I was quicker than Ryan at Long Beach… and his worst qualifying in Long Beach was fourth before that.
“Then Barber, I was really quick in practice. But then in qualifying, I lost the balance on the red tires.
“I’ve never been driving so good as this year. Results haven’t shown that. The team has been lacking… it’s no secret. There’s a little bit of mechanical grip we need to find. As soon as we find it, I hope I’ll be able to fight for victories.
“I’ve done some mistakes. But speed-wise, I’ve not driven better.”
Barber was a tough weekend for Munoz, having triggered the first-lap accordion effect accident between he, Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin. The slow start helped contribute to the chaos.
“When you’re in the back – I checked up – but I had Aleshin in front of me,” he explained. “He accelerated, then braked. I had to lock the rear tires. It was too close. It was my mistake… but the start was way too slow.”
Overall it’s a fascinating fusion for Munoz, who overachieved as a rookie in 2014, then secured his first win last year at Detroit race one but otherwise struggled for competitiveness along with the rest of the Andretti team.
Now though he feels he’s in a better spot.
Munoz has rebounded from a heavy practice accident at Phoenix in early April to find this newfound burst of personal performance. He cleaned up his stats to where he has only had two failures to finish from contact in his last 28 starts, compared to four in his first 13 races.
The impact at Phoenix, he said, was his “first big accident” in IndyCar and forced him to quickly forget about it and move on.
“It was a big hit; if you saw the numbers you’d be amazed,” Munoz said. “But as a driver you have to forget about it and move on. After practice to go back in the car, that was good. It was my first actual big hit.
“The team always said, it’s always one. I had a hit at Fontana, replacing E.J. (Viso, in 2013). But this one was big. I know it’s part of racing when you crash. Try to move on. I feel comfortable.”
Munoz has felt better in terms of setup contribution this year, noting whereas Hunter-Reay or Andretti had been primarily used as the baseline setup in the past, now he’s able to play a greater role.
Additionally, Munoz relates to IndyCar freshman Rossi, who’s learning the ropes in this series thus far as Munoz was two years ago.
“I think this year has been better, probably because I’ve been fast compared to my teammates,” he said. “We work as a team. I know if Marco likes it, that’s better, because more or less we have the same feeling.
“Rossi was (with us) in Texas. And that’s where we try to help him as a rookie. I was a rookie two years ago. So yeah, I helped him. This is hard to get used to.”
He’s also determined and focused on being his own man in the sport, besides being “that other Colombian” besides Juan Pablo Montoya.
Colombian interest has been high in recent years with Montoya, Munoz, Gabby Chaves, Sebastian Saavedra and Carlos Huertas all having been in the series of late. Montoya remains the benchmark but Munoz and Huertas are race winners; Saavedra a polesitter and Chaves a double rookie-of-the-year in 2015, although the latter three are sidelined.
Comparisons are inevitable and while Munoz credits Montoya for getting him interested in racing, he doesn’t want to be known as “JPM 2.0.”
“He’s been a big example since I was a child,” Munoz admits. “I remember when I saw him winning his first 500 (in 2000; Munoz was 8 years old), we all went on the streets and celebrated! We were all waving the flag.
“He showed us the path to become a professional race car driver. But I want to make my name. I want to be my own man. I want to win races.”
Even more fascinating about Munoz is that while this is his third full-time season in IndyCar, he’s still only 24 years old, with room to grow. This is his fifth season in America, having done two years of Indy Lights prior in 2012 and 2013.
The setup advancements and aero kit improvements Honda has made has made the car better to drive this year, as Munoz looks to break out of the tightly bunched, yet crowded, IndyCar midpack.
“I think with the new aero kit, on the road course, I’ve felt much stronger, much more confident,” he said. “It’s easier to drive. It’s a lot more consistent. We had a nasty rear last year.
“There’s loads still to learn,” he added. “Helio (Castroneves) and Tony (Kanaan) learn stuff each race when they keep going. They’ve been doing this for a long time and they learn each time.
“My curve of learning, I still have a lot to get better at, both ovals and road courses. I haven’t reached my potential.
“As a driver or person, you’re never going to reach your potential.”