MIKE HULL: DEFINING 'VALIDATION'
By Mike Hull, For RACER.com
As many of you know, we raced at Kentucky last weekend without one of our team managers, Barry Wanser. Barry has done a fantastic job for us since he came over from the NHRA in 1997. His attention to detail covers not only the primary side, but the secondary/detail level items, so his personal dedication for all aspects makes us stronger. His presence is certainly reflective of our operation. His son Michael, who is suffering from leukemia, is one of the good guys – a true reflection of what the value of family support really means. He represents the integrity of what's good and about how all of us should choose to live through a positive display of courage. For me, it will always be a reminder that life is a very fragile equation, at best.
The IZOD IndyCar Series race at Kentucky defined “validation” on more than one level for Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. Qualifying validated the fact that Charlie Kimball in the Novo Nordisk car and Graham Rahal in the Service Central machine have the same equipment and are getting the same technical information as the Target half of the team. Graham had an enormously successful qualifying effort using the same baseline as Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.
However, it also showed that if Scott and Dario had gone later in the qualifying line, they probably would have been higher up the grid, but they went fifth and sixth – and I don't care if they were Buck Rogers and Superman, they weren't going to get on the front row by running at that point in the session. Graham, however, went late, had a good setup and put us on the front row and proved we were pretty good. With ninth on the grid, and Dario right behind him, I feel it was a great performance from Charlie too; we're all really excited by his progress.
Our emphasis is obviously on winning a championship but there were several real positives for CGR at Kentucky – not least the second- and third-place finishes for Dario and Scott. I'd also say that Ed Carpenter proved what he's been capable of doing since he started in IndyCar racing – it was special to see him and his family celebrating with Sarah Fisher's group. The face of IndyCar racing is changing, with the schedule revisions sending us to population centers, so Ed's win was a great example of a USAC guy getting it done.
As you have heard, however, Dario and Scott felt like their engines were a little “off.” All the engines are supposed to be the same, with a minuscule plus or minus factor, but at the speeds and downforce levels these guys are running in qualifying, there will still be a clear distinction between the best and worst. As a team, you then have to decide if that difference is worth supporting all through the race itself. How that's defined is financially. You have the right to change your engine by posting money against it, and if you take it out and if Ilmor or HPD prove it's still within the plus/minus tolerance level and there are still miles on it, you get the engine back to refit it at a future event to finish its mileage!
So we're really happy that in 2012, as a one of the Honda teams, if we're down on power, we'll be treated in a different manner than we're currently treated. At Kentucky, Scott had an engine that wouldn't get out of its own way in the low gears on the restarts while Dario's wouldn't get out of its way on the top end. However, we're not going to stand around and say “this is the reason for this, this is the reason for that” because if you look at the overall results, it's a terrific Honda product. And people will look at our second- and third-place finishes in a fantastic motor race and think we're a bunch of whiners if we complain!
We can draw a parallel with our TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team in the Grand-Am Rolex Series. We have a great product in the BMW engine, but do we feel we're currently treated well by the rule makers? Heck no! We feel we're down on power compared to the people that we race against, but we win races and win championships, so if we complain about how BMW are being treated, we sound like we're complaining over nothing. In actual fact, that's not the case, but if it comes across that way publicly, it's self-defeating. Our guys have found ways to win with BMW the past two years now, so we'll keep pushing hard.
Speaking of Grand-Am, when you consider all the possible points permutations going into that last race at Mid-Ohio, I find it remarkable that BMW and Chevrolet ended up with the same manufacturers championship points. The manufacturer's championship had to go to the tie-breaker system established in the rule book! BMW are elated and proud to be champions: what a year for them! Think what they achieved in North America in 2011. We finished first and second with them in the Rolex 24 At Daytona; they won their class at the American Le Mans Series 12 Hours of Sebring; they won the manufacturers championship in the Grand-Am Rolex Series; they won the drivers' championship there, too; and they won the equivalent prizes in their class with the M3 in the ALMS. Effectively, BMW swept everything they participated in! Come to think of it, maybe “elated” is on the low side of how they feel about their motorsports programs this year! The cheering could be heard in Munich.
Despite the Grand-Am season ending, the guys from the TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team haven't had a lot of rest lately, because they've been working on the IndyCars, too – or more specifically, the 2012 IndyCar. It's a slightly strange situation to be doing the new car test in the 10-day gap between the penultimate round of the 2011 IndyCar season and the finale, but fortunately at CGR, we have experienced people to help get this project up and rolling. That's one of the reasons it ran flawlessly. The shop-based people helped prepare it (ex-on-the-road people, who thought that they were nine-to-five!), and then we had some of the regular IndyCar people pull double-duty at the track.
The negative stories that we heard before we'd run it were inaccurate, I can tell you that. The new Dallara was a pleasure to run and it's going to be fast in road course configuration. We haven't tried it on an oval yet, so we'll reserve judgment on that, but at Mid-Ohio, it was fun to have a car that was lighter, more nimble and has greater downforce in high-speed corners than the current car. There are things to be changed as time goes on – the weight distribution is not ideal at the moment – but the fact that the engine is tunable is going to be great for racing – that would be the most visible side of what the new car brings.
Perhaps the coolest thing about the test was that we had the Honda engineering people there with us, and the GM people were there working with Team Penske: Being in a competitive atmosphere once again and with Honda at our side is going to be a lot of fun. In addition, there was full representation from the teams that have committed to Honda and Chevy integrated into the test groups. Honda's going to be constantly trying to make their product better, and the GM people are going to be doing the same – and that edge is what's been missing from IndyCar for a long time. Even though it's a spec car, which at the moment is jammed by the rule-makers, at least engine technology will thrive.
Looking ahead to the IndyCar finale, I think we're lucky in that we did a full-scale simulation, as it were, at Kentucky…up to a point. One-and-a-half-mile oval racing is gladiator racing – wheel to wheel, hard racing, and the driver has to focus for 200 laps. He or she cannot ease up at any point, even – as was proven at Kentucky – in pit lane. There's no relief. So I think it's good that we had one of these races before the finale. Had we raced at Baltimore or Sonoma or one of the other road and street courses leading into this race, we might have gotten a false sense of security. The aero package for Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be similar to that for Kentucky, and the fact that IndyCar is allowing us a bit of extra time at the front end of the Vegas weekend and giving us time to digest what we've learned will help all of us.
But, 34 cars out there on a very fast track is kind of like dropping marbles into a funnel – they don't all come out the other side. So when the overriding priority for Dario is to finish, it does affect the thought process. However, I think if you took the time to actually worry about it, you'd never get onto the racetrack. I think that we just need to concentrate on effectively doing the things we do every day. So yes, there's a worry there, but you can't race the final round any differently than you raced the previous rounds. And in Dario's case, I bet he'll race with the same enthusiasm as he competed in his very first race.
Having three wing-men this year will help him, although I think he may have a few more out there. I know he'll also have a few “non-wingmen,” too, trying to help Will Power, so it goes both ways. However, I think sometimes these things can be overstated. When you're racing, and you've got a spotter calling shots in your ear and there are people all around you, and you're say, Graham Rahal, then helping Dario is probably not the No. 1 thing on your list. Getting through the day and proving you're the kind of driver who deserves to be out there is the priority in your mind. If Dario is around you, sure, you'll probably cut him some slack and give him a bit more space, but you're not going to do things that affect the outcome of your own race.
The fact is, for the vast majority of the drivers out there, the championship is just a race within a race and that's strictly between Dario and Will. Surrounding them will be a huge number of drivers who have a lot to prove and not much to lose. I think it will make for an exciting day, so I hope ABC will bring out all these wonderful storylines and show how intriguing, fascinating and exciting IndyCar racing can be.
In that championship battle, we know what we're up against, because we all saw Will Power's speed at Kentucky. To be perfectly honest, though, ever since I first watched Will drive a racecar, I've never been surprised at what he can do. Heck, the reason that people like you and I became fans of this sport is to watch people like Will drive racecars because it is truly enjoyable watching people with enormous natural ability get more out of a racecar than anyon else can. That's not meant as a slight against anyone who currently drives for us, nor anyone who once drove for us nor anyone who will do in the future. I mean that I savor the sight of someone with a talent that I wish I had! Watching Will at Kentucky was like that: you're watching someone of great ability taking control and getting the most out of his racecar.
However, even when you have that pace, circumstances will hardly ever allow you to dominate, particularly in oval racing, because of things like yellows and traffic. When you're the leader, you're the first person to encounter the backmarkers flailing away, and they can slow you up. Often you leave an oval race feeling like you didn't get the result you should have gotten and it's almost like it owed you! Consequently, when you see a rival driver dominate like Will did there, the overriding mental issue to work on is patience, because you want to keep the car under you for the moment when you're going to be battling with him. Because sooner or later, you will be – that's how oval racing is.
Well, just a few days to go before the showdown but I don't think we can approach it any differently. If we were 18 points behind rather than in front, we'd be doing everything that Team Penske and Will Power are doing – in other words, whatever it takes to win the championship. They're not looking at an 18-point deficit as a hurdle, I can assure you. When you have a team like that who are capable of mentally preparing themselves as well as they prepare their hardware, that's a team that is capable of winning; a very formidable opponent.
I think we go to every race ignoring the championship positions and mentally pretending that we're dead equal in points when the race begins. That's a policy that has served us very well in the past and that's how we should treat this Las Vegas race.
Thanks for reading, and hope to see you in Sin City!