CHAMPCAR/CART: Newman/Haas Racing - Race Engineers' interview

With two races remaining in the 2004 Champ Car World Series season, McDonald's driver Sebastien Bourdais holds a 307-280 lead over PacifiCare driver and Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) teammate Bruno Junqueira. Following are answers to questions posed...

With two races remaining in the 2004 Champ Car World Series season, McDonald's driver Sebastien Bourdais holds a 307-280 lead over PacifiCare driver and Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) teammate Bruno Junqueira. Following are answers to questions posed to each of their race engineers.

Craig Hampson , Race Engineer
No. 2 McDonald's 0x01afrd-Bridgestone Lola
Driven by Sebastien Bourdais

Q: With two races to go in the 2004 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season, what are the plans in order to secure the championship for your driver?

CH: "With Sebastien we have somewhat of a leg up with the points lead. It is not necessary for us to win the races - or finish in front of Bruno. We just need to finish near by -- within three or four spots of him so that takes some of the pressure off. We've been fast all year and in 2003 Sebastien was good at both of the remaining tracks so I feel pretty good about our prospects. If we just keep doing what we've been doing all season things should turn out just fine. My worry is those things that are out of our control. We had a few engine failures recently so that is a little unsettling. And we'd have wrapped things up by now if not for the two instances where other drivers hit us (in Montreal and Laguna) so you always worry about contact or a crash. Nothing in racing is 100 percent no matter how hard you work to alleviate the surprises so I'll still have my fingers crossed. The nice thing is that we've essentially secured the championship for the team, for Newman/Haas Racing. Ultimately our job is to win the title for Carl & Paul. The fact that we can fight it out between our two team cars is a tribute to the team."

Q: How would you characterize the season to date in terms of your specific team as well as the field in general? What were the biggest surprises?

CH: "I'm very proud of the job that the McDonald's team has done this year. We've won a lot of races and poles but the record where we've qualified for every race in the top 3; that's actually the one I am most proud of. If you look at all the things that can happen in a qualifying session with the potential for crashes, or spins, or red flags, or traffic in your way, or the occasional bad setup, we've basically managed to avoid, or at least alleviate, those things to qualify well on a consistent basis. The mechanics have worked very, very hard and have overcome a lot of obstacles to put that run together. We've bonded well as a team and I dare say we get better and better each week. When you wrap up a front row position on Friday or qualify well on Saturday, it makes race day that much easier. It lifts a big weight off your shoulders and reminds you that things are going well. A good starting position is the key to doing well for both Australia and Mexico City.

"I was also really pleased with what the team accomplished at Las Vegas. As a team, we have a couple of the very best drivers so Sebastien and Bruno can take a mediocre setup and car and make it look pretty good at a lot of tracks. But Las Vegas was pretty much all car. If the car was slow, there wasn't anything they could have done to pedal it faster at Las Vegas. That particular track required a special setup, with special parts, and a lot of design, thought, manufacture, and testing. And as a team we responded very well to build two very fast -- and closely matched -- cars. The mechanics, the fabricators, the carbon guys, the paint shop, the engineers, we all did our jobs as well as we could. And when all the parts and pieces were added together, NHR had the two fastest cars; that was very gratifying. The team should rightfully feel good about the 1-2 in Las Vegas."

Q: What do you feel were some of the strengths the team had this season?

CH: "Sebastien has done comparatively better this season because of his growth as a driver. The fact that he has now been to each of the tracks once before is a big advantage. We don't have to spend practice time with him learning his way around. Instead he knows the right line, how the car should feel in each corner and what he wants out of the car setup to make the car go fast in qualifying or the race. His speed is the same this year as last but now he has experience to back it up, and that shows in how he guides the crew to set up the car each weekend.

"I also think the team did a good job in getting ready for 2004. The winter was tough. We did not know if Champ Car would survive, and in what form yet we still kept our heads down and worked on the things we could -- trying to figure out how to improve the car and make it faster. We had a big pile of ideas and parts figured out and when Carl was 100 percent sure we'd be a Champ Car team for 2004 we pulled the trigger and all of this work started happening. It was pretty hard actually, because we had to compress a full winter's test and development schedule into only a couple of months but everyone dug in and got it done. We were fast at Long Beach - and we've stayed fast. So that's rewarding."

Q: How could you describe the synergy within your respective crews this season as well as the team in general?

CH: "It is no secret that it is difficult to keep two very competitive drivers working together in a professional manner. When both guys can win, and both guys think they are the best driver on the team that can be a difficult situation. Look at (Ayrton) Senna and (Alain) Prost in Formula One. Or (Juan) Montoya & (Michael Schumacher) Schuey. When Bruno and Sebastien hit each other at Elkhart and Denver, this was a hard time for the team. It wasn't a situation we wanted to deal with even once -- not to mention two races in a row. But each guy had a role in what happened and either guy could probably have avoided it each time. It was a case of two strong and competitive people going for the same piece of track -- and both wanting to make a statement. But we sat them down and explained to them how damaging this was to the team - and how this sort of incident simply cannot happen. They are both adults and they definitely understood where our point of view was. This is a team and the most important thing is for the team to win the championship. From Paul and Carl's point of view, it does not matter which driver wins as long as one of our guys does. And as engineers, we also need to work towards that same end. Our cars are identical. They have the same level of preparation and development. We start them out with identical setups each weekend and we work closely together, sharing data and setups and reads on various tests and experiments. Some weekends, we adopt Bruno's setup. Other weekends Bruno may adopt Sebastien's setup. Even though we are racing each other - it is a totally open book."

Q: Given the odd happenings during the Australian race in the past (rain, hail, etc.) what type of event do you think it will be? What factors will you be concerned with as the race progresses, if any. Who do you think the main competition will come from and why?

CH: "Every year in Australia, it rains in the afternoon. Why someone won't recognize this and start that race at 12 noon rather than 3 PM is simply beyond me. A race that started at noon would almost never have rain. But by starting it so late, we almost assure that the race will be affected by rain. It mystifies me.

"I don't like rain. All rain does is give you a chance to lose a race that you should win. Last year NHR had the two fastest cars in Australia. We qualified 1-2, were running 1-2 and then it rained and we ended up with an expensive and upsetting pile of wreckage. Two big accidents, all because it rained. Our guys are good drivers in the rain but the variable conditions mean there is a lot more luck involved and odd things can happen. From that point of view, I don't like it at all. But if it does rain, I want it to just rain. When conditions come and go -- dry tires then wet tires then dry tires with a whole bunch of wrecks and caution periods, it makes it very hard to figure out the strategy and what to do with the pitstops. You can be fast and not do anything inherently wrong but still end up 7th or 8th and scratching your head.

"Paul Tracy is typically very good at Australia and (Jimmy) Vasser tends to run well there. I suspect the RuSport guys will be quite good because their program is gaining momentum and they are now regularly showing well. I think Herdez will have a good setup, in particular because their race engineers have brought in good setups from other teams. (Alex Tagliani) Tag was fast there last year, too. I know that's practically everybody but it shows how tough the competition is.

"Australia is going to be a very difficult fuel mileage race. With the slow corner speeds but many long and fast straights, the engine chews up a lot of fuel. In qualifying we get something like 1.55 mpg! If the race ends up going "green" I suspect what fuel mileage someone gets can be a big factor in the outcome."

Guillaume "Rocky" Rocquelin, Race Engineer
No. 6 PacifiCare Ford-Bridgestone Lola
Driven by Bruno Junqueira

Q: With two races to go in the 2004 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season, what are the plans in order to secure the championship for your driver?

GR: "For both drivers, more than finishing well, it is mostly a question of finishing the last two races to try to secure the championship. Bruno can not really win the championship unless Sebastien does not finish a race (Or has enough of a problem in a race to finish badly 0x2022 outside the top 12). Conversely, Bruno's chances would be over as soon as he drops out of the top 10. So unfortunately, the biggest thing we can do is make sure that Bruno is running well at the finish, almost regardless of what Sebastien is doing. Reliability and a conservative race are what we are looking for. Sorry.

"Maybe for the PacifiCare team there is the added motivation to try to win one of those two races -- even if that is not enough for the championship 0x2022 just to prove that we finished strong and fought till the end, something that the McDonald's team doesn't have to prove."

Q: How would you characterize the season to date in terms of your specific team as well as the field in general? What were the biggest surprises?

GR: "It is difficult to judge the other teams from the outside. They might have had problems that hurt their performance which aren't obvious to us. I think RuSport have done an extremely good job. There was no doubt that A.J. was a very good driver from his Atlantic days and that Carl Russo had the drive to do what it takes to bring his team to the top, so eventually we knew the team would be a player. However, I thought that the addition of (Michel) Jourdain at the last minute would be more a distraction than an asset, at least to start with and logically there would have been teething problems in the team to find their marks. It is a credit to them that they got going so quickly and are now a front row contender at the last few races. How quickly they got there was for me the biggest surprise.

"Forsythe, for us, is still the #1 force to reckon with and (Rodolfo) Lavin has proven that, on occasion, he could be running up front which obviously for us is a problem -- one more car we have to be competing against. They seemed to have suffered from reliability problems and incidents more than they did last year, which overall, explains their positions on the table. But they are a threat at every event.

"I expected Herdez to be more consistent than they have been so far.

"As for NHR, it seems the biggest advantage we have is getting the basics right. The car is usually pretty close when it rolls off the truck, maybe not always fastest, but close, then we don't take unrealistic risks at the race track. We keep a good dialogue with the two drivers to make sure we can progress together. After that, it is up to the drivers, and they certainly know how to get the job done.

"We got some criticism at the beginning of the season with the new race rules for being very conservative. Paul Tracy took advantage of this at Long Beach but in the big picture it seems that our general approach has been correct.

"I hoped of course that we would be challenging for the championship, but currently running 1-2 is a surprise. It seems more of a result of our consistency and other team's problems than us making a big step in performance. However (apart from Milwaukee) it seems as though we have very few 'weak' events, as opposed to last year, so clearly we have made some improvements too."

Q: What do you feel were some of the biggest factors this season? (new points system, P2P button, option tire, etc.)

GR: "The biggest factor this season is the points system. It puts the emphasis on finishing the race rather than finishing in the top three. Dropping out of a race is a catastrophe. It has a big influence on how we approach the race and how aggressive the driver ultimately is."

Q: What do you feel were some of the strengths the team had this season?

GR: "The main strength of the team this season, especially compared with the opposition are: same drivers and crews, no third car (or last minute addition), a good set-up database from the previous year, two competitive drivers who still work together and help bring the car forward, but also the support of Carl and our sponsors, PacifiCare and McDonald's who provide us with the tools necessary to get to the next step. And we keep on pushing. Again, nothing fancy, just having the basics right."

Q: How could you describe the synergy within your respective crews this season as well as the team in general?

GR: "Obviously, we had a bit of tidying up to do after the Elkhart Lake and Denver incidents. The drivers are still pretty touchy about the subject, but at least they do realize that they need each other to do well and ultimately (see #1 -> #4) what decides the championship is more consistency than speed, so they are better off working with their teammate to make sure the car always performs pretty well, rather than work on their own. So they do respect each other's ability and work together when they are out of their cars. Thankfully, the on-track rivalry never got to the crews (they have seen it before). The crews help each other and the goal is to have a NHR car win the championship."

Q: Given the odd happenings during the Australian race in the past (rain, hail, etc.) what type of event do you think it will be? What factors will you be concerned with as the race progresses, if any. Who do you think the main competition will come from and why?

GR: "I think that for once we will have a dry race in Australia 0x2022 and anyway, there is no sun dance that I know of that would make a difference, so we'll see when we get there. The opposition will be the usual suspects, but again, we are our own worst enemy. For the championship, we need to finish quite well, but not necessarily win. So the concerns are reliability and/or a stupid accident that would prevent us from finishing the race. Clearly if it rains, the odds are getting worse against a safe finish."

-nhr-

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