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The inside story of what really makes four IndyCar greats tick

Now IndyCar's safety car driver, Oriol Servia enjoyed a distinguished racing career across numerous teams on the US open-wheel scene. The experience makes him uniquely qualified to discuss the best traits of title-winners Cristiano da Matta, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power

Oriol Servia,  congratulates Pit Stop Challenge winner Scott Dixon

Photo by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

With over 200 starts in premier U.S. open-wheel racing series for a vast array of teams, Oriol Servia has a unique insight into some of the top racers of the 2000s. The Catalan, who was born in Pals near Barcelona, has enjoyed a remarkably lengthy and varied racing career – which included a couple of Formula 1 tests for Prost in 2001 – but he’s best remembered for his Champ Car World Series days.

He netted his sole win for Newman/Haas Racing at Montreal in 2005, albeit in controversial style after leader Timo Glock was ordered to move aside after blocking at the chicane. Servia went on to finish second in points that year.

What he also managed to achieve was double figures in terms of teams that he drove for across CART, Champ Car World Series, Indy Racing League and IndyCar Series, so when Autosport asked him for his favourite team-mate, he simply refused to name just one…

“I cannot say one, because I’ve had a colourful career, right?” he says. “I have a record, not most wins, but I’ve driven for 14 IndyCar teams – so that gives me a lot of team-mates!

“One of the best aspects of my career is that some of the team-mates that I had were, or would be, great champions. I had Cristiano da Matta in my rookie season, I had this young Kiwi guy called Scott Dixon for three races in 2002, then I had Sebastien Bourdais, then I had Will Power.

“So you can say I’ve had four guys who have, in their time, dominated open-wheel racing in the US across the last 20 years. And they learned everything from me! That’s the bottom line as I see it. Seriously, I learned many things from each one, but it’s hard to say which was best because they all had their strengths, they were all special in their own way.”

Cristiano Da Matta

Cristiano da Matta was

Cristiano da Matta was "very good at boring corners"

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Servia was team-mates with 2002 CART title-winner da Matta at PPI Motorsports in 2000, driving Toyota-powered Reynard 2KIs. Da Matta finished 10th in the points, winning in Chicago, while Servia placed 15th in his rookie CART season.

“Cristiano was very good at what I’d call boring corners,” explains Servia, who later raced with the Brazilian again aboard an RSR Jaguar in the 2011 Sebring 12 Hours. “Those that you normally wouldn’t pay attention to, like hairpins.

“As a driver, you always focus on finding tenths of a second in the hardest corners, or look at who’s braking the latest, and he was finding two or three tenths in the corners you just wouldn’t think to look at.

“Let’s say you’re at a street track and there’s a Mickey Mouse area of slow corners, you don’t pay much attention to those, but he would go and find lots of time there. What he did so well was to find what I call ‘easy tenths’. Cristiano was just so very good at that.”

Scott Dixon

"Ice cold" Dixon partnered Servia only briefly

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Servia was joined by Dixon at the start of the 2002 CART season at PacWest Racing, but the team (then known as PWR) was forced to close its doors due to a lack of funding. Each had managed top six finishes in their Toyota-powered Lola B02/00s before Servia was sidelined, while Dixon was snapped up by Chip Ganassi.

“I was lucky to see this early on, because we all got to see it later,” Servia says. “Dixon was just ice cold in his approach to everything.

“He could have a good session or a bad one, and you couldn’t tell which because he was just unmoveable, and that’s a great lesson to learn. It’s clearly in his DNA, but when you see the advantage he gained from being like that, it was huge.

“From the driving standpoint, honestly, we were only together for a few races so I didn’t get much insight into that, into what makes him great. But it was that approach that he had, when nothing fazes you, that’s incredible.”

Sebastien Bourdais

Bourdais was a master of

Bourdais was a master of "mind-blowing" car set-up

Photo by: Dan Streck

Servia got his big break at Newman/Haas in 2005 when Bruno Junqueira suffered a serious back injury and concussion at the Indianapolis 500. He joined reigning champion Bourdais from round three, winning at Montreal compared to the Frenchman’s six victories on the way to his second Champ Car World Series title in his Ford-powered Lola.

“Sebastien was dominating the championship at Newman/Haas,” he recalls. “I’d always heard that Sebastien likes understeer in the car, and no one likes understeer! You want the car to turn when you ask for it, you want to hit your apex, right?

“But what I learned from being his team-mate, it wasn’t so much just having understeer but having the value of a secure rear end. If that leads to you having a lot of understeer at the apex, there was so much to gain during the entry – not ever questioning the car’s rear-end – then there was a big advantage.

“I was already in IndyCar for five years by this point, and I thought I was good at car set-up, but I realised that I was focused on having a really good front end at the apex, and it made me understand that I should focus on the rear.

“When he had that, the commitment that he had through a 90-degree corner in a bumpy, narrow street track lined by walls, it was mind-blowing for me! To get to his level took me many more races than I thought, and I had access to all his data.

“When he got the car set-up how it suited him, it’s hard to explain how much that blew my mind. Oh my God, he was amazing!”

Will Power

Will Power's commitment set him apart from other drivers, according to Servia

Will Power's commitment set him apart from other drivers, according to Servia

Photo by: Motorsport Images

For the first re-unified IndyCar Series season in 2008, Servia was teamed with Power at KV Racing Technology. Power won the last-ever Champ Car round at Long Beach in his Panoz-Cosworth, finishing 12th in the points, but he was outscored over the season in the Dallara-Hondas by Servia, who placed ninth.

“In 2008 I got Will as a team-mate and you find someone who has that level of commitment that Sebastien showed in his car no matter what,” says Servia, who subbed for Power at St. Petersburg in 2016 when the Australian was suffering concussion symptoms from a practice crash. “It didn’t matter what balance he had in the car, he was so committed, and that’s why he used to crash so much at the time, more than he should.

“I’d say his level of commitment that I saw back then was over the top, it was just crazy. And when he eventually landed in a good team, and they gave him a good car, then that’s when he’s able to produce 70 poles for the record in IndyCar. That commitment has never changed.

“Anyone in this paddock is very quick and competitive. But there is a layer that Will has that is just a step beyond everyone else.”  

Servia – who went on to race in the American Le Mans Series and Formula E – remains a familiar face in the IndyCar Series paddock, and still gets to lead races on a regular basis as the pace car driver. He says he remains on great terms with all his illustrious team-mates, and “I know I can call any of them to ask a favour, and they can do the same to me”.

But when pushed for which he’d rather go out for a beer with, he reveals: “Well, Jimmy Vasser is my closest buddy. But I’m friends with all of them, and when you’ve been team-mates with someone and seen how good they are, it means you share a lot of respect.”

Servia maintains a good relationship with all of his former team-mates

Servia maintains a good relationship with all of his former team-mates

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt

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