With its driver out for the remainder of the season to recuperate, the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota team brought in a ringer this week to help prepare for life without Brian Vickers.
DTM driver Mattias Ekström swapped his usual Red Bull Audi A4 for a NASCAR Cup car on Tuesday to provide feedback that will prove invaluable as the team prepares for next month’s road race at California’s Infineon Raceway and a later race at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Along the way, the two-time DTM champion fulfilled a “long-harbored dream” of putting a Sprint Cup car through its paces with a test at the Virginia International Raceway alongside No. 82 Red Bull Toyota driver, Scott Speed.
“I was really surprised how the car drove,” said Ekström, who is second in the DTM standings after winning his first race of 2010 last weekend in Valencia, Spain.
“I came into this test not having any experience in these types of cars, and also having never worked with the No. 83 team before, so it was nice to see how well we all worked together. I really enjoyed my first Sprint Cup test and am glad to have had this opportunity.”
With Vickers out for the rest of 2010 after doctors discovered blood clots in this left leg and lungs two weeks ago, the team drafted veteran Casey Mears to fill in. But that does not mean another driver couldn’t also step into the cockpit, especially one with a bucket full of DTM experience when the series makes its two stops on road courses.
"I really enjoyed my first Sprint Cup test." –Mattias Ekström
With the DTM schedule only having one event next month, Ekström could easily make the June 20 race in Sonoma, California, but he would be driving for Audi at the Nurburgring when the NASCAR field takes to the track at Watkins Glen on August 8.
Judging from his reaction when he stepped from the car, Ekström would relish the opportunity to race for Red Bull’s NASCAR team.
“Everyone had told me that it would be very special and it was quite nice. The first hour of the test I was fighting the car a lot, just getting used to the power, the weight, and the fact that the car has little aero – all things that are very different for me,” he said.
“A few hours into the test I felt a lot more comfortable in the car, and overall I think we had a really good test.”
While the fruit of Ekström’s labor won’t be seen until the team takes to the track in California, his presence seemed to have an immediate effect on the No. 83 team.
Casey Mears put in a special effort in qualifying for Saturday's 600-mile race at the 1.5-mile, quad-oval Charlotte Motor Speedway and will start 13th on the grid. Teammate Speed starts 21st.
For Mears, it was a welcome result after a couple of weeks of struggling to come to grips with the situation and the car.
“A big bomb has been dropped on this company in the last couple weeks; I think everybody has been trying to navigate that in their heads and figure out what’s the best way to wrap our arms around this thing moving forward,” Mears said.
“We all sat down this week and said: ‘There’s been a lot that has gone on, I’m new and we are going to try to have a more methodical approach to the weekend.’ We did that. Did we sit on the pole? No, but we made a lot of progress for what has gone on the last couple weeks and I’m happy with it. We made a good lap and now we can come back Saturday and focus on trying to get the thing good in race trim and have a good, solid 600.”
For the past week, Mears spoke to Vickers about the car and his driving preferences to help the replacement find the handle on the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota. He also spent time talking with crew chief Ryan Pemberton, No. 82 crew chief Jimmy Elledge, and Red Bull Racing general manager Jay Frye as he tried to get as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time.
The results of the conversations saw the team adjust the car more toward Mears’ style to help him find more speed at the track where he scored his sole Sprint Cup win three years ago.
“Ryan and Brian both have worked together for a quite a while to build something that works very well for them but, at the same time, it’s quite a bit different than I’ve been used to. It’s a great opportunity, not being a points race for us, to test a little bit and kind of to figure out what I need from the car versus what Brian did,” Mears said.