Knowing that he'll be back with Andretti Green Racing in a Jim Beam/Klein Tool-sponsored Honda-powered Dallara next season is a relief for Dan Wheldon, winner of the 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year award in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series. It's the first time he's been with the same team two years in a row since the 25-year-old Briton began his racing career.
Now, he had to contend with the vagaries of saving fuel, tires and his race car over 300 or more miles of racing; he had to learn strategies and learn them quickly. In his first start, Wheldon began the tough Japan Indy 300 in fifth place and brought Franchitti's car home in seventh.
"We came in expecting strong results from the get-go, but I can't emphasize the importance of experience in this series," Wheldon recalled. "My inexperience showed at the beginning of the year but it sure came together at the end." In fact, at dinner with AGR co-owner Kim Green recently, Wheldon noted, "I'm not sure you understand how much I took in this year!"
There was an awful lot to learn and the process wasn't always smooth. The next venue was Indy and Wheldon had his first experience at the Brickyard. It was team co-owner Michael Andretti's final race, the team was fielding a total of four cars and Wheldon learned a lot about being a driver during the month, not just from Andretti, he admits, but from the entire AGR team.
"Michael was a big help at Indy as he breezed through all the media attention, but at the same time Tony [Kanaan] has been a great teammate and benchmark. There's nobody quicker than Tony and if you can match or be faster than him, you've done a very good job. Kevin's [third co-owner Savoree] information helped a lot and truly, it was the whole organization that helped. They all made me feel relaxed, at home. The whole group did a very good job," Dan admitted.
Wheldon earned an eighth-place result in the night race at tiny Richmond and, after his accident at Kansas, things finally started coming together for him. Danny finished fourth at the final Nashville night contest, lost an engine in Michigan (none of the AGR cars finished that contest) and then he managed top ten results for the final six events, culminating in third at the Texas season finale.
"There were little things I learned that turned the season around. My goals for 2003 were simply to do the best I could every single race and I knew it would be a tough season. I wanted to make as few mistakes as possible and, even though I made more at the beginning there were fewer toward the end."
He became more comfortable with engineer Eddie Jones, who had worked with Andretti the past couple of years on Team Green and Jones became more settled with his new charge. "We're both from England and that helped," Wheldon joked. "It took a while for us to jell. He was used to Michael, who knows what he wants from a car. We had to build that up together because at the start I simply didn't know what I needed.
"The last five races we worked well together, and our reactions were the same. We improved on everything, particularly our pit entry and exit. I hope we'll stay together next season but at this point I'm not sure. That's up to the team," he said.
The Indy Racing League is catching on in the United Kingdom, as television broadcasts have improved, showing most events at 7PM Sunday evenings, Wheldon remarked. "The TV package in England is excellent. This is what young drivers want to see, and apologies to everyone in F1 and F3000, but there's rarely overtaking in either of those series.
Wheldon was among the drivers who tested at Homestead-Miami Speedway just after the NASCAR finale, as the Indy Racing League attempts to come to terms with the changed 1.5-mile oval, which now has gradient banking in its turns of 18-20 degrees. What does he think of those changes?
"There's been a big change to the corners at that track and I think it will change strategies for the race next March. The car definitely has to be very, very good in traffic and the [set-up] window will be much smaller. I think [senior vice president of racing operations] Brian Barnhart is doing an excellent job with the track changes.
"I think Brian wants to make sure it's safe and he asked all the drivers' opinions while we were testing to make sure it's right. It's nice when the guy in charge is so professional and can relate to us in both a professional and personal manner. There have been so many changes to that track and he has to make sure there are no safety problems."
The tire test there went well, Wheldon explained. "There were no safety problems for Firestone at the test. It was all new to them too and they got the data they needed to help them build the right tires for the race." While he asked not to be quoted, Wheldon thinks speeds might jump as high as "215-18 or 219mph" from teammate Tony Kanaan's 203mph+ qualifying mark last March.
After a two-day test at Phoenix early in December, Danny Wheldon heads home to England for a gathering with his family for the first time since Indianapolis. "It'll be a typical English Christmas for us. We're a very close family and the only time we're all able to get together is Christmas," he revealed. His family is very supportive, sending emails and trading phone calls. "I've been away from home a long time," he said.
Wheldon is champing at the bit to get back in the car well before the season officially begins back in south Florida. And there's one important 2004 goal he'll readily admit to: "No matter what country you're from, winning at Indianapolis is matchless. The racing at Indy is unbelievable and it would be very special to be on the same list as [countryman and Indy winner] Graham Hill. It would give me a feeling of completion to win that race; it would be something no one could take away. It's at the top of my list."