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

The Way It is/ Mike Conway has all the tools required

by Gordon Kirby
Mike Conway's surprise win at Long Beach was a great shot in the arm for Michael Andretti's team and an equally good thing for IndyCar. A year ago at Long Beach Ryan Hunter-Reay interrupted the Ganassi and Penske teams' domination of the IZOD IndyCar Series and Andretti Autosports did it again this year with the unsuspecting Conway. Will the inexperienced young Brit be able to repeat his Long Beach form in more races this year and become a thorn in the side of Ganassi's and Penske's dominant teams?

As everyone knows Conway has paid his dues, bouncing back from a big accident on the final lap of last year's Indianapolis 500. The accident left Conway with a badly broken left leg and a fractured T3 vertebrae but he was entirely undismayed by the experience. The only thing on his mind was to rehabilitate himself in order to get back behind the wheel as quickly as possible.

Conway aggressively attacked his rehab and fitness program and was buoyed by Michael Andretti's commitment to hire him for 2011 if the team could find the sponsorship. In his wisdom, Andretti had seen Conway's talent and driving desire and was determined to hire the best new talent he could find.

"I don't think we were taking a chance on him," Andretti said at Long Beach. "I think Mike showed a lot of signs of brilliance last year at the beginning of the season and then unfortunately had his accident. Coming back, I had no question in my mind. I personally felt like he was going to be hungrier than ever and that's exactly the way it came about."

The sponsorship to run Conway didn't come together until late in the winter and he was the last of the team's four cars to be confirmed, joining Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick. Conway first drove one of Andretti Autosports' cars on the road course at Homestead on March 7th, then ran at Sebring two days later. The team ran IndyCar's Barber Motorsports Park open test the following week completing their short pre-season testing program.

Tom Anderson is Andretti Autosport's racing boss. Anderson joined the team in December of '09 after nine years as Adrian Fernandez's partner and eleven years prior to that running Chip Ganassi's team. Tom started his career back in 1969 with McLaren's Can-Am team, then worked for Carl Hogan's Formula 5000 team. This is his 43rd year in the sport and he's one of the most experienced and accomplished men in IndyCar's pit lane.

"The kid obviously has answered a lot of questions," Anderson observed about Conway. "He did everything he needed to do plus some more as far as rehabilitation from his accident. He doesn't walk with a limp or any sign of injury. You wouldn't know he was ever in an accident. So both the patient and doctors did a tremendous job and it doesn't seem to have played with his head at all."

Nick Snyder engineers Conway's car. Ray Gosselin engineers Hunter-Reay while veteran Tino Belli engineers Danica Patrick, switching from Marco Andretti last year. Another team veteran, Eddie Jones, handles Marco this year. Anderson is happy with the way the re-jigged team is operating and wasn't surprised to see how competitive Conway was in Long Beach.

"Mike's a huge asset to the team and to the series," Anderson observed. "We've only run three races but I think the drivers and engineers are starting to trust each other on the information they're getting."

Anderson pointed out that Conway was right in the hunt during practice and qualifying at the St. Pete season-opener, adding that events conspired against him in round two at Barber Motorsports Park.

"He had a very strong weekend going at St. Petersburg until the incident at the first turn," Anderson related. "Then he had a practice crash at Barber and never really got on pace there. The track conditions were extremely different because of the Grand-Am rubber and the schedule to accommodate the Grand-Am cars was not advantageous to somebody who was trying to work on car setup. Basically, you had to have your lunch packed before you got there. So we were off-balance that weekend and basically reverted to another setup right before the race."

Conway is a jockey-sized man of few words and little outward emotion but Anderson is pleased with the quiet maturity the 27-year old Brit has brought to the team through these early-season problems.

"Barber was a bit of a Catch 22 for us," Anderson commented. "But it gave us a little bit of an idea of how to tell when Mike feels off balance because he doesn't do it with emotion. He doesn't show his emotion vividly. You've got to listen. But you can hear it in his voice. It's interesting to see the highs and lows with only three races together. There's a degree of calmless through the weekend he brings which I think this team can use.

"At Long Beach obviously the car was very good. He and Nick Snyder made some good changes and brought the car to the pinnacle and it showed in the race. We were running strong, then we gave it away with a bad pit stop which was started by Mike with a rookie mistake by overshooting the pit. But then the crew members compounded by not reacting correctly so that cost us some additional time. But he kept his composure and picked of a few places and got us back up into the game. Then, at the end, he really kept his energy and focus and drove away."

Conway came up through the hard school of European single-seater racing, winning the British Formula Three championship and Macau GP in 2006 and the Monaco GP2 race in '08. Through 2009 and early '10 in his first season and a half of IndyCar racing he showed plenty of potential with Dreyer & Reinbold and confirmed his ability for all to see at Long Beach.

"Mike's very mature in certain aspects of motor racing but I think he still shows his inexperience in all facets of IndyCar racing," Anderson observed. "A lot of these races are going to be won and lost in the pits and until you can race everybody from pit-in to pit-out and have the big in-lap and out-lap you're just going to give away way too much time to the veterans to be a champion. So there are definitely areas that we need to work hard on. But I would expect that out of someone who's only had less than a season and a half of IndyCar racing."

Anderson has no doubt Conway has the potential to be a champion.

"All of the tools are there," Tom declared. "It's a matter of getting the experience and going past the first time mistakes. He's got to check that box and move on to the next one. That's what the veterans--the Franchittis, Dixons and Castroneveses--have got. It's like Kanaan. Say what you like about Kanaan, but on raceday, if the guy's in the pack, you've got to consider him a threat.

"We've all seen a lot of guys that were fast enough to win races but couldn't put the whole puzzle together. But the champions do that and from what I've seen so far this kid looks to me like he's got all the tools. It's just a matter of needing that experience. And of course, the other hurdle we haven't crossed yet is the ovals. But there's no doubt the kid has got the right stuff."

Anderson is impressed with Conway's feel for the car and his cool, analytical approach.

"He seems to have some reserve mental ability to where he's not over-driving the car," Anderson commented. "He drives the car to the limit of what it will do and he knows what he needs to be able to go faster. He has extremely good car feel and he's able to express it without a lot of emotion. So that's an engineer's dream."

I always watch the race at Long Beach from outside the second-last turn, the long left-hander immediately before the hairpin leading into Shoreline Drive. You can see a lot from there, starting with the exit from the right-hander at the end of the backstraight where you can see who's best putting the power down. Standing at the left-hander you can watch braking, turn-in and power down followed by more braking and downshifting for the hairpin.

Conway ran third through the opening laps at Long Beach this year, chasing Will Power and Andretti teammate Hunter-Reay. About ten laps into the race it struck me how much tidier and less tail-happy Conway was compared to both Power and Hunter-Reay. Clearly he was saving fuel and his tires as he sat there comfortably matching lap times with the first two.

That was impressive in its own right but his comeback from his pitstop miscue plus the tremendous pace he showed at the end of the race as he passed Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti and drove away to win easily showed us a driver of exceptional talent. Conway and the experienced Hunter-Reay should be very competitive in most races this year and we can hope they will provide a healthy spur for teammates Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick. Anderson adds that Patrick often provides the team with useful ideas.

"We used one change on Mike's car at Long Beach that Danica had used first," Anderson noted. "There was one change we jumped to quite quickly which she had found. Danica has a tremendous feel for the car. Her feedback is pretty doggone good if she's able to relate it to what we're doing and we were able to do that at Long Beach."

It was also good to see both Newman/Haas cars run with the leaders at Long Beach. Veteran Oriol Servia and rookie James Hinchcliffe ran well all weekend, qualifying fourth and eleventh and running well in the race. Servia was convinced he had a race-winning car and certainly a shot at making the podium but was forced into a spin on the restart in which Castroneves attacked teammate Will Power. Still, Oriol came back with a graceful save to finish sixth while Hinchcliffe drove a first-class race, keeping his nose clean on his way to an excellent fourth place.

The men at Newman/Haas have nothing but good words to say about Hinchcliffe as a driver and man and they couldn't be more pleased to have Servia leading the team. Oriol scored his first and thus far only Indy car-type win with the team in Montreal's Champ Car race in 2005. He's extremely respected within the team and is a natural leader for Newman/Haas. The past few years have been tough ones for Newman/Haas and it's great to see the team back at full strength this year with two very competitive drivers.

All this is good news for IndyCar. There's nothing better than new faces and new twists in the sport and it will be interesting and exciting to see if Conway and Hunter-Reay plus their Andretti Autosport teammates and Newman/Haas with Servia and Hinchcliffe can do regular battle this year with the dominant Ganassi and Penske teams. Most everybody's cheering for them.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page