COYNE AND CONWAY TAKE THE FIELD TO SCHOOL
If you're a fan of unpredictability, the 2013 IndyCar season continues to top itself as the familiar names and expected winners have struggled to fill the podium through the first six rounds.
The tale of Mike Conway getting the drive with Dale Coyne on Tuesday and winning on Saturday in Detroit is what will likely be remembered in years to come, but the manner by which they did it deserves just as much praise and admiration. Veteran race engineer and strategist John Dick, who moved to DCR from KV Racing, struck gold with a daring choice to save the worst for last during the first double-header.
Firestone's new-for-2013 street course alternate tires — the reds — varied from acceptable to dreadful at St. Pete and Long Beach, and at Detroit, the "D-word" was used to describe the rapid drop-off in performance they offered.
Qualifying revealed the limitations on reds for Conway and Dick, who crafted a plan to stretch the Briton's time on the primary blacks during the first two stints before switching to the mandated use of reds until as late as possible in the race.
The plan, which called for Conway to build a formidable lead and then manage the gap on the slower reds, was one very few attempted; second-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay lamented using reds in his middle stint and was helpless to keep Conway from building a lead that grew to 20 seconds. But with so little running on reds prior to the race, I was curious whether the DCR team had innate knowledge their strategy would play out in their favor, or if they lucked into the other teams running their reds at the wrong time.
“That's what we planned to do at the start,” Conway revealed after the race. “It was a great call from John Dick. That was his plan before we went into the race. It was great. Looking at the beginning of the race, E.J. [Viso] was doing a similar thing. I don't know too much about the guys behind me.
It was one of them things we found the reds, they were good for a few laps, but they could drop off quite quickly. With the track being quite green, that was probably going to happen. You could see when Ryan [Hunter-Reay] was out there on the second stint, his reds started to go off, I was able to pull away.
The short 70-lap race gave teams extremely wide pit windows to work with, which led Dick to leave Conway out for full tank runs on Blacks during the first two stints, pitting him with just 15 laps to go to take reds. And with large margin to RHR, Conway conserved his reds as the Andretti Autosport driver dealt with traffic and could only bring the gap down to just under 13 seconds by the checkered flag.
“I was kind of nursing the tires a little bit towards the end,” said Conway, who'll start Sunday's Race 2 from pole. “Once I knew they kind of lost their best, I was being very careful with the rear tires, just conserve. I needed to have some tire left. That's why the gap kind of shrunk, I was looking after the tires, making sure I had something at the end. Toward the end I had a good cushion so I decided to push more.”
Now that Conway's winning Round 1 strategy was revealed, the real challenge will be to pull of the same feat with the rest of the drivers on a similar plan. Some might use reds to start and spend the last two stints on Blacks, or some could go the Conway route, but either way, I'd expect Sunday to be a closer-run affair.
After the insane passing of Indy, Round 1 at Detroit was never going to match the excitement or intensity created at the 500, but it wasn't lacking in great drama—a barely part-time IndyCar driver doing a one-off while wearing a firesuit devoid of branding comes in an upsets the establishment.
And it also showed that on occasion, and with the right driver to execute a ballsy plan, the men and women who craft race strategies can have just as big an impact on the outcome of a race as the brave souls who pilot the cars.
PHYSICAL EXHAUSTION OR CREAKING BONES?
One of the biggest concerns held by IndyCar drivers when the doubleheader race format was announced last year involved the physical strain of competing in two street races within a 24-hour span.
With Round 1 completed, second- and third-place finishers Ryan Hunter-Reay and Justin Wilson did an amazing job of explaining the exact issues they will face on Sunday, and it has little to do with recharging their physical or mental batteries.
“I mean, we all train a lot for this,” said the reigning IndyCar champion. “These cars are really physical on street courses. Anyone that hasn't been in one, you can't describe it. No power steering, hardly any suspension movement, and you're on city streets powering around with 650 horsepower. It's very physical.
“The biggest beating you get, right now--later on--I'll still have a headache just from the constant pounding. All your joints in the morning hurt from street courses. We could do a [doubleheader] at Indianapolis and be fresh as a rose the next morning. Here it's a different deal.”
“Yeah, it's going to be tough,” added Wilson. “Like Ryan says, it's not so much your muscles. You can work on that, try to recover overnight. It's the joints, bumps and bruises. I have them on my elbows…lacking a little skin on the hands.
“The car is fighting you. It's not the weight as you're steering through the corner, it's the bumps that literally rips the steering wheel through your hands. I remember looking down, the steering wheel is moving, I can't grip the wheel any harder. That starts to drain you and wear you out.”
RHR, along with the other drivers, also deals with the same phenomenon — one where extreme arm strength isn't enough to combat the jarring forces sent from the tires as they pound over curbing and seams in the 2.3-mile track.
“I experienced that, too,” he said. “The gloves were sliding on the wheel. You're gripping as hard as you can. Just kind of how this car is. This car does have a lot of kickback. It's been known for that. Pretty heavy steering when the track gets rubbered in.”
How drivers fare later in the race on Sunday will be an interesting sub-plot to follow. While physical endurance will play some part in the contest, pushing through joint pain will likely be an even greater factor.
RAHAL PENALTY UPDATE
IndyCar president of competition Derrick Walker, whom I've long referred to as my VP of Common Sense, applied that very outlook to the bizarre penalty that was handed down to the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team at Indy. RLL Drivers Graham Rahal and James Jakes were both assessed $10,000 fines while racing around the 2.5-mile oval for blend line violations leaving the pits.
With teams still very sore over the nearly $300,000 in fines doled out on qualifying infractions found during post-run tech inspection at Indy last year, the prospect of taking money from cash-strapped teams seemed like a surefire way to spark another paddock revolt.
Walker, demonstrating a soft touch and acute awareness for the tenuous peace treaty that has existed this year between the series and its entrants, stepped in to shift the penalty from one that would take dollars from RLL's pocket to an offense that deserved probation.
Although the team initially fought the blend line penalty, video evidence from the series made it clear that the proverbial crimes were indeed committed, but calmer heads prevailed in an adjusted sentence for the offenders.
Walker will surely make some mistakes in his new role, but handling a situation like this in such a measured and calm manner is exactly why Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles brought him on board.
· Derrick Walker will outline his plans for aero kit implementation Sunday morning.
· Team Penske's AJ Allmendinger managed to punch and move the same barriers that the 8Star Grand-Am Rolex Series DP team clouted and moved during the warm-up race before Round 1. Dinger was unhurt in the impact, yet managed to injure his thumb climbing over a fence after extricating himself from the car…
· Jim Campbell, GM's head of motorsports, was clearly disappointed to see Honda win once again in Detroit — a race Chevy sponsors and that sits within sight of GM's global headquarters — but still paid a visit to the media center to congratulate Honda and say hello to a number of the reporters on hand. Classy.
· Campbell's displeasure was somewhat tempered by GM winning the DP class with Wayne Taylor's Corvette and the GT class with the Stevenson Motorsports Camaro.