Since Honda cars claimed four of the top five spots in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, there has since been a lot of chatter about the Verizon IndyCar Series finding a new, level playing field.
That might be the case in terms of the engine manufacturers, but there is still a clear division in the sport between its haves and have-nots. Or more poignantly, between the big teams and the small.
Tuesday’s test at Barber Motorsports Park served as a reminder of that.
Charlie Kimball had a rough day. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver recorded Tuesday’s slowest time after a mechanical problem caused him to miss two hours of practice and collect just 27 laps worth of data. The majority of the field doubled that output.
It was a bad break, Kimball said, and while he certainly envisioned a more productive day at the track, Tuesday was not a total loss.
Kimball cited three reasons for that: the cars of Max Chilton, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.
His Ganassi teammates produced 150 laps worth of data that will be enormously helpful in Kimball’s preparation for the April 23 race at Barber.
“Tuesday was frustrating,” Kimball said, “but at the same time, Max was second quickest and Scott was seventh. We were headed in the direction of the setup they finished with. … So coming back (to Barber), we’ll try and learn as much as we can from (Chilton, Dixon and Kanaan’s cars) and set our starting setup for race weekend off what they do and then go from there.”
While there were five or six items on Kimball’s agenda that he and his team couldn’t get to, he’ll still be able to weather the storm.
For a single-car team like Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, what happened to Kimball would have been catastrophic.
“As a single-car team, time is of the essence,” said RLL’s Graham Rahal, who recorded Tuesday’s ninth-fastest time. “It always is. It’s a lot on our shoulders, on our engineers’ shoulders, to be at our best, to make sure that what we do counts.”
Graham Rahal finished second in the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park last year. (Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports)
The stress of limited testing colors everything for a one-car team. It wears on Rahal to know that while teams like Ganassi and Penske are granted reprieves if something goes wrong, that’s not a luxury he and his crew are afforded. Their margin for error is that much smaller.
“In the end, we were half decent (in Barber),” said Rahal, who is looking to bounce back at Long Beach on April 9 after a collision with Kimball caused him to finish 17th in St. Petersburg. “We should be OK, but (racing alone) is tough.”
And as for that talk of Honda and Chevrolet standing on equal ground, Rahal reminded that it’s a little early to be drawing conclusions.
“It’s looking good,” Rahal said, “but as you know that only lasts weekend to weekend. Our competitors might show up next weekend that much stronger. Having said that, I do think we’re strong. (Honda) busted their butts in the offseason, and we’re looking pretty good.
“But we’ll know (if the gap has truly closed) soon. Indy is a good gauge. If we’re still right in the hunt by Indy, we’ll be good. Indy is where I expect both (Honda and Chevrolet) to show up with absolutely the best of what they’ve got.”