A British driver who is picking his own path through American racing and sports cars
At the end of last year the outlook was pretty bleak for Mike Conway. Before the final round of the IndyCar season at Fontana he announced that he was no longer comfortable driving on ovals and while fans and insiders alike understood his decision, the consensus seemed to be that his American single-seater career was over.
By March Conway was still without a full-time drive, but fast-forward several months and he’s put together his best season in years, fulfilling the promise of his early junior career. Conway won the British Formula Renault Championship in 2004 and the British F3 title in 2006, adding a victory at the Macau GP.
A step up to GP2 for 2007 and 2008 yielded mixed results in struggling teams, but he also served as Honda’s F1 test driver, giving him plenty of experience in a top-line single-seater. When he was invited to test an IndyCar at Sears Point during 2008 he topped the time sheets and signed with Dreyer & Reinbold for 2009.
“Those first couple of seasons were tough,” he says. “Lots of mistakes on my part. The car could win and we’d be charging through the field, but I’d make one small mistake and that’d be it, end of race. I was trying too hard. The second season started OK, but then we got to Indy. Big crash.” On the final lap Ryan Hunter-Reay ran out of fuel and Conway hit his slowing car. His Dallata catapulted into the debris fence and disintegrated, leaving him with a broken leg and fractured vertebrae. It was the end of his season.
“I came back strongly with Andretti in 2011 and got my first win at Long Beach,” he says, “but the rest of the year was tough.” Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident at the season-closing Las Vegas race cast a shadow over the series and doubt was entering Conway’s mind. He spent 2012 with Foyt and had his second huge shunt at Indy. By Fontana he’d had enough. AJ’s reaction? “He’s really old school,” says Conway. “He doesn’t take any shit. He was the quietest I’ve seen him when I told him my decision. That’s how I knew he was pissed off. After an hour or two he was OK with it, though. He understood, you’ve got to do what’s right for you. But it was a long off-season after that.”
Conway signed with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for Long Beach and qualified fifth but retired with electrical problems just before half-distance. “We had good speed so it was a shame. We should have had a podium there.” Then came Detroit with Dale Coyne’s team. Starting from pole he won race one and finished third in race two. “Out of all the series I’ve done IndyCar’s the hardest to put a weekend together, but anything I’ve jumped into this year’s been good; I’ve been quick straight away. I think I’ve learned a lot from sports cars. There it’s more about seat time and getting the most out of yourself rather than the car.”
This year Conway made his debut in the LMP2 class of the World Endurance Championship, sharing with John Martin and Roman Rusinov. They finished third at Le Mans but were disqualified for an oversized fuel tank that, frustratingly, started out within the regulations but swelled by 0.4 litres as the race went on. They won in São Paulo and Austin comfortably, but the early results and consistency of the OAK Racing and Pecom squads has probably put the championship out of his reach.
“This year’s been fun trying out different cars,” he says, “and I wouldn’t mind carrying on like that. But I want to win a championship. The ultimate goal is LMP1 and there’s the Indy road course championship as well. This year I’ve really shown what I can do, but we’ll have to see where it goes from here. You never know.” Alex Harmer
Career in brief
Born: 19/08/1983, Bromley, Kent
2004: British Formula Renault Champion
2006: winner, Macau GP, British F3 Champion
2007-08: GP2/F1 testing with Honda
2009-10: IndyCar, Dreyer & Reinbold
2011: IndyCar, Andretti
2012: IndyCar, Foyt
2013: IndyCar, RLL and Coyne/WEC, G-Drive