It will be the first time for the team to turn a wheel on an oval track since the 2006 CCWS event at the historic Milwaukee Mile. NHLR driver Sebastien Bourdais drove to victory in what he considered the highlight of his season due to the struggles the team had had at their “home track" in previous years. Ironically Bourdais finished ahead of second place Justin Wilson, who was named as his replacement at the team for 2008.
McDonald’s driver Wilson has only made five starts on an oval track which is the same number of CCWS events held on this type of track since 2004. His first test in a Champ Car was with NHLR at HMS in October 2002 and although the test went well he elected to pursue a ride in Formula One for 2003 and didn’t join the series until 2004.
Hole in the Wall Camps driver Graham Rahal was classified as a rookie last season in the CCWS and finished fifth overall in the season-ending standings. For the second consecutive season and second with NHLR he will again be classified as a rookie. He will run laps around an oval track in a major-league open wheel race car for the first time beginning with the 4 – 10 p.m. practice session today. While he was progressing through the open-wheel racing ranks, Rahal ran one oval event in a 2005 Star Mazda race at Pikes Peak and finished second.
Craig Hampson, who begins his 15th season with the team in 2008 and his first as senior engineer, is responsible for overseeing the engineering department at NHLR. For the previous six seasons he was a race engineer, four of which were championship-winning seasons with Sebastien Bourdais. He provided the following comments on the upcoming challenges facing the team and how to team plans to approach the challenges.
CRAIG HAMPSON, senior engineer for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing:
“The last time we tested on an oval was in Las Vegas in 2005 and the last race we did on an oval was at the Milwaukee Mile in 2006. Being that Champ Car had only one or two races per year on ovals — and none at all last year — we chose to focus our limited test days on road and street circuits. Regardless, the setups for a Champ Car will not apply to an IndyCar Series car. They are largely a different animal.
“Justin did actually test for us here in late 2002 but that was in a Lola and the track has been totally reconfigured since then. In addition it was his first time on an oval or in a Champ Car so that knowledge will not help us.
“The team has faced an unbelievable mountain of work over the past three weeks and this is surely only the beginning of a difficult season for us. The regular IndyCar Series teams have had several years to work on the development of this chassis and gearbox, and it will take many, many months for us to catch up on all the important details. This series is about subtle adjustments and changes. All of which we are going to need to figure out for ourselves. Researching all of that takes time and money.
“Justin has done a small number of oval races so I expect he will be a bit more comfortable initially but he certainly doesn't have the same sort of experience that Oriol (Servia) or Bruno (Junqueira) does. For Graham, trying to figure this out in just two days is a difficult task. He's done only one oval race which was years ago in a Star Mazda car and I'm not sure he's ever been over 200 mph before. And he certainly has not been running wheel to wheel with a trimmed out car that dances around. However, Graham has good feel and good car control and he tends to be good in high speed road course corners so I think all that will help.
“We just need to take our time with this. We need to be sure the drivers are comfortable and the cars are stable. We can't worry about going fast right now. We need to be conservative and safe. We've told both drivers ‘If the car spooks you at all, come in immediately and we'll work on it.’ The other teams have enough of a head start on us and enough of a technical advantage that if we start to do desperate things to the cars, we're only going to get ourselves into trouble. We need to stay disciplined and take a very long term view of where we sit and where we need to go." NHLR PR