EXIT STAGE LEFT FOR DARIO AND HELIO
Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves, drivers with six combined Indy 500 wins, were both forced to cut their Bump Day practicing short to make a flight out of Indianapolis bound for New York to handle race promotion duties, and for the Scot, the busy day at the track followed by a sprint to the airport helped to rob any real chance of celebrating his 40th birthday.
His morning, however, more than made up for it.
Franchitti's father George worked away in secret, looking for the first racing vehicle his son drove, and managed to acquire the exact go kart the four-time IndyCar Series champion used when he was five years old.
The elder Franchitti then arranged a fake garage tour for his son to lead – told him it was for a group of children – and despite his initial reluctance, Dario went along with it. By the time they got to the end of the garage, he found the surprise waiting for him – flown all the way from Scotland – which brought a rush of emotions to the Target Ganassi driver.
“I'm so amazed by it,” he told RACER. “I might have cried a little…”
Franchitti was surprised a second time in the afternoon when RACER contributor and NBC Sports Network reporter Robin Miller presented Dario with a framed photo of the famous 1964 Belgian Grand Prix shot depicting his hero Jim Clark sitting on the exhaust pipes of his Lotus while talking with Dan Gurney. Gurney signed the print for Franchitti, wishing him a happy 40th, which left Dario speechless.
With plenty to feel positive about this year at Indy, KV Racing's Simona de Silvestro came into the 2013 event in a different frame of mind.
The Lotus engine from 2012 that felt like a turbocharged torture device is long gone, and her previous experiences at the 500 – including a crash and fire that left lasting marks – are also fading into the background, leading the popular Swiss driver to commission a new Indy-themed helmet for the 97th running of the great race.
“It's really cool; my helmet painter came up with it, but I gave him an idea of what I kinda' thought would be good and he did a really, really amazing job. I just thought something fresh – you know, something new would be a good choice this year.”
MATT WILES UPDATE
I was pleased to run into GM Powertrain employee Matt Wiles – who some of you might know from the special GM tribute issue of RACER – who was assigned to work with the Ilmor Engineering team in the UK and is serving as Townsend Bell's Chevy engine technician at Indy.
The young American, whose expertise in GM's production direct-injection technology has been heavily utilized by Ilmor as it develops the Chevy IndyCar V6 powerplant, was awestruck by the opportunity to participate at the 500 as an embedded member of Panther Racing.
“In a few short words, it's awesome,” he said. “Being able to come to the track and see your efforts pay off is just a tremendous reward. To be here at Indy, as a racer, is an indescribable feeling. Very proud to be here with Team Chevy and to be here with Townsend Bell and Panther Racing.
“I've been here all week and will be here for the race…it's like a dream.”
KAT'S A QUICK STUDY
The term "comeuppance" is rarely used in the IndyCar Series, but it was certainly on the tongues of a few devoted Katherine Legge fans who relished in her Bump Day performance just months after being dropped by Dragon Racing.
Legge secured the 33rd and last starting spot after jumping into the No. 81 Angie's List car fielded by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, turning a few dozen laps on Sunday after completing her refresher course – her first in an Indy car since the Fontana finale last September – and will start two rows directly behind Sebastian Saavedra, the driver signed to replace her in the No. 6 TrueCar Chevy.
Written off by Dragon for being too slow, Legge was only 1.7 mph shy of Saavedra, who had more than a week of practice before rolling into qualifying.
Schmidt team manager Rob Edwards opted to steer clear of discussing the backstory between Legge, her former team, and what making the field meant to her, but did share his thoughts on how impressed he was with her gutsy display on Sunday.
“We've got so many good guys in the shop with the Indy Lights group, and (former Ganassi Racing manager) John Cummiskey came in to run the car which made things a lot easier for me, and then Katherine just did a marvelous, marvelous job,” he said. “She'd done very few laps before sticking it in the line and qualifying. There was more speed there if we needed to use it, but fortunately, we didn't. She did everything we asked of her, and know what she's been through, everyone's incredibly happy.”
With the long first phase of the month of May now closed, I'm so glad I got permission from Team Penske's Will Power get to tell my favorite story from the past few weeks. He and I were on the phone yapping about something mindless when the Aussie had a second call come in.
“Hey mate, I think I've got a call from Indy, let me call you back,” he said. When he rang back two or three minutes later, Willy P was laughing hard.
“What's so funny?” I asked.
“I got a call from IMS. This is the second time they've done this,” he said.
“Second time they've done what?” I asked.
“Second time they've called me – they called last year, too – trying to sell me tickets to the 500…” he said before re-enacting the call.
“Hi, is Mr. William Power available?” said the IMS staffer.
“Yes, this is Mr. Power.”
“Hi, this is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway calling to see if you'd like to buy tickets to this year's Indy 500!”
“I think I'm pretty well covered for tickets, mate. I already have a pretty good seat…”
“Well, I see you attended last year's race--how did you enjoy it?” asked the salesman.
“I didn't enjoy it very much,” said Power “…I crashed out early…”
30 DEGREES OF DARIO
Another fun story came from Dario Franchitti when he recounted a sideways moment during practice on Wednesday.
“We made a change to the car and all of a sudden in [Turn] 2 I've got almighty oversteer,” he said as his eyes got big. “We're talking like 30 degrees of steering to catch it, then catch the next slide after that one.
“Well, the boys are watching all this as it's happening (on live telemetry monitors in the Ganassi pits) and come over the radio and tell me to pit…right when I'm trying to keep the thing off the wall… I'm like, ‘Thanks, got it…a bit busy at the moment, boys..."
ALL CLEAR SO FAR
The days following qualifying for the 2012 Indy 500 was a rather expensive affair for some teams. More than $300,000 in penalties was doled out after post-qualifying technical inspection was completed. A hard but intentional message was sent and it was met with plenty of furor from the team owners who had to pay the fines, but so far, it appears to have served its purpose.
Through Sunday night, no illegal parts or banned procedures had been found among the 33 cars that went across the tech pad. A deeper inspection will be performed on the pole-winning car of Ed Carpenter on Monday as the team was allowed to practice on Sunday under close supervision by the series.
BUBBLE VS PEEL
I listened to the story about the stickers on Sebastian Saavedra's car blowing off during practice make the rounds all week, but I asked Dragon Racing team owner Jay Penske if that is indeed what happened to his No. 6 car that was chrome blue before the chrome blue blew away.
“No, actually, it had nothing to do with stickers or a [car] wrap,” he told RACER. “It was paint. We wrapped [Sebastien] Bourdais' car in the chrome and red, but Saavedra's car was actually a new paint process that went wrong.
“There was some sort of curing problem that we discovered after it came off; the paint didn't adhere to the bodywork properly and it formed tiny bubbles everywhere. However it happened, something allowed the paint to start to separate from the body and then it all went.”
Saavedra has been sporting a plain white livery since the incident.
INSIDE POLE AND RACE DAY ENGINEERING
Teams spent the better part of a week working on their race day chassis and aerodynamic setups before switching to searching for outright speed for Pole Day. With two distinctly different approaches to finding stability and consistency for the race and bad-fast pace for time trials, I asked Simon Pagenaud's engineer how teams go about executing both performance programs shortly before they went out to qualify.
“For race day, we basically, we run all week basically trying to find out what level of downforce we need to run in traffic and then we adjust based on ambient conditions for the race what the wing angle it is,” said Schmidt's Ben Bretzman, who worked previously worked with Pagenaud at Highcroft Racing.
“So the big thing for qualifying is: can you get all the drag off the car and still be flat for four laps? Another issue you start running into in qualifying is: as you pull drag off, is your car good enough or does it start scrubbing speed? You might be able to run around flat but it's going to slide around more, and is it faster or slower to do that? Right now we're to the point where we've got the wing all the way laid back and all the wickers off the car and it's just kind of see what she's got.
“One thing we can play with is basically the attitude of the car, the rake, to try to get drag out. You start messing with how is the downforce made by the underwing? That's a big thing – where do you want to place the ride heights mid-corner in qualifying, and basically down the straightaway to get the most drag out of the car? Whereas, on race day it's all about getting the most efficient downforce you can possibly make.
“Another thing you'll see people doing, you'll see front wing end plates angled down, angled level. That's all a little bit of drag but it's also just kind of balance shifts from where your car is at.”
For qualifying, most teams remove the wickers off of the front wing and atop the underwing tunnel exits, as well as tilt the rear wing back as far as permissible – negative 10.5 degrees. Teams also run the front wing in the range of negative four degrees to shed downforce, along with using various radiator inlet blockers.
A newly common practice of removing one or both underwing sidewall exit pieces – effectively shortening the length of the tunnels – was seen in qualifying, with most teams pulling one wall and a few, including the Team Penske cars, pulling both, resulting in something like 300 fewer pounds of downforce.
Power held on for dear life in qualifying, but also used that same both-walls-off setup to set the fastest speed during the top 24 on Saturday. With so many variables, it's hard to always hit the right setup based on the weather conditions, and as Bretzman explains, there are certain handling and performance goals an engineer strives for, but driver preference is also vital.
“Yeah there's a definite difference between being oversteer and being free,” he said, referring to what he tries to give the fearless Pagenaud. “The key is to get the car as free as you can without going into oversteer. So yeah, you can mess with tire alignment, you can mess with tire cambers, which will certainly help the car free up; you've slightly reduced contact patch on the tire, so how well you can use the smaller contact patch to try to gain speed?
“Those are all aspects if you run a stiffer car or softer car; a stiffer car will certainly not move as much and you certainly don't get as much ride height variation from straight to corner then. And so if your right height variation is lower you can kind of set your platform better. But you do give up trim from it. Certainly, what we found with Simon this week is: where's his oversteer versus where's he free, and I think he's got a good idea of that now.”
Bretzman has an additional engineering aspect to consider, and that's his driver's supreme adaptability. With his background in everything from sports cars to rallying, Pagenaud is known for being able to drive a car to its limits even if it's not handling to his liking. That bravery, while certainly an asset on a road or street course, is something his engineer does not want to trigger at Indy.
“Yeah, you have to manage expectations here,” said a smiling Bretzman. “You have to really respect Indy. We're able to look at numbers on the computer to understand where his balance is at. And so we make sure we never overstep his mechanical balance or his aero balance. Because he'll go out there and if you tell him to be flat, he'll be flat...
“He does not overstep the bounds of the car as we see it in the data, and trust ourselves as engineers not to get too aggressive with it. He is very good at feeling what the car is doing. And this week he's learned so much. He's so confident now. That's the other key: managing his confidence level.”
The final area of Pole Day engineering Bretzman touched on was running on low fuel levels. Every team looks to save weight and increase speed by running the bare minimum amount of fuel, but how far does that limit get pushed?
“I wouldn't say it's the drop but we definitely go to the edge of the envelope,” he confirmed. "Obviously, you saw a couple years ago you can push the envelope a little too far and run out of fuel, and you don't want to make that mistake. But we'll be within two-tenths of a gallon [left in the tank] when he crosses the line…”