BLISTERING SPEED, G FORCES
Saturday's run for the pole at the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama saw defending IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay claim pole position with a hugely impressive lap of 1:07.087 in the Firestone Fast 6, nearly a quarter second ahead of Team Penske's Will Power, but the best lap of the day – which also serves as the new track record belongs to Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon.
The Kiwi torched the track during the first round of knockout qualifying with a 1:06.775-second tour around the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course, eclipsing the 2012 pole lap by 3.1 seconds. And with that newfound speed, which is a byproduct of the offseason track surface grinding done by the Barber facility and Firestone's sticky new road course tires, comes a spike in cornering forces.
“The track grinding was far more significant than the tire change,” one leading engineer told RACER
. “Primary tires this year are faster everywhere than our best laps on alternates last year. Slower corners like Turn 5 give a .2g increase while faster corners like Turn 1 peak at nearly 4gs this year with an increase of around 0.7gs. The percentage increase is amazing actually. People may even have to run taller gears through the corners. The increase on [Firestone Reds] is another order of crazy altogether…”
GANASSI DAMPER PROGRAM
It wasn't hard to miss how heavily the three-car Ganassi Racing squad struggled at St. Petersburg. Scott Dixon was much happier in the race than he was in practice or qualifying, but as a whole, the team appeared to miss the setup window by a fair margin.
Those fortunes have been reversed at Barber, for the most part, with Dixon vying for pole before settling for fourth and Charlie Kimball making the Firestone Fast 6 and securing fifth. Dario Franchitti, who had been quick all weekend, fell to 17th in qualifying, but the Honda-powered team looks more like itself this weekend.
Some of that, if not a good portion of it, can be attributed to a new damper development program that, at least for Round 1, was more than a hindrance than a help. At Barber, according to Ganassi general manager Mike Hull, the team is narrowing in on what their drivers want and need from a handling perspective.
“It's an area where it can make a big performance gain for the drivers and can tailor the car to their drive style. All three of our drivers have different drive styles, and although the dampers may look the same externally, how we adjust them to meet each driver's needs is different.
“Grip and compliance are two different things. For us, what compliance is all four wheels working independently. All four tires complying with the road surface. Whereas grip, as we think of it, is when you apply the throttle, is where you apply side load to get off the corners. The dampers today allow tuning parameters that allow you to set all of those things to give each driver what they want.
“You continue to develop your product with an open mind, and how you continue to create the momentum required to get to the next level of performance. You could say that right now, we're moving up new levels in that damper development.”
CAN JAMES HINCHCLIFFE 2.0 GO 2-AND-0?
Sam Hornish Jr., Phoenix and Homestead 2001. That's what James Hinchcliffe is chasing at Barber. Hornish Jr. was the last Indy car driver to win his first race and back it up at the second race with another win. The Ohioan also went on to win his first Indy Racing League championship in 2001, giving Hinchcliffe and his Andretti Autosport team a target to try and hit this weekend and for the entire season.
So what will it take for Hinch, who was dubbed “James Hinchcliffe 2.0” by his engineer Craig Hampson after his heady drive at St. Pete, to go 2-and-0 this year?
“Last week I joked about peeing in Will [Power's] gas tank, and I think this week I literally need to pee in it…” said Hinch. “This has been a very good track to Team Penske and we still have some work to do on my car. Monday morning after St. Pete, I spoke with all of my guys and said it's time to work on the next race, and that if we're honest with ourselves, we weren't the fastest car despite being able to get the win. So we're all aware there's room to improve, obviously, and that's where we'll continue to focus our efforts.”
The Canadian was fond of trying to match Hornish Jr.'s achievement in 2001, but wasn't quite ready to make any bold predictions.
“If we have a clean race and execute and have a few breaks fall our way, it's possible, but [a win] is not something you can plan on happening,” he continued. “But it's cool about Sam… I'd love to emulate that…”