The first two races have seen a slew of storylines through the paddock. Will Power vs. Dario Franchitti, double-file restarts, Graham Rahal’s early struggles with Ganassi, the pleasant surprises of Simona de Silvestro and Tony Kanaan: all have been attention getters as the season has gotten underway. However, the weekend at Barber gave birth to one more storyline of this early-season segment: the comeback of Newman/Haas.
A powerhouse in the CART and Champ Car years, Newman/Haas Racing has struggled since unification in 2008. Though winners with Justin Wilson that year and top five contenders with Graham Rahal in 2009, the 2010 season was a huge step backward for the Chicago-based outfit. Unable to find funding after McDonalds pulled their sponsorship, the team had to scale back to one full-time effort for Hideki Mutoh (surprisingly, they never notifying Rahal of the setback until the Barber Motorsports Park open test, when they only prepared a car for Mutoh). Mutoh’s season was a small disaster, marred by numerous crashes and no top ten finishes. Only Rahal’s part-time effort was a bright spot for the team. It was a hard pill to swallow for on the sport’s most successful teams.
It only got worse during the off-season, with Mutoh, and his sponsorship money, leaving the series to return to Japan and Rahal leaving to join a new Chip Ganassi team. They were left with no drivers and no sponsors, and seemed destined for an even more challenging 2010.
However, things began to turn around during December. News began circulating that they were pursuing Oriol Servia, an underrated veteran who won for the team back in 2005, and James Hinchcliffe, a Firestone Indy Lights standout who contended for that series’ title in 2010. Still, their pairing depended on funding, which was only finalized at the last minute.
No matter, though. The organization brought both drivers to March’s open test at Barber, still working out the details to run both drivers full-time. They stole the show over those two days, nipping at the heels of Penske and Ganassi and turning lap times near the top five.
That form continued in St. Pete, with Servia avoiding the carnage to finish ninth. With Hinchcliffe finally signed to run the North American rounds of this season in the lead up to today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, they entered this weekend looking to prove their early season strength is not a fluke.
Point: proved. Each qualified well in the top 10, with Servia making the Firestone Fast Six and Hinchcliffe barely missing out on that group, qualifying eighth.
Though Hinchcliffe endured an incident-ridden race, Servia flew their flag high. The Spaniard ran in the top six much of the day and finished a very strong fifth. It is the team’s best result since Rahal’s fifth place finish in Toronto last year.
“It’s only the second race but we are making big improvements every weekend,” said an excited Servia after the race. “It shows what a tremendous job Newman/Haas Racing does and how hard they work. We were consistently strong in each session we got to run and were up to third in the race at one point.”
He added, “This result shows that all of the work the team did over the winter paid off. And a top-five finish is good for our new program with Telemundo. They already sent us a text about our finish so it’s good to make them happy.”
“Great” may be an understatement of how well they’ve done to start the year. So far, they’ve been one of the few teams to run keep pace with the Penske and Ganassi cars, no small feat in a series that his those two team dominate the last two seasons. In 2010, Newman/Haas just about his rock bottom. In 2011, they’re rising up and showing us the team we remembered from CART and Champ Car.
Will Power will garner much of the headlines and attention for dominating the weekend. And rightly so, he was quickest is every practice session except one, grabbed pole, and led every lap on his way to victory. He deserves the lion’s share of it all after a performance like that.
But, don’t let the results of Servia, Hinchcliffe, and Newman/Haas slip from your mind. They’re rising up from the ashes and could play a big role as the season continues.