Tyres wear down Conway at Infineon
31 August 2011
In a generally underwhelming Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway in Sears Point, California for Andretti Autosport, Mike Conway's qualifying position of seventh on the grid was perhaps the highlight of the team's weekend.
The British driver narrowly missed out on Firestone Fast Six contention to James Hinchcliffe by just 0.0234s but was still comfortably ahead of his team mates Marco Andretti (14th), Ryan Hunter-Reay (19th) and Danica Patrick (25th) and seemed to be the only one of the group to really be able to get to grips with the 11-turn, 2.303-mile road course on Saturday afternoon qualifying.
Afterwards, Conway revealed that his team mates had even resorted to copying his set-up in order to try and improve their times. "I'm sorry that qualifying didn't work out for the rest of the guys because they took my direction on the setup. They didn't seem to have a good run," he said.
But even at this stage, Conway was struggling with the tyre wear that would prove his Achilles heel all weekend, especially on the soft 'red walled' compounds that drivers estimated were given them up to two seconds a lap over the harder 'black wall' tyres.
"The car is pretty good until the tyres start to fall off," Conway said after qualifying. "You can get about two or three laps with the red tyres in qualifying. If you get a good rhythm, you can improve on your fourth lap. But it is tough."
After pulling off his best qualifying position since starting from fourth place at Toronto, Conway went into race day with every hope of a good result, although dislodging the Penske/Ganassi grip on the top five was always going to be a big ask.
"But we have decent starting spot," he said before the race. "I'd sure like to put the car up on the podium again. The first time I came here in 2009, I was third. I didn't get a chance to race here last year," he added, referring to being sidelined with back injuries for most of 2010 after his horrific airborne accident at the end of the Indianapolis 500.
Unfortunately a podium at Infineon wasn't to be, and once again it would be the tyre wear during the race that proved to be Conway's biggest headache. Initially he was able to retain seventh place for the early part of the race, running right behind James Hinchcliffe through to the first round of pit stops - after which he came back out on track demoted to 11th position.
"We were running P7 for the first part of the race but the tyres really went off quickly," he confirmed afterwards. "I spent most of the race just trying to keep the car on the track and maintaining my position, rather than being able to challenge for the positions ahead."
Conway's biggest headache in the mid-race stint was Oriol Servia, who was never far off the rear of the #27 and seemingly in much better shape on the tyres. Conway pinned his hopes on a switch to the harder black wall tyres for the final third of the afternoon.
"Things picked up a bit on the last set of tyres, I was able to drive hard and was passing people," he said. But the pit stop had cost him still more positions and he was now down in 16th place, although he was able to start carrying out his plan to charge back through the field with a quick pass on Takuma Sato for 15th.
However a late full course caution for Sato subsequently crashing out closed up the field and left Conway battling for position with Conquest's Sebastian Saaverda going into the final lap, and the two clashed.
"On the final lap, I tried the outside of turn two but Saavedra made contact with me which knocked me off the track and punctured my tyre," explained Conway. Saavedra meanwhile was sent spinning out onto a steep dirt incline off track and disappeared in a cloud of dust. "That was the day ended. Not a good finish for us."
That left Conway limping home in 17th place, a disappointing outcome given qualifying although he was still a lap ahead of two of his team mates, Marco and Danica. Ryan Hunter-Reay had a more solid race and just gatecrashed the top ten by the chequered flag.
Conway - who turned 28 in the interval between New Hampshire and Infineon - was quick to put the whole California event out of his mind and look forward to the next opportunity to make his mark, this weekend's maiden street course event on the east coast of the US.
"We now head to Baltimore for the first time," he said, hoping that the fact no one in the field had any experience on the streets of Baltimore would give him a genuine chance of success on a level playing field. "I visited the track a couple of weeks ago and it looked great so I'm looking forward to racing there for the first time next weekend."
In a generally uneven year for Andretti Autosport - with Indianapolis qualifying proving a particularly low point for the team and for Conway in particular, who failed to make it onto the grid - there have still been some memorable highs, with Conway himself taking his series début win at Long Beach, Marco Andretti triumphing at Iowa and Ryan Hunter-Reay retaining that controversial victory at New Hampshire two weeks ago.
Conway will be hoping that Baltimore is one of the 'up' events for him and for the team as a whole. In the meantime, the start of the week saw him return to the reality of real life with a bump, as he tweeted: "Rainy day in Miami! Renewing my drivers license ... so slow!! Feels like Sonoma 5 laps in ... would rather be sliding around than this though!"
Lifestyles of the rich and famous, indeed.