Are Alex Lloyd & N/H/L The Best Fit?
I am slightly perplexed at the news that Alex Lloyd will be driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan at the season-ending race at Homestead next month. Not that I don’t think that he is a promising young talent – quite the contrary. Given the right set of circumstances, I think that Alex Lloyd could be a star of the future in the IndyCar Series. I’m just not sure that Newman/Haas/Lanigan represents that right set of circumstances.
I’ve always considered Graham Rahal to be their star of the future. Graham Rahal brings his family’s heritage along with his own engaging personality as well as a ton of talent. What Rahal needs is a veteran teammate, who is not his father, to serve as a mentor while he hones his skills. The last three years have been a bit chaotic for the young Rahal at N/H/L. His first season in 2007 was the team’s last season in Champ Car. He was teamed with Sebastian Bourdais who was clearly in pursuit of a fourth straight title. Bourdais was none too interested in helping to coach and mentor an eighteen year-old rookie. Still Rahal had a great rookie campaign, earning a second-place finish in only his third Champ car race. He ended up with four podium finishes that season and finished fifth in points.
Bourdais moved on to Formula One after that season. Shortly before the 2008 season, the open-wheel unification moved N/H/L and many former Champ Car teams into the IRL. All of the “transition” teams were behind the eight-ball – suddenly dealing with new equipment while some of the established IRL teams were working off data they had been gathering from the same cars for several years. Adding to the confusion, Graham Rahal had never raced on an oval. In an open test for the transition teams at Homestead, Rahal crashed on the 1.5 mile oval damaging his car to the extent that it couldn’t be repaired in time for the season opener on the same track.
Rahal’s opening race in the IRL was at St. Petersburg in the rain. He drove an impressive race and out-dueled Helio Castroneves at the end to gain a win in his first IndyCar Series outing, thereby becoming the youngest driver in history to win a major open-wheel race. It appeared certain that open-wheel racing had found it’s next American star.
Fast-forward to near the end of the 2009 season and we’re still waiting on Rahal’s second win. What seemed to be assured stardom for Graham Rahal has instead become a series of brain-fades and finger-pointing over the majority of two seasons. The engaging personality that he showed after his win at St. Pete became a combination of arrogance and ignorance – never a good combination – as he tended to lay blame for most of his misfortunes at the feet of others when a simple replay clearly showed otherwise.
He suffered multiple single-car incidents; he crashed in the exact same spot at Indy two years in a row. In 2008 – it was, ironically, Alex Lloyd who forced him to go high exiting turn four resulting in his clouting the outside wall at the beginning of the main straightaway. In 2009, Milka Duno got the blame for the same infraction. He suffered inexplicable lapses in concentration that would force him either into the fence or off-course on many occasions. Other times, he would show flashes of brilliance beyond his twenty years of age. The talent was obviously there but needed some definite seasoning.
For 2009, it appeared his Newman/Haas/Lanigan team had gotten the handle on the Dallara chassis. Unfortunately, Rahal was considered the veteran leader of the team as he was teamed with Robert Doornbos, who had won in the Champ Car Series but was new to the IRL and oval racing. That’s quite a burden for a twenty year-old to shoulder. While Rahal was still struggling to find his own way, Doornbos was simply struggling. Period. To make matters worse, Doornbos and Rahal were still harboring a grudge from a confrontation in their Champ Car days. The two simply did not get along and it surfaced a couple of times on track.
When Doornbos left N/H/L in a curious move to join HVM, Rahal did not hide his disdain for his former teammate. The same week, veteran driver Oriol Servia joined the team in time to debut at Mid-Ohio. Servia had driven only one race all year – a brilliant drive at Indianapolis where he drove for Graham’s father Bobby at Rahal-Letterman Racing. Servia was one of the biggest movers in the field that day as he carved his way up from the back of the field before falling victim to a faulty fuel pump.
All things considered, Servia had a decent run at Mid-Ohio finishing eleventh – which wasn’t too bad considering he had just joined the team a few days earlier. He followed that up with a sixth place at Sonoma and a seventh place Saturday night at Chicago.
Servia is a savvy veteran with a reputation of high finishes and bringing the car home in one piece. He has a previous relationship with Newman/Haas/Lanigan having taken over the cockpit for Bruno Junqueira after his season-ending crash at Indianapolis in 2005. When Servia replaced Doornbos at N/H/L last month, he seemed to be the missing ingredient. He was the veteran teammate that Rahal needed to help guide him through these formative years. Rahal was still the star of the future, but could still lean on the vast experience of a teammate like Servia.
Now comes word that N/H/L will run Alex Lloyd in the #06 car at Homestead. On the surface, it appears that Servia will be out at N/H/L. If this is what the driver line-up at Newman/Haas/Lanigan will look like for 2010, I don’t consider this a wise move. While Rahal has gained a lot of experience over the past two seasons, he is still somewhat raw. Having an experienced and accomplished driver like Servia could have helped Rahal polish his game over the next couple of seasons.
Dumping Servia in favor of Lloyd will give N/H/L one very young driver with not a whole lot of experience and a slightly older driver with almost no experience. Alex Lloyd will be twenty-five when the season opens in Brazil, yet he will have only driven in three IndyCar races ever – with the three scattered over a two year period. He won the Indy Pro series (now Indy Lights) title in 2007 driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. In the fall of that year, Chip Ganassi signed him to a driver development contract – although I’m not quite sure what that meant. I’m not certain if he ever tested with the team and Ganassi farmed him out to other teams to run the Indianapolis 500.
In 2008, Lloyd drove for a joint-effort between the Ganassi and Rahal stables. He qualified nineteenth and finished twenty-fifth. About the only thing memorable about that rookie run was his spectacular crash when he hit the pit wall attenuator about halfway though the race. His 2009 return to Indy was more impressive. This time, he was farmed out to Sam Schmidt’s #99 entry – in the all-pink “her” energy drink car. He squeezed into the field as a first day qualifier. He went a lap down early in the race, but battled back all afternoon to finish a well-earned thirteenth.
Perhaps this is strictly an audition to see what the kid can do away from Indy. Maybe Servia has already auditioned enough and they’ll make their decision during the off-season. It’s possible the decision has already been made and that’s why Lloyd will be in the car at Homestead. If Servia does not get the second seat at N/H/L, I would consider it an outrage – especially if he loses it to Alex Lloyd.
I do not mean to disparage Alex Lloyd, but this move would not benefit him either. Although considerably older than Graham Rahal, he has far less experience. He needs to go to a team that would have a veteran driver as a teammate to coach and mentor him; much the same reason why Graham Rahal needs Oriol Servia. Otherwise, N/H/L will struggle mightily counting on a twenty-one year old driver to lead their team against the Penske’s and Ganassi’s of the IndyCar world, while Alex Lloyd will not get the proper seasoning he needs.