Wilson & Rahal Aim for 3rd Street Course Win of 08
Each time Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing (NHLR) has competed on the streets of Surfers Paradise Queensland, Australia, they have had to consider the effect the outcome of the race would have on their season-ending standing or, as was the case in recent years, their fight for the title and run a semi-conservative strategy. The goal of their 18th appearance at this year’s Nikon Indy 300 will still be to win but since this event is a non-points, exhibition race the annual affair could produce even more surprises than usual for an event that has seen only one repeat winner – former NHLR driver Sebastien Bourdais -- in 17 years.
|Sebastien Bourdais in 2007|
“There’s not a championship on the line this year going to Surfer’s Paradise but that doesn’t mean that the drivers don’t still want to win really bad,” said Justin Wilson, driver of the No. 02 McDonald’s race car and the most recent winner on a street course after having won in Detroit. “There certainly is no added pressure from a championship standpoint but it means so much to win at this track so it’s a very important race for the drivers. To have a win here on your resume means you’ve overcome a lot of odds.”
The seaside venue is the site of many fond memories for NHLR as Bourdais and the team clinched the last three of their eight titles and won three of the past four races here dating back to Bruno Junqueira’s win in 2004 and subsequent 1-2 finish with Bourdais who also earned dramatic title clinching wins in 2005 and 2007. Wilson is no stranger to these results as he was the team’s biggest challenger and went on to finish third in the season-ending standings to both NHR drivers in 2005 and second to Bourdais in 2006 and 2007 before being hired to replace the Frenchman who moved to Formula One. Wilson is the highest finisher from the 2007 to return this year and is hoping to continue the momentum of a win in the previous Indy car street race in Detroit.
“Last year I finished second after a good race with Sebastien (Bourdais),” said Wilson who has competed here every year since 2003 except 2006 when he broke his wrist in Friday’s pre-qualifying warm-up. “We were trading positions on the pit stops and I passed him on track and he passed me back on the last pit stop. It was a good, fun battle. The two of us got out front and once Oriol crashed it was just myself and Sebastien that were pushing hard for the race win so it was a lot of fun! We’ll be riding high after winning the previous two street races this year between myself (Detroit) and Graham (St. Petersburg). That will give us a lot of confidence but the track is so different that it doesn’t guarantee that our setup is going to work. But we’re hopeful that we have a good understanding of what it’s going to take to tune it in if it’s not good straightaway.”
|Wilson winning in Detroit in 2008|
NHLR is the only team competing in this year’s event to have raced in every round held here. Of the 17 previous races, NHR/NHLR has won six times (Nigel Mansell, 1993; Paul Tracy, 1995; Cristiano da Matta, 2001; Bruno Junqueira, 2004, Sebastien Bourdais, 2005, 2007), earned 10 podium finishes and racked up 14 top-five and 21 top-10 results. In addition they have earned seven poles – the most recent of which came in 2005 by Oriol Servia. Despite the transition to a new series, Wilson has been competitive on all road and street courses this season and is hoping to continue that on one of the most challenging courses of the season.
“The event is rated highly in my opinion because it is a very demanding track,” said Wilson who started from pole on the streets of Long Beach in April’s Champ Car finale. “It’s very physical and very demanding on the drivers. Your concentration level needs to be at its highest point because you have to be able to commit to all of the high speed corners on a street circuit where you don’t have any runoff or leeway. The smallest mistake can lead to a big accident so it is very psychological. There are a lot of curbs you have to jump and a lot of cambered and crowned corners also which are very tricky and I’m sure they will be even trickier in the Indy car.”
Wilson’s teammate Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 06 Hole in the Wall Camps car, is also looking forward to his return to the streets of Surfer’s Paradise. After coming here once as a child in 1998 to watch his father Bobby race, he competed here for the first time last year and it was a memorable experience.
|Graham Rahal won race in St. Pete|
“As far as the enthusiasm and excitement of the fans and community around the circuit, Surfers Paradise is one of the best events I have been to and been a part of,” said Rahal, 19. “Last year my expectations for how good the event would be were high based on what I had heard and seen as a kid and the experience completely surpassed my expectations. It was an amazing event last year and it’s really exciting for me to go back this year. It’s probably the best race on the schedule other than the Indy 500. In terms of fan attendance and the enthusiasm that the fans have toward the race, it may be unmatched. I look forward to competing there again this year.”
Last year Rahal started ninth and proved his competitiveness by setting the fastest lap of the race for the first time at this level but finished 11th after being hit by Nelson Philippe on Lap 26 of 61 while fifth. He will be one of 12 drivers in the 24-car field to have competed here before. After a record-setting performance last year, he hopes to have a trouble-free race this year and earn a strong result.
“I think we ran a really good race last year but unfortunately we didn’t have the best of finishes because of the fact that Nelson Philippe hit me when I was running fifth and spun me out but that’s how things go,” said Rahal, who along with Wilson were the only transition drivers to win during the 2008 Indy car season. “I was able to set the fastest lap of the race for the first time. We didn’t say ‘Let’s try to run the fastest lap’ but the car was really good and I was able to push it really hard and we were able to do it which is really cool. And I don’t think the lap time will be beaten any time soon because the Champ Car’s had more horsepower.”
The race in Australia has always been known to produce surprises beyond the usual contact-related incidences. In addition to multiple occurrences of torrential rain to a then-drought stricken area, a caution or two has also been brought out by hail in the warm, beach town. Although it’s impossible to predict Mother Nature’s role in the outcome of the race, Rahal expects it to be full of action.
“I do think you will see more bonsai moves because there isn’t a championship on the line,” said Rahal. “There are going to be people with the mindset that they are just trying to prove themselves and that it doesn’t really matter what happens at the end of it all. Since it’s not for points, I think everyone is just going to go all out and see what happens. That’s the mentality that a lot of these guys have and unfortunately any one of us could pay the price for it. The race is known for surprises and I definitely think that will be the case again this year.”
Between wins by Rahal (St. Petersburg) and Wilson (Detroit) in the first and last street races of the 2008 season, respectively, the team made visible gains with the new Dallara/Honda/Firestone Indy car racing combination throughout the season. Armed with a better understanding of the equipment with each race, Rahal figures he and his teammate should provide strong competition for the rest of the field.
“Surfers will be the only street course we will run on this season in an IndyCar that we ran on last year in a Champ Car but we should be able to adapt pretty quickly,” said Rahal. “We ran strong in the last IndyCar Series street race in Detroit and Justin won so we are learning more and more about the Indy car. Overall we were pretty quick last year. I hope we can contend for a win this year. I think Justin will be very tough to beat there but I really enjoyed the circuit last year and for rookies coming in that haven’t been there before, it’s a tough track. Dixon and all of those guys have seen the place so it’s not going to be too different for them.
While the team is excited to get back to racing action after a six week break, they will do so with heavy hearts after the passing of team co-owner Paul Newman on September 26. The same love and appreciation of competition that brought Newman and fellow team co-founder Carl Haas together to form Newman/Haas Racing in the winter of 1982 will continue to propel the team in their quest to honor Paul the best way they know how – with continued success.
“It will be the first race without Paul which is obviously going to be difficult,” said Wilson. “We all miss Paul and it will mean a lot for either myself or Graham to go out there and try and get a win for him. We’ll just do our best and give it everything we can and try to come out on top.”
“It’s going to be tough racing for the first time without Paul,” added Rahal. “We’re just going to go out there and approach it like we always have. We want to go out and get a win for him because we all know that winning made him really happy so that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
This weekend’s Nikon Indy 300 can be seen on live on ESPN Classic on Saturday, October 25 at 10:30 p.m. EDT and will be re-aired at 11 pm. Oct. 26 on ESPN2. The event will get underway with practice on Friday, qualifying on Saturday and the 60-lap race will begin at 12:40 p.m. local time (14 hours ahead of ET) on Sunday. As always, fans can follow the action from every on-track session via the official website of the IndyCar Series, www.indycar.com. It will also be broadcast live on IMS Radio Network.