"The question is how close you can get to the edge without going over. You
are so focused, with such a big desire, that you never feel any fear."
A few hours after the fastest practice session of his career, rookie Champ Car driver Oriol Servia is watching a tape of last year's Michigan 500, in search of an advantage for Sunday's race. It's Friday afternoon, and tomorrow he will have his moment alone on the track, chasing lap speeds over two hundred and thirty miles per hour.
"I love qualifying on an oval, it's amazing. You have two laps and there are no excuses. On the first lap, you go to what you think is the limit, but sometimes the car still does not move. So the next lap you try just a little bit more speed. You never think about the possibility of crashing; the risk in your mind is simply the possibility of blowing the lap."
Known as Mister Consistency in his successful pursuit of last year's Dayton Indy Lights championship, the young Spaniard has had a tumultuous rookie season thus far, making a few classic rookie mistakes on the way to a breakthrough third-place finish in Detroit, the first podium in the history of his PPI Motorsports team. While relaxing in the team motorcoach, Servia spoke with unusual candor about risk, experience, and a driver's most precious asset, his confidence.
"You never believe that any competitor is doing something in the car that you cannot do. You always think you are ready, ready to win a race, to win a championship. Yet the years go by, events show you that you are not yet 100% ready, and you see that experience really teaches you something."
Experience was a nasty teacher early in the season in Brazil and Japan, where Servia lost control of his #96 Toyota-Reynard at the start of each race. According to Servia, the circumstances were entirely different, and yet the combined effect was devastating.
"Think about it: your whole team flies to Brazil, all the travel, all the work, and then they fly to Japan, again all the travel and all the work, and their driver doesn't complete a single lap. In Rio, I wanted to do a good start, and I was playing with the limit. I got very early on the throttle and just lost it."
"In Japan, the very next race, I was very cautious on the start, going quite slow, two cars had passed me on the outside, and poof, suddenly the rear just went away. That one really destroyed my mind, because I didn't understand what had happened. When you know you are taking a risk you are aware that you may lose. But when you think you are completely safe and you crash, that effects you."
Servia begin to repair his confidence at Nazareth, when he saw veteran drivers struggling with their skittery cars, a result of CART's new short-oval wing package. No stranger to adversity, the PPIM team was a source of great support for their young driver from Pals, Catalonia.
"The team has always been 100% behind me, from the mechanics to the owner Cal Wells. After the spin in Japan, he said 'Don't worry, that's because you want to get to the front, I like that. It's a big mistake of course, but that's why you're a rookie.' That's also why I get paid as a rookie," exclaims Servia with a laugh.
The team's fortunes turned around one month later at Detroit, where Servia was able to reward his owner's patience with a unique and precious gift, the first ever podium finish in the history of PPIM's Champ Car program.
"I felt extremely focused during the Detroit race. We were not the fastest car on the track, but we had a very consistent car, and every opportunity I had I was going forward. The team has been working very hard for many years, and other times they had that podium in their grasp and they lost it. So I was very happy to finish third."
One month later in Toronto, Servia showed a racier, more aggressive style, taking full advantage of the best-handling car of his rookie season. "I was flying full throttle, thinking: I want to win this thing right now!" Servia passed Mauricio Gugelmin on the start, and quickly caught up to one of CART's winningest drivers, Paul Tracy.
"I have a lot of respect for Tracy, a lot, but that didn't create any problems for me when I needed to pass him. Tracy was defending his position, staying to the right on the straight. I was feeling totally in control, playing my cards, and putting pressure on him."
Servia successfully completed the pass and prepared to claim his next victim, Adrian Fernandez. After a three-turn side-by-side dice, Servia was caught on the outside with nowhere to go but the wall. "Honestly when I crashed, I had decided, 'OK, I'll leave him room and the next corner will be mine because I'll be on the inside' [for the right-handed Turn Six]. But I got on the marbles and - Wheee! - it was into the tire wall."
After coming into the pits to replace the damaged front wing, Servia found himself alone on the track, one lap down and out of contact with the competition. In a situation where many drivers lose motivation, Servia bore down and turned some of the fastest laps on the track, salvaging an eleventh place, points-paying finish. "When you're on your own, there is no carrot hanging in front of your nose. It's like a race against yourself, and you think "OK, I'm not going to make one mistake, let's see if I can do that."
Servia improved by one position in the next race, finishing tenth on the high-speed Michigan superoval. After his strong run with the lead group in Chicago was cut short by a pit accident, Servia is now ranked third in the rookie-of-year standings, forty points behind last year's Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack and just two points behind Canadian Alex Tagliani. Servia's hunger to narrow the gap to Brack hasn't prevented him from enjoying every moment in his tennis-ball-yellow Toyota-Reynard.
"Coming to Champ Cars was the first time I was not disappointed in the power increase when moving from one series to another. You go from Formula 3 to Indy Lights and the power doubles, but after just two laps you think, 'oh, that's it? [laughs] When I first tested the Champ Car in Sebring I was like 'Wow!' and I still feel that way."
Servia works closely with his teammate Cristiano da Matta, a second-year driver who notched his first career victory and the first ever win for PPIM last Sunday in the Target Grand Prix of Chicago. "Cristiano and I have a very good relationship, and I think this relationship is part of our team's success. If the team is experimenting with a soft car versus a stiff car, Cristiano will run one setup and I'll run the other. Usually one approach is better and then we both go the same way."
Impressed by the parallel progress of the Toyota engine and his PPIM team, twenty-six year old Servia sees more challenges ahead. "Right now we are fighting for the top ten, and as we improve, we will have to fight for the podium and then fight for the win. Cristiano's victory is a wonderful milestone for the entire team, and I think it makes us even stronger going forward." With a motivated crew behind him and eight races in front of him, Servia heads towards the final third of the season with his confidence high.
"I'm sure I'm going to make a lot more points in the second half. I'd like to have a few more podiums before the end of the season. The best feeling in racing is to fight for the win, and I intend to be in that position very very soon."