ECHOES OF INDY
I went to bed late Saturday night in Pocono thinking Anderson Silva's shocking knockout loss to Chris Weidman at UFC 162 would be the biggest surprise of the weekend. By the time I woke up Monday morning, thoughts of Silva's dethroning had been replaced with the “Where-the-hell-did-that-come-from?” performance Honda uncorked on Chevrolet during the Sunoco 400.
And as much as it was a surprise, the story arc resembled that of the 2012 Indy 500, when Chevy dominated practice and qualifying, locking out the first two rows and leaving the Honda teams incensed at the lack of power that had been made available. But when HPD team rolled out their new-spec Indy 500 race motors, a large-scale emotional transference took place. Smiles and cheers quickly left the Chevy camp, replaced by the same worried look their Honda counterparts had worn all month. Ganassi's Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon went on to finish 1-2 after using a significant power and fuel economy boost to their full advantage.
Revenge was exacted two months ago at Indy as Honda had no answer for the latest and greatest Bowtie spec, and in the continual tug-of-war between the two brands, Honda went to work on finding answers which came in the form of the race day motor for Pocono. Coming into last weekend's race, the majority of Honda runners were using up the mileage left on the Indy 500 practice and qualifying engines…which hadn't found many fans in the paddock during the month of May.
Chevy teams swept the first two three-by-three rows in qualifying, the best Honda was seventh (Dixon, with a new-spec motor), and with an engine change already planned for after the 400-miler, most Honda teams decided to ask for early access to the latest powerplant and happily accepted the 10-spot grid penalty that came with it. But neither HPD nor its teams knew what they had when the green flag waved. They knew the engine was good, but weren't sure how it would fare on outright lap speed or fuel mileage.
The first signs something unexpected was about to unfold came when race leader Marco Andretti pitted on lap 30. Eventual winner Dixon would go a full 10 miles longer before making his initial stop, and for those paying attention on pit lane, major alarm bells should have been ringing. As Dixon shared after the race, there was an element of disbelief inside the cockpit as he watched the Chevy-powered cars peel off into the pits much earlier than his strategist Mike Hull had planned for the No. 9 Target entry.
“Sometimes on the radio, your team will play with that a little bit,” said the Kiwi, “you know, just because the other teams are always scanning you. So when I started to see some of the other teams pit, and Mike is going, ‘Yeah, another seven laps,' I'm thinking, ‘Yeah, he's just winding up the other teams a little bit. But then I looked down at my actual tank number and I'm like, ‘Wow, yeah, we can go another seven laps!'”
That dynamic played out on each subsequent stop, and by the time the final round of pit stops had been completed, the top Hondas needed less fuel – and less time on pit lane – while the best Chevys were throttling down just to keep from running out of fuel before crossing the finish line. It wasn't pretty.
IF YOU AIN'T FIRST, YOU'RE FIRST
If you're racing an Indy car at Pocono, you can forget the Talladega Nights adage of, “If you ain't first, you're last.” Andretti Autosport's Marco Andretti was a beast on Sunday, leading from pole and commanding large portions of the race. Unfortunately, and as his fuel mileage should have indicated, the costs of being first in line to punch a hole through the air at 225mph was too high.
It was also unfortunate that his team, which can usually be counted on to make the right strategy calls, didn't catch the significant mileage advantage being shown by the leading Hondas. By the time the AA folks did figure it out, it was too late to recover, leaving Marco nearly inconsolable in front of his home crowd.
"Oh man, I mean we knew early (about our fuel mileage), but not early enough,” he said after finishing 10th. “I think we should have responded quicker, but it's so hard to be reserved right now. I'm so frustrated for RC Cola and everybody; we were just so dominant and I'm just absolutely gutted."
In retrospect, had Andretti settled into running second or third throughout the two-hour race to minimize the fuel mileage deficit, a top-5 finish would have been on the cards and his gap to Helio Castroneves in the championship standings would have decreased. Instead, he ended up two spots behind HCN, lost ground and left the track feeling frustrated because there was no need for it to happen.
I'd heard the Honda engine that recently ran at Mid-Ohio during a manufacturer test day was going to be a formidable challenger when it was pressed into service later in the championship. With that timeline in mind, HPD arrived at Pocono with some of the new-spec engines, but as technical director Roger Griffiths told me in Victory Lane, they hadn't planned to outfit the entire fleet when the post-qualifying requests started to come in.
“We'd planned to introduce this spec a little later in the season,” he said. “We really didn't build it as a superspeedway engine, but it seems to work here. Everything went to plan at Mid-Ohio and we had positive driver comments after the test, so here we are today. Honestly, I'm taken aback by how well we did!”
Every Honda team should have its new engine for Toronto this weekend and, in an interesting counterpoint, several Chevy runners will also be making the switch to Ilmor's latest unit, which a few cars (Andretti and Penske's Castroneves and Will Power are believed to be three of them) ran at Pocono. The Chevys clearly had plenty of power at Pocono, if not Honda-matching fuel efficiency.
“I think we were beating the majority of them,” said Scott Dixon. “I think Will was probably the closest Chevy to us on mileage. We saw that pretty early on, probably after the second stint.”
Mileage won't be nearly as much of a factor as IndyCar runs on road and street courses from Toronto to Houston in early October, but it will certainly play a role. And by the time the series gets to Mid-Ohio, both manufacturers will be fighting with every team using the latest spec engines.
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.