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.
One of the highlights of the podium celebration at Mid-Ohio came during Dario Franchitti's interview that went out over the public address system.
When asked about the win by his teammate, the cheeky Scot let rip the private nickname he and fellow Target driver Scott Dixon have been calling Kimball for more than a year, referring to the Californian as “Charlie Murphy,” the former cast member of one of this writer's favorite shows.
“I think Dix had been watching The Chappelle Show and he called him it once…then Charlie didn't seem to like it, so of course, we called him ‘Charlie Murphy' even more!” Franchitti told RACER. “And he is so the polar opposite of Charlie Murphy!”
In true veteran form, Dario and Dixon saw Kimball wasn't keen on the nickname and seized the opportunity to annoy him with it whenever possible. Kimball, who ranks as one of the nicest, most straight-laced members of the IndyCar community, would be wise to buckle in and get used to the hazing.
Franchitti adds: “He keeps saying ‘this is not going to become a thing'…and we say ‘too late!'”
Don't get it? Check this out: http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/iuegla/chappelle-s-show-true-hollywood-stories – -rick-james-pt – 1
Coming off a dominant month of July where Scott Dixon claimed three consecutive victories for the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, it would have been a safe bet to pencil the Kiwi in for four in a row at Mid-Ohio, but it was Kimball's turn to help, extending the team's winning streak to four.
Ganassi's unbeaten streak now runs from Pocono on July 7 to Mid-Ohio on Aug.4, and if it can win at Sonoma on Aug.25, the team could go two full months without suffering a loss.
(Ganassi will need to add wins at Baltimore and Houston to equal the six-race streak it set in 1998 when it claimed every CART win from Gateway on May 23 to Toronto on July 19.)
The most recent streak, which must have felt like a fantasy to the team earlier in the year, has come as a result of the well-documented change in damper development that took place prior to Pocono. That change, which was made to get a better handle on Firestone's drastically different 2013 road and street course tires, has the Ganassi organization on a tear as the season winds down.
Since Pocono, the finishes being recorded by the three Ganassi drivers have been nothing short of ridiculous. Dixon: 1, 1, 1, 7. Franchitti: 3, 3, 4, 3. Kimball: 2, 21 (DNF), 6, 1.
If there's one item to track for Sonoma, it's the pace of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power. RHR dominated the first natural terrain road course of the year at Barber, taking the pole and win, and had the pole and potential pace to win at Mid-Ohio before the two-stop strategy got in the way.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see him out front at Sonoma, and Power has been the class of the field there for the past few years, giving him a decent shot at the win. Barring another wonky strategy deal that shuffles the running order, earning five in a row at Sonoma could be the toughest challenge so far for the Ganassi team.
NUT PUNCH FOR TK
Coming off a pair of 24th-place finishes, Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan finds himself idling when he needs to be riding a wave of momentum. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion entered the Toronto double-header sitting fifth in points, fell to sixth after crashing out of the second race and took a massive tumble to 10th at Mid-Ohio.
Kanaan's weekend didn't start off on a bad note, but setup issues made the car nearly undriveable in qualifying, leaving him 20th on the grid. He'd move up to 12th by Lap 64, but after an issue with the right rear suspension surfaced during his last stop, the No. 11 Sunoco Chevy was forced out of the race moments after returning to the track.
It was just the kind of weekend his KV Racing team couldn't afford to have – not while the Brazilian is in a contract year and looking for the best option in the paddock.
“It wasn't our weekend,” said an understated Kanaan after the race. “Nothing seemed to go our way. We just have to put this behind us and move on to Sonoma.”
Kanaan's teammate Simona De Silvestro, in contrast, had a trouble-free event, qualifying ninth and finishing 11th.
WHERE THE HELIO DID HE COME FROM?
With a lot of ground to cover in the race, Helio Castroneves went for a front-loaded tire strategy that shot the points leader from 14th to sixth.
The three-time Indy 500 winner was one of only three drivers (along with Luca Filippi and Ed Carpenter) to use a full allotment of Firestone Reds before making the mandatory run on the slower Blacks during the final stint.
By employing that strategy, Castroneves had maximum grip to carve through the field, using Reds from lap 1 to lap 66, and by the time he made his last stop and took on Blacks, he'd climbed to fourth. He fell back to seventh while sitting on pit lane, but improved to sixth and held that position for the rest of the race.
“In those circumstances, we debated on the tire choices, and I said to Roger [Penske] I wanted to use the Reds like we did,” HCN told RACER. “He said, ‘OK, but if it doesn't work, it's on you…' which I thought was pretty funny; he didn't say it in a bad way, but I like it that that.
“We work together and we come up with different ideas and he let me go with this one. But I knew if it didn't work, they'd be looking at me pretty bad…”
LET'S TRY THIS AGAIN
Graham Rahal's character-building season continued at Mid-Ohio. It started with losing the full test day on Wednesday – one that saw the entire field get an early start on their setups – and the downhill slide throughout the weekend.
Wednesday's fuel pump failure left Rahal and new engineer Neil Fife working from behind once practice got under way on Friday, giving them little chance of recovering the ground that was lost, and by the time the race had concluded, all Rahal could think of was putting his 18th-place finish out of his mind and starting fresh in Northern California.
“We tried a ton of things in practice to try and make up for the time we lost, but found we were too low in qualifying, which make it hard to drive in the high-speed corners,” Rahal told RACER. “We were great in the low-speed stuff, but lost a lot of time in the fast stuff.”
Rahal would qualify 22nd and dealt with a handling imbalance during the race that called for fast hands and generated quite a bit of puckering on his part.
“In the race, I had five or six times where I thought the car was going around on me and I haven't had that happen ever,” he added. “I was just sideways everywhere. We can get the front to turn, but have no grip at the rear. It's a new setup we're working on with Neil, and he brings a really upbeat style to the timing stand and I know we'll get it sorted out.”
Exploring the capabilities of Fife's setups could have to wait until another area of the handling matrix is developed.
“I think we're learning that improving our damper package is the biggest thing right now,” Rahal explained. “Until we get that where we need it, it will be hard to really feel any big setup changes. I think we will find improvements and make things better, but there isn't one magic thing that will get us to where we need to be.”
A TALE OF FORMER TEAMMATES
Rahal's plight since departing the Ganassi Racing team at the end of 2012 was encapsulated as he watched former teammate Charlie Kimball drive to victory at Mid-Ohio.
Rahal was one of the first to congratulate Kimball, and should be threatening for wins of his own before long, but it's hard to ignore how their respective fortunes have diverged over a 12-month span.
Rahal had, by his own estimation, an underwhelming stay with Ganassi's G2 team. Things never jelled between the driver and team, and despite finishing 10th in the standings last year – nine places ahead of Kimball – Rahal sought greener pastures with his father's Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing outfit in 2013. While the G2 program is now hitting its stride, the RLLR team is essentially starting over with Rahal's No. 15 Honda, and that rebuilding process will continue into 2014.
Kimball, who now equals Rahal with a single IndyCar Series win to his credit, sits eighth in points and has seven top-10 finishes so far this year. Rahal had seven top 10s for the entire (albeit shorter) 2012 season.
Hindsight's a luxurious tool to wield, and using Kimball's 2013 performances as an indicator, it's entirely possible Rahal would also be inside the top-10 if he'd stayed at G2. From the outside, it appears everything Rahal wanted and felt wasn't there for him at G2 has arrived.
Now he'll need to move RLLR into a similar position over the final five races and turn his program into a serious contender during the off-season – which his former general manager believes will happen.
“If you look at Graham and at Charlie, their backgrounds are somewhat similar,” said Mike Hull. “They come from racing families, from training in open-wheel cars, and came to IndyCar at similar levels of development. I think it's just the growth process. I put it down to realizing potential.
“Charlie's building consistency with the support of the G1 and G2 teams to stair-step himself up to the front. My expectation for Graham is the exact same thing. He's a race-winner. I'd like to think that if he was still racing for us, he'd have won a race by now. Charlie's reward is that he's stuck with it. But I have no doubt that Graham and his father will have their team where they want it to be very soon.”
FINE FORM FOR ED
There was an anxious moment when Ryan Hunter-Reay was closing in on his second and final pit stop. He was lapping in the 67.9 to 68.0 range on Blacks as that lap 60 stop drew closer, and found Ed Carpenter directly ahead of him on the track.
Carpenter, on Reds, was already a lap down as RHR was trying to fly on a light fuel load. It was a perfect opportunity for a misunderstanding to take place – one of the series' most experienced road racers happening upon one of the least experienced at turning left and right – yet Carpenter maintained the gap to the Andretti Autosport driver with a series of laps between 67.7 and 68.0.
Carpenter had better tires at his disposal, but was also carrying a half-tank of fuel, making his performance rather noteworthy. He'd go on to finish 20th, up from 23rd, yet looked like any other driver in the field.
“You want to get results, obviously, but if you look at the race, the consistency and the pace, it's probably the best road course race I've driven,” he told RACER. “The result doesn't show it, which is disappointing, but it's a step forward for us.”
Spend a moment with representatives from Chevy or Honda, and you'll hear the phrase “Race to 10” used when referring to the battle for IndyCar's engine manufacturer championship.
Based on the points structure for the manufacturers, the first one to earn 10 wins will take the title, and through the Iowa round – where Chevy-powered James Hinchcliffe was victorious and moved the win tally to 7-3 in favor of the Bowtie – it looked like the GM brand was a lock for its second consecutive championship.
Honda's recent streak has evened the count to 7-7, adding another theme to follow between Sonoma and Fontana.
Who wants to see more of James Davison and Luca Filippi?
Davison ran as high as fourth during his IndyCar Series debut and, despite his own prediction that he'd fade late in the race due to physical exhaustion, the Aussie held strong and finished 15th, one spot ahead of Filippi. The Italian also impressed, leaving his new team owners feeling rather happy about the risk they took by parking Alex Tagliani in favor of the GP2 veteran.
Filippi's pedigree suggested he'd jump into the Barracuda car and get up to speed right away, and on that front, the 27-year-old delivered. Davison was more of a question mark, and with the better part of four years away from open-wheel competition to overcome, I'd have to rank his performance as the most surprising between the two debutantes.
Filippi lived up to expectations while Davison came into Mid-Ohio as a bit of a mystery. When it was over, he'd matched or exceeded Filippi's output. Those kinds of surprises rarely occur in IndyCar; let's hope someone gives Davison a second shot to show if it was a one-time performance or if the kid's for real.