Wilson and Rahal announced as NHLR drivers for 2008
“I am extremely pleased and proud to be joining Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing,” said Wilson, 29. “For the entire time I have been competing in Champ Car, they have been the strongest team. Sebastien (Bourdais) has left pretty big shoes to fill but I have big feet! Joking aside, I am excited to have the opportunity to add to the results Sebastien and other drivers before me have achieved for the team. I am hoping to learn my environment quickly and let the results take care of themselves. I am confident that with having a team like this behind me, we can be championship contenders for 2008.”
Wilson’s first time to drive a Champ Car was on October 8, 2002 on the Homestead Miami Speedway oval where he tested for Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) for a possible position at the team for 2003. The test went well and he was scheduled to attend a driver shoot out for the team at Sebring International Raceway in December but withdrew to pursue an opportunity in Formula One where he ran for the Minardi and Jaguar teams in 2003. The position was ultimately taken by Sebastien Bourdais who went on to win consecutive titles for NHR/NHLR from 2004-2007.
Wilson has competed in Champ Car since 2004 when he drove for Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing and finished 11th overall in his rookie season before moving to RuSPORT in 2005. He finished third in the season-ending standings in 2005 and was runner-up to Bourdais in 2006 and 2007. He has won four races, six poles and finished on the podium 14 times in 54 starts to date.
“I am really looking forward to entering my second season with such a great team, and most of all building on a solid foundation that was started last year,” said Graham Rahal, 19. “I think that we should have a strong chance at winning races, capturing podiums, and hopefully earning another championship for this historic team. I think we can all look forward to new beginnings, with great new events, and keep growing the races we have had for many years. This season will hopefully be another championship year for myself, and the whole team.”
"Paul, Mike and I are excited about our lineup of Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal,” said Carl Haas, co-owner with Paul Newman and Michael Lanigan, of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. “Graham ran well for us in his rookie season last year and showed the potential to win races. Over the past three seasons, Justin has consistently been one of the strongest challengers for the championship and we are now looking forward to having him represent us and again being a contender for the title.”
After open tests at courses in Sebring, Florida, Houston, Texas and Monterey, California the Champ Car World Series season opens April 20 with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Transcript from Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Driver Announcement Teleconference Call
Justin has been runner up in Champ Car championship the past two seasons and third the previous season to Sebastien Bourdais. So his joining Newman/Haas/Lanigan is clearly a case (of) “if you can't beat them, join them.” Right, Justin?
JUSTIN WILSON: Yeah, exactly.
They (have) recently been joined as teammates. I saw them personally as well, down in Daytona on Saturday. I know some of you were also there. They've gotten to know each other, and they didn't come to fisticuffs so that's a good thing, at least, leading into our season opening.
I'll start with Justin and congratulations for joining Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Say a few words first.
JUSTIN WILSON: Obviously, I'm excited to be joining Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. It's the team I've competed against in Champ Car. And they've shown year after year they're strong and very motivated and have a team full of excellent people. So I'm very pleased and proud to be chosen to take over after Sebastien has left to go to Formula 1.
JUSTIN WILSON: Yeah, that was my first test. I was looking to come to Champ Car, and I had two options at that stage. I was speaking with Newman/Haas as it was then called to go to Champ Car or go to Formula 1.
We did a test at Homestead on the oval, which was a big eye opener. My first-ever time on an oval was in Champ Car. The speed was something to get used to. So I had a great time--it was a great experience.
But being from the U.K., the draw for Formula 1 at that stage was still pretty high for myself, and I opted to go that route. Which is something that you could go either way whether it's good or bad, because Sebastien then took the Newman/Haas ride and went on to be four time champion, and I kept finishing second to him.
JUSTIN WILSON: Who knows? My aim is to go out there and win the championship. That's what I'm trying to do. You know, filling in from where Sebastien left off is not going to be easy. He obviously gelled very well with the team. He's a great driver and did a great job.
So I don't expect to just pick up from where he left off. I know I've got to work at it and find my feet and get used to the team and try to get things working for myself and understand how to make the Newman/Haas/Lanigan car go quick. It's going to be tough, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, I mean for me it's great to be back with the team. Obviously last year was a good season for us all with Sebastien winning the championship and with me finishing fifth. We felt that we had achieved quite a bit. Obviously looking forward to being back, and it's great to have Justin alongside.
You know, as you said, we raced together in the 24 this past weekend, and obviously it's that entire team and working with Justin seemed to work really well.
So I'm looking forward to the '08 season. I think, as Justin said, we know that we have a determined team behind us to go and win another championship. And certainly, you know, I would hope to be in the championship running towards the end of the season. I think with this combination, it's certainly possible.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, absolutely. I think that obviously the beginning started off a little tough. It seemed to come pretty easy in Houston. So we kind of expected that was the way it was going to go, but mid season was tough.
At the end of the season I did feel much more confident in myself. I honestly felt like we could be looked at as one of the front runners, certainly in the top five. You know, I think that's the way we need to look going into this season is that we should be up front. I think it's possible.
As you said, I definitely felt better in the car at the end of the season, and better competing against all the drivers in Champ Car. I certainly am looking forward to it this year. I do hope when the season comes to an end that we can be right up front.
GRAHAM RAHAL: I'm pretty happy about that. Because I can't say I've ever been the shortest driver in anything. Well, but I think also it kind of works to our advantage slightly because obviously being a taller driver set ups vary quite a bit when you've got one guy that is 5'5" and another guy that's 6'2". So putting us in the same height range should make the set ups more similar and hopefully give us a slight edge.
Q. Given the Autosport affiliation, I'll start off on the British side and ask Justin. You and I had an interesting conversation at Daytona where you're interested in Newman/Haas/Lanigan, not so much in the sense that they had won the last four years, but just because of the culture of racers that exists there. I wonder if you could perhaps elaborate on that a bit.
JUSTIN WILSON: Obviously, the whole team is full of people that are very keen to go racing and doing the right thing to make the car go fast. That is something that is quite unique, I think. As many teams that are just trying to, not just Champ Car but all around the world I've come across it. Some people are trying to win; some people are trying to survive.
It's great to see a team where the whole goal is to go out there and win and maximize their attacks. I'm very excited at being part of that and getting to learn their culture and understand the way they go about working. That's going to be a great education
Q. To turn it your way, can you just talk about how you're looking at your second season and just kind of the, shall we say, the jump in performance you expect from yourself not to be too crass about it. But like anyone who goes racing, if you have a night to sleep on it and a test, you come back and you usually do better the second day. In a sense this is kind of the same thing, only in a longer period.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, I do think I do expect better results this season than last. But as I said, I think towards the end of last season, I did feel much more confident in the car. And I did feel that on any given weekend, we could run towards the front. I think that is something we hope to see again, obviously, even further up the grid.
Obviously, last season was quite a learning experience for me. Coming out of Atlantic and straight into the Champ Car, I can assure you it's quite the jump. So it took quite a bit of time for me to get comfortable in the car and get used to the speed. Certainly headed into Sebring this weekend, I know or I get the sense that I am more confident and feel better with the speed and everything else of the car. Personally I feel that we can look forward to having better results than last.
When I look or judge the end of my season last year, I think if we ran that way all year, certainly we could have been in the top three in points. It's just the fault of a little inconsistency that took us out of it. If we can go at the entire season the way we did the end of the year and the trailing end of the year, I think we can look forward to some good results.
Q. I heard this from Graham the other day, so I'll hear it from Justin. But the camaraderie that you two seem to have, you're already off on the right foot it sounds like, Justin. Can you talk about how much time you spent with Graham? The kind of relationship that you have. Again, Graham spoke pretty glowingly of it the other day. Can you talk about it?
JUSTIN WILSON: Yeah, it's great to be partnering with Graham, obviously, who is still a very young driver who is doing remarkably well. I think he's got a lot of potential for the future and this year as well. So I think we get on very well.
You know, Graham listens to what's going on in the environments around him, and I think that's good to see. So I definitely appreciate having somebody of Graham's talent and maturity for such a young age. I think that's key to being fast in a race car. So I'm looking forward to working with Graham throughout the rest of the year. I definitely see this as being one of the contenders for race victories throughout this year. There's definitely a bright future ahead of him.
Q. Just to make sure I have it right, the year when you tested with Newman/Haas at Homestead
Q. Okay. October 8, 2002.
JUSTIN WILSON. Sorry. I thought there was more question coming from that. At the end of that season, that was just after the Miami Grand Prix, we went and did that test. After that I went across or went back to Europe and in December and decided to join Minardi and Formula 1.
Q. A lot of times you hear about opening one driver's set up on to a car like let's put Graham's set up on Sebastien's car or vice versa. But when you actually share the same car like you and Justin did at Daytona, can you learn about what the other driver likes and things like that?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I do think certainly when you're in a situation like that everybody, it's a bit of a compromise for everybody. Because though the car may be perfect for one guy, the other might feel differently. But I must say that it seemed like everybody in that car really, when the car felt good to one guy, it felt good to us all. So I think our feel for the set up must be very similar.
As you said in the past or certainly with Sebastien, it was a very different feel than what I preferred. But it was something that you kind of get used to as the year goes on and the results seem to get better. So as I mentioned or touched on earlier, I think having two taller drivers certainly it's going to help the two engineers work better together with weight distribution and so on.
I know last year certainly there were situations where we wanted to change the weight distribution that Sebastien could get to, but we couldn't, and that was just due to the height and width. I do think it's going to be more similar this year, and I'm certainly looking forward to that
Q. Justin, there's been some public speculation about where you might drive this year. Is it a relief to have it out in the open and officially announced?
JUSTIN WILSON: Yeah, it feels great. When it was announced at the beginning of the teleconference that I was the driver, I sat here with a big grin on my face. It's nice to finally be a part of the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Team.
So I'm looking forward to the season. I just want to go out there and do my best and try and repay everybody for their faith in me with results.
Q. I'd like a general comment from both guys about what you like about the cars specifically as opposed to a Rolex or any other discipline? What appeals to you most about driving? Maybe some tracks you're looking forward to in the upcoming season, stuff like that?
JUSTIN WILSON: It's great to be driving a car this fast with this downforce around some of the tracks that we do. We go to some fantastic venues, Cleveland, Long Beach, Edmonton. Every track we go to has got its own unique challenges. It's great fun and that is what it's all about; being able to push yourself to a limit and go past it sometimes which is what you need to do to get to the limit of the car
Q. You mentioned learning to communicate with your team which is an issue for every driver, of course, but I'm wondering if there are any specifics--two nations separated by a common language, specific issues with communicating?
JUSTIN WILSON: No, it just takes time to understand your engineer. Not as far as the words he uses, but it's just that bond you get between one another. So when I describe a car one way, he might be thinking I'm talking about the turn. We all see the turning point to a corner differently. Some people think it's when the cars rotating, some people think it's when you actually make the first movement of the steering wheel. So that's what takes time between the driver and the engineer to understand.
I think we're both in a fortunate position where we're working with the engineers that we had in 2007.
Q. Your challenge as a driver, you talk about obviously wanting to win the title. But for you, specifically, Graham, what do you think you need to work on?
GRAHAM RAHAL: As I mentioned before in the past I felt that certainly my confidence in the car and driving had been a little low last season. I certainly hope and obviously, you know, it's always tough as a driver coming into a new series, a new car with a ton of horsepower like it has and the downforce and the speed. It's going to take a long time to get used to, I can assure you.
I think last year toward the end of the year I started to get more confident in it. But I do think that there is still another step to take. I certainly felt last year at times that my inexperience the way I have to look at it, and this is the way I keep telling myself to look at it is in a season like last year where Sebastien's 28 years old, I need to look at it and say what am I going to be when I'm that age? And that is something that I tend to lose sight of. But something I need to pay attention to, because sometimes you always try to expect too much from yourself.
But it was a learning year last year. So this year hope to kind of step it up and raise my game. Obviously, with Justin being on board, it's not getting any easier, I can assure you that. It's going to be quite the challenge, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.
Q. One of the stories last year that made the headlines were the fact that some teams were more successful in adjusting to the new Panoz/DP01 more than others were. Some had better luck with it and some didn't. Can you in a nutshell describe for me what you really liked after one season with it? Would what you really liked about the Panoz/DP01, and the one thing it did that you didn't like that you couldn't get rid of?
JUSTIN WILSON: I liked the fact that it was quick. It was a great fun car to drive. It was fast and it handled pretty good even on its off days. The thing I didn't like about it is it handled pretty good on its off days. It was very hard to tell the difference between a good car and a great car. That was always a challenge from the driver's point of view.
You come back in tell the engineer, the car is great. And he'd look at you a bit confused and say okay, where do we get the other 1.5 seconds from? And you'd sit there a bit confused for a minute and say, OK, so it's not so good. We need to change a few things.
So it really challenged you as a driver. I say it's a bad thing, but it's a good thing as well. As a driver you're always looking for a challenge and that is what this car does.
Q. Graham, what about you?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Obviously I had limited time in the Lola. And I came to love the Champ Car series driving that car. Of but jumping in this the Panoz, I liked it because I fit a lot better than I did in the Lola. But also, as Justin said, the aerodynamic grip of the car is just fantastic, and the speed that it has is awesome. I just really enjoy driving it.
I think the paddle shift system though it had some teething problems initially, certainly we started to get it figured out there in the end and ran across very few issues as the year went on, and I really enjoy that. I think it was a good step forward for the series.
I think the biggest thing that you've seen is it has leveled the playing field for all the teams. That's exciting for me. I like being involved in a series that there is a good mix of teams and drivers that can win on any given weekend. I think that's something we don't see in other forms of racing too often. Not only do you see our team win, but you've got, obviously, in the past with Justin and Walker and so on, and Dale Coyne. There is such a mix that this car has provided us that in the past wasn't there. I think that's what's made it really exciting for me
Q. For both the drivers, Justin provided much of the competition the last couple of years as far as the championship was concerned. Can you, considering this arrangement, can you sort of size up the competition what you expect this season? Is or is it even with all the uncertainty too early to tell?
JUSTIN WILSON: I think it's a little early to tell right now, but I'm expecting it to be tougher than ever as more people are working at the Panoz, like Graham was saying. Everybody who competes will have the same equipment, and that's what makes it exciting. But the longer everything stays the same, more people work it out and the playing field gets leveled again.
So the second year I think if Robert Doornbos is back in the championship, I think he's going to be very quick as Will Power. I think the main competition will come from those two. Is and I'm sure there are going to be a few others there as well. It's great to see Oriol Servia finally get a full time drive, and I'm sure he's going to be right up there giving us a hard time. He was quick the last couple of races with PKV. So I think it's going to be one of the most competitive seasons in Champ Car for many years.
GRAHAM RAHAL: I would say the same. I think there's a little uncertainty right now as to who is going to be where. But I do think that just as Justin said, Will's obviously very quick. And on any given week he can be right up front.
I think if you see Doornbos back, he's obviously going to be good. (Simon) Pagenaud is strong, if he's back again. There's a lot of guys. Obviously last year we saw quite a bit of a mix up. You even saw Bruno (Junqueira) in the Coyne car do extremely well. So I think there are a lot of guys that could be running up front.
But, again, the thing that I think this team has the advantage with is they've been able to constantly put the entire year together rather than just one weekend and then maybe another one towards the end of the season. That's where we have our advantage, and I'm certainly looking forward to that.
Q. I'm curious now that you're both there at Newman/Haas, it seems to be the hardest working team in terms of maybe staying the latest in the paddock working at night in preparation for a race and also maybe the most consistent in results. You've touched on how the other teams now have caught up because everybody's had a year of experience with the Panoz. Can you each talk about what you think are the areas of the car where the teams can do the development? Because everything I think is pretty much spec on the car, but there must be some areas that teams can work on.
JUSTIN WILSON: I think it's more a case of the set up of the car. The springs, the roll bars, the damper curves, the ride heights, the downforce levels, all those things are quite critical. Often if you do them in the wrong order you get a very different end result.
So the benefit of not changing the car too much is people can go back through the year and say, OK, well in Elkhart Lake. We did things in this order and it didn't work out. And in San Jose we did it in this order and it did work out. So let's do it in this order the whole season. That way they get a base set up for the 2008 season much quicker and more efficiently. That's why people can catch up and work things out, as well as using the set ups that worked from the year before. Discarding the routes they took, the paths they took that didn't work in 2007. So everyone is slowly working towards the same result, the same answer.
GRAHAM RAHAL: I would say the same. I think this team is very strong. Obviously the engineering department is stellar here. I think that's where the advantage really comes in. You're seeing with this car there's really not that much you can do development wise. It's certainly not like the Lola had been in the past. And that's certainly what's leveled the playing field.
I don't expect like I said, they've opened up a couple more things this year. I don't know exactly what they are. But I expect the competition, as Justin said, to be just as tough. Because of how spec the car really is. And you gain some advantage in the dampers and everything else, but at the end of the day, every team's got the opportunity to do the same thing. If everybody's been doing their homework over the winter certainly it's going to be close this season?
Q. One follow up for Justin. Just about the off season. Your name's been linked with Newman/Haas/Lanigan for some time as well as a few others. Can you mention how the deal came about, kind of when you knew where you were going to be driving this season?
JUSTIN WILSON: I obviously was with RuSPORT before. They closed down. My contract was no longer valid for other reasons, and that's when I started looking elsewhere. You know, it's taken a little bit of time to sort out the deal with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, but that's just because we started so late. So I'm just very pleased the deal is finally done, and we can start working on the 2008 season.
THE MODERATOR: We are actually going to make an announcement later today that we are going to build a new partnership with the Rexall Grand Prix of Edmonton to extend that event. We're really excited about it here at Champ Car. It's a great event. It has been for three years. You won it in 2005. Maybe just tell me a little bit about what makes that event special?
JUSTIN WILSON: It's a great racetrack to start with. Every driver seems to enjoy the track and the challenges that brings to you. And the fans that come out, it's unreal. Every time we go there, the place is packed no matter what the weather is. And that is just a really cool feeling to have those kind of people there watching you perform. It's what makes it all worthwhile. So you definitely want to come out on top there, and you just hope that you have a good weekend and you get to experience that.
Q. To finish up, what are your goals this weekend in Sebring? What are you hoping to achieve over the three days down there?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Certainly we need to keep learning as much as we can about the car and try to hone in on a good set up for myself and for Justin.
I'll be the first to admit I struggled at Sebring in the Champ Car. It was quite a tough track for me. But just go there and learn as much as we can. It's been a while since any of us have sat in the car, and it's going to be quite the change of pace from what I've been driving recently, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.
I think working with Justin, again, will be exciting. If we can get off to a good start it will be a sign of what's to come during the entire season?
Q. Obviously with a new team, what different goals from a testing perspective, what are they specifically?
JUSTIN WILSON: Well, to start with the first thing is getting used to the team, getting used to the car and the environment. So the first test is all going to be about getting familiar with my environment and learning how to extract the most out of it.
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