TRIM TO WIN
The final race-winning factor of note at Pocono was found in the aerodynamic choices made by teams. Honda had favorable fuel economy to exploit, and at least for the Ganassi team which finished 1-2-3, it was further enhanced when they chose to run with a lighter downforce package than many of the front-runners.
Pulling extra downforce through the air takes power, and to make that power, additional fuel is consumed. When teams return to race at Pocono next year, you can expect almost everyone to follow the low-downforce/fuel-saving path taken by Dixon & company.
“Our choice to do that was mostly to maintain the pace we thought the rest of the field would have,” said Dixon's engineer Eric Bretzman. “We got the cars working well on the test day, and then experimented to see how low we could take the downforce and drag. The lower we went, the faster we went without any real penalty in speed.”
The Ganassi team's different take on downforce levels stood out to Bretzman during a stroll through the grid just prior to the green flag. As he remarked: “Something we didn't expect to see was that a lot of the Chevy cars on the grid had a lot of downforce and drag, so I think that helped our cause, as well.”
He continued: “I knew the car was good; we just weren't really sure about our pace. We went out there kind of aggressively, and trimmed the car quite a bit, hoping that we would be able to at least hang with the Chevys on the pit stops and maybe have a better stop and better fuel mileage. But the fuel mileage increase turned out to be massive.”
Dixon led the race on two occasions and also saw his fuel economy suffer when holding the point, but with the reduced downforce package, the problem was lessened to a degree.
“Scott was saving a bit of fuel when he could,” Bretzman says, “but frankly, he didn't need to save very much. We just wanted to stay close to the leaders through each stint and make the most of it. In the end, we made the most of it…”
SO WAS IT A CASE OF HONDA SIMPLY BEING BETTER THAN CHEVY?
Yes, and possibly no. The Chevy teams, unaware Honda had a big increase in fuel mileage to use, carried more downforce in the race than proved to be necessary. That meant they felt they had an unspecified amount of excess power which could be forfeited without losing lap speed. How might Marco Andretti and the other top Chevy cars have run with less downforce? How much would their mileage have improved? And with the extra straightline speed, how much fuel saving could they have done while holding the Hondas at bay?
The latest engine from HPD is winning the fuel mileage war, but on equal downforce settings, the Pocono race would surely not have been so heavily lopsided in Honda's favor. Remember, even with less downforce, the Ganassi cars weren't sitting on a surplus of speed.
Now the series heads to a series of stop/start tracks, similar to those at Long Beach and Detroit, where the Honda unit's mid-range power enabled it to get the better of its rival. Chevrolet, which wasn't overly pleased to lose both rounds of the double-header in the shadow of the GM building, has had the Toronto date circled on the calendar to make sure Honda doesn't come away with another pair of victories. So while the Canadian street venue's layout might suggest that Honda will run away with things this weekend, remember that we all had similar thoughts about Chevy at Pocono.…
PARTING SHOTS FROM POCONO
Will Power's spirited run to fourth should finally kill off any notion that the Aussie isn't up to par on the ovals. Through Turn 1, he altered his line, gave up track position when needed, tried multiple arcs into the corner to get better runs into Turn 2 and adjusted on the fly in order to maximize every lap. A year ago, those kinds of things weren't happening on a consistent basis.
As Pippa Mann has found, it's easy to create enemies while making sporadic starts in the IndyCar Series. Mann possesses more determination than most, but being in a constant state of starting over does little to improve her race craft or situational awareness. Each race could be her last, yet with limited funding, she's not in a position to take the risks needed to wring every ounce of speed from an Indy car. However, she also needs to push hard and place as high as possible in the results.
It's an unenviable position to be in. Compare that to the majority of Mann's competitors who are more than halfway through the championship, in sync with their cars, not overly concerned about losing their rides and ready to attack at all times. Those very different hemispheres collided in the run to the checkered flag last Sunday when Simon Pagenaud, in fourth place at the time, needed to pass and clear Mann who was a lap down. He was balked, fell to sixth and had nothing positive to say about her after the race.
He's certainly not the first IndyCar driver to question Mann's on-track etiquette, but I'm always left wondering how a hunter-killer like Pagenaud would handle being in Mann's tenuous career situation. It's worth recognizing that for some drivers, pithy things like finishing sixth rather than fourth are scenarios that may never happen, and so staying off the walls and reaching the finish line is the overwhelming priority. From a front-runner's perspective, an apparent lack of courtesy from a backmarker will always be maddening, especially if it alters the outcome of a race. But as merely an observer, it's sometimes hard to vilify someone in that situation.
Simona De Silvestro had a generally positive experience at Pocono, showing solid pace and poise throughout the weekend. Turns out she used Tony Kanaan's setup and worked closely with TK as the Indy 500 winner helped to accelerate her ongoing oval education. That hasn't always been the case this year – and on a variety of tracks – between the drivers and their engineers. Let's hope the collaborative approach extends through the rest of the season as it benefits the entire organization.
I had a number of notes from sports car fans who said they would have loved to attend Pocono, but had cast their lot with the American Le Mans Series race a few hours away at Lime Rock. Can't say how much this affected the attendance figures, but holding the Pocono IndyCar race on the same weekend as a (somewhat) local sports car race is a surefire way to guarantee there are fewer occupied seats in the grandstand. Let's hope this date clash can be avoided next year.