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.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Are Alex Lloyd & N/H/L The Best Fit?”

  1. Alex Lloyd is arguably the finest racing talent Britain has produced in the last decade. Oriol Servia is an accomplished journeyman but a journeyman nonetheless. Alex has backing and an abundance of talent and that is something rare in the current indyCar environment. Doornbos is undoubtedly a talent and a winner, but admitted he found adapting to the Dallara very difficult, Lloyd will have no such issues.

    Alex Lloyd’s presence in the NHLR team will push Rahal and re focus him. Right now, he doesn’t have to worry about beating his team mate as he’s not being pushed by Servia. Lloyd will do more than push Rahal and will force him to drive faster and think harder when in the cockpit. If Graham is unsettled by the presence of another young driver in the team then he has serious problems and probably needs to grow up.

  2. I think this is a technicality, but it may be worth mentioning that Graham is a free agent and while there are no logical “better” places for him to go next year, he does not yet have a contract with NHL for 2010.

    The curious thing here, we are calling Graham a young, relatively unexperienced talent here. He has three years of major open wheel experience. Now compare that to the driver line up that participates week in week out. He has equivalent if not more experience than a third of the field. (viso, Moraes, mutoh, matos, conway, Antinucci, andretti). When the grissled veterans are 28, The IndyCar series is young, very young.

    I think NHL is, using a phrase from team sports, in what we might call a youth movement. They are searching for that one, or two stars that will hit their prime and carry them back to greatness when the formula changes in 2012 and the playing field is levelled. As for the mentorship both these young men could use, I would hope that comes from the organization and not necessarily a team mate. Ryan Briscoes rapid improvement upon joining Penske probably had more to do with the guidance of Roger and Tim than it did Helio.

    • Great point about Briscoe, his maturation happened under the guidance of Roger Penske driving for Porsche in the ALMS.

      I have said it esle where that, jumping into a front running car in the ALMS would be of huge benefit to a driver like Marco or Graham. Look at what it has done for Simon Pagenaud?


    • I keep thinking, since we keep hearing about how messy Wheldon’s relationship with Panther racing is going, and assuming Panther (who right now we can consider the equal to N/H/L?) would want a young, talented, marketable American driver….
      ah heck, it makes sense, but I’d really rather have Graham stay at N/H/L

  3. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    I just want to see what Lloyd will do in a good car full time.

  4. I’m not convinced that driver lineup for NHL in 2010 will be Rahal and Lloyd. I think NHL is auditioning Lloyd to cover their bets in the event Rahal leaves for another team. (Not sure where he’d go. De Ferran maybe?)

    Unless the economics change significantly, I think next years lineup at N/H/L will be
    1.) Rahal – Lloyd or other promising young talent
    2.) Champ Car Veteran with the most sponsorship money to offer

  5. I’m not too alarmed about the Lloyd at Homestead audition. It’s a chance to try out a new guy to see if he works, and I presume that Alex is bringing a little bit of cash for the ride. That’s no bad thing, since he’s also got a lot of talent to go with that check. From what I’ve heard, the 06 car has seen hardly a single dollar of sponsorship cash since after Indy, as witnessed by the team using leftover McDonald’s stickers to un-blanken the sidepods. Even if Alex is only bringing $100,000 for the one race, it’s certainly $100,000 more than Servia was bringing. Also, from what I’ve heard, N/H/L hasn’t done much in the way of testing at all this year, which hasn’t helped their case at all. If a small injection of money can allow them to go get some miles and work on some setups, then all the better. If Alex turns out to be good and gets on well with the team, then maybe they can talk about ’10, but it’s still early in the day for that.

  6. Dicks Simon Says:

    Lloyd is in the car at Homestead and likely in the car full-time in 2010, for one reason. $$$$ Its the only thing that matters in this sport anymore. Not saying he isn’t talented, but without the cash he is bringing, this car wouldn’t run.

    Its also why Doornbos got the seat to begin with. He was terrible though and basically was told to go away, after he couldn’t get along with anyone and sucked on the track.

    I think Rahal ends up with DeFerren, to be their veteran driver to go along with Sato. DeFerren cannot run 2 Indy Car rookies, with ZERO oval experience. Plus, the series NEEDS Rahal to become a star and he will, with DeFerren and Bob Clarke’s well funded operation.

    I think Dan Wheldon ends up at NHL, as Alex Lloyd’s teammate in 2010.

  7. Franchittitlitter Says:

    I gotta agree with Tom. I seem to be the only one not on the Rahal bandwagon- yes, he’s got great talent, but he’s his own worst enemy. I think Lloyd is exceptional and has a very bright future.

    I should also say that Oriol is my favorite driver so I’m biased, but I believe that Oriol/Lloyd is the way to go for N/H/L. And bring back the DAFCA Special!

  8. […] IRL blogger George Phillips was less sure: “I do not mean to disparage Alex Lloyd, but this move would not benefit him […]

  9. I admit, I have not been on this your blog in a long time… anyhow it was another enjoy to see It is such serious case and ignored by so many, even specialist. I thank you to succor making people more alert of possible issues.

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