IndyCar Race Director Beaux Barfield declared his intent to shake up some of this year's races by altering race lengths, and despite having minimal impact elsewhere, it paid off in a major way last weekend at Mid-Ohio.
Those five extra laps, and increase from 85 laps run in 2012 to 90 for 2013, proved to be the decisive factor – the pivot point – in how the race played out.
At 85 laps, a two-stop strategy required significant fuel saving by the top three finishers last year. Race winner Scott Dixon – the best in the field at going fast while conserving fuel, made the two-stop plan work without having to go to extremes. The same was true for Will Power who took second and Simon Pagenaud in third.
A few other drivers also tried the two-stop route, but the majority of the field opted for three. The two-stoppers split the caution-free 2012 race by pitting for fuel on lap 27 or 28, and for the final time on lap 56 or 57.
Move forward to 2013, and with 90 laps to complete, a more complex strategy choice was presented to the field. Advancements in fuel economy had been made by engine suppliers Chevy and Honda in the year since the last Mid-Ohio race, but it wasn't enough to allow for an extra five laps of racing without some sort of concession in lap times.
At 85 laps, the drop in lap times due to fuel saving was barely noticeable, and never jeopardized Dixon or the other two-stoppers from coming out ahead. Doing it on two stops, despite the added race length, seemed like it could be the key to victory, and as a result, more teams were willing to try and make it work. In 2012, their faith was duly rewarded.
To split the 2013 race, stops on lap 30 and lap 60 would be required, and in order to stretch a tank of fuel that far, lap times would have to suffer. How much they'd suffer wouldn't be known until the race began to unfold.
Polesitter Ryan Hunter-Reay led Will Power and Scott Dixon through lap 29 when fourth-place Dario Franchitti, also on a two-stop strategy, dove for the pits. One lap later, the trio followed. Charlie Kimball, starting in fifth, had committed to a three-stopper from the outset, figuring there was no way he'd be able to match Dixon's soft-foot routine. His gamble, which was also made by Simon Pagenaud and a number of other drivers, centered on how much of a gap they could pull while the two-stoppers conserved every drop of fuel.
Kimball was in on lap 19, 41 and 65, attacking the course from start to finish. He was in a pack of cars during his first stint, but as space opened up on his second stint, the 28-year-old began hammering out monster laps in the 66-second range. He also had a good set of used Firestone Reds at his disposal, and put fewer laps on his tires during each of his shorter stints.
Compare that to Hunter-Reay who spent most of his longer-duration second stint on the slower Blacks, lapping in the 68-second range. Even when he had Reds, the reigning IndyCar Series champion only broke into the 67-second bracket eight times during the race.
Kimball was in the 66- to 67-second bracket a whopping 53 times on Sunday. As his lap times demonstrate, the total time loss over a tank of fuel for the two-stoppers gave the three-stoppers a distinct advantage to exploit. And by the time some of the leading two-stop teams recognized their tactical error and made the switch, the damage was already done.
Franchitti was the first among the leaders to see the error in sticking with a two-stop strategy and was rewarded for that early recognition by finishing third. RHR and Power, for whatever reason, were left on a two-stop plan, and saw their early P1 and P2 turn into a P4 (Power) and P5 (RHR) by the end of the afternoon.
Dixon was the last to switch to three stops and paid the price by finishing seventh.
“We got it wrong on strategy, and there were differences to last year's strategy,” Dixon's strategist Mike Hull told RACER. “We were making laps in the 68-second range, and that was far slower than last year. We saw some [two-stoppers] pit and then peel off and run 68s. Then we saw Pagenaud and Charlie pit and run 67s flat and we knew the error of our ways.
“They were a second faster than the rest, and over 40 laps, for example, that's 40 seconds. You can't beat that by saving fuel. Dario did a great job racing his was to third, and Charlie did an excellent job the whole way. It's frustrating to have gotten that wrong [with Dixon].”
Five little laps… They ended up sending some high-profile teams in a risky direction that didn't pay off, turning the Mid-Ohio race into a fascinating game of chess.
There's no question that Kimball was on the right strategy and used it to his full advantage, but the win wasn't handed to him. There was, after all, a certain hunter/killer named Pagenaud on the same three-stop routine and the same used Reds on his car to deal with in the sprint to the checkered flag.
Kimball not only passed Pagenaud to take the lead, but stretched it out to 5.5 seconds by lap 90. He won with a smarter plan on Sunday – and he did so with his foot buried in the throttle. It was the perfect blend of brains and balls.