Champ Car's first trip back to Europe after its two-year absence was a big success. Zolder and Assen were both fun tracks to drive and it was great to race back in front of so many European fans again. Zolder didn't start off well when Dan Clarke took me and several others off on the first lap of Friday morning's practice session. But we picked ourselves up, qualified fifth and managed to finish fifth after an exciting race where I was dicing with Graham Rahal and Bruno Junqueira amongst others. I'd hoped for a podium, but an overtaking manoeuvre on Bruno into Turn 1 didn't come off, and I flat-spotted both front tyres, which made for a rather uncomfortable final few laps!
The highlight of the year was obviously Assen, where we scored our one and only victory of the season. To be honest, I didn't feel that comfortable with the set-up until the race itself. I got provisional pole in the wet on Friday by a big margin, which was just as well as we were way off the pace in the drier conditions on Saturday. But my engineer Mike Talbott found a decent race set-up for Sunday and we managed to get past Sebastien at the start. Once Sebastien had pressed his push-to-pass button and found the pit-lane speed limiter, the main competition came from Jan Heylen. Jan was really quick all afternoon and Bruno who was on another alternate strategy. It wasn't an easy victory, but it was a great feeling to win the race. I thought it deserved three lots of donuts to celebrate! Not sure if that's some kind of record or not?!
The Assen win completely turned round my championship fortunes, moving me up from 4th to second in the point standings. Realistically there was no way of catching Sebastien, but it gave me and the team something to focus on in Surfers Paradise after we were given the news that RuSPORT was to close at the end of the year.
I wasn't sure whether to look forward to Surfers Paradise or not. Obviously the Gold Coast is a fantastic location, but up until this year it hadn't been my best event. Last year I broke my wrist on the first day, and the year before we'd struggled to find a good set-up. This year I qualified fifth and I kept out of trouble in the early part of the race. The car felt good, I got past Oriol Servia, and I was then able to run comfortably enough in second. We didn't have the pace to challenge Sebastien for the win, but I was really pleased to get a podium here for the first time. And it was good to go into the last race with a bit of momentum.
We had great expectations for Mexico City, because we'd gone so well there in the last couple of years, so to finish 10th was a real disappointment. I was sitting comfortably in third when we started to get a fuel pressure problem. To keep the car going I had to keep the tank more than two-thirds full, so we ended up making an extra pitstop. Robert Doornbos had had a problem with his clutch. If he hadn't retired I doubt if I'd have held on to second in the championship so that bit of luck came our way at least.
It wasn't the way I'd hoped to finish the season--especially after the way everyone at RuSPORT had kept their spirits up right to the end, even knowing that the team would fold soon after. It's been a real pleasure to work with them over the last three years and I wish them all the best for the future.
For me, the last few months have been a real mix of emotions. Aside from the racing, Julia's expecting our first baby next June and that will be a life-changing experience which we're really excited about. I'll be racing in Jerez when the baby's due, so we'll have to see how that works out!
I managed to get back to the UK in December in time for the 2007 Autosport Awards. My younger brother, Stefan, won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award, which was a brilliant achievement. That should help to open a few doors for his own racing career. We're all really proud of what he's done and we've spent a fair bit of time this winter thinking through options for this year.
I had another crack at the Daytona 24 Hours at the end of January, driving Michael Shank Racing's #60 car along with my new Newman/Haas/Lanigan teammate Graham Rahal and their regular drivers Mark Patterson and Oswaldo Negri. My old RuSPORT teammate A.J. Allmendinger was in the #6 MSR car--so we managed a few rounds of mini-golf when we weren't at the track. NASCAR, Champ Car, Grand-Am--success on the mini-golf course still counts for a lot!
The Rolex is a fantastic event with so many great drivers from different series. The end result was disappointing, because both MSR cars showed some great pace, but that's often how things go in endurance events (unless you're in a Chip Ganassi car!) You need absolutely everything to come right and stay right for the duration. Hopefully I'll be back again next year.
Obviously my biggest news is the new chapter in my career which has just begun with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Their results speak for themselves and for me it's a dream come true. We had a really good first test last weekend, and managed to work through everything we needed to in a logical, consistent way.
I know it seems strange to say it, but the Sebring conditions (hot, sunny, grippy track) were far from perfect for testing. A track that was gripping up as much as that one is not what we race on during the season. You have to be careful with the set-up changes - at the end of the day, there are no trophies for fastest lap at Sebring.
I've already developed a good working relationship with Graham and it looks like we're going to have a fun year. It's also good having a teammate who's almost as tall as me! Height means weight, and in a race car that's an important factor. Having us roughly the same size will help to get a more consistent approach between both cars. It also means the snappers will have to go elsewhere for their "little and large" team-mate photos this year! Joking aside, I guess it's just great to be back in a proper two car team again.
We have two more test sessions coming up and there's still plenty to learn with this Panoz Champ Car. It also looks like there's no shortage of talented drivers staying in and coming into Champ Car. The Sebring test demonstrated something I've known for a long time - that Franck Montagny is every bit as quick as his test times suggest. He deserves a competitive ride this year. It's also good to see my old team Conquest doing well and back up to two cars again.
Hopefully it's going to be an exciting year for all the right reasons. I'll write again with another update sometime in the Spring.