A quick look at the Milwaukee podium revealed a familiar theme as drivers from two of the Big Three were spraying champagne, but it was the first time that has been seen in 2013.
Of the Big Three, Andretti Autosport has maintained its position atop the Team Penske and Ganassi Racing triumvirate, with drivers James Hinchcliffe (St. Pete, Brazil) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Barber, Milwaukee) claiming four wins from nine rounds so far, yet with a win last weekend by Penske's Helio Castroneves, a second place today in Wisconsin, and Will Power's first finish inside the top three this year, it feels like the established programs are starting to ramp up their championship efforts.
For Power, Saturday's 250-lapper was a return to what he and his fans have come to expect. Catching Hunter-Reay was too tall of a task, but finishing third – exactly where he started – almost came as a surprise based on his enduring string of bad luck.
“It felt good; just a good hard day of racing where we didn't make any mistakes, nothing silly happened, the pit stops were excellent, the strategy calls were excellent and I could just go out and drive and do my thing,” Power told RACER.
The three-time championship runner-up also admitted it was a relief to break through and land on the podium.
“Yeah, that was nice because it was normal, in a sense,” he says. “It was just a routine race, I guess, where we did what we expect to every time. You know we wanted to win, but we got good points for third and now we need to keep going after these kinds of finishes. Do the best we can each time and hopefully it takes care of itself and we can get in the championship hunt. That continues to be our goal.”
By the end of the race, the Target cars had raced from 11th to sixth (Scott Dixon) and 23rd to eighth (Dario Franchitti), giving the red cars a total improvement of 20 positions during the race, but afterward, Dixon shined the light on something I've been wondering about for most of the season.
“I think we went down a road earlier in the year and now we're just trying to regroup and find our way,” he says. “Maybe we're lacking confidence in our changes with the car but we'll work hard and get better. We had a good day but went back and forth on some things. We had understeer in the middle of the corner and the car snapped coming off. We had a bit better car then we showed.”
Professional racing teams make numerous decisions during the off-season, and during the season, as well, regarding which paths to follow on damper development, mechanical setup, CFD programs, simulation strategies, and a host of other R&D calls that are meant to raise a team's game.
Some teams, like Andretti Autosport, happen to make the right call in almost every category. Its mechanical grip, for instance, is something most drivers have said they're jealous of. And for the teams that head down the wrong alley, it not only shows during the first few rounds, but when things get really busy as they've been with a non-stop sprint from Brazil to next weekend in Iowa, it's incredibly hard to divert that R&D path and point things in the right direction until the schedule slows down.
In the case of Ganassi, they've been strong in select instances, and recently, have done well once they've had a chance to tune their cars at each pit stop, but the crisp, fast, roll-off-of-the-trailer-and-run-up-front deal we're accustomed to with the team has been mostly absent this year.
RACER contributor Mike Hull, who serves as managing director for the Ganassi team, explained how the team has gone about its in-weekend efforts, starting with an emphasis on the race rather than outright speed.
“What we've done, at least at the last three oval events – Indy, Texas and Milwaukee – is work with the practice time available to have good racecars. With Scott, we spent time to do all of one simulated qualifying run during practice. An out lap, two times by and then in. That was it. We then changed over and went back to working on our race setup.
“That means we might not have the most advantageous starting positions, but we're confident we can race well. The downside is that some teams have, as we've seen, been able to qualify well and race well. They've found that speed and maintained it. Right now, that's something we're continuing to pursue.”
It was a similar routine at Texas last weekend for Franchitti, in particular, who spent most of the race improving his car, and by the end he was flying, but with others able to start and stay toward the front all night, the extra work he and the team had to do once the green flag waved made challenging for a podium somewhat unrealistic.
Milwaukee was far better for the Scot in that sense, and his Honda-powered No. 10 car was very good for most of the race, but with heavy traffic to deal with and the leaders having more clean air to build gaps, the Ganassi team suffered from having obstacles to overcome that the other members of the Big Three did not.
“Here, we had good cars and raced well,” Hull continues. “Dario's drive was remarkable. Scott did the same last year. I thought both guys moved up very quickly at one point, in nine laps Scott gained 12 seconds on the leader. And Dario passed cars on his own; it wasn't due to pit strategy, or anything else. If we're able to start higher up, you'll see both guys finish closer to what's expected.”
DARK DAYS FOR GRAHAM
Graham Rahal's known for his toothy smile and positive demeanor, but both have been in short supply since the series left Long Beach nearly two months ago.
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver finished second at the SoCal street race, the team's best showing of the year, but Rahal's No. 15 has yet to qualify better than 15th in the six races since then – three of those starts were outside the top 20 – and four of his finishes have been 16th and 25th.
We recently chronicled the incompatibility of the setups used by RLLR with Takuma Sato last year and what the 24-year-old Rahal needs to feel confident in the car, and Milwaukee, like Texas, was another shot to his self-confidence.
“I've never experienced this before…where you start to question yourself,” he told RACER. “I've always gotten really positive feedback from my engineers about my feel for the car – what I need from it, and really, really try to go into as much detail as possible to describe that to my engineers. But I haven't been able to feel this car for a while; it's numb to me.
“Today we made some progress there; I could feel it and it was good from that perspective, but when you're entering the corner sideways, then it grips up at the back and you've got big understeer pointing you at the wall, it doesn't matter how much the car speaks to you. At that point, it's just telling you what needs to be fixed and we've all agreed to do whatever it takes to improve that.”
Improving the mechanical grip available to Rahal is the first step in the process, and the RLLR team will look to add resources and personnel to its damper program. And on the engineering side, Rahal says he and Gerry Hughes will continue to look for ways to find the consistent handling needed to play inside the top 10.
“Everyone is working so hard right now; Gerry is no different and he wants us to be more successful as much, if not more than anyone because he takes great pride in what he does,” explains Rahal. “And for me, I just want to get back to where the car's handling is talking to me again and we can go and try and win a few races.
“I won't lie – it sucks going through this, but I firmly believe we'll be a better team once we find our way out of it.”