The Canadian swing of races during July are a homecoming of sorts for some of the series’ more popular drivers. Paul Tracy and James Hinchcliffe are natives of the Toronto area (Tracy from West Hill, Ontario and Hinchcliffe from Oakville, Ontario) while Alex Tagliani hales from Montreal, Quebec. Regardless the region they are from, all three are heroes in Canada, and the Toronto and Edmonton rounds signify highpoints in their seasons.
Each has seen their fair share of challenges in 2011, but all three have enjoyed a certain degree of success. For Tracy, who has competed in four races thus far with Dreyer and Reinbold (Indianapolis) and Dragon Racing (Long Beach and the Texas Twin 275s), the season has been about reestablishing himself and Dragon Racing in the paddock. “I think it’s been o.k. I’ve only done a handful of races, four if you can’t the (Texas) double-header or three if can’t it as one weekend,” he explained. “But Long Beach for (Dragon) was just O.K., it was nothing special. We had a P16, which isn’t great by any means. But, we basically came out of the box there and the team hadn’t run at all and I hadn’t been in a car in a long time. In practice, we hit the tire barriers pretty good and that put us out of a whole session. That put us behind quite a bit and we qualified pretty poorly. The race, we just stayed out of trouble and finished the race. There was a lot of carnage there, I think we could have finished better than that (16th), but overall it was a good warm-up.”
After an up and down month at Indianapolis (where he led the Bump Day qualifiers but struggled on race day, finishing 25th), Tracy returned to Dragon Racing for the double-header In Texas. Together, they showed some real mettle, running well in each race before finishing 12th and 13thon the night. “Going into Texas, on everybody’s mind was ‘Is Dragon going to be able to recover and have a good showing at Texas?’ We didn’t have the best car, it wasn’t the best bullet to bring there, but the team did a great job. The car was pretty good and we got two good finishes out of it.”
For Tagliani, he and Sam Schmidt Motorsports have enjoyed some big success on the track. Currently, they sit 10th in the points standings and captured poles at Indianapolis and Texas. However, he indicates that it could be much better. “I think it’s been solid on the track. Unfortunately, I think our results in the championship are not representative of where we should be at this point,” says Tagliani.
He especially points to Iowa as a microcosm of the bad luck that has plagued the team at certain races this season. “I think we’ve been having little issues, especially last weekend in Iowa,” he explained. “The new engineer, Nick Snyder, and the boys gave me a fantastic car after a little mess-up in qualifying. We were fast; we were kind of slicing through the field and got up to P5 or P6. But, we had been having a small fuel pressure issue. The engine was misfiring and we were not able to extend our fuel window because of the fuel pressure issue. I came in on the last stop and a lap-and-a-half later (the race) went yellow. All of the other competitors got to stop under yellow while I had to stop under green, so I lost two laps. I got one back, but we were a lap down so we went from the top 5 to P15.”
Similarly, Indianapolis saw issues with overheating force them to open the radiators while they. Eventually, the car’s handling also went away after running in the lead group. After falling through the field, Tagliani bounced off the turn four wall. At Milwaukee, in which he and team did not field their primary oval car, they failed to get the handle and finished 18th.
What’s more, an engineering shuffle saw Allen McDonald, influential in the team’s upswing this year, abruptly leave for Andretti Autosport. However, no ill will exists on Tagliani’s part and he remains grateful for working with McDonald. “Everybody loved working with him, and it showed. Second year, from our first race, we showed speed and we ran up front, with finishes of fourth, fifth, and sixth so far and two poles. He’s been a big part of all of this. But, he had his reasons why he wanted to leave and I have to respect that. But, I’ll miss him very much and we’ll be friends and I’ll hang around with him because we developed a good friendship. It had been an honor to work with him.”
With new engineer Nick Snyder, after Todd Malloy subbed for at Texas, Milwaukee, and Iowa before returning to Bryan Herta Autosport, Tagliani remains confident and believes that they’ll continue their success. “At the next road course, it’ll be the first road course for Nick and I. I’m sure it’ll take a session or two to get the feel of what sort of changes he does and it’ll take him a bit to understand my feedback and what levels bug me. When we get that sorted out, I think we’ll be alright.”
On Hinchcliffe’s side, as part of the resurgent Newman/Haas Racing, the season been a bright spot in what many thought would be learning year. "I think the season has big great so far,” said the Rookie of the Year candidate. “From my side, I think we have surprised some people -- ourselves included (!!) -- with what we have accomplished. We have had good qualifying speed on road courses, street courses and ovals, which is certainly something we are proud of. We have also had some good finishes. With the exception of Texas, we have been top-10 in every race that we've been running at the end. From Oriol's standpoint, he has been great! He has been running high in points and getting the first podium of the year in Milwaukee was such a great result for the team. People keep saying things like ‘Newman/Haas is back,’ and it's cool to hear that and know that we were part of that."
Focusing on the Toronto and Edmonton rounds, Hinchcliffe is looking to build on last year’s hit and miss (or miss and hit in this case), when he led at Toronto before fading to tenth and then rebounded to win at Edmonton. “The Canadian races were a bit of an emotional roller coaster last year, that's for sure. This year I'm hoping to have two good results instead of just one!” he emphasized. “Toronto will be super cool. Racing in front of your hometown is a tough feeling to describe. I've been going to that race pretty much my whole life and so it's crazy to think that I will get to be in the main show this year. “
Tracy is also confident going into Toronto, a venue he has historically been very successful at. “I obviously know the track well and it’s a track I’ve won at a couple times. I always seem to run pretty well there. So I think we have a good chance of doing well, I think the team will give me the best that they’ve got. The car looks great, I’ve seen some pictures of the car already.”
For Tagliani, there remains unfinished business from 2009, when he led and appeared set for an upset win with Conquest Racing before an untimely caution ruined their strategy. “Basically, I was running on track, doing very good on fuel. Lots of guys behind us pitted under green, and you don’t lose a lap on a street course. I was on my way to the pits when Graham (Rahal) crashed in turn three. And then they threw the yellow and the pits were closed.” Tagliani hopes that this year could bring that much desired win in his home country. “I think our car has been good on the street courses. Hopefully we can deliver, especially in Canada. That would be the right place to do it.”
Edmonton, however, offers a whole new set of challenges. The new layout for 2011 differs very much from the old circuit, with a pair of long straightaways leading into tight corners. Plus, the old section of the track that remains will be run in reverse. “I think that Edmonton's layout will make a huge difference,” says Hinchcliffe. “It's not a subtle change -- the whole track is different -- so it will be a big challenge to get up to speed."
Tracy says that, as of now, it’s hard to tell if anything will translate over from the old track. “It’s hard to really say (if anything will carry over). We’re going to be running a section of the track backward from how it was run in the last five or six years. But, there’s a couple real sharp hairpins on the track, and one of them leads onto a straightaway that’s as long as the ones at the Indianapolis Motorspeedway. I think it’s going to be tremendous for passing, it’s going to be a great venue for the fans. I think everyone’s really excited to run on a new venue in Edmonton.”
Tagliani echoed those sentiments and believes fans will be in for a treat on race day.
“It’s going to be very unique,” he elaborated. “Wherever you’re going to be in the grandstand, as a race fan, you’re going to see some passes one way or another during the race because there’s going to be three very good straightaways with some tight corners at the end, some very good corners for passing.
In terms of setup, the unfamiliarity with the course makes guessing a little tricky. Tagliani did have some thoughts, though, on what it will take be successful. “The car needs to be stable under braking with good power down, because you’re going to come of these slow corners onto long straightaways. And, the section of the track that remains identical to the past, we’re going to drive it in reverse. So turns four, five, six, seven, and eight, are now going to be all done backwards. I think the car needs to be nimble. There’s going to be a lot of left and rights. It’s going to be a very interesting layout.”
Because of the new Edmonton circuit and the “starting-from-scratch” mindset, Tracy believes he and Dragon Racing can be very successful. “Edmonton, I think we’ve got a really good chance of doing well. Even though I haven’t won there, I’ve always ran really well there,” he said. “Now we’ve got a brand new track that nobody has seen before and nobody has data on. It’s leveled the playing field tremendously for the smaller teams. I think we have a good chance of having a good run at Edmonton because everybody will be starting from scratch there.”
Hinchcliffe is somewhat tempered with his personal expectations for the Canadian Swing as well as through the rest of 2011. But, he and teammate Oriol Servia have surprised many so far and may have a few more tricks up their sleeves. “Oriol has been on the podium and been in the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying a few times so I think he can for sure do it. For me, it may be a little ambitious thinking a win is in the cards for a rookie, but we were fourth in Long Beach and it only would have taken one more restart mêlée to make it possible! The team is definitely capable of winning, we just need a day where all the right things come together.”