After more than a year of waiting, the IndyCar Series will debut standing starts during Saturday's 85-lap race at Toronto. And with less than 24 hours to go until the start lights are triggered, drivers are remarkably calm about what lies ahead.
Chevy and Honda have been working on start-line strategies since 2012, with a fair amount of effort being placed on giving their drivers a customized experience.
“We spent time at a GM test track working on (clutch) bite points and different revs to work with,” Ilmor's Wayne Bennett told RACER. “It's really just a case of letting the drivers work with some variable that are to their liking rather than having a fixed process they all must adhere to. They know what's optimal for revs and clutch engagement, but you'll see each one tailor their starts to what works best for them.”
The series set aside a space toward the pit lane exit for drivers to practice standing starts Friday morning, and it appeared that between the two manufacturers, Chevy drivers – at least the ones who got it right – had a slight edge over the Honda driver when launching from the box.
“It's quite remarkable to watch when one of our guys nails a launch,” Bennett added. “It still appears to be a bit tricky for everyone, but when they get it just right, they're gone in an instant.”
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Simon Pagenaud helped with Honda's early standing start practices, and remains confident in what the marque will be able to offer its drivers.
“We started working on it a while ago in December, so I feel confident in what we've got,” he said. “We have two (start) options, so it's up to the driver to choose which scenario they want to use. And I don't think you will see any stalls (due to the anti-stall technology built into the clutch system).
As Pagenaud describes the process, he and the other drivers will be extremely busy in the cockpit once they come to a start and get ready to launch.
“It's what you can do with the throttle, how much throttle you want, the clutch activation point with the hand-clutch system, holding the car with the brakes and then dumping the clutch when it's time,” he explained. “You also have your electronic settings to select for the start, so maybe this isn't totally new for everyone to do; a lot of IndyCar drivers have done standing starts in other series, but I think you will see a lot of people trying to get all the sequences right and who knows if everything will go smoothly!”
Standing starts will only be utilized during Round 1 at Toronto (and Round 1 in Houston), and with an update to the rules that states a rolling start will be used if the Race Director aborts the standing start, drivers have one shot to get it right.
Look for most drivers to follow polesitter Dario Franchitti's plan to simply get off the line and worry about the passing and racing once they get to Turn 1.
“You don't want to be too clever tomorrow,” he said. “I'd love to do the perfect start tomorrow, but everything's new. New for Honda, new for the clutches. It's certainly new for the drivers. Let's not get too clever…get off the line and try to stay ahead in Turn 1 and get over that crazy slippery surface there before anything else.”
BROWN AND BOURDAIS DELIVER
RACER's Sunday notebook from Pocono detailed the engineering change with Sebastien Bourdais' No. 7 Dragon Racing Chevy, as series veteran Tom Brown was brought in to replace the Frenchman's longtime engineer Neil Fife. The teaming of Brown and Bourdais produced immediate results as the chrome and red car was seen running toward the front on the 2.5-mile oval, and with a change of venues to the Toronto street course, the combo came alive in qualifying, missing out on the pole by only 0.09sec.
As Brown and Bourdais showed, compared to all of the funding and personnel at Franchitti's disposal, modest resources aren't necessarily a limitation when a driver and engineer hit the sweet spot on chassis setup.
“Tom's coming with basically a fresh mindset – just was not afraid to do a lot of changes,” said Bourdais. “For the first time, we got a fast car. Still got a couple of changes to make to get it right, but it's definitely the best we've had it so far.”
Moving from Fife, who also worked with Bourdais at Dale Coyne Racing, to an engineer who has no history with the team has actually helped to accelerate the No. 7's turnaround.
“[Brown's] got a different view on the car obviously,” Bourdais continued. “I think what caught us off guard is we were so happy with the car last year that it was just tough to kind of put behind us what we thought we knew about the car with the new 2013 tires. We just could never overcome that.”
SEBRING TEST PAYS DIVIDENDS FOR TCGR
A recent test by Ganassi Racing at the Sebring short course helped the team to find the mechanical grip it had been missing with its damper program. The vastly improved cornering capabilities of the team's Honda-powered cars came to light last weekend during their podium sweep at Pocono, and played a major role today as Franchitti scored the Toronto pole and Target teammate Scott Dixon claimed sixth.
Ganassi rivals Andretti Autosport, who've had the field covered with its mechanical grip, struggled in qualifying, suggesting that the Ganassi drivers might have made significant inroads in the damper development game.
“There was a lot of ‘theory' being applied over the winter,” Franchitti explained as he raised a brow. “We went way too far down the wrong path on damping, and we saw it from the first time out at St. Pete. The car was seeing bumps on the track that weren't there…
“Then Scott went back to the 2012 dampers for the race and I stayed on the 2013 stuff and ended up in the fence! So, that gave us an idea we'd gone down the wrong path and we're now coming back to more of the 2012 stuff, but you've got to keep moving forward because everybody else is. We're getting there.”
TOUGH DAY FOR HINCH, TAGLIANI
Toronto wasn't kind to the two Canadians in the field on Friday. James Hinchcliffe (14th) and Alex Tagliani (17th) were nearly one second off of Franchitti's pole-winning time in qualifying, and will have to take some risks in order to move up the grid on Saturday.
"This is certainly not the way we wanted qualifying to go,” said Hinch, a product of nearby Oakville. “I feel bad for all the fans here; (they) deserved better than that, but we'll put our heads down tomorrow. It's a long race and I know we'll have a good car... we missed it by less than a tenth to get through (to the Firestone Fast Six) and its heart breaking to miss it by so little.
“But it's a long race and this is a track you can pass on and you can plan strategy to your advantage, so fingers crossed that when it counts when the points are paying tomorrow we'll be at the right end."
Tagliani, a native of Lachenaie, has come under fire in recent weeks as numerous crashes and poor results have the French-Canadian sitting on thin ice. [see separate story]
“We have some work to do for the race,” he admitted. “I don't think we have a handle on what we need for the Barracuda Racing car to go fast at the moment, but we're not going to give up. We just have to work at bit harder and find a way to get that pace we're looking for.”
RETURN TO FORM FOR FRANCHITTI AND SIMMONS
They're still searching for a win in 2013, but with a pole and podium in the span of a week, Dario Franchitti and his engineer Chris Simmons are finally getting back to familiar territory.
“It's been a good couple of weeks for us,” said Simmons. “We got our season back on track and there's nobody better around Toronto than Dario. We started the season on our back foot, and it has taken a while to get back to a better place.
“We made a lot of progress by Barber, actually, but we were still missing something. Now we're just fine-tuning the car instead of searching for the right setup. He was able to wring the extra tenths from the car today; he didn't get the best start to the lap, but got what he needed from it and it puts us in a good position for tomorrow.”
After three championships and a pair of Indy 500 wins with Simmons engineering the No. 10 Target car, the Scot told RACER in the video exclusive below that it was only a matter of time before normalcy returned to the program: