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Like It Or Not, Danica Assigned New Engineer

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 11 2011

Danica Patrick has been given a new engineer by IndyCar-team owner Michael Andetti (Photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series)

Included in this package: Danica Patrick given new engineer; Firestone to stay in IndyCar afterall; Open test in Alabama; Race fields to be capped; Conway returns; Sam Schmidt  to IndyCar.

Two-days of open testing at Barber Motorsports Park next week will serve as an accelerated meet-and-greet between IZOD IndyCar Series star Danica Patrick and her revised engineering team.

In an otherwise quiet open-wheel offseason for Patrick, she and Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti will head into the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in two weeks after swapping engineers. Eddie Jones is moving from Patrick’s No. 7 Team GoDaddy.com Dallara/Honda to Andretti’s No. 26 entry. In turn, Tino Belli will move from Marco’s staff to Danica’s.

Patrick finished 10th in points last season, a drop of five spots from her career-best in 2009. Patrick recorded a pair of second-place results in 2010 on the 1.5-mile ovals at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, moving six points ahead of Justin Wilson during the season-finale at HMS.

Patrick did set an Indycar Series record for consecutive races finished/running in 2010. She heads into 2011 having finished every race of the 2010 season and all but the first event of the 2009 schedule, a total of 33. Still, Patrick indicated team-owner Michael Andretti did not consult her about the switch.

“The engineering change was…it’s not my decision,” Patrick said during a Media Day interview at TMS in Fort Worth. “I got a call that it was happening and that was it and those are decisions made higher-up.

“I don’t know (why); they said they were looking for some…they just wanted to change a couple of things up. I think Ryan’s (Hunter-Reay) engineer stayed the same and Mike (Conway) is new on the team so that’s new anyway and Marco and I switched. Yeah, it’s not my decision so it’s probably better to ask them. But I think they were just looking for some maybe fresh eyes and a fresh approach for the drivers.”

IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights teams will hit the ground running during the Open Test in Birmingham, Ala. IndyCar Series teams will be on the 2.38-mile circuit Monday and Tuesday, while Firestone Indy Lights teams will test on Wednesday. Star Mazda Championship cars will be allocated track time each day.

Patrick didn’t try hiding the fact that she was taken aback by the switch. “Well, I definitely like my engineering staff for sure,” said Patrick, who will turn 29 on March 25, opening day of the race weekend in St. Pete. “I think Eddie, my engineer, and my Assistant Engineer, Matt (Barnes), we got along really well – maybe too well – and had too much fun. But I don’t think that’s ever too big of a problem.

“So it wasn’t my decision, but I’m open to change and I’m not afraid of change and I think that Belli had a really good year with the engineer from Marco last year. They had a strong year together so I’m optimistic that there can be some new ideas that help in performance maybe. I still talk to my engineer, Eddie, and we’ll still see each other a lot. But again, there was hope for just fresh eyes giving…maybe you try something different and it works.”

Patrick said she and Belli began exchanging emails and phone calls last week, as well as a setup for the Open Test.  “I think we’ll get along great,” Patrick said. “I got along with him great when he was Marco’s engineer and he probably was the engineer I talked to most other than my own.”

In a related corporate item, Andretti and Hunter-Reay will both feature sponsorship from Indianapolis-based companies Bryant Heating and Cooling, OneAmerica and ExactTarget. And DHL has signed-on as primary sponsor of Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 car.

Firestone and IndyCar will not part company after the 2011 season afterall, it was announced Friday.

Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC (BATO) and INDYCAR have announced that Firestone will continue to serve as the sole tire supplier to the IZOD IndyCar Series through the 2013 race season.

Late last week the companies announced that they would allow the Firestone sponsorship and supply contract to expire at the end of the 2011 season.

“At the end of last week, we had reached the deadline where both organizations had to make a

IndyCar Series boss Randy Bernard says Firestone is staying put. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

decision regarding the future to prepare our individual operations for the long term,” said Randy Bernard, chief executive officer, INDYCAR. “This is one of those decisions that it is imperative that you have the team owners 100 percent behind you. Early this week we called a meeting to walk the team owners through the process and hear their input. I’m happy to say we walk as one with Firestone.

“We feel that this new supply agreement will benefit everyone. It provides a proven safe and reliable Firestone product for the transition to the all-new cars for 2012. We have to thank everyone at Firestone for working with us to help ensure the best for the long-term growth of our sport.”

“INDYCAR called a meeting to inform the team owners of Firestone’s departure,” said Dennis Reinbold, owner, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. “When we learned of this, we encouraged INDYCAR to check with Firestone to see if there might be any chance to continue. We feel that it is important to maintain continuity with their excellent tires as we transition to the new car for 2012. The team owners are collectively very relieved that Firestone had an open mind and that they were able to reach this agreement with INDYCAR. Firestone racing tires are not only important from a safety and reliability standpoint, but they contribute greatly to the wheel-to-wheel competition for which our sport is famous.”

Firestone has supplied tires to the IZOD IndyCar Series since 1996. The new agreement does not include Firestone Indy Lights, the developmental series for drivers and teams striving to reach the top level of open-wheel racing in North America. Firestone will remain as title sponsor and tire supplier of the development series through 2011.

“We are pleased that we were able to reach this agreement with INDYCAR,” said Al Speyer, executive director, Firestone Racing. “As we prepare to celebrate our involvement in the 100thanniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, we are also focused on the future and the great opportunities that lie ahead. While we’ve reached the pinnacle of success in the IndyCar racing, we’re happy to extend our relationship with the IZOD IndyCar Series through 2013, and to continue our winning partnership. Meanwhile, we will continue to evaluate all options for promoting the Firestone brand inside and outside of motorsports, as the Firestone Brand is a very important part of our business.”

Twenty-four IndyCar driver/car combinations are expected to participate in the Open Test, including former Champ Car title-winner Sebastien Bourdais, two-time IndyCar starter Sebastian Saavedra and Oriol Servia, who was on the sidelines last year.

“When we have these Open Tests, what it does is make it way more competitive because everyone has

Will Power is testing in Alabama.

a good setup,” said Verizon Team Penske’s Will Power, runner-up to three-time series champion Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2010. “I know that track well and I know what the car should feel like, so any things we need to develop we should get a read on it.

“The circuit itself is one of the most technical tracks we go to. With a smooth, fast line and the complexes of corners, you have to give some to get some somewhere else. It can be tough to pass, but we proved last year you can pass.”

Helio Castroneves, Power’s Penske teammate, won the inaugural IndyCar event at BMP last April, holding off two-time series champion Scott Dixon of Ganassi Racing by 0.5703-seconds. Beginning with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 27, the first four races of the IndyCar Series schedule will be contested on road/street courses. Included is the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 10.

“It’s always good to test at a track you’ll race at to get those finer details down,” said Power, a five-time winner on road/street courses last year in the No. 12 Dallara/Honda.

Servia, meanwhile, will slide behind the wheel of the No. 02 Newman/Haas Racing entry for the two days/10 hours of testing. “I will have my first real taste for the Barber course at the test,” said Servia, who tested with NHR in December at Sebring (Fla.) International. “I’m really happy that spring training is taking place there so I will have chance to learn before we come back for the race.

“We do have a lot to accomplish at this test. The season gets really busy quickly and it will be important to find the best car setup to ensure we can be competitive right away. I haven’t raced in a year so the more miles I can do the better. This year, there are more cars and it will be more competitive than ever. After having a year off, I have never been so ready to work as hard to achieve our goals.”

An oval Open Test will be conducted May 9-10 at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway before the first oval race of the season – the 100th edition of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29.

INDYCAR, sanctioning body of the IndyCar Series, is capping starting fields at a maximum of 26 cars for all races with the exception of the Indy 500 and the inaugural IZOD INDYCAR World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October.

During the 15 race weekends affected – including the first of two 275-kilometer events at Texas Motor Speedway in June – 24 starting spots will be filled through qualifications based upon time, with two provisional positions available if needed. The starting field for the second Firestone Twin 275 at TMS will be determined by a blind draw conducted during a one-hour “intermission” session.

“This new procedure will ensure that our fans see the best drivers and teams in every race we stage,

Brian Barnhart of the IndyCar Series.

while adding more drama to the qualifying process,” said Brian Barnhart, president of competition and racing operations for INDYCAR. “Many of the tracks we compete at can only accommodate a maximum of 26 cars and that is our limit when traveling to overseas events, so those two factors are what really helped us land on this number. We feel that a consistent starting lineup number will help our tracks and teams better prepare for events, improve conditions on pit road and elevate the level of competition on track.”

The two provisional spots will be available to drivers not making the field after the completion of qualifying. The provisionals will be assigned based on the following criteria (in order): 2010 IndyCar Series champion driver, 2009 IndyCar Series champion driver, 2010 Indianapolis 500 champion driver, highest-ranking driver among the current top-22 driver point standings prior to race weekend, Leader Circle entry with the best practice lap time at the event as deemed acceptable by INDYCAR and entry with next-best qualifying lap time, as deemed acceptable by INDYCAR.

The Indianapolis 500 will maintain its traditional 33-car starting field. The field at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be expanded to 30 to accommodate additional entries participating in the $5 million challenge. The 30-car field includes two provisional starting positions based on the standard criteria.

Provisional spots will not be available for the IndyCar events at Sao Paulo in Brazil and Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, but the field will have up to 26 cars at both races.  INDYCAR will determine at its discretion the procedure by which non-Leader’s Circle teams are selected to travel to and participate in those events.

Brit Mike Conway hot-lapped at Sebring International on Wednesday, his first IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport since sustaining serious and season-ending injuries during the Indy 500.

Conway sustained multiple fractures to his lower left leg and a compression fracture to his T3 vertebrae during the late-race accident, and has since undergone nine months of intensive rehab.

Conway completed just over 60 laps of the airport circuit, working on a variety of setups that hopefully will translate to the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 27. Conway reportedly finished the day quickest of the 12 cars present.

“It sounds so cliché but it really is so fantastic to be back,” said Conway, 27, who was introduced as Andretti Autosport’s newest fulltime driver on Feb. 1. “It’s been a long journey returning to full fitness following the accident and it feels great to be back testing and preparing for the season.  We made some good progress, gradually chipping away at the lap times, and it will be good to continue to build on this at the next test in Barber on Monday.

“I want to thank everyone who has supported me over the past nine months.  I’ve had some fantastic people working with me and I really appreciate all the work they’ve put in. It’s a real honor to be racing for the Andretti Autosport team this year and I’m confident that together we will be able to secure some great results.”

Conway recorded three top-10 finishes in six races in 2010, including a high of eighth (advancing 11 positions) in the opener on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“Working with this team has already been great,” said Conway, who has competed in 23 races over two seasons. “Everyone is so excited and so pumped up for the season to hit. It’s really nice to receive that kind of feeling when you come to a new team. It’s great. I can’t thank all the guys enough for having that belief in me. Now we just need to go out there and start winning.”

Team-owner Sam Schmidt, a powerbroker in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, will transition to the IZOD IndyCar Series during next week’s Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park.

Schmidt has acquired the assets of the FAZZT Race Team, which debuted in the IndyCar Series in 2010 with Canadian Alex Tagliani. The team’s No. 77 Honda-powered Dallara will compete in 2011 as Sam Schmidt Motorsports with Tagliani as driver.

“This is a fantastic time for me, my family and everyone at Sam Schmidt Motorsports,” Schmidt said. “Though we competed in the IndyCar Series in 2001 and 2002, I can now admit we were naive in our understanding of what it took to be successful at the top level of open-wheel racing in the United States. Ten years later, I have a much better understanding of what it takes to go Indy-car racing.”

In addition to acquiring the cars and equipment, Sam Schmidt Motorsports will retain FAZZT employees for continuity into the 2011 season. SSM also will retain full sponsor support from Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) and chairman Joe Atkins in the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Schmidt stressed that acquiring the FAZZT assets and an additional IndyCar Series program will not detract from his team’s existing plans for 2011. His team previously had announced plans to field a car for Jay Howard in the Indianapolis 500, and Wade Cunningham for three other IndyCar Series events.

“We have worked hard to accomplish what we have in the Firestone Indy Lights Series and, most importantly, we have built a team around a group of great individuals,” Schmidt said. “That, combined with the excellent talent base at FAZZT Racing, should create a powerful combination. This in no way will interrupt our plans to compete strongly for the Indy Lights championship, and we all look forward to the challenge of being equally as competitive in the IZOD IndyCar Series.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 11 2011
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