Bryan Herta Autosport's Alex Tagliani got his first test of the 2012 IndyCar DW12 earlier this week. RACER editor David Malsher asked him about the Lotus engine, the handling characteristics of the new car, and more.
R: Are you satisfied with how your first test went?
AT: Yes, I am happy, but I think we've all come to realize how easy we had it in the past! In the old car, the engine had been developed as far as it could – it was reliable and so that was one variable that had been eliminated, and so you could just focus on the car and the setup, the pit stop practices and the best team lineup. The engine was not one of the headaches. Now, it is a huge piece of the puzzle, with so many new features to improve and work on. We're becoming a lot more dependent on the engine in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
In Formula 1, every team has their own engines but there's a big car difference as well. So, if your engine isn't great at high revs and your top speed is, say, five miles per hour down, but you have better torque or your chassis is better handling and your car's making up for the top-speed deficit in the corners, then you're going to be quicker over a lap. That's what we saw last year with the Red Bulls: their Renault engines were not great on the straights compared with Mercedes and Ferrari, but the chassis made them quicker over a lap.
In IndyCar in 2012, the cars are the same, the aerodynamics are identical, so if your engine gives you a 5mph advantage, either you keep the same downforce and keep the top-speed advantage, or you put more downforce on. That pulls your top speed down to the same level as everyone else, but you now have more grip in the corners, you look after your tires better. The other side of the coin is if you are 5mph slower: then, you can trim out the downforce to get your top speed up for the straightaways, but then you have less grip in the corners.
So, it's important that IndyCar try and equalize the engines, leaving the manufacturers to try and gain an advantage through driveability, through alternative mapping or through fuel mileage. That will create enough differences to create passing.
R: How different is the turbo power delivery compared with the CART/Champ Cars you raced before the open-wheel merger? Does the boost come in more progressively these days?
AT: Well, it's different. There is the horsepower and there is the turbo effect. The CART car had more horsepower but it was also revving a lot higher. The Ford Cosworths I had went up to 16,800rpm and the Toyotas and Hondas were almost at 18,000.
Well, the more revs you have, the more progressive your power band is going to be. The rpm of these new 2.2-liter engines is only 12,000, so it's a short burst of kick before you need to shift up. The rev limit is set where it is for the sake of reliability and mileage, in order to contain costs: the higher you rev, the more often you're going to need new parts, the more often you're going to have to invest money. But it's strange, because you have a short range of on-boost revs to work with. It will be interesting to see how we can create alternative patterns of delivery.
There are still so many things that are undecided with the McLaren ECU and what's within the regulations. Some manufacturers want certain things and, at the moment, the electronic box doesn't have them. To make a proper evaluation, we need to know the tools we'll have to work with and I think the series is still deciding a lot of them. There is so much that could change within a month before the engines are homologated. We're working with the engine we have, but there may be a lot of differences for the engine builders and their strategies depending on what IndyCar decides is in the rules.
R: Are you confident that Lotus can match Honda and Chevrolet?
AT: Yeah, I've gotta say, I'm pretty pleased with what I've seen so far. It was great that Simona [de Silvestro] and HVM Racing went to Palm Beach and Sebring and ran 900 miles in the Lotus car. It was basically to put miles on the engine and see the wear and tear, and that unit was then sent back to Judd in England for an evaluation and another engine was sent for me, and that will be the same one Oriol [Servia] runs next week at Sebring.
So far, we have no real issues with the engine. There have been little hiccups here and there with the electronics, but again, you want to know what you're allowed to do – what's legal and illegal. The Lotus engine itself is fine. We haven't run it full power yet, but I don't see why it would be second to Honda or Chevrolet. There's a little bit of experience difference; maybe the people from Judd will have to come to the races and view how our race weekends unfold and get themselves acclimated with IndyCar racing. But they're no dummies: they know how to build engines. Judd builds engines for Le Mans prototypes and those engines are good on fuel and good on reliability, so this is not their first rodeo. With the way they came out of the box with very few problems, it shows that although they took their time because parts supply was delayed, they knew exactly what they were doing. A very good sign from the get-go.
R: In the year ahead, although Bryan Herta Autosport is a one-car team, are you expecting to be sharing information with HVM and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing?
AT: Well, that's what we're doing at the moment. I have a very good relationship with Oriol anyway, and when he came to Indianapolis, he stayed at my place. And when I was testing the car, I was working not only with my engineer Todd Malloy but also the engineers from HVM and D&R. The shock guys are working together. But when we debrief, we're all together, and we share all information. I think it's quite nice from that aspect. It seems like something that will definitely help the progress of Lotus-Judd. We're a little bit behind in actually getting the engine on track – Chevy and Honda have been running quite a few weeks longer, so they know their challenges and so the evolution and developments are that much further ahead. I'd say it was crucial that Bryan's team, Dreyer & Reinbold and HVM all work together to catch up, at least until the first race. Certainly Oriol and I are pushing hard to continue to work as one team.
R: Let's talk about the car itself. There have been some mixed messages regarding how it handles. How hard did you feel able to push to the limit at Homestead, or were you just engine-focused?
AT: On a road and street course, I don't think the car is going to be too evil. It's drivable, it has a lot of potential and there's probably 50 percent more performance to get out of it just from understanding what it needs and working around this whole new philosophy of weight distribution. When we have it dialed in and have the engines running to their full potential, and Firestone bring the same tires as last year, I'm sure it will outperform the old car.
On the ovals…it's another situation. The drag factor needs to be resolved and the mechanical stability, too. I was testing on the Homestead road course, but even there, what you notice is how light it seems on the front end, yet the car also has a tendency to rotate mechanically because of the weight distribution. You don't feel the front end too well because it is light, and you think you don't have a lot of front-end grip, but then the car still rotates quite well because of all that weight at the rear.
On an oval, normally you want the car mechanically understeering and then you add aero to turn it and put some feel back into the hands of the driver and so the car is mechanically stuck down. But this new car feels free because it has a lot of weight to the rear. You turn in, the steering is so light that it feels like you've got no front grip and still the car over-rotates! Now imagine that on an oval: going into Turn 1 at Indy, you feel the front end is light, but you don't want extra front wing because you know that on the exit, that will make the rear end over-rotate even more. But you don't want rear downforce because that will make the initial turn-in understeer feel even worse. It's a very weird setup at the moment.
R: On the positive side, does that mean – almost by accident – that the series has eliminated pack racing at high-banked ovals? This strange handling characteristic is going to emphasize who are the properly skilled drivers, surely?
AT: Ha! Yeah, I suppose if the car's difficult to drive on the oval, it will mean the good drivers are separated from the not-so-good and so we won't get those packs of cars. But there's a question about how close we can run at all. Aerodynamically, some of the cars last year were so good that you could run side by side, and not lose much downforce. Maybe now, as soon as you pull alongside another car, you could lose so much aero that you have to drop back. It could be like the Handford device, where you had to stay in line otherwise everyone freight-trains past you. I'm just speculating here, of course, because I haven't yet tried the oval aero package to give a real judgment.
R: Back to the road/street course setup, then. You were saying on Twitter about how impressed you were with the carbon brakes…
AT: Yeah, amazing! Just amazing. That is some freakin' braking power, I'm telling you!
R: But do you think that may hurt the racing, because of how much shorter the braking distance will be?
AT: Hmm, well, that's a point I brought up with the guys. But brakes work in correlation with grip, so if you have a ton of grip and you improve the braking power, then you can use that and brake deeper. If the car doesn't have a great deal of grip, or doesn't react well, then you can brake as deep as you want but the stopping power won't be usable – you'll just lock up and go straight on.
And, obviously, it's not all down to the car: when I say “grip” I don't just mean setup grip in the car. I mean track surface, too. I think at Mid-Ohio, for example, we're going to be braking a lot later than we were – we'll be able to exploit the extra power of the carbon brakes. But at street courses like St. Pete, Long Beach, Toronto and so on, you'll see a lot more lock-ups and mistakes in bumpy braking zones or over concrete patches, especially when drivers are fighting.
So, as well as being a whole new intriguing era of IndyCar from the engineering point of view, I think it could also be a more exciting era of racing for us. I really hope so. And I think Bryan Herta Autosport and Lotus have a strong chance of fighting at the front. For all the teams there are many questions that need answering and there's a lot of work still to come between now and St. Pete. But it's good work. It's work we love. It's what we do this for, you know?