Target Chip Ganassi Racing's IZOD IndyCar Series driver Scott Dixon will be blogging exclusively for RACER.com throughout the 2012 season. -Ed.
Earlier this week, you'll have seen I was one of the drivers testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the revised rear wing setups on the Dallara DW12, but we'll still be heading into practice for the 500 with a lot of unknowns. There will be further modifications made to the oval package – hence the test at Texas on May 7 – and remember that none of us were fully flat out this past Monday because we need these engines for the Sonoma test, for Long Beach and maybe for Brazil too. So while top lap times were only 218mph with a tow, I'm expecting qualifying speeds for this year's Indy 500 to be in the low 220s in better weather conditions and with more rubber down.
What I can say is that the handling of the DW12's oval package has vastly improved already. Comparing it to when I tested the car at Fontana (RIGHT) and Homestead, and also looking at my teammate Dario Franchitti's notes of how it handled at the Speedway first time around, it looks like major progress has been made. The only issue is that the old cars – the G-Force and then the Dallara – had lots of adjustments that could be made to incrementally reduce downforce and drag.
The new car … well, once you trim the wing out, you have strakes underneath and underwing sidewalls, but you're taking a lot of downforce off for little reduction in drag. For instance, removing 300lbs of downforce will save you only 20lbs in drag. So there's an equation that needs sorting out, otherwise you're going to have everyone running the same thing. One of the defining qualities of the old car was that you could put your touch on it, whereas not being able to add wickers or special mirrors to the new car just forces us into a very tight box. I look forward to next year when we're allowed our own aero kits. I trust Honda to come up with something good!
SECOND IS OK…FOR NOW
Back to the present, the No. 9 half of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team is pretty upbeat at the moment. We haven't had a win yet, but two second places, behind different winners, have put us just a couple of points off the championship lead, and after recent years, that is big for us. To be honest, I've become annoyed over the last few years with having to play catch-up through the bulk of the season because of bad luck in the first few rounds. A strong start to a year has proven vital to drivers' championship efforts in the past, and looking at Dario's campaigns, consistently strong finishes have been the foundation of his title runs. It's good to be able to do that in 2012, and keeping up this current momentum should result in a trip to Victory Circle again very soon.
At St. Petersburg, our opening round, the fuel consumption number I had to get wasn't possible to achieve while holding off Helio. I could have run harder, as fast as Helio, but I'd have needed a splash of fuel before the end, and then dropped further down the field. So at that point we decided to stick to our fuel number, make it on two fuel stops – which we hadn't even thought was possible, prerace – and let him go. Sure, when he came up behind me I went to the inside to protect the lead, as per the new rules, but he had a decent run on me and was able to make the outside line work, so that was that.
People keep asking us how we think the Honda compares with the Chevrolet at the moment, and it's really hard to tell without being on both sides of the fence. Some drivers have said the Honda's better at the top end and the Chevy has better torque out of corners because it has twin turbos, but I just think, “How can you know?!” It's so hard to comment on, because you don't know who's running what downforce/drag levels which would obviously affect the top speed at the end of the straights, they don't know what gear ratios they're using or whether you're running a five- or six-speed gearbox so that would affect its performance at the start of the straights. These are variables, and teams tend to keep these variations a closely guarded secret.
So at St. Pete, I admit we were a little shocked to not make the Firestone Fast Six, but I'd temper that with saying that I don't think my car was optimized – that's typical of the development of a new engine/car combo – and I admit I could have driven a little bit better in qualifying. I think the Honda creates good power but I just didn't think we were putting it down as well as we should. That's not a drivability issue: that's about us needing to make gains and explore all the options available to us on the new car.
And just a few days later, that's exactly what we were doing at Barber Motorsports Park last weekend, despite rain limiting our track time on Friday, and the Saturday morning practice being cancelled due to fog. We qualified third, and finished second, this time behind Will Power, and led the most laps. I think we were slightly quicker than Will but once you get in traffic, you lose so much downforce – far more than in the old car – that traction suffers. When you're following someone over a long stint, it's so hard to put the power down, and the car starts slipping and sliding and burning up the tires. That's why I got stuck so long even trying to lap Simona de Silvestro.
In the post-race interview, I don't know if it came across that I was laying the blame for losing the lead on the guy at the right-rear during the stop, but that certainly wasn't my intention. Occasional dropped wheelnuts in pit stops are a part of racing, just like drivers can ruin their qualifying lap by running wide in one corner and dropping from a potential pole position to an actual eighth place on the grid, or whatever.
Over the course of a season, these things happen to every driver, every crew. In the case of any tire changer, the real problem lies in the antiquated style of wheelnut that we've had to revert to just because one team owner voted against the quicker, more user-friendly ones. At Ganassi, we're used to wheelnuts that are just two and a half threads, where you just bump the wheelgun and the nut's off. But now, you bump the gun, and if you go to pull the gun while the nut is still spinning on the threads, you only need to pull slightly too early and the nut bounces out of the wheelgun. So that's massively annoying for everyone involved.
Anyway, another contributory factor to me ending up behind Will after those pit stops is that we stuck too rigidly to our fuel window, so instead of pitting as soon as we caught up with Simona, we stayed out another lap and I think I lost 3-4 seconds behind her. We should have pitted immediately and saved fuel later, but it's easy to be wise after the event, right? It could have been worse and second place in the championship is something I should be happy about.
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.