This has been a very tough year for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. After winning four consecutive Champ Car titles with Sébastien Bourdais, America’s second most successful open-wheel team has struggled this season, like all the former Champ Car teams, in making the eleventh-hour switch to the IRL. Minimal testing, a serious shortage of parts, more crashes than expected, and a punishing schedule of 14 races in 16 weeks over the last three-and-a-half months meant all the ‘transition’ teams have been playing an unrelenting game of catch-up. And indeed, all the crewmen on these former Champ Car teams are exhausted, hollow-cheeked and desperately in need of a week off.
Newman/Haas/Lanigan also had to cope with the murderous death early in the month of May at Indianapolis of Davey Evans, its most experienced man who had worked for Carl Haas for almost 40 years. Since then, both of the team’s cars have carried a small cockpit-side salute with the words, ‘In loving memory of Davey Evans’.
At the St Petersburg street race in April Graham Rahal drove superbly to score an excellent win for Newman/Haas/Lanigan, soundly beating Team Penske’s Hélio Castroneves in the final sprint to the finish. But the team struggled at Indianapolis and on most other oval tracks where engineering is king. Ovals still predominate on the IRL calendar and the top IRL teams – Penske, Ganassi and Andretti-Green, all former CART champions who defected to the IRL in 2003 – have spent many millions of dollars, much of it funded by Honda and Toyota, on wind tunnel testing and friction reduction work, as well as taking advantage of the IRL rulebook to build an endless range of suspension systems designed to suit individual tracks and aerodynamic characteristics. For these reasons, the IRL’s top three teams are in a class of their own on oval tracks.
But road and street circuits are a different matter and young Rahal and Newman/Haas/Lanigan team leader Justin Wilson have been able to show race-winning speed in the few races run on these kind of tracks this summer. At the Belle Isle park circuit in Detroit last Sunday Justin drove an excellent race, chasing and attacking leader Castroneves, who had to block mercilessly to keep Wilson from passing. To Castroneves’ disgust, he was told by race control to pull over and allow Wilson to take the lead. Thereafter the tall Brit drove away to an unchallenged win from Castroneves (below, being chased down by Wilson in Detroit), Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia and championship leader Scott Dixon.
So Newman/Haas/Lanigan has won twice this year and with two races to go is the only ‘transition’ team to win any races. The final IRL points race of the year takes place next weekend on the 1.5-mile Chicagoland oval where the championship battle between Dixon and Castroneves will be resolved. Most IRL teams will also travel to Australia at the end of October for a non-championship race at Surfers Paradise.
“It’ll be back to reality next weekend,” Justin remarked at the airport on Monday morning. “We’ll be lucky to qualify better than 15th. But I’m looking forward to Surfers. That’s another one where we should be able to run up front.
“But the most important thing is I feel really good about adding my name to the list of great drivers who’ve won races for this team. That makes me very proud.”