Conway rattled by suspension issues at Baltimore
6 September 2011
Andretti Autosport's Mike Conway had every expectation of a strong run at the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, but it proved not to be the case as mechanical problems plagued the British driver from early on.
With the new temporary street course being strongly compared to that of Long Beach where Conway celebrated his first-ever IndyCar series victory earlier this season with a stunning series of final lap overtaking moves, Conway was hoping that he would have something like the same good fortune again here. The fact that everyone was running the circuit for the very first time also meant an all-round level playing field and an even greater chance for Conway to shine.
"The track is pretty cool," Conway had said after his first time out on the course on Friday. "It's very tight and twisty and you have to be careful through some sectors. It's hard to get the car dialed in."
Conway and the #27 team certainly seemed to get to grips with the settings early on, in a session that was delayed and shortened because the track preparations overran. When the cars finally got to run, Conway put himself up into fifth place in the Friday afternoon practice timesheets. He carried the speed over into Saturday qualifying, and in the first round he finished in second place in his group with only the unstoppable Will Power going faster. He improved his time by nearly a third of a second in the second round, but unfortunately missed out on the top six cut.
"I wasn't quite able to pull together the perfect lap in qualifying which was frustrating as I think we had a car that could have challenged for pole," he said. "I'm a bit disappointed we didn't make the top six obviously, but the car's not too bad," he continued, saying that they needed to work on the set-up before the race. He added: "The car seems to be consistent if you look at my lap times. It was hard to get much more out of it."
Looking ahead to the race, Conway said that "Tomorrow's going to be a long day around here!" and he was duly proved to be absolutely right, with all the drivers saying this was one of the roughest, toughest and most physical races that they had ever driven in IndyCar.
Conway got an unexpected pre-race boost when he was promoted up a spot after Helio Castroneves' race car was badly damaged in a Sunday morning warm-up accident with Tony Kanaan, forcing both drivers to take to their back-up cars and be demoted to the back of the grid. That put Conway up into seventh place for the green flag, and he adopted a plan of "just try and keep clean and work our way forward" for the race itself. He looked comfortable holding the position while ahead of him his team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay and four time Champ Cars title holder Sebastien Bourdais battled over fifth and sixth, which ended when Bourdais suffered an electrical failure on his car on lap 10.
That should have given Conway another position, but by this stage Conway was struggling with the #27's suspension as it was giving him chronic handling and bottoming-out issues that were playing havoc with his ability to get the power down and go over the savage curbing on the street course.
All of this meant he was now holding up a tightly-bunched group of cars behind him, and the slightest slip gave them an opportunity to pounce and start to stream past. EJ Viso threaded his way past on lap 11, and then Conway's troubles worsened and he lost out to Vitor Meira, James Jakes and Simona de Silvestro in the course of a single lap next time around. After losing another place to Giorgio Pantano on lap 13, Conway headed for the pits to see if there was anything that they could find to rectify the problem. It would be the first of six stops Conway made during the race that ended up putting him well off the lead lap by the end of a frustrating afternoon's running.
By lap 28 the Andretti Autosport team had tracked down the suspension problem to a broken front right shock absorber which had started to unwind as the culprit for Conway's woes. They duly carried out repairs during a lengthy visit to pit lane under green flag conditions: that fixed the immediate problem, but the car then suffered a broken exhaust five laps before the end of the race to further hamper Conway's efforts.
"It was obviously a very disappointing day, not with just one mechanical failure but two," he said after the end of the race. "The car had been looking really strong all weekend ... We were confident heading into the race that we'd be able to move up through the field and challenge for a podium."
Given that the usual Penske/Ganassi grip of the podium was broken by Oriol Servia and Tony Kanaan taking second and third places at the end of the race after utilising intelligent and opportunistic pit stop strategies, Conway had every right for such optimism - making it even more frustrating that his efforts were foiled by mechanical gremlins.
Conway said that he was simply disappointed not to be able to put on a good show for the fans, the sponsors and all his pit crew who had put in such hard work for him over the course of the three days. "It's a disappointing end to my first Baltimore Grand Prix but we'll go away, do our homework, and then we'll regroup for Japan."
The Japanese round presents Conway with almost as much cause for optimism as Baltimore had done. Instead of the twin-ring oval speedway that the series has used in the past at Motegi, the earthquake earlier in the year resulted in concerns of structural damage to the racetrack and prompted a switch to the road course there instead - which means another unfamiliar track layout and level playing field for all the drivers.
That gives Conway his best chance of improving from 17th place in the IndyCar drivers' championship before they hit the final two races of the years, both on ovals, at Kentucky and Las Vegas in October.