An interview with: Alex Tagliani Part 1 of 2 Merrill Cain: As the CART FedEx Championship Series heads north of the border this weekend for the Molson Indy Vancouver, the CART teleconference takes on a definite Canadian flare this week. ...
An interview with: Alex Tagliani
Part 1 of 2
Merrill Cain: As the CART FedEx Championship Series heads north of the border this weekend for the Molson Indy Vancouver, the CART teleconference takes on a definite Canadian flare this week. We'll be joined by Alex Tagliani of the Player's/Forsythe Racing Team in just a minute, and later in the call we'll hear from two of our top Canadian CART Ladder Series drivers, Jonathan Macri of the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship and Josh Beaulieu of the Barber Dodge Pro Series.
First, let's welcome Alex Tagliani, driver of the #33 Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone for Player's/Forsythe Racing. Alex, thanks for joining us today.
Alex Tagliani: Thank you.
Merrill Cain: Alex is coming off his third top-five finish this season after placing fifth in Cleveland a couple weeks ago. He is currently tied for eighth in season points standings with 52 points on the year. And we thought it was appropriate to talk to Alex heading into Vancouver because that is a race he dominated from the pole position last year, leading 68 laps before retiring due to mechanical problems.
Alex, we'll open it up for questions, but first off, I'd like to start it off by asking your feelings heading into this race. You've come close to that first career CART win several times, but last year really seemed like you were the man to beat on the streets of Vancouver all weekend long before you ran into problems late into the race. How excited are you to get back there in front of the Canadian fans and get that win that eluded you last season?
Alex Tagliani: Well, I'm telling you, I tried to sleep in the last couple of days, but I was up a couple of times in the middle of the night thinking of this race. I was very, very, very sad and very disappointed last year because, like you saw many times, we were in position to win races. But last year that race in Vancouver was the one that we dominate every session qualifying and in the race, and everything was right, even pit stop strategy, and I guess the only factor that we did not have on our side was luck. We had a mechanical failure on the car and we didn't win. So, it was very tough.
But, I just think that it's tough for everyone in the series, because it's very competitive. It's difficult to predict when you show up at the racetrack what's going to happen. Our car was not as fast this year in Toronto as it was last year, so I'm very nervous to jump on the track on Friday morning and see how the car is. But if the car is close to what we had and we are competitive, then we're going to try very hard to make up what we lost last year.
Q: [Teammate] Patrick [Carpentier] was on this conference call last week and he was talking about the Reynard chassis. He was suggesting that the one type of circuit where the Reynard seems to be at a distinct disadvantage to the Lola is the street circuit. He was talking how he would have to run the car a little higher on the street circuits; the higher the car did not produce as much downforce as the Lola. Do you agree with that assessment, and if so, how will that affect you?
Alex Tagliani: Without going into too much technical stuff, the way [Player's Forsythe Racing Technical Director] Bruce Ashmore is looking at the car and the way he sees into the car, it seemed that Lola produced more downforce than the Reynard. So when you raise the car, put soft suspension on and you go on a street course, when you get into corners about 80 miles an hour, 90 miles an hour, the car has a lot more downforce than the Reynard and you are able to go faster.
Our car is really working good at Lola ride height and that's why we were competitive in Japan. That's why we started second and we were leading the race in Chicago, and that's why, Pat had a good setup and his car was working well in Cleveland. Even though he won the race in Cleveland, [Cristiano] da Matta and [Dario] Franchitti were still up front until they had problems. And we cannot sit and say, "Oh, we are competitive now, it is going to be all good." We might have surprises towards the end of the season.
So we need still to work on had car, and that's what we have and that's what we need to work with. It's definitely coming from the grip and not from the speed in the straightaway because Ford [-Cosworth] is producing good power. We had good straightaway speed pretty much everywhere. Last year we did a 58.0 [seconds] in qualifying in Toronto and this year we did a 58.7. So we are 7/10ths off, but we have four inches of boost left and all our ground lost was on the straightaway.
To be able to go faster than that, than what da Matta did, it's really coming from corner speed, and that's where we need to work, so that's where the team effort is directed.
Q: So given this circumstance, realistically, do you think there's much hope of being able to repeat in Vancouver what you did last year, given there is this slight disadvantage to the Lola?
Alex Tagliani: Well, I think the track is not as bumpy as Toronto, especially on the braking in some of the places. So we might be able to run a little stiffer than Toronto and that might help the ride out of the car and produce some low downforce at lower ride height. And the other thing is, most of the corners are second gear corners. If we can find some good mechanical grip with a car that is a slight bit stiffer and runs slower , then I think we can be very, very close to what we did last year.
In my view, if you want to be fast this year on the CART circuit, you need to go faster into the corner compared with what you did last year. That's where the time comes from and not from the straightaway speed.
Q: What do you think of [Player's Forsythe Racing Owner] Jerry Forsythe's decision to assist with the Reynard throughout the season? Most of the other teams have switched already and he's even talking about running the Reynard next season, are you in agreement with that?
Alex Tagliani: I don't really know what's going to happen. It's not decided yet. This season, it was obvious that we were going to run with the Reynard and we would have some development from the Reynard factory. And a lot of aerodynamic bits were supposed to be on the car and we got really caught off guard when Reynard went bankrupt. So, that was difficult for the team.
Since that time, the team pretty much changed their whole mentality. We are almost running a Formula team. We are producing our own parts, we are developing our own parts, and doing a lot of wind tunnel testing. Actually, the team was there last week. So it's a little bit more difficult for a CART team when you start a season without that preparation in mind, but even if we wanted to switch to Lola, at the moment, Reynard went bankrupt, so we would have had to wait seven months from that time for having a Lola delivered.
Instead, I think Team [KOOL] Green already had Lola ordered a long time ago, and that's why they had to the start the season with the Reynard, but they had a Lola coming and they knew that.
For us, it was a little bit tougher at the beginning, but right now that's what we have. The team is really wanting to improve the car and working at it. They never stop working, that's for sure. I think options are still open for next year because the team wants to win.
Q: Even though you are concentrating on this season, and obviously you are looking towards next year, the Player's sponsorship, because of the tobacco legislation, is going to run out at the end of next season. And I wonder, as drivers, even though you have to focus from week-to-week, and although Player's has been involved in racing in Canada for over 40 years, is this too early for you to explore other options? In fact, what are your options, and do you talk about it as drivers, you and Pat? Do you talk about it as a team, and is it a distraction in any way?
Alex Tagliani: Well, honestly, I think that it's true that I'm looking at other options. I'm not allowed to negotiate with any other team because I'm under contract for next year, too. But, as for myself, I'm looking to different opportunities, but without trying to look at other race teams because my contract is good for next year. So it's a long way to go. We have another year, and in that year, we don't even know what's going to happen. Everybody is really focusing on trying to make the series better, more than anything.
But I think Player's really wants to stay in racing. The bad thing for that is I had my chance and I am not going to be the guy that is going to be really unlucky, because I had the chance to jump into CART and did a couple of seasons. It's the other Canadian drivers like Jonathan Macri, Michael Valiante, those guys, I think they are talented. The only way those guys realistically can go into Indy Car [racing] is with some Player's support, and then they need to have another test from another CART team, but it's really tough.
So, cutting the legs under Player's would be the worst thing for the Canadian sport. It's not going to die. I think you cannot say it's done and I don't have any opportunity left, but it would be very tough. I think it's very sad. I think of it all the time, but I don't make the rules.
Some people need to wake up and say what they really think, and I think it is bs.
Q: One thing I was going to ask you, too, for CART drivers generally there's been a lot of distractions. The field is down to 18 cars, even though it seems like the series has probably turned around a bit under [CART President and CEO] Chris Pook, there's all of these things happening, the German 500 being cancelled; there's a press conference going on today, I guess, where Michael Andretti is announcing that he's going to purchase Team Green. The whole sport of open-wheel racing is in flux, and I wonder if that is another distraction for you as drivers this season?
Alex Tagliani: It is. It's really sad because it's a battle between people that are not smart enough to understand that we are all going to lose in this whole deal. Chris - I don't think he's a magician. He's not able to do miracles. What he did in the last couple of months, which everybody thinks is great, but there's a lot of things that need to be improved and a lot of things that need to be changed.
Even though you work in that direction, there's always somebody that is going to complain and he's not going to be happy. If you try to make everybody happy, then I think that's when you get unfocused and you might lose everything.
So I think Chris needs to stick to what he thinks is the best for us, we back him up and we think it's good. The teams, 20 or 21 cars have already signed a letter of intent for next year, and I think that's pretty good for the series. And who cares who leaves, who comes; it'll just make the series better.
The thing about Germany, well, CART decided to help Chicago, Chicago decided to help other races. If everybody now asks for CART's help, then it's not going to be any healthier. Every racetrack should be healthy enough and like promoting their track enough and their event to be on their own and do their own deal. The Canadian races, they don't ask for CART's help; they do their own thing. That's what every racetrack is supposed to do. If they are not, then it's better losing it than better trying to help it; and then you help it once, twice, three times and then they think you are going to help them forever. If it's not this year, it's going to be next year that we lose that race.
So I think what Chris is really pushing to do is make sure that there's 10 to 12 healthy teams, fully-sponsored and helping them with a financial program that is going to give them a bonus and on top of that, having very healthy events. That's where we are going to race. If it's 18 races, then it's 18 races. He's trying to reduce the cost, because I think some of the teams are really willing to stay in CART, but they would really like to go to IRL, and having a lower budget in IRL gives them a little sideline budget to go to the Indy 500. All of that deal was like a lot of hard work, and it seemed that it produced some good things, but it's not over yet.
Alex Tagliani, part II