RAHAL SEARCHING FOR SPEED, SLOWLY FINDING ANSWERS
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team was expected to be among the powerhouse programs this month at Indy, featuring a three-car effort with Graham Rahal, James Jakes and Michel Jourdain representing an outfit that came within three corners of winning the 500 in 2012. But so far the trio has been noticeably absent from even running among the mid-pack contenders, ending Thursday with Jakes, Rahal and Jourdain sitting P29, 30 and 32, respectively.
Jakes managed P16 on Wednesday, but with Rahal down in P30 and Jourdain in P32 – unchanged across two straight days now – there's plenty of work to do if the team wants to get their month of May turned in the right direction.
The team, like many others, used high-mileage engines through Tuesday, completing the mandatory 2,000 miles of running before switching to fresh motors that will stay in through qualifying weekend, but with waning horsepower and a conservative approach adopted to make sure the 2,000-mile threshold was achieved, Rahal, in particular, spent the first few days of practice without making a lot of speed or progress on race setups.
Add to that a fundamental difference in Rahal's handling preferences on the 2.5-mile oval compared to the team's previous driver, Takuma Sato, and the RLL engineers are also needing to rewrite much of the chassis setup data they generated at Indy last year to suit Rahal's style.
“I think a lot of guys were out there for a few days just making laps and trying to keep everything in one piece,” Graham Rahal told RACER. “We didn't get very far and didn't have what we needed to put down the kind of laps the others have been doing. And we're also having to do a lot of setup work to undo the kinds of things Takuma liked.
“He liked the rear of the car rock solid, which worked for him; for me, you just can't feel anything. It's kind of numb; you don't get a sense for what's going on back there, so we're really getting after making changes to what I need to feel confident in the car. Without the confidence that the rear is going to do what you expect it to, there's no way anyone can go out there and just go flat around this track and feel like you'll come back in one piece.”
All but Jakes struggled to keep pace with the other cars in the draft on Wednesday, which led the team to alter its plans for Thursday. Although more speed will need to be found for the race, Rahal ran numerous solo laps on Thursday, setting a top 10 speed among those who lapped without the aid of a tow.
With six days of mostly fruitless running behind them, it's hard to say how far the team can recover with Fast Friday and Pole Day up next. Looking beyond Indy, Rahal says there's one area the team can improve to make sure they maintain a more competitive edge – something that will help to avoid struggles like they are presently working their way out of.
“We don't have really have the kind of damper program we recognize we need to fight with the Andretti cars and the other fast guys,” he revealed. “It just comes down to budget. We have some really talented guys doing the best they can, so it's not for a lack of talent or trying, but if you look at the sheer number of people and dollars spent by other teams on damper development….That's something we know we can get on top of if the money can be found to hire more guys to match the ones we're trying to beat.”
PENSKE FLYING SLIGHTLY BELOW THE RADAR
Perennial Indy 500 favorites Team Penske have been conducting a solid, if not slightly quiet series of practice sessions at the Speedway. Through six days of running, all three of its drivers, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and rookie AJ Allmendinger have shown speed and finished inside (or close to) the top 15, with HCN often inside the top 5 after joining in on the late afternoon drafting sessions. However, the team has yet to post Penske-like speeds.
RACER asked Penske Racing president Tim Cindric if that was part of their plan – just concentrating on race setups – or if there was more to the not-quite-there speeds they've recorded.
“These days, you work toward the race,” he confirmed. “Not that that's where we're going to be at for the race. The big numbers have really nothing to do with anything. It's just a matter of your tow. But we wouldn't mind being a bit faster than we have been across the board. We're certainly not discarding qualifying but the race is the most important thing for sure.”
Finding an edge with the Dallara DW12 during its second year at the 500, as one would expect, is a lot harder than when it was new for everyone in 2012.
“I think this year everybody knows what you can tune on and what matters and what doesn't matter,” Cindric continued. “It's more of a tuning session than anything else. You still have a lot of mechanical work that you can do, an infinite number of mechanical things that are still a challenge. But the big things that reduce drag and other things that you used to work on here, there's only a few of those left now, not nearly as many as there used to be.”
With extra boost to use for simulated qualifying runs, Cindric expects Friday to finally reveal how much progress has been made with the DW12s and engines from Chevy and Honda.
“It will be challenging,” said Cindric, whose team earned the 2012 pole at 226.4mph. “Tomorrow will be a whole different day when you pick up five or six miles an hour; it will be interesting to see really how challenging qualifying is, because last year it wasn't that big. It was pretty much engine-dependent. If we could go bit faster, maybe it will become a bit more difficult to drive. So hopefully that's the case for everybody.
POSITIVES EXPECTED FROM HONDA'S RETURN TO F1
With Thursday's announcement that Honda would build new 1.6-liter V6 turbo engines for its return to Formula 1 in 2015 with McLaren, questions over how such an expensive and advanced program might impact the brand's 2.2-liter V6 turbo engine supply deal with the IndyCar Series made the rounds at Indy.
Honda Performance Development technical director Roger Griffiths, who worked on Honda's previous foray in F1 and now oversees much of the marque's open-wheel and sports car endeavors in the USA, told RACER the two programs will run independently and should not drain resources in either direction.
“Certainly no negative impact,” he said. “I think it's too early for us to really know if it will have a positive impact – if it will add to the IndyCar program – but I don't see anything negative coming from it.”
With IndyCar's engine formula conforming to a strict set of budgetary constraints, the spend-every-penny-you-can-find F1 turbos might not share much in the way of technical DNA with IndyCar's turbo motors, but Griffiths sees a few areas where crossover information could flow from HPD to Honda Japan's F1 engine facility.
“I'd like to think it's because we led the path down this way, and taught [F1 boss] Bernie Ecclestone which way to go,” Griffiths said with a laugh. “I'm sure we'll be talking to them about our experiences with direct injection and turbocharging small displacement V6 engines. They've obviously had some experience years ago with 1.5-liter Formula 1 engines but I'm sure we'll be exchanging some information on that. The one thing that we found once F1 went that direction is suddenly the supplier base got interested in things that we wished we could have had access to a year or two earlier. I think that's going to be where you'll see some of the interesting technology coming from.”
Griffiths also noted that once some of the vendors got wind of F1 going the way of turbos, prices on their products jumped from IndyCar levels to the rarefied air where only F1 budgets can reach.
“Yeah, certainly the suppliers now think that we're prepared to pay Formula 1 prices, and they've been informed that we're not! I mean, people are realizing that the days of being able to just write blank checks to go motor racing are long gone and the suppliers have to recognize that as well. We've seen some cooperation on those fronts as well. I think as the technology becomes more widespread, it comes somewhat into the mainstream. That means different manufacturing techniques can be used. And that's more appropriate for the amount of money that people have.”
A switch to stiffer rear springs might have been what caught Indy 500 rookie Conor Daly by surprise as he entered Turn 1 at speeds approaching 230mph and exited the corner with the right side of his car scattered down the short chute leading into Turn 2.
It was a hard hit for the Hoosier who became the first driver to crash at Indy during the month of May, but his confidence – something he has by the pound – remains intact.
“I'm sore, but I just honestly wish there was another car I could have jumped into right after the accident. I'm the guy who wants to get right back up. I still have all the confidence in my abilities and the biggest things is that we learn from it. That's the biggest thing. We've at looked at things after the crash and all realize there's a few things we could have done maybe to avoid that situation, but in the end, it happened and now it's time to move on.”