The 2013 IndyCar Series season has been nothing short of a nightmare for odds makers.
The easy picks, the Ganassis and Penskes, have been humbled through the first eight rounds as Dario Franchitti and Will Power have missed the podium through 24 combined chances. That pair have a pair of pole positions each, but success has been elusive on race day. Scott Dixon, the guy who's finished top three in the championship for the past six seasons, has scored one podium (second at Barber). Of the drivers in IndyCar's traditional giant teams, only Penske's Helio Castroneves, who's currently in the championship lead, has visited Victory Lane. His win last Sunday in Texas is backed up by a second and a third place.
Reigning champions Andretti Autosport have accounted for three wins this year, but only one, by Ryan Hunter-Reay at Barber, fits the normal model of big wins by established winners. The other two, earned by James Hinchcliffe, typify IndyCar's odd and amazing 2013 season. First-time winners, small teams and long shots have been the norm in Victory Lane so far, giving fans a series of events with outcomes that continue to defy predictions.
Getting to the root of why that dynamic has taken place – why the likes of Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato, Mike Conway, Simon Pagenaud and even Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan with KV Racing – have displaced the giants of the sport involves understanding a little bit about team dynamics and chemistry.
“If they're not really skillfully managed, big teams can create more issues than they can solve,” says John Dick, who engineered the car Conway drove to victory in Race 1 at Detroit for the modestly funded and staffed Dale Coyne Racing team. “There are some upsides to being small. You can really only shoot yourself in the foot so many times.”
Fed by a large budget and throngs of engineers, the larger teams dominated the 2012 season as they mastered the new Dallara DW12's handling and aerodynamics, but with a full off-season to play catch up, DCR, AJ Foyt Racing, Schmidt Hamilton Racing and KV Racing have managed to bridge the gap, if not create a small gap of their own.
As much as the 2013 season has gone against convention, it has also reinforced that, at its core, success in Indy car racing can be achieved through a strong driving and engineering combo. Minus the big-team amenities and staffing excess, the experience of such as Dick and his fellow DCR engineer Bill Pappas (who oversees Justin Wilson) can upset the establishment with increasing frequency.
“Bill and I work really closely together and we each understand how the other one thinks about the car, and I think that ends up being complementary at the end of the day,” explains Dick. “I'm happy to let him go off and do certain aspects of the car and he's happy to let me go off and do certain aspects of the car so we can kind of cover each other well, make sure everything gets done. When the staff gets bigger and bigger, then the management portion of your time gets more and more diffused.
“And then it just comes down to the relationship between the engineers being able to communicate, being able to put egos aside and say, ‘OK man, the path they're going down makes some sense or doesn't.' Discuss that point, work with our drivers – who are very talented – and you then have everybody working together. The chemistry's there. That's why it's very difficult for a big team to compete once they drop the ball. That component isn't there, the recovery time. With a small, tight team, the reaction time is an advantage.”
Team Penske president Tim Cindric has found himself in a strange and uncomfortable position this year, despite Roger's legendary program running Power (championship runner-up for the past three seasons), getting-better-with-age Castroneves and, on occasion, AJ Allmendinger, a former Champ Car race winner. Pre-season predictions (including my own) pointed to Power strolling away with the title for The Captain. He currently lies 12th in the points table.
Cindric's still searching for the right ingredients to get Power's season back on track, but isn't overly concerned that the championship is yet to return to a more familiar pattern.
“Are we frustrated?” he asks. “Absolutely. But are we panicked? No, because our cars have been very competitive and I do feel as though Will could've won a few of those races this year. We weren't qualifying at the back and running at the back because we were uncompetitive. If that was the case then it would be different, but when you look at the circumstances that we've been through, the biggest issue is that we haven't had a podium with Will.”
For all of the thrilling finishes and unpredictable results seen through the Detroit double-header, Cindric points to some of the anomalies that have made them possible, suggesting that without a series of misfortunes and mishaps, Power's winless streak – one that dates back to Brazil in April 2012 – might have already come to an end.
“At St. Pete, we're sitting there in a podium position – we may not win the race but we get run over under caution,” he explains. “Then we got run into in the pits at Long Beach. A fuel fire at Brazil. We go into Indy, and we could've sat on the pole there, and we were competitive for sure. But it's been just one thing after another. And then you go into Detroit. OK, we had a mediocre race to eighth in Race 1. But in Race 2, I really felt like we were in position to win that race and a podium was a minimum. We were essentially going to be the leader when it all sorted out. We had a car to win the race, but ended up getting taken out from behind. That's been our season so far with Will.”
There's some validity to Cindric's view on how Power's season has played out so far, but to be fair, the 32-year-old speedster hasn't been his usual self – the one known for dominating every phase of the road and street courses prior to race day. That normalization, according to Dick, can be attributed to the smaller teams unlocking the few areas left on the DW12 that make a genuine performance difference.
“There's a finite amount of things that you can investigate and try to modify, optimize, whatever term you want to use. Again, those guys with the greatest resources are able to look at these cars with a little deeper scope in the beginning and say, 'OK, this is an important area to exploit'; where the smaller teams, if you want to call us that, take a bit longer than them.”
Although teams like Ganassi and Penske flexed their financial might to build an advantage over the Coynes and Schmidts in 2012, Dick credits the IndyCar regulations for allowing the smaller teams to start challenging the Big Three.
“It's the rules,” he says. “What the series is trying to do is prohibit the massive expenditures by the big teams. Whether it's aerodynamics or mechanical things to do to the car, we're limited on what pieces go on the car, so last year was the year of big discoveries. So all of a sudden, [the big teams] are not off spending $2.5 million in some area to give them that advantage. They have the exact same stuff, the exact same hardware as we have, and now we're at the point where the knowledge is close to the same and you're seeing it level things out.”
That level playing field has created a number of compelling storylines this year, not least of which is whether Dixon (seventh in the championship), Franchitti (10th) and Power (12th) can haul themselves out of their holes. Cindric is convinced the fairy tale season could be drawing to a close for the underdogs, and Castroneves' win in Texas may add weight to that theory.
“When the year sorts itself out, the normal players are going to be up where they normally are,” he says. “I think Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Helio, Will, Dario – those are still going to be the guys who are going to put the numbers on the board the rest of the year. And that's not to take away from those other guys.
“How it's been so far is refreshing for the series and maybe that wakes up some of the fans up to the racing that we have, but the series has to focus on how to change the perception of open-wheel racing. As hard as it is to get a good on-track product, we've got that part. We've got a lot of different winners to promote now, which is good for everyone involved. But I don't know how long it's going to stay that way.”
Until the Big Three can suppress the small team uprising, look for engineers like Dick and teams like DCR to enjoy playing the spoiler role.
“Winning is cool,” says Dick. “That's why we do this. And, to be clear, I don't think there's any added satisfaction from beating a Penske or Ganassi. We just come here to beat them all.”