DISASTER FOR EX-TITLE CONTENDERS
Remember the championship class of 2010 and '11 – Target Chip Ganassi Racing pairing Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon and Team Penske's Will Power? This was the trio that you could virtually guarantee would run at the front on race weekends, and for them a bad day would be a fifth or sixth place.
Things have changed more than a little since then. And if you're a fan of any/all of this trio, look away now, because this may have been the low point of the season.
Woeful for Will
Power, who raced hard and fast to second in Heat 3 yesterday, started off strong enough in the race today, running second to Hinchcliffe, but once Carpenter got ahead on a lap 51 restart, Power's pace got progressively worse as first Marco Andretti, then Dixon, Servia, Rahal and Tony Kanaan got past the Verizon car. By the end, Will was a dispirited 17th.
“I don't know what the problem was,” he admitted, after a long talk on the No. 12 stand with race engineer Dave Faustino. “I mean, the car was so insecure at the rear whatever line I ran on the racetrack. It was fine in clean air, but in traffic, it was all over the place, just couldn't get traction. Around here, with this level of downforce, if you're not able to go flat, you're screwed, absolutely screwed, and that's exactly what we were.”
Scrappy for Scott
Dixon found it easy to have the throttle flat to the floor all the way around the lap, but then he needed to: he didn't have enough power. After Heat Race 1 yesterday, the No. 9 car was fitted with the Honda engine from practice/qualifying at Indy, and he was put back to 15th on the grid for today's race. After holding station in the first stint, he climbed up to fifth before a misfire developed, and he sank down to 16th.
“I suppose the one consolation is that the misfire didn't get worse,” remarked a philosophical Mike Hull, team director and Dixon's strategist, “but it was a real shame. After we won Heat 1 yesterday, the team did a really good job to turn the car around for Heat 3 and we went well there, and made some more good changes overnight. But this misfire occurred in the high gears and that's where you are throughout this lap.”
Dixon's grid penalty had been different from Castroneves', whose Chevrolet was changed for a brand-new one overnight, because his Indy practice/quali engine couldn't be used for reasons that team president Tim Cindric wasn't prepared to discuss. Had Ganassi and Honda taken a similar decision with Dixon's car (to run a fresh engine rather than mileage out the Indy unit), might results have been different?
“Well of course that's possible,” said Hull, “but that's when you get into the mathematics of this engine-change/grid-penalty rule. If you reach the six-engine maximum before the season's over, and want a seventh, then you get into the situation where you have to take more grid penalties. So there's a sort of burden of proof to yourself that using the Indy engine was the right decision.”
Hull then came up with an alternative to the much-maligned engine-penalty rule, and it made so much sense, it deserves more space than can be spared here. Look for a Mike Hull column here on RACER.com within the next week.
Disaster for Dario
If Power and Dixon had issues, Franchitti spent most of his track time at Iowa looking as comfortable as Pee-wee Herman in a UFC ring. And that really was a bitter irony for Ganassi: the car that was handling well had a sick engine, whereas there was a perfectly healthy Honda in a car that handled with the precision of a skateboard on ice.
After finishing last in Heat Race 1 on Saturday – a result he described as “disgraceful” – Franchitti nonetheless had hopes that the race day setup would be halfway decent.
“I know a lot of people will think that if Scott won the Heat race and I came last, then it would be logical to just put Scott's setup on my car,” said Franchitti this evening, “but it's not that simple at all. Even when we have the quickest cars, Scott and I have very different setups for ovals because we're looking for very different handling characteristics. So we each spend our time adjusting our cars to our individual driving styles, and we were way off this weekend.
“And I can't describe it as having too much understeer or too much oversteer,” he continued. “It's not a case of too much push on entry and then loose on the exit or vice versa. It's a lack of grip at both ends of the car and it goes on throughout the corner. We were kind of OK in the first stint, but not making much progress. And after that…I spent the remaining 200 laps, trying not to crash.”
What many will find puzzling is that, despite achieving only one win last year, Franchitti was a fierce contender for race victories throughout the season, as was Dixon. What on earth has happened to the team that won the championship for four straight years, 2008-'11? The Ganassi drivers make occasional oblique references to ‘going down a development path that proved not to be right,' and the team lost its top damper engineer to Penske last year, but who'd have thought that Chip's mighty squad would take this long to back up and re-route itself?
“Hmm…, yeah, I'd say that other teams have moved on further,” conceded Franchitti. “So after our struggles at St. Pete, we went to a more '2012 setup,' if that's what you want to call it, and we were fast at Barber and Long Beach. In fact, our road and street course performances have been pretty decent. But it's no secret that with the change in the tires this year, we certainly haven't got the car feeling the way I need it to feel.”
What Dario is not doing is panicking. “Don't get me wrong – no driver wants weekends like this,” he remarked, “but I honestly have faith that we'll figure it out, and I'm going to look at myself and see what I can do differently, too. So although a lot of teams are testing at Pocono this week, we're heading to Sebring because a) we've tested at Pocono already, and b) we have a lot of road and street courses coming up.”
“Funny thing is, there were people outside the team who took Ganassi successes for granted a couple of years ago, but within the team, it wasn't like that at all. We knew how hard we worked for it, we knew what it took. But now, when we say how hard it is to win even one race, let alone a championship, people believe us…”