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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ The Matador's return?

by Gordon Kirby
In the spring of 2005 Newman/Haas found themselves searching for a driver to replace Bruno Junqueira who was badly injured in an accident in that year's Indianapolis 500. Sebastien Bourdais was in his second year with the team and the Frenchman was still uncomfortable on oval tracks. Newman/Haas needed an experienced driver who was good on ovals to help Bourdais.

The answer to Newman/Haas's conundrum was Oriol Servia who not only taught Bourdais how to approach and set-up a car for ovals, but also came through to win at Montreal in August. Servia went on to finish second to Bourdais in Champ Car points in Newman/Haas's second straight championship sweep.

Five years later Newman/Haas again finds itself looking to Servia to help re-launch the team. The Catalonian joined Indy Lights frontrunner James Hinchcliffe testing for Newman/Haas at Sebring before Christmas. Both drivers ran well and Hinchcliffe was back in the saddle last week as Newman/Haas tries to put together the sponsorship to field two cars this year for Servia and Hinchcliffe.

Servia won the Indy Lights championship back in 1999 and has raced Indy cars every year since then in CART, Champ Car and the IRL. He's one of the most underrated drivers in the world today and it's worth reflecting on his '05 season with Bourdais. In a few races that year Servia was quicker than Bourdais but he was hired to serve as a dutiful number two driver to help Bourdais win his second championship. Donnie Hoevel was Servia's chief mechanic in 2005.

"All year long Oriol fought tooth and nail," Hoevel recalls. "Sebastien was leading the championship but we eventually got to the point where Oriol was second in points. There were a couple of times when it was a little uncomfortable because when a guy is leading the championship his teammate has got to do what you're told to do."

Servia did an excellent job coming through to win in Montreal in August after Bourdais had trouble with a lost wheelnut on his last pitstop. Bourdais wound up a very frustrated fourth but Servia was justifiably delighted.

"The car was so secure at the back and so fast and that's when we started getting close to Sebastien," Oriol remembers. "If we had started the season with the team I think I would have been a definite contender to challenge Sebastien. In Montreal his guys made a mistake in the pits and my guys were perfect, like always, and we were able to win legitimately."

Veteran Newman/Haas crewman Tim Coffeen was part of Servia's crew in '05.

"I'm glad Oriol got his win with us at Montreal," Coffeen says. "The guy won a race and a pole and competed with a great teammate and on top of it the only thing he ever bent was an upper wishbone. He touched the fence at Montreal in the Saturday morning practice before he won the race and that was the only thing he hurt driving for us all year without any testing coming in out of nowhere after Bruno got hurt. We had been out to lunch at Milwaukee and right away he was an asset to us. He got on the podium and he was on the podium all year. He won a pole and he won the hearts of the guys who work here. I've got a lot of time for Oriol."

Bourdais and Newman/Haas dominated Champ Car's championship battle in '05 as Bourdais won six races, took six poles and romped to his second consecutive title. Servia finished second in three races--twice to Bourdais for Newman/Haas sweeps at Edmonton and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Oriol added two more thirds and a fourth place to beat Justin Wilson and Paul Tracy to second in the championship.

"It was my best year in racing not only on results but also on the fun I had," Servia says. "We were performing at the highest level. Everybody was working the hardest and they were giving me the tools and it was a joy. You have the tools and you're able to go out there and do your best. That's just an unbelievable feeling and it only helps you do better and improve yourself. That kind of environment makes everybody happier and a pleasure to work with and be able to do your best. It's a great feeling."

There was talk of running a third car for Servia in 2006. Newman/Haas was committed to running Junquiera who was recovering from his Indy injuries but enough sponsorship couldn't be found to run three cars in '06 so Servia was left on the sidelines. Servia was disappointed but not regretful. In '05 he had worked with engineer Rocky Rocquelin who is now world champion Sebastien Vettel's race engineer at the Red Bull F1 team.

"I was really excited for '06 because I had a great relationship with Rocky and we were right there with Sebastien (Bourdais) in the second half of the season," Oriol says. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen. Bruno was healed, which was great, and it showed how loyal Paul and Carl were. They had promised Bruno a ride when he was healed and they did that. They tried very hard to find the budget for a third car for me. They had some verbal agreements that it was going to happen, but they failed at the last minute.

"But my time at Newman/Haas was awesome," Servia adds. "I go back to those memories many times. I had a lot of fun and I go back a lot in my head to what I experienced about what the car had to feel like and how the team worked to try to recreate what we had with Newman/Haas."

Tim Coffen holds Servia in extremely high regard.

"Oriol is the kind of guy who's very professional," Tim Coffeen observes. "He's a thinker. He's always looking how to make the car better. If you need Oriol you don't have to look for him. He'll stay there all night if needs be. He's a professional and he can drive any kind of circuit. He's equally at home and adept on an oval as he is on a road course. He can drive anything and he uses his head."

Donnie Hoevel rates Servia with the best in the business.

"It was very satisfying to put Oriol in the car three or four races into the season and do what he did," Hoevel says. "There were a couple of races where he should have beat Sebastien where he was told not to pass him. We were a little disappointed in that.

"I enjoyed working with Oriol just as much as I did with Cristiano (da Matta). I almost want to say that Oriol may be technically a little smarter than Cristiano. Oriol is a pretty smart guy, but unfortunately he got his breaks all at the wrong time. He's very similar to Rick Mears because he's smart and he thinks and he can be a calculating, smooth driver like Mears. Maybe not quite as good as Mears, but I think with time he could have done the same things because he's good on ovals and on road courses."

Tim Coffeen was present for both of Newman/Haas's recent Sebring tests. He was delighted to have Servia back in one of the team's cars for the first test and was impressed with Hinchcliffe.

"Conditions for the Sebring test were deplorable," Coffeen reported. "It was quite chilly with high winds at times gusting over 40 mph. Oriol did the mule-testing and Hinchcliffe also drove and he did well. He ran 52.83 secs on new tires which is the fastest a Newman/Haas IRL car has ever run there (Graham Rahal in '09).

"It was good to see the Matador back in the saddle. He brings a lot to the table. He's a good tester and technically very savvy, but most of all he is the ultimate team player. He deserves a solid ride and I hope it's here.

"Hinchcliffe has potential," Coffeen added. "He seems technically sound, has a good attitude and he never put a foot wrong. He also did well practicing pit stops."

Servia last drove for Newman/Haas in 2009 when he did four late-season races after Robert Doornbos left the team. Oriol feels a great affinity with Newman/Haas and is doing all he can to help the team put together a sponsorship package.

"I'm very hopeful," he says. "We've spent a lot time together over the last month or so and we have a couple of big meetings at the end of the month that will basically decide how we are going to approach the season. We are committed to each other and both James and I are betting that things are going to happen."

Servia believes a two-car team is essential to achieving success.

"They just had a terrible season last year," he comments. "Not only were the results not there but they got lost with the setup and when you're just one car and lost like that it's very hard to find a way forward. That's why we're hoping to have a proper, two-car team.

"We're excited. I think Hinchcliffe and I would be a good pair together. That's what we're aiming for. He did a great job at the test. I think it would be perfect. You've got a young guy who drives well and is obviously a nice kid and I think with my experience we can be competitive and be very strong. The team is working very hard to put it all together."

Servia knows what he can do and hopes that the fresh wind IndyCar racing seems to have found under Randy Bernard's leadership will help Newman/Haas get back where they belong at the front of the field.

"I'm proud that I won that race in Montreal with Newman/Haas and we're working towards more," Oriol remarks. "There's a little more boost going on with IndyCar at the present time and that's very nice, very helpful. I think things are looking good for IndyCar's future and I hope I can be part of it with Newman/Haas."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

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