It started as a casual office conversation, but quickly took on a life of its own. The subject was Chevrolet's impressive return to the IZOD IndyCar Series, earning a drivers' and manufacturers' championship the first year back in the series. That got us thinking about the other 2012 achievements by GM brands around the world and the longer the list became, the more we felt these were achievements worth celebrating. The folks at Chevrolet and Cadillac Racing agreed, and the end result is a special bonus issue of RACER where we join the dots on a superlative year and get the inside story from many of the people involved. You will receive your issues soon.
But we felt Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, as a former blogger here on RACER.com, deserved his own space to 1) pay tribute to Chevrolet, 2) recall the Chevy-vs.-Honda battles on and off track, and 3) give his opinion on how IndyCar can further improve its product. It's a great read.
First of all, you have to say that Chevrolet's successful return to IndyCar racing was one of the most impressive aspects of the 2012 season. Their dedication, their strategic partnership with Ilmor Engineering, and their marketing efforts combined to bring an extra dimension to IndyCar, something that had been missing from the sport in recent years. From the beginning, when the Chevy teams combined forces to build and test Chevy's dedicated car while pooling the resources and best talents of those involved, Team Penske took a lot of satisfaction in being part of the resulting success.
The engine design was purely based on the collective efforts of Chevrolet and Ilmor. The team's role was really geared toward weighing in on recommendations regarding turbocharger installations, aerodynamic data, weighing the pros and cons of single vs. twin turbochargers, the manner in which the power was delivered through gear ratios to the wheels and the various compromises that have to be considered for race fuel strategy.
One of the biggest challenges was how to control the overboost penalties that are set through the mandatory IndyCar manifold pressure sensor. This was new territory for everyone and because the horsepower is so dependent on having maximum boost, the teams really had to work closely with the Chevrolet engineers to work through the best compromises throughout the season. The priorities, as in any form of racing, were reliability and power with fuel mileage being a constant consideration throughout the process.
When we left Sebring after the final preseason open test, there was no clear-cut understanding of where everyone stacked up as we were all getting to know the Dallara DW12 and Honda and Chevy were constantly evolving their specifications. At that point, both manufacturers were also trying to get their arms around direct fuel injection while dealing with the never-ending stream of ECU software updates. Each car/driver combination was testing completely different specifications so it was pretty difficult to gauge where things really stood.
The preseason testing proved priceless. By the time we arrived in St. Petersburg for the first race, the manufacturers had to be prepared for a common engine specification among the teams, but even throughout the first day of practice, we were still evolving the software strategies. Prior to qualifying there was still no way of judging who was fastest, and as far as fuel mileage was concerned, we didn't know how we stacked up until the race started to unfold.
Fortunately, the Chevrolet group got the best of Honda on virtually all fronts. It would've been difficult to predict that Team Penske would win the first four races and claim five consecutive poles, but we were expecting to come out of the box strong due to the depth and experience that we have within our organization. We take a lot of pride in rising to the various challenges that exist when new cars and engines are introduced and it was pretty cool to win those races under such unique circumstances. We didn't dominate each event as each one provided a different test. We had to overcome many obstacles with one of those being the unexpected change to the single turbocharger specification that was granted to Chevy's rivals.
IndyCar went to extremes to allow Honda to upgrade the single-turbo specification after it was determined that Honda was at a disadvantage. The whole process was unfortunate and very awkward. From my perspective, all three of the engine manufacturers were given the same opportunity to evaluate the single- vs. twin-turbo option. Honda was the only one that chose the single-turbo route. There were various compromises with both installations but it seemed that once Honda recognized they had made the wrong choice, IndyCar essentially let them out of the box they'd chosen for themselves by saying that the intent was always for the potential power output to be equal and so allowed them to upgrade the turbo housing.
The difficulty in accepting this decision wasn't as much about the power implications as it was about the lack of transparency during the process. The fact is, IndyCar did nothing to equalize the compromises of the twin-turbo installation as it was at a disadvantage in terms of weight and aerodynamic drag due to the twin turbos being located in the airstream behind the radiators. So, basically, Chevrolet made the right decision with the information they were presented and then Honda was permitted to get the best of both worlds after making the wrong choice. This made Will Power's win in the Verizon car at Brazil – the first race for Honda with the upgraded single turbo – that much more satisfying not only for Team Penske, but also for Chevrolet.
The Indianapolis 500 was another story. We were well prepared at the 1.4-bar turbo boost levels and we were thrilled to see Chevrolet dominate qualifying but Carburetion Day, at the 1.3-bar boost level, showed why you can never count out Honda. Indianapolis began a three-race winning streak for Honda, but other than Indy, Chevy still seemed to have a slight advantage for the remainder of the season.
The close competition between Honda and Chevy became the catalyst for the numerous grid penalties that seemed to be at the top of the agenda throughout the second half of the season. Edmonton was an interesting race for us because we elected to change Will's engine, opting to take the latest Chevy specification in exchange for the 10-place grid penalty which meant Will started 17th, while Helio Castroneves raced the previous spec and started near the front.
These aren't easy decisions as you can imagine, and we had to look at the different scenarios very carefully and then hope we got it right. In this case, Helio won and Will came through the field from 17th to finish third. That was a good day. The down side is that meant Helio got the new engine and the grid penalty at Mid-Ohio, which proved to be very painful because that circuit is all about track position and the lack of cautions meant there was no chance for him to roll the dice, strategy-wise. Well, you know how the rest of the season turned out for Team Penske – close but no cigar.
That said, it was very satisfying to see Chevy win the Manufacturer's and the Driver's Championships. Ilmor's relationship with this team through the years, and the fact that Roger Penske had been instrumental in bringing Chevrolet back to IndyCar racing, really meant that we were thrilled to see everyone's vision become reality. You always want to know that your team is equipped with the best so you have a benchmark to show you what's possible. Having Chevrolet and Ilmor on our side gave us that feeling throughout 2012.
Ultimately, we missed another opportunity at the championship but if you spend too much time looking back in this business, you get passed. Everyone at Team Penske is focused on the future. It looks like we will start the season with Helio and Will as our drivers and we hope to add another entry at some of the events throughout the season.
As for the state of IndyCar in general, I hope the new leadership takes an active role in finding a way to improve the stalemate that seems to exist with their television partners and I also hope that the series recognizes that the technical specifications need to allow for more innovation at the team level while ensuring that the car is more difficult to drive. In all forms of racing, we continue to see that more horsepower and less downforce, combined with a tire that is designed to degrade in grip throughout the life of the tire, results in racing that is more appealing to the fans. This allows the driver to be in control, as we saw this past year throughout the races in Texas and Fontana.
If you need evidence of how much safer it is to have drivers in control, look at the accidents last year on the ovals when the downforce was reduced. We repaired Will's car at Fontana after what likely would've resulted in a trip to the hospital in the past. When did you last see a car repaired mid-race after an accident on an oval?!
Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay each crashed in practice at Fontana and both of those cars were repairable because, again, it was relatively light contact, low g-force and no injuries. Anyone who thinks it's better to be flat-out all the way around, waiting for the string to break, doesn't really understand racing or isn't a good enough driver to be out there competing with the best.
We should be applying that same thought process to the power/downforce equation at Indy as well. Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 should be the hardest four laps a driver does all year, but last May, many of the drivers said it was one of their easiest tasks because there was too much grip and not enough power. It's becoming like Daytona in NASCAR – the marquee event is becoming the easiest to qualify for. If the Speedway isn't challenging on qualifying day again this year, I hope the IndyCar leadership is strong enough to step in and do what needs to be done to protect the integrity of the Indy 500 and what it should represent.
If IndyCar is to garner the respect of the fans as one of the top forms of motorsport in the world, we need to get away from this mentality of having spec cars with limited testing. I am not advocating a free-for-all for our benefit; rather, we have to allow testing so new drivers have a chance in the sport and we have to allow teams to differentiate themselves beyond just having their own dampers. Fans want to see the teams generate evolutions and if IndyCar continues toward making the rules suit the budgets of the lowest teams, it will soon take a backseat to not only NASCAR, but sports car racing as well.
I love IndyCar racing, but unless someone at the top recognizes that the technical aspects of IndyCar are what made it what it once was in this country, it will continue to lose the interest of those that supported it most. The same teams and drivers win regardless of how hard the current rules makers try to dumb down the cars and limit the testing. The real losers are the fans, and ultimately, IndyCar.
It has been a long off-season, yet there is still time to have the remedies in place to make the 2013 IndyCar races faster, safer and more exciting. The 2012 season proved that the current car and engine packages are capable of good racing – we now need to see IndyCar continue to bring the sport forward. I hope we can let the racers race again…and of course, we will try to ensure that Team Penske and Chevrolet continue to go to Victory Lane on a regular basis.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!
President, Penske Racing
You can follow Tim's personal Twitter account at @TimCindric, as well as the official Team Penske account at @PenskeRacing