Australia offers unique opportunities
For the 24 IndyCar Series drivers competing in the Nikon Indy 300 Oct. 26 at Surfers Paradise, Australia, the race presents a unique opportunity. With no points at stake toward a championship, it’s a chance to end 2008 on a high note and get some early preparation in for the beginning of the 2009 season, which will open with street course races at St. Petersburg, Fla., and Long Beach, Calif.
Four drivers in particular are looking at the Nikon Indy 300 as an opportunity to acclimatize themselves to new teams. Dario Franchitti will make his first start with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Vitor Meira will debut with A.J. Foyt Racing, Dan Wheldon moves to Panther Racing and Alex Tagliani will attempt to solidify a spot with Conquest Racing after driving for the team in the final two events of 2008.
“There’s two things (we want to accomplish),” said Wheldon, the 2005 IndyCar Series champion who returns to Panther Racing after winning 15 races with Andretti Green Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing over the past six seasons. “It’s a good time for us to get a feel for one another under race conditions. When you test, that’s great, but it’s always a bit more laid back. I think it’s good to see how people perform under pressure. We’ll definitely utilize that time to get to know one another and hopefully for them to get a good feel for what I need on a road course and vice versa.
“And then, you want to go for the win. You don’t have anything to worry about. There’s no points up for grabs, it’s just kind of bragging rights, and to some degree you might be able to put an exclamation point on the season that just finished. That’s the intention.”
Meira, who will drive the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing entry for the first time in his eight-year career, echoes those sentiments.
“My primary goal in Australia is to get to know the team and to have them learn about me,” he said. “I want us to figure out where we are on setups in relation to the other teams. We’ll learn what we need to improve on and put those things on our list of winter projects, which the timing of this race allows us to do. Realistically, if we can accomplish all of that and come away with a top-10 finish, I think it will be a successful trip.”
For Franchitti, who didn’t compete in the IndyCar Series in 2008 after winning the 2007 championship with Andretti Green, racing in Australia also offers an opportunity to get comfortable in the car again.
"Getting time in the car is the big thing right now,” said Franchitti, who won at Australia in 1999. “I'm getting used to the team and the team is getting used to the way I drive the car. Every lap we're doing I'm getting back into a rhythm.”
Tagliani, a veteran of eight seasons in the Champ Car World Series that included two podium finishes in Australia, started the final two races of 2008 for Conquest Racing, ending the season with a 12th-place finish at Chicagoland. He hopes a strong showing in Australia will lead to a full-time ride in 2009.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had a couple of races already with the team, but the Australia race will be a good way to keep building that team chemistry that is so important,” he said. “We won’t just be working on me getting used to the team, but this race will also allow us to work on the car for next year. So far I’ve only done one street course race (with the team), and we didn’t have much time to get ready. It was pretty much get in the car and drive. Now we’ve had time to work on different things, and I think in Australia we will be able to see where we stand on this type of track compared to other teams. We will also continue learning how to improve this car with our sights on next season.”