Conor Daly is positive about the remaining rounds in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, but tells David Malsher that AJ Foyt Racing’s late switch from Honda to Chevrolet gave everyone a lot to learn in a very restricted timeframe.
DM: The last race at Mid-Ohio was probably your strongest performance of the season if you take the weekend as a whole, qualifying 11th and finishing 10th. You beat some big names. Was that a one-off or a true sign of progress?
CD: It was having a test day there beforehand that made the difference, I think. It’s just time in the car on the track with this package that has been so valuable – and so rare.
I think we’ll see a similar strong performance at Gateway, too; we’ve had two test days there, obviously two different surfaces, but we were quick on both. Every time we test it shows how good we can be.
Rewind six months – did you envisage it would be so tough for you guys to get Top 10 finishes this year?
Part of me thinks yes, because the deal to run Chevy did come together late, but after the speed we showed at St. Pete, I thought we could salvage some good things out of the season. But once we had so many different failures or things that went wrong and things that were out of our control, it was very hard to think things will eventually take an upturn.
So it’s been difficult – the most difficult year of my competitive career when I’ve been running full-time. All of us want to do well, especially Larry and A.J. [Foyt]. This is my first year with the team but they’ve put a lot of their own blood, sweat and tears into it.
In the days of unlimited testing I think we would have been a lot better, because we have a lot of talented people here, but because we’re so limited on when we can run, and because of the late Chevy deal, that’s left a lot for us to do in a very short amount of track time.
I think we’ve kept level-headed, but at times it’s been difficult to do that. But the engineering squad are every day making progress, getting more information. Even today, there’s info coming from the Houston shop which is going to be helpful and reflects the effort and time put into certain projects and they’re going to pay off. It’s just a huge process.
None of us, to be honest, thought it would take this long to get up to speed, but if we can get to the end of it with a couple more strong results and turning the corner a little bit, we’ll all be pretty happy.
Just in time to have to start from the beginning again to learn the new universal aerokit… Is that frustrating, and is the team having to balance how much it bothers investing in the last four races when they know your year can’t really get a whole lot better?
I know what you mean, but I think there’s so much we’ve done mechanically this year, and that’s been the real area of progress. The aerokit learning, because of what’s coming in 2018, has somewhat taken a back seat compared with learning dampers, how we approach each set-up. We’ll just give it our best shot to get some good results in these last four races, and know that we have the staff and the mechanical knowledge to start off on the right foot for 2018.
How similar is your driving style to Carlos Munoz’s and in this era where the cars are so smothered in downforce, is there a lot of difference between teammates, or do we as media overplay that aspect?
Oh, I think Carlos and I have quite different driving styles and I think there are certain areas where he is better and where I am better, so when we look at the data we like to take each other’s best points and make one good lap. That’s how it works and it’s helpful. Like at Mid-Ohio there were certain corners where he was better, certain corners where I was better and it’s all about putting the best pieces together. They aren’t big differences – we’re very close. He’s definitely able to produce a really good lap when the time comes; he’s been good all year.
In the first half of the season, it seemed rare to see you both running well; he’d have a good weekend when you had a bad one and vice versa. Was that due to mechanical issues outside your control, or was it about lack of familiarity in being unsure what worked for him and what worked for you?
I think we discovered early on that what Carlos likes doesn’t necessarily suit me, and then as we got toward the middle of the year, we figured that out. Carlos had a lot more experience than me obviously, but once we adopted a slightly different mechanical approach on the #4 car, but we discovered more of what I need.
Overall, qualifying was a struggle for us, in terms of finding mechanical grip and activating the tires, getting the time out of the red [soft] compound. But there have been times where we’ve only been half a tenth apart and we can go to the engineers and say, ‘That’s it, that’s all we’ve got. We need to take this to the next level, find the next level of grip.’
I think we underestimate the height of the hurdle you had to overcome – the team, yourself and Carlos only had experience of the Honda aerokit before this year. You all had to learn the Chevy together. As the year went on, did you notice more differences or more similarities?
Well, that’s an interesting point because Carlos and I are the only drivers complaining about certain things on the Chevy kit, and we’re the only ones to have come from a Honda to a Chevy, so I think the Chevy engineers sometimes wonder whether or not to believe us! So it’s still difficult for us, but I think Chevy have done a good job of helping us better develop our program.
Obviously Honda has a lot of horsepower this year – that’s a clear fact – but I’ve enjoyed working with the Chevy guys and there’s a lot of smart people, and Penske are proving how well-sorted a Chevy program can be. It’s just a case of Chevy getting used to us and us getting used to Chevy, and I think to an extent you expect that.
Aside from the general braking issues that a lot of teams suffered at the first race this year, I recall you having a major issue at St. Pete, and Carlos having a similar issue at Long Beach. Was that part of the general PFC/Brembo combo that everyone was complaining about or was it more to do with you guys needing to find a damper setup that maximized your tires’ contact patch in brake zones?
I do think there’s a bit of a braking mystery. I have to run a lot of bias to the front, more than I’ve run in any other racecar ever, and we haven’t been able to figure out why we haven’t been able to get the bias more rearward yet.
Carlos doesn’t use quite as much front bias, because I hit the brake very hard initially, harder than he does. But we have to run so much bias to the front to keep the car stable on entry, so there’s still something there. It hasn’t prevented us developing in other areas, but I reckon there’s something we’re missing that could gain us time, and we don’t know whether it’s in the platform, in the diff, or what.
But to run 59 or 60 percent front brake bias is not ideal, especially for wear, but that’s what we do on my car specifically.
So your strength at Mid-Ohio – can we assume that’s a good sign for Watkins Glen and Sonoma?
We obviously hope so; there are similarities, and Watkins Glen went well for us last year. I like that course and especially love the high-speed corners, so yeah, our hopes are high. I’d still say Gateway is our big hope, where we’re expecting to be strong.
And then, even Pocono, despite Honda’s advantage on superspeedways, should see us as a team take another step forward. The guys have been doing a lot of aero work in terms of body-fit and uprights.
Sonoma… was a struggle last year for me as a driver, but at least we have a test day beforehand and that could prove to be vital.
It’s the time of year when we all want to know what you guys are doing for next season. Do you feel like you’re fighting for your ride, especially when guys like Tony Kanaan are floating around as a free agent?
Well I’ve never been in a long-term contract, so for sure there’s a lot of talk at this time of the year. I just know that I work well with this team, ABC Supply are a great dedicated sponsor, and I think the team is willing to keep building this program.
But during the last off-season when we were talking about this deal, there was a kind of understanding that we’d like to see this through a little bit. I don’t know that for a fact, but I talk with Larry all the time and all we do is talk about next year now, so hopefully that involves me.
I’d really like to be where I am, have some continuity and have us grow together.