RAPID PROGRESS FOR HONDA
It was less than a month ago when the majority of the Honda-powered teams were red faced with anger over the lack of power and overall performance from their engines on the St. Petersburg street course.
Chevy, the 2012 Manufacturer's champion, ruled qualifying and swept the podium in the season-opening race, but with Dario Franchitti's pole today on the streets of Long Beach, not to mention Honda runners Takuma Sato and Mike Conway securing fourth and fifth, the Japanese brand demonstrated just how much progress it has made in a relatively short time period.
“The reality of it is we showed up at St. Pete with a very conservative setting,” Honda Performance Development CEO Art St. Cyr told RACER. “With a lot of work by our engineers and the engineers from our teams, we've been able to fine-tune our settings for Long Beach, but there was also a noticeable upgrade for [Round 2 at] Barber.”
With Chevy winning the first two IndyCar races of the year from pole, there has been some talk of the American brand holding a distinct advantage that would be hard for Honda to overcome.
St. Cyr doesn't share that viewpoint, and with his Southern California-based company celebrating its 20th anniversary, delivering in front of the home crowd is another point of motivation during tomorrow's 80-lap race.
“We're Honda,” he said firmly. “We have a history of coming back from not having as much success as we want to focus our efforts to win races. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, of course we want to win, but that doesn't change our desire to win. Winning tomorrow, though, is something we're all working towards, though.”
TIRES, LAP COUNT ALTERING RACE STRATEGY
When the IZOD IndyCar Series decided to alter the length of a number of races for 2013, the goal was to reduce the boring stretches caused by fuel saving. One of the unintended effects has been to throw some of the familiar strategy calls out of the playbook, and with Firestone's brand-new tires performing differently than they had in 2012, making the correct calls from the timing stand have become more critical than at any time in recent history.
Will Firestone's sticky Red tires last longer or shorter than expected? Are the harder Blacks the better choice to use for the bulk of the race, and can fuel saving still provide an advantage if enough cautions allow a team to perform one less pit stop? As Ganassi Racing general manager Mike Hull shared with RACER, the new variables have made life calling strategy for Scott Dixon exceptionally complicated.
“I think the difference, first of all, is in the race length that's affected the tire strategy,” he noted. “And I think it came to the front more at Barber than it did at St. Pete. We saw some people want to get themselves to the front early in the Barber race from where they qualified and some people wanted to protect where they were in the front, based on where they qualified. That dictated the tire strategy, first of all. Secondly, it depended how far they got through qualifying. If they had fresher Reds, they had more to utilize. And that's really affected it. I don't think the tires themselves have affected it as much; I think it's the race lengths that have affected it more so.
“And tires constantly change. Firestone does an extremely good job of it trying to read the change that's required. Part of the change that they do these days with the tires has everything to do with the chemical composition. We do a lot of tire testing for Firestone and everything they come back with is always as good a baseline as where you start, and it's normally better, but you can't necessarily work from the same script you might normally draw from. The racing this year keeps you on your toes – whether you're doing the driving or calling strategy. That's really cool.”
FAST IN, SLOW OUT. SLOW IN, FAST OUT
It started with Marco Andretti. The third-generation driver acknowledged a change was required in his driving style to get the most from the Dallara DW12 Indy car, and he spent time during the off-season altering his approach.
Specifically, Andretti was charging into the corners on road and street courses too hard, braking too deep, turning too hard, and overpowering his front tires. His Andretti Autosport team also found it nearly impossible to tune his car's handling to meet his extreme demands.
Now, with a more relaxed corner entry approach, and a greater emphasis placed on maximizing his speed from apex to corner exit, Andretti has been far more effective.
With other drivers finding themselves struggling during the early portion of the new season, the same acknowledgement has been made by the likes of Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal.
Pagenaud spoke of adapting to the "slow in, fast out" style out of sheer necessity, and Rahal, after being outpaced by new teammate James Jakes, saw the Englishman using the "SIFO" approach and has started his driving style conversion at Long Beach.
“Definitely over the last two races, it's my exit speed that's killing me,” Rahal told RACER. “The problem is these cars in the new formula don't have enough power. Back in the day, this driving style I have of carrying a lot of speed into the corner worked because you could just get in the corner and slam on the throttle pedal and blast out of the corner. Now you can't.
“So, guys who have that corner-exit driving style, it rewards them. I'm not one of those guys, so it hurts me. And it has in those previous two events. Here, I'm trying to relearn a little bit.”
With an Indy car career dating back to 2007, Rahal's driving style is almost set in stone. Re-learning how to drive, based on the needs of the turbocharged DW12 package, won't happen overnight for the Ohioan.
“It's big for me because even if I take it back to what I feel is a couple notches, I still, I feel like I'm way early on the brakes in the corner,” he explained. “So it's tricky for me to kind of re-learn that style. I think, like I said, in the old days with all the horsepower you could make up a lot of time from that entry phase in the corner because you always had to wait 'til the car was relatively straight to start chasing power. Now you don't. And so without a doubt, it's hurt me. You ask anybody that drives, when you sit down and start to look at the data and it tells you to do something different than what comes natural, you're just not wired that way to change right away. It's tough.”
KIMBALL'S JUNIOR EVOLUTION
With a pair of top 10 qualifying performances in the past two weeks, Ganassi's Charlie Kimball appears to be hitting his stride in the early stages of his third season as an IndyCar driver.
If his freshman and sophomore years in IndyCar failed to make a major impression, the 28-year-old is earning respect with each session this year.
“I think the thing is we've come in with more confidence, especially coming out of the start of the season,” Kimball told RACER when asked about what's changed for 2013. “Out of the winter we knew what we had to accomplish, so we're just over that hurdle and instead of taking broad-stroke changes to try and find lap time, we're looking at fine-tuning everything; me, the car, driving, braking, cornering, accelerating, all those pieces. Instead of a big chunk here, a big chunk there, all of a sudden we're a lot closer and we can take smaller steps. So, mentality-wise, I just come in with a little more confidence and can make smaller changes more quickly to get that speed out of the car when we need to.”
Kimball is known for being one of the nicest drivers in the paddock, but if he wants to mingle with the likes of Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and the rest of IndyCar's front-running drivers on a regular basis, his next lesson will be to adopt their hunter-killer mindset.