Conway battles his way back at Motegi
20 September 2011
Andretti Autosport's British driver Mike Conway battled his way back from a disappointing qualifying and a mid-race clash with Sebastien Bourdais to claim a top ten finish in the final Indy Japan race at Motegi on Sunday.
It was the series' first (and sadly last) race at Motegi on the road course configuration, and the almost-European-style nature of the road circuit appealed to Conway and suited his style. "The circuit is cool and I had a lot of fun," he said after his first laps on Friday.
After a promising series of runs in practice on Saturday that saw him in the top ten in both hour-long sessions, Conway was then very frustrated when he was unable to duplicate that form in qualifying and failed to make it through his group stage in round 1 later in the afternoon.
"We were running quite well in the first practice session but then struggled to pull together a strong lap on Saturday for qualifying," he said. "I'm obviously disappointed that the @FollowAndretti car didn't make it through further in qualifying. Our first lap was okay but then I went off and after that we just didn't put a lap together.
"It's too bad because we ran well all day," he added, after ending up with a less-than-hoped-for grid position of 20th.
The team as a whole didn't have a great qualifying performance, with Ryan Hunter-Reay only a little way ahead in 17th and Danica Patrick starting from 23rd, but at least Marco Andretti seemed to have a feel for Motegi's unfamiliar road layout and managed to make it into round 2, qualifying in a respectable tenth place.
That gave the team - and Conway in particular - a challenge to rise to, and they dealt with the Saturday disappointment by coming on strong in Sunday's race. Mindful of the old mantra that 'you can't win a race on the first lap, but you can sure lose it', Conway started off playing it cautiously but still picked up two positions and was up to 18th by the time the first caution came out for Joao Paulo de Oliveira's retirement on lap 19.
The mêlée at the restart which saw Dario Franchitti hit Ryan Briscoe and also catch out Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball near the front of the field proved to be an opportunity for Conway, who leaped up to 11th place as a result of steering clear of the trouble.
Once the race got back underway, Conway sensed that this was the moment to press home his advantage and started to make his way through the field, climbing to fifth place by lap 40.
"We managed to work our way steadily up through the field and were looking good for a strong points finish in fifth place or better," said Conway describing his race later on. Unfortunately that proved to be a high-water mark for the #27.
"We seemed to be working our way up through the field and then had a bad pit stop on our last stop," he continued. "After that we were forced back behind the cars we had overtook and it made it hard from there."
Nonetheless he was back up to seventh place by lap 55 and challenging Sebastien Bourdais for position. But the Frenchman - a four-time winner of the CART/Champ Cars title before his switch to F1 for a season and a half with Toro Rosso - was in no mood to be overtaken and ended up running Conway off the side of the track and onto the dirt.
"He went wide at the last corner, so [I] went to go inside but [he] came across, so went left and lost all my speed," Conway explained in a tweet after the race.
With the tyres now caked in dust, it took Conway several corners to clean them off and regain momentum, by which time several cars - including his team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay - had streamed past, leaving Conway bumped down to 12th with only eight laps remaining.
"We were looking good for a strong points finish in fifth place or better when I was unfortunately forced off the track by Bourdais," summarised Conway. "We were able to get back up to ninth place but it was disappointing as we know we had the pace to secure a better result."
Up ahead, Hunter-Reay was now challenging the Frenchman for sixth position - and like Conway before him he too ended up off the track, this time on the receiving end of a hefty impact on his rear wheel that sent him skidding off into the sand trap where he became beached, bringing out the final caution of the race.
"It's disappointing, we had another solid top-ten going," said Hunter-Reay later. "We would have finished sixth if Bourdais hadn't taken us out. I'll have to look at the video; I thought I cleared him, and the whole team thinks I cleared him. We'll have to see a replay and see but it's disappointing."
Despite being involved in two incidents in which he forced two Andretti Autosport cars off the track in the course of three laps, Bourdais was not penalised and went on to finish in sixth place.
Andretti Autosport did had cause to celebrate when Marco Andretti benefitted from strong race pace and a well-timed final pit stop to finish on the podium in third place behind Scott Dixon and Will Power. But to Conway and Hunter-Reay, that just proved what could have been possible for the #27 and #28 cars if the luck and breaks had been different - and if Sebastien Bourdais hasn't been around.
"It was a tough day, really," admitted Conway.
Danica Patrick, in her final road course event in IndyCar before leaving the series and the Andretti Autosport team for NASCAR in 2012, finished two spots behind Conway - narrowly missing out on a top ten finish but still gaining 12 spots on her starting grid position while generally keeping her nose clean and staying away from the problems that had beset Conway and Hunter-Reay toward the end.
There wasn't much more for Conway and the team to do other than set off on the long haul trip back to the States, and look forward to the final oval races of the year. "There are just two races left this season so we will be working hard to end the season on a high in the penultimate race in Kentucky and at the finale at Vegas," he said.
Round seventeen of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series at Kentucky Speedway is on October 2, with the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks later on October 16.