NOT INSTANT CAR-MA, BUT…
The Dallara DW12 has been an interesting car to get our heads round, that's for sure. In order to get it to do the things I want in medium- and slow-speed turns, I've had to make it very loose in the high-speed stuff. That's where this car finds its speed, but it's quite a handful and about halfway through the race at Barber, I was thinking it was requiring a lot of effort to drive. It's mentally exhausting. But we're racing drivers and so if it's the quickest way, then that's what we'll do.
Dario prefers a solid rear end to his car, and he's very particular about handling, so in Barber he was struggling to find the compromise between the DW12's natural characteristics and his own. Finding the right kind of car/driver interaction is what creates speed, and once Dario gets that, you'll see him take off again, I'm sure – there's a reason he's a four-time IndyCar champion. After the Sonoma test and Long Beach, I'd expect to see him right back where he belongs – at the front.
The engines, too, have taken a bit of getting used to. In order to counteract the turbo lag, you get back on the throttle earlier, and this takes a little bit of practice. You don't have a seventh butterfly controlling the plenum chamber pressure, so it's very hard to keep the wastegates closed. If you let off, you get overshoots in the boost and then the ECU gives you a boost penalty. So considering these kind of fundamental changes to the architecture of the engines – remember, Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus have produced brand new designs and there's nothing “off the shelf” about these 2.2-liter units – I think all the engine manufacturers have done an excellent job reliability-wise. I expected to see many cars having issues, and I think we all feared that some races wouldn't be decided by who was quickest, but whose engine happened to last the distance. But I know that our Hondas haven't had any major problems and I think that's really impressive.
RUBBER STAMP OF APPROVAL
Since that Barber race, you'll have seen drivers have given a lot of credit to Firestone for how much passing was going on. I think the fans liked what they saw there. I understand that Firestone tend to not want tires that fall off but that does play a huge part in making the racing better. Sometimes last year, there'd only be a one-second-per-lap difference from new to used tires, but at Barber this year, you'd lose three or four seconds when the tires degraded. Throw different strategies into the mix, too, and suddenly you have performance variation and therefore, cars passing.
Typically, you'll find that two-stop races from last year will be three-stop races this year because of the smaller fuel tanks, so there'll be less fuel saving and more proper flat-out driving, and you'll also see drivers using two sets of tires that have been used in qualifying. The red tire at the moment, even with eight or nine laps on it, has more grip than a brand-new set of blacks, so the front runners are using a sequence like new reds/new black/used reds/used reds in a three stop/four-stint race. This works in favor of the teams and drivers who have been smart with how much tire life they've used in qualifying and who have found the most tire-friendly setup for the race. So while the technical regs have tightened regarding what we can do with the car, the rules have opened up more variation in how to run a race and, as it should be, this has benefited the quickest drivers.
Promoting real racing by allowing defensive driving has played its part in helping the races, too, but just the elimination of gray areas has been a big help too. And did you notice that the double-file starts and restarts have been cleaner too? Looking back over the last few years, nine times out of 10 it's been the same culprits who have initiated or got involved in accidents, but I think the penny's dropped with some of these drivers that they need to clean up their act, and so they've started racing smarter. Something else to bear in mind is the robustness of the car: I hit James Hinchcliffe on the second restart at Barber and expected my front wing to fly off but it stayed stuck, and Dario had similar things going on back in the pack and he too had no damage at the end of the race. That adds confidence to the drivers, and so they're more likely to go for maneuvers – again, helping the racing.
So next weekend, come to Long Beach for round three, or if you can't, be sure to tune into NBC Sports. Personally, I think it should be very interesting. We haven't qualified well there the last few years, but I think we understand why we didn't so the No. 9 Target car should have a good shot at the top step. Whatever else, we want to keep up this momentum with our eyes firmly on the championship prize.
Thanks for reading.
Follow Scott on Twitter at @ScottDixon9, and follow Target Chip Ganassi Racing at @TCGRteams.