First of all, in light of last week's news that the Auto Club Speedway's season-closer for the IZOD IndyCar Series is now a 500-mile race, I want to say that it's great that there's a 500 away from Indianapolis for the first time in a long time. For Southern California to hold a Saturday night race under the lights is a fitting finale to the 2012 season. It brings an interesting dynamic that we normally only see at Indy.
Suddenly, there's a premium placed on several aspects of race craft and preparation. It's not a single dimensional event. We'll make at least seven pit stops and have a 500-mile-style fuel tank which is gravity-fed, so the last three or four stops, with less tank pressure, means the fuel feed really slows. (Tire guys will be at ease when the car leaves!)
Next our four drivers from the beginning of practice will concentrate exclusively on race setup. Chip always says: “Practice Fast.” It's about practicing with the intention to be good for several long runs. In a normal race, you might get one long green. This means that in practice sessions, you have to put your car into race trim quickly, find traffic, and simulate race condition at speed. Those are the key things to consider from our perspective. Most important – in my opinion, it's about time we had multiple 500-milers.
Fuel mileage seems to be a continued topic of conversation. The objective isn't necessarily to go further than your neighbor; it's also about putting less fuel in the tank under a full-course yellow in order to speed up the pit stop. Less fuel means jumping your neighbor. Naturally, it's about how fast a driver can run while saving a bit of fuel – to “get the fuel number,” as we say. How strong the racecar can be for the last third of a run while making fuel is what you focus on in practice.
For the ovals, spotters are a key element. They have to really watch what their driver is doing compared to other drivers, and that becomes even more critical in a 500-mile race than in a 200-300-mile race, because with the aero spec chosen for Fontana, the cars will start to slide. So you want to create a good, frictionless arc through the corners. This keeps the tires strong for as long as possible. The quality of info from the spotter to the driver makes a large difference as the race unfolds. Good ones don't just say, “clear, quarter-back, on your corner.”
And, being a night race, rather than a daylight one like Indy, track conditions will really change over the course of this 500-mile event. Our drivers are going to be chasing the racetrack more than they do at Indy. We rely on them to keep us informed about the changes necessary during the pit stops. Telemetry helps, but the driver tells us if he can drive it after the changes are made. We're limited to wings and tire pressure, but given the stiff contraction of the tire, one pound of tire pressure can dramatically change the dynamic spring rate, which really affects the cross-weight balance.
It's easy to get up for a race with so much challenge. It should be really fast for the last segment of the race.
Finishing the race is the obvious priority so you work backwards to determine when engines need to be changed. The engine rules as they've stood this year, with cars getting 10-place grid penalties if they need an engine change, is something that needs review, and I think it needs to be altered before the end of the year. Putting quick drivers back down the grid makes for great television, but does little for the Championship, unless you could be awarded points for number of cars passed. The fact is, all the regulation has done is penalize the drivers and the teams, neither of whom has anything to do with the engine reliability. It's just plug-and-play for us. It's not as if we're exchanging engines to improve performance; we're doing it after a failure or when Honda, GM, or Lotus tell a team that that the unit is going to break before it reaches 1,850 miles. Why should we pay the price for that?
Looked at another way: if we want to change a ring-and-pinion before a race due to high mileage, we do that because we want to finish the race. You might stretch component miles during practice, but there's too much at stake to risk leaving high mileage parts on the car. What next: spec miles for suspension?
Starting races with engines at the high end of their mileage should be granted some leniency especially in the first year of a new engine formula. In fairness to the engine companies, it's a new formula, with lots of challenge. The Honda-Ilmor normally aspirated engine that was replaced for this year had quite a few seasons to become totally reliable. If we want to change an engine to ensure we get to the end of the race, we're penalized. Explain to me how that works! It's completely out of a team's control.