With the 2013 IndyCar season opener about six months away, it just might be a very long winter for Canadian racer Alex Tagliani.
After a rough start to his season, things fell into place for the Lachenaie, Que., native after his team switched from Lotus to Honda engines after the first four of 15 races.
Now he can’t wait to get back into his Barracuda Networks-sponsored Bryan Herta Motorsport IndyCar for a full season in 2013 with his Honda motor.
Simply put, Tagliani thinks next year will be one to remember.
“I have always been realistic and cautious and have lots of respect for the big teams that have everything at their disposal, but we, as a small team with no budget, were able to go out and be fast, so there was something there,” Tagliani said.
“It tells me that it’s just going to improve and I am very comfortable saying that next year, we are going to be a contender – we are going to challenge and we are going to be there.”
Unfortunately for Tagliani, the six-month break to the first race of 2013 in St. Petersburg, Fla., gives him and his Barracuda Racing crew ample time to stew about the heartbreaking engine failure he suffered while leading the season finale at Fontana’s California Speedway.
“The biggest disappointment of the season was Fontana – I was crushed, devastated,” he said.
“We started practice on Friday and we were dead last – the car was so loose I almost crashed three times. In qualifying, we threw a set-up at it and we didn’t care where we ended up and we were sixth. During the race we adjusted the car and adjusted the car and we were gone and then with 20 laps to go the engine blew up.”
Then again, although leading a race and falling out was tough to swallow, it was likely better than running at the back all year, something that was a possibility when the engines supplied by Lotus for the 2012 season turned out to be duds.
A frustrated Tagliani struggled through the first three races. His best result was 15th in the opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. The team sat out the fourth stop in Brazil to arrange a change to Honda power beginning with the Indianapolis 500 in May.
Once his squad got its hands on Honda engines, it took off. The 235 points the outfit amassed from Indianapolis onward was the 10th best total in those 11 starts. Tagliani also took one pole and made the final “Fast Six” in qualifying in six of the 10 races after Indy.
In fact, had Barracuda Racing gone to Brazil and simply started the race rather than staying home, the minimum 10 points Tagliani would have earned would have put him 14th overall. Not bad for a driver who was 26th overall in points after the Indianapolis 500, which ended the first third of the season.
But then again, Tagliani’s season only got going when the Honda was bolted in his car at the famed Brickyard where he drove to a 12th place finish.
“I had a blast driving a very competitive car week in and week out. We were super quick all the time,” Tagliani said of his races from Indy forward.
“We had consistency and speed, and in qualifying we were badass.”
That Honda-powered performance becomes even more impressive when the lack of testing time for the team is considered.
While other IndyCar outfits had several days of testing throughout the season, Tagliani’s Barracuda Networks car only got on track for less than half a day of tests in 2012. That was at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car course where the team went home early after an engine problem.
Part of the team’s lack of testing was due to the budgetary hole left by unforeseen outlay needed to acquire a second engine supply. Another factor was the fact that Tagliani’s team didn’t get any IndyCar Leaders Circle cash in 2012, which goes to the top-20 teams. The Leaders Circle money is thought to be a bit more than US$1-million, which Herta will get in 2013.
So how was the team able to squeeze good performances out of the car even though they started almost every weekend in a hole?
Ironically, Tagliani has to thank Lotus partially, since the team knew at the start of the year that they were severely down on power. Led by Todd Malloy, who was born in Oshawa, Ont., but grew up in Kapuskasing, Ont., Tagliani’s crew concentrated on making the chassis as quick as possible to compensate for the lack of horsepower.
When the Honda swap happened, the rest was up to Tagliani’s ability to squeeze speed from the package, while keeping his car out of trouble they could not afford, Malloy said.
“He has got probably the best car control I have ever seen and don’t underestimate that,” he said.
“We didn’t have a lot of money this year and had we shunted a car at any point, it would have been a problem for us. I have never seen someone drive knowing that was the case like Alex did.”
“The four laps in qualifying at Indy were phenomenal – you have no idea – he should have crashed many times. I have never been so scared in my life.”
Although Tagliani hasn’t signed contract for 2013, both sides want to stick together.
It would be a welcome change for the Canadian whose career has been marked by uncertainty. Although he always managed to be quick no matter how bad the situation, job security was always fleeting. Tagliani seemed to move teams every season, mostly due to other drivers showing up with big sponsor dollars and buying his seat out from under him. It’s also made it tough for Tagliani who hasn’t really had the luxury of continuity to help him find a comfort zone since his Player’s Forsythe days in Champ Car a decade ago.
When asked whether Tagliani’s itinerant existence and lack of continuity have many not seeing his true talents and perhaps underrating him as a driver, team owner Bryan Herta stressed that he definitely doesn’t share that point of view.
“Certainly, he is not underrated by us,” he said.
“I do agree Alex has bounced around the last several years and his results have not matched his talent, so maybe from that standpoint he is underrated. We plan to help him change that soon.”
While he waits to get back into his IndyCar, Tagliani will be racing in something a bit less familiar on Saturday. The 39-year-old takes on his old Player’s Forsythe teammate, Patrick Carpentier, on Saturday in a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle celebrity race during this weekend’s Supermotocross at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
But don’t expect the IndyCar driver to race anything with two wheels.
“Dirt bikes? On Jumps? In a stadium? Yeah, there’s not enough money that you could pay me to do that. It’s just cuckoo,” he said.
“But doing this other class, I will get the best seat in the house to watch the supercross.”
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Correction: Alex Tagliani race team is called Barracuda Racing. An earlier online version of this story contained incorrect information.