Five lessons and questions from IndyCar in Texas

David Malsher-Lopez

Why Ganassi excelled

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IndyCar

Towards the end of the 2018 season, the first with the current aerokit, Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda had a thorough rethink of its roadcourse setups, feeling Andretti Autosport and Team Penske had edged ahead packages. None of the team is likely to go into specifics until Scott Dixon retires or at least until the current spec chassis is ditched, but race engineer Chris Simmons and technical director Julian Robertson got their heads down and started thinking outside the box and came up with a slight shift in philosophy that would require a slight shift in Dixon’s driving style. All produced the goods, the changes worked and the end result was enough to ensure Dixon sealed the championship.

By the end of last season, in which Dixon finished ‘only’ fourth in the title race, the team’s new bugbear had become inconsistency on oval tracks. It wasn’t that Ganassi cars were poor, but they weren’t guaranteed to be exceptional across the five ovals on the schedule – Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Iowa Speeday, Pocono (as was), and Gateway’s World Wide Technology Raceway.

One team that definitely had looked rather fine on ovals in 2018 and ’19 was Dale Coyne Racing, and DCR driver Santino Ferrucci’s race engineer Michael Cannon – a serious fan of Dixon – was available… And, lo, it came to pass: last fall, Simmons moved up to the competition manager role, Cannon was drafted in as his replacement on Ganassi’s famous #9, and between them and Robertson, they have spent this artificially elongated off-season focused on ovals. Last Saturday’s performance by Dixon would suggest it paid off – handsomely.

“I know we'd been working extremely hard on just trying to fix some of the issues we had last year,” said a delighted Dixon post-race. “We have some new people, plus a ton coming back over from the GT program. The engineering depth and everything got a lot stronger, so development was good through the winter…”

While Dixon was nipped to pole position by a great effort from Penske-Chevrolet’s reigning champion Josef Newgarden, come the race, no one looked in Dixon’s class. He looked comfortable tracking Newgarden for most of the first stint, and as the Tennessee native started complaining of tire chattering, Scott took command. A slightly tardy pitstop dropped him back behind Newgarden at one stage but a brave pass into Turn 1 on Lap 91 resolved the issue and he pulled away with ease.

In fact, Dixon’s toughest opposition in the final quarter of the 200-lap race was teammate and series sophomore Felix Rosenqvist, and the Swede shouldn’t take it ill when I say that his performance provided the biggest indicator that Ganassi was in a league of its own at TMS. Dixon, now with 47 wins to his name, is someone we long ago realized could excel in pretty much any circumstance. Rosenqvist, probably the most versatile 20-something in motorsports, struggled on ovals last year, and while we expect development and self-improvement from this exceptional young man in every off-season, seeing him rocket past the likes of Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud and then leave them for dead was still unexpected.

That he then threw it away with a heat-of-the-moment attempt to lap the tardy James Hinchcliffe will not have gone down well at CGR, but dammit, Rosenqvist is a racer who felt a potential win was in the air because he had been closing on Dixon. As an onlooker, I give Felix credit for not just settling for an easy runner-up finish – but equally, I would understand bill-payer Mr. Ganassi not sharing that view…

Regarding how Ganassi had reached its position of supremacy at TMS, the most intriguing insight came from Dixon after the race.

“The DIL, the simulator with Honda that we've been using for the last three weeks in preparation for Texas, has been really good,” said the five-time IndyCar champion. “Lots of things we didn't think we would try or have the time to try on track, we were able to do that. Gave us some ideas. We were able to sort of verify them once we got here.

“We worked pretty hard on trying to calm the entry and exits, especially of Turns 1 and 2, from last year. That's what got really tricky. I think [Colton] Herta last year was really good. He was able to sit a little bit high, arc that corner a lot more than we were able to.

“[So] we worked on that a lot in the simulator. We found some things that seemed to work. You never know if that's going to work in real life [but] as we rolled off, it did straightaway. The car felt really secure.

“The car just had some really good speed. It was just nice to drive in traffic. Never really had to push too hard. Not often you get a car like that.”

Dixon then returned to one of his pre-event narratives – that he felt the series had overreacted to the ‘unknown’ of the 2019 Firestone tires on cars with a new aeroscreen-affected center of gravity, when it imposed a 35-lap limit per set. He was probably exaggerating when he commented, “I think we could have gone 65 laps!” but on a night when two of the Penske drivers struggled to keep their tires under them, Scott could be forgiven for throwing salt in his rivals’ wounds. He clearly believed before they arrived at Texas that Ganassi had the edge on tire management – and even when abiding by the series-imposed stint length limit, he was proven right. Dixon, Simmons, Cannon and Robertson have again proven that the best can stay the best if they continue to investigate, learn and apply their findings.

What happened to Penske?

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IndyCar

If Ganassi shone, Penske flattered to deceive – which may, on the face of it, sound a curious statement given that its three cars qualified 1-3-6 and two of them finished on the podium. However, the fact that first Newgarden and then Pagenaud suffered tire issues despite the reduced stint lengths suggest the team has much work to do.

“We were not very good,” said Newgarden. “Early on I was doing everything I could to keep Scott behind. He was way quicker. I think we had good speed in the car. Team Chevy did a great job for us. We just did not have a perfect handle on what we needed over a full stint. We'll be working hard to come back and make sure we understand why that was.

“Honestly, tonight for me was a night of hanging on. I was doing everything I could just to try to stay up front… It's one of those nights you just got to kind of swallow your pride…

“We had amazing stops. We kept fighting and trying to create a strategy to keep me up front even though I wasn't very good throughout a tire stint. Third place for us feels almost like a win tonight.”

Later on, asked about the challenges of having the event compressed into one day, Newgarden commented: “The hardest part for me was thinking that we made the right decisions going into the race, and about 15 laps in realizing that we were horribly off the mark! I think if there was more practice, more of a lead-up to this event, we would have had some clues to point out maybe we weren't as strong as we thought we were going into the race.”

Later he added that the calculations based around the effect of aeroscreen weight on tire degradation meant that he and race engineer Gavin Ward “took a little bit of a guess on our car. It didn't come out as a winning guess. It at least gives us a direction. We're going to work with it and figure out what's best for it.”

Interestingly, Pagenaud said he and race engineer Ben Bretzman entered the race with a quite different philosophy.

“We decided to restart with what we had last year because there were too many unknowns,” said the 2019 Indy 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar champion. “The car has changed a lot technically. The tires obviously seeing a very different effort, I would say. Obviously, the degradation factor was different than what we expected.

“When you only have an hour and a half of testing, you only have time for three changes, quick fixes, but it's not like you can reinvent the wheel and go into qualifying and race with something you haven't even tested on track. It was pretty much a day today where you had to unload good to win the race. I think we were OK – we were actually getting pretty good at the end. Just ran a bit out of time. But overall I think we maximized what we had.”

It would have been interesting to see if their teammate Will Power might have ended up second (no one’s kidding anyone that we had the right winner) because he didn’t suffer the same tire issues as Newgarden and Pagenaud and felt his car was good – albeit while running a tick off their pace at the start of stints, in order not to drive in the dirty air of other cars. That sort of tire management tactic might have paid dividends, but of course Power’s efforts were nullified by a pitstop in which the right-rear tire changer fumbled and the #12 Verizon Penske was sent on its way before said crewman had finished his task.

Why were Hunter-Reay, Rossi and Rahal neutralized before the race had even begun?

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IndyCar

Luck is something difficult to define with top-rank racecar drivers. The big picture view is that they have wonderful and devoted families, they get to do something that they love and they have proven successful at it, and they are well remunerated. But in racing terms there are two current IndyCar drivers who are about as fortunate as stowaways on the Titanic. One is Power, whose latest disappointment we’ve already covered, and the other is fellow champion and fellow Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.

RHR shunted his Andretti Autosport in practice last Saturday, but displaying an admirable confidence turnaround since his dispiriting 2019, he bounced back to qualify fourth. Then he, teammate Alexander Rossi (who was to start eighth) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal (qualified seventh) found their Honda engines wouldn’t start on the dummy grid. Due to social distancing rules, neither Honda nor Chevrolet engineers were allowed to attend to their engines and plug in their laptops for the startup procedures, so there was no way to swiftly resolve the issue.

Allen Miller, HPD race team leader, explained: "The problem is the result of a software communication issue between the Honda electronics and Cosworth’s ECU that sometimes arises during the startup procedure. While not a frequent problem, it is something that has occurred previously. Our engineers are aware of the issue, and had they been in their normal position at the car for the engine start, could have quickly resolved it.”

While Hunter-Reay’s and Rossi’s crew swapped out their cars’ ECUs on the dummy grid on pitlane, RLLR pulled Rahal’s car back to the pitbox to have a Honda engineer reset the electronics and fire up the engine. Unfortunately, all three cases breached IndyCar’s parc fermerule preventing work on cars between qualifying and the start of the race in this one-day event. All three were therefore assessed drive-through penalties, and Rossi’s delay was exacerbated by then speeding on pitlane and having to serve another drive through. Although Hunter-Reay eventually recovered to clinch eighth place, Rossi could only salvage 16th. 2016 Texas winner Rahal was a further place behind, having also served a stop-and-go penalty for exceeding the 35-lap tire stint limit.

Hunter-Reay, whose race thereafter appeared faultless, still probably couldn’t have tackled Dixon – but nor can one dismiss the idea, either. On his best days, RHR is as good as anyone, and given cleaner air near the front of the pack and his traditionally brave approach to oval racing – any racing, in fact – he might have been a victory contender. At the very least, he could have landed a podium given the Penske drivers’ issues, and while Zach Veach upheld Andretti Autosport honor with fourth place, one suspects that Ryan could have gone at least one and maybe two places better.

Why was Texas Motor Speedway a one-groove racetrack?

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IndyCar

Traction goo – OK, officially it’s called PJ1 TrackBite – has been applied to the turns on various ovals over the past couple years, primarily to enable NASCAR cars to run more than one groove. Any racing purist will feel their gorge rising at such impure ways to tease passing opportunities from elite racers, but that’s where we are as a sport – meritocracy is less important than the ability to ‘put on a show’. A rant for another day, perhaps…

Anyhow, Texas Motor Speedway applied PJ1 last November on the eve of the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup race, and while it apparently proved beneficial that night, more than seven months later it was deemed the culprit for effectively halving the racing surface on this 1.5-mile oval.

I’ve witnessed terrifyingly close pack racing at TMS, I’ve seen drone-a-thons and I’ve also been there for races where each driver was rewarded according to his abilities, his car’s speed, his crew’s slickness and his team’s tactics on the night – in other words, how it should be. But I don’t recall any Texas IndyCar race resulting in legitimate accusations that the track was to blame for a fast driver being unable to pass a slow driver. Given PJ1’s purpose, it’s beyond irony if it was indeed the cause of IndyCars being unable to run side-by-side through the turns, yet track president Eddie Gossage suggested this was the case.

“From what they tell me, heat activates PJ1, whether that be the sun or hot tires,” he told Motorsport.com. “None has been applied to the track since November and we used a tractor with a brush on it extensively last week, which is always the case with the entire track. It’s routine for us to clean and prep the track.

“But [PJ1] stains the track. James Hinchcliffe suggested to me that it was the color and not a substance on the asphalt that was the difference. He said the untreated area is much lighter, so it remains cooler than the dark, treated surface.”

It must be said that some drivers did feel that the track was still exuding ooze in these patches, however, and that opinion was lent credence by Ed Carpenter’s utterly bizarre – and thankfully harmless – spin while driving almost in a straight line during practice. Consequently, drivers tended to steer clear of the dark patches, or only ran half a tire width up there, and only when their tires were fresh.

It seems unduly harsh to slam the venue on this occasion, as it will likely be a one-off problem. One of Gossage’s top priorities has always been the quality of the racing at his track, and if he thinks that one series’ solution to an issue is harming another event – especially one that is already a harder sell – he’ll find a remedy. The passing problem should prove to be just a passing problem.

Was this one-day event a blueprint for the future?

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IndyCar

Over the last dozen years, there have been several calls for IndyCar to compress its oval events into one day, should there be few support races or none at all. The benefits are obvious in that the venue only has to hire spectator-control staff for one day, and those spectators get to see their heroes on track for several hours – practice, qualifying and the race itself. For the teams it means a cut in accommodation costs, assuming the drivers and crews arrive the day before the event and leave the day after.

But the nature of last Saturday’s event with several team members flying in and out in one 24-hour period, thereby avoiding the need for overnight accommodation, will not be the way forward in the post-pandemic world.

Even aside from personnel of all kinds being overworked in high heat, the scheduling for Texas was just too compressed with only two hours between the end of one session and the start of the next. Of course, there was no way around that in this very unusual instance, given that the charter from Indianapolis only took off at 6am.

But Takuma Sato’s shunt in qualifying and inability to join the grid as a consequence, reminded everyone why IndyCar oval events have traditionally been left as two-day affairs, with no action on the day of the race. Oval shunts tend to be high-speed and therefore more damaging, therefore requiring more repair work from their crews. Three hours between IndyCar sessions would probably be just enough to make a difference for the teams should they need to repair a car or build up their spare and send it through Tech – and would be ample for running Road To Indy support races.

So yes, with those provisos, there’s no doubt that a one-day show is feasible at certain venues and could be a huge boon for the fan who gets five hours of IndyCar action and three hours of support race action. It’s definitely worth considering.

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IndyCar