Despite being unfamiliar with his Conquest Racing Dallara-Honda package, and renewing an old acquaintance with Detroit's Belle Isle Raceway, Alex Tagliani insists that he could have taken a top five finish away from his unexpected debut appearance in the IndyCar Series.
The Canadian veteran was summoned from a scheduled outing in his native version of NASCAR to replace the injured Enrique Bernoldi, who reported that a thumb damaged at the previous weekend's Infineon Raceway round was not holding up under the strain of bouncing around the Detroit layout. With practice limited, Tagliani naturally did not set the world alight during his initial forays out on track, but used his years of accumulated racecraft to begin making waves on raceday.
With passing proving to be difficult for everyone on the 14-turn street circuit, Conquest chose to pit both of its drivers early and go 'off strategy' to try and make up some ground. Tagliani, who had qualified 21st, thus pitted for a top-up of fuel under the race's first yellow flag period, on lap two, and then returned for more twelve laps later, returning to the track in excellent position to make his way to the front when the leaders pitted.
Despite moving up the field, and about to make his way into the top five as those ahead of him started pitting, however, the Canadian started having issues with his gearbox and had to make an unplanned pit-stop on lap 32 so that the team could investigate the situation. After some repairs were made, Tagliani returned to the track and promptly registered a lap time of 1min 13.8305secs, good enough for third fastest at the time - and sixth overall when the chequered flag fell - but the mechanical woes returned and the #36 car was finally forced out of the race after completing 54 laps, returning him to 21st position in the final reckoning.
“First of all, my job here this weekend was to show what the team is worth and how good their car is," Tagliani insisted, "but, despite jumping in the car Saturday morning and missing all day Friday, we had a top five car today.
"Our strategy was good - we were running ahead of [points leader Scott] Dixon at one point and that's where we needed to be. We didn't put new tyres on at our first pit-stops, we just put fuel in and, on old tyres and a full load of fuel, the car was super consistent. We then put a new set of tyres on and the car did a 73.8 right away.
"Having lost some laps, I didn't want to fight with anybody, but the car was super quick. If we hadn't had our problems, we would have been straight into the top five, where we belong. From there, we would have been really, really strong.
"I'm very happy, and very excited with the way the team reacted this weekend. They definitely showed that they are a top class team and that they deserve to be up front - that's where the car is and that's where the group of people that work here are. Having done only half a race, we did the sixth fastest lap and, while it's unfortunate to have mechanical problems, I think we were asking for the impossible coming here on such short notice like this. But we proved that wrong and, after evaluating the whole thing, Conquest Racing deserves to be in the top five in the IndyCar Series right now.”
Having struggled in recent races with the comparative inexperience of rookie pairing Bernoldi and Jaime Camara, team boss Eric Bachelart welcomed a little more seasoned feedback.