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Davison returns to IndyCar under less than ideal circumstances

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Davison does not have a full-time ride in the 2017 racing season, which meant he was available for more particular one-off opportunities that could arise.

Davison, now 30, received the call Sunday morning from team owner Dale Coyne to take up a one-off that arguably neither side was ready for, nor one Coyne necessarily wanted to go through.

But a familiarity between Davison and Coyne – he’s driven for the team in three of his four past Verizon IndyCar Series starts in 2013 and 2015 – provides a bit of continuity as he gets the call-up to replace the injured Sebastien Bourdais ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Bourdais had a rocket ship of a primary No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing before his heavy crash in Saturday qualifying left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fracture to his right hip. The team’s lone oval backup car is its primary road course and street course car, and was built up Sunday.

Davison was at Road America at the time when he first saw the accident.

“I was at Road America, watching on a live stream. I was pretty horrified to be honest,” Davison said Monday after running 88 laps in his first day back in an IndyCar in almost two years.

“I had a pain in my stomach. You knew he had to be hurt in some way. It brought back a déjà vu of (James) Hinchcliffe’s crash for many. Certainly was holding my breath. It wasn’t nice to see.”

What it also did was provide a quick response from drivers who weren’t set to be in this year’s Indianapolis 500 to reach out to Coyne to see the status of the No. 18 Honda, while also putting the concern of Bourdais’ health first and foremost.

And, truth be told, Coyne had options to pick from. Davison was known to have been working on a ‘500 program for several months, but his own chances were halted when Fernando Alonso’s shock program was.

“It was my plan to be in the race this year. (I was) aware there was a limited supply of engines and chassis. Someone’s got to miss out. A lot of us didn’t see the Alonso thing coming. That took an engine away from even Stefan or I,” Davison said.

“I knew there was a possibility someone could get hurt, right? You never wish for that. So you’re around the paddock in case something does happen, and you’re there.”

On site in Indianapolis, Tristan Vautier, Matthew Brabham and Stefan Wilson were also pounding the pavement, working to see whether they could be an option too. Other veteran names were murmured, if not actually on site.

Certainly from some paddock observers, and names as big as four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, Wilson seemed a fit from a sentimental standpoint. Wilson had been set to join in the Andretti entry before stepping aside for Alonso, and his late brother Justin had been the one who’d achieved Coyne’s greatest successes.

Davison, on the other hand, was thinking about another name that could have been his “competition” for the lone vacant seat in the field, while also explaining the process of how he got the ride and how awkward said process is.

“I heard from Dale just after 9 a.m. yesterday morning. He told me to come meet him in the garage. Clearly he’s interested, was what I knew,” Davison said.

“For a number of us drivers, we were hoping we’d get the call-up for at least 12-16 hours or so. There was a lot of nervous energy built up, going through our heads, thinking who’s my competition, and who’s likely to get in the seat.

“I thought Townsend (Bell, NBCSN IndyCar analyst) would be possible – my biggest challenge, if he wanted it. He’s had really good runs here. He’s pulled the pin on driving full-time… but if an opportunity presented itself though where he could jump in, and feel he could win the race, he’d consider it.

“Plus, Townsend’s phenomenal at raising sponsorship. I thought Townsend could have possibly been. But maybe, I’m not sure if he even considered it himself. It was a huge relief when I knew, and I was given the go-ahead.”

What then occurred Sunday morning was a whirlwind of emotions and drivers going in-and-out of the Coyne garage to receive either good (Davison) or bad (everyone else) news.

Davison (18) battles Karam (24) in practice. Photo: IndyCar

“Basically, we then had to meet in the garage and chat,” Davison said. “Once I got the go-ahead it was then a totally different state of mind. I have to get my INDYCAR license. I need to call the sponsors. I have to get my helmet. I need to get fitted in the car. I was at the track until 11 p.m. last night doing the seat fit, then here at 8 a.m. this morning.

“It’s been a stressful 48 hours; my mind racing a lot, and especially watching pole day unfold. There’s everyone running 233 mph… and I haven’t even turned a lap. Talk about a contrast. It was kind of bizarre, the state of mind I’ve been in. I’m excited I’m in the race, but it’s for a very unfortunate reason. It is what it is, we’ll do the best we can with the situation.”

Davison was back in action Monday morning with 20-plus laps on his own, with 88 laps total completed on the day. This marked his first day working with engineer Craig Hampson, while he had worked with engineer Olivier Boisson in his rookie Indianapolis 500 attempt with KV Racing Technology in 2014, when he finished 16th.

He said the team was conservative with downforce selections and thinks a finish in the top half of the field is achievable.

“It came back to me like it was yesterday, two years ago was yesterday,” he said. “I was running in a pack with Hinchcliffe and Alonso nearly immediately. They may have assisted with lifting. Time passes, and there was no problem feeling in context.

“It’s nice the Honda is certainly strong. For sure today, we ran conservatively. Maybe didn’t run in traffic as much as I would have liked, but we worked on the balance and the aero trim as well.

“I think we have to be (modest), based on where we are with our situation. With good improvements between now and Carb Day, and the race, hopefully those will go up.

“From the outset, it was always going to be like this.”

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.