CHANGE IS GOOD
Mike Hull's blog: Change is good
March 19, 2012
Chip Ganassi Racing team manager Mike Hull will be blogging for RACER.com throughout the racing season.
Let's say from the start, it's hard for me to predict anything because I can't even win on a five-dollar lotto ticket! What can be said is this: Every time we win a race, I'm always left scared that we're never going to win another one. That might sound a bit funny, a little Stephen King-ish, especially with Chip Ganassi Racing's record, but I come away thinking, “It's time to reset, as we've got to work even harder to win another race, because our closest rivals are energized to make sure it doesn't happen again!”
They say the harder you work, the luckier you get, so my prediction for the season ahead is that the people who work really hard when combined with an unselfish team ethic and with luck stirred into it, are going to win the championship. Race drivers win races, while cohesive teams of people win championships and I think that's what we all have to work hardest to achieve.
In a season of new cars and new engines, maybe people have the impression that big teams will adapt quicker to change because their resource is deeper. Certainly if we find a problem, we can react quicker to fix it. But in reality, with the rules as restrictive as they are in terms of where we can put our hands, this may not be totally true. So a lot of it comes down to effort, and a roll of the dice as we're still finding items that these days go back to IndyCar and then to Dallara for updates. In prior years, teams upgraded and solved durability issues more quickly on their own.
For instance, the new DW12 has altered pit stops for a variety of reasons, so we started practicing stops from the moment we had a car in the CGR building. If speed and consistency on track are givens among the top teams, then pit lane efficiency is what will make the difference.
And so, over the last 45 days, all four of our teams have practiced stops every time one of our drivers came in the pits. We went to the Homestead road track last week with the Nos. 9 and 10 cars while our 38 and 83 cars went to Barber along with a lot of others. Barber would have been better from a pure learning stand point for the Target cars, but without other cars at Homestead, we practiced doing long full-tank runs and “live” pit stops to get a real feel for the revisions to the pit lane and fuel tank rules without the risk of being stopped by other cars sliding off and bringing out the yellows!
Next, the tire allocation will be different this year and the DW12's fuel cell is smaller, so at most races there's going to be an extra stop compared with last year. That's why tire management and fuel strategy – combined with pit lane slickness from your over-the-wall crew guys – could well be the determining factor in the outcome of some of these races. And I think that's good, because people want to see pit stops, order changes and more strategic changes. (I hope the TV commentators can keep up with it all! Remember Long Beach in '98, when TV totally missed Alex Zanardi until the very end!)
The shape of the new car has meant the air jack location has moved from the side of the car to the rear, so the air jack operator is under the center of the rear wing, the guys fitting the rear wheels have got less hand-space around the diameter of the wheel because of the shape of the sidepod and the rear fenders, and the refueler has a bit more of an obstacle course to get to the fuel buckeye on the side of the car. During our test at Homestead, our refuelers weren't spat out the side of the car and no one was entangled in the revised air hose location, so we're proud that our crews have worked hard to be fast and efficient.
Drivers, too, practiced their pitbox entry and exits at Homestead. To simulate a race stop, we put our spare cars in the adjacent pit boxes so the drivers had the tightest entry and exit to maneuver. The launch is probably a bit more complicated than the getting in, because the drivers have the hand clutch on the steering wheel; instead of a clutch pedal, they're operating that at the same time as they're turning the wheel to exit the box while lighting the tires, so they're one-handing the turn part of the steering as they depart. Seldom do you get a straight exit, so this might be a potential area for hiccups this year.
But then, the drivers have had a lot to adapt to with these new cars. We interacted with IndyCar Dallara on Dario Franchitti's pedal box to adjust it to suit right-foot brakers, and I hope that will benefit other teams, too – KV, for example, as our understanding is that Rubens Barrichello is another right-footer. [IndyCar vp of technology] Will Phillips worked hard with Dallara because he realized the importance of not punishing anyone, because these drivers have lived their whole lives with a certain driving style and so the new pedal box is now a “spec option” for all teams. Dario made a comment along the lines of, “No one's going to suddenly tell Phil Mickelson to become a right-handed golfer, so why should someone prevent you driving the way that comes naturally?”
Initially, adapting to the car didn't come easy for Scott Dixon, either, as far as its basic handling is concerned. For those still paying attention, Scott hates push, so getting it right for him has been fun. But Eric, Rick and the group worked really hard on the balance of the car and the settings we have available to us – suspension and dampers in particular – and that has helped us tailor the car to suit all four of our drivers – Scott and Dario in the Target cars, Graham Rahal in the Service Central car and Charlie Kimball in the Novo Nordisk car.
I think we're now in a position with Scott where it's favorable. But you've got to remember that everyone is in the same boat: every driver is dealing with a new racecar. Maybe Rubens' situation is best, with major open-wheel racing experience but coming in totally cold to this series, with no preconceived notion of what an IndyCar should be.
It's my belief that drivers create an advantage by having an open mind and that's much more useful than previous experience when it comes time to adjust to a new car. Drivers who watch their fellow competitors, and listen to what the engineers, mechanics and teammates are talking about achieve the most. They don't allow anything to jade them into becoming one-track in their thought process. Being open to change is vital in all aspects of life. Graham and Charlie, for example, are refreshing, as young guys who soak up everything around them without hesitation – and that will make them successful. That precisely parallels Scott's and Dario's ethic. Having youth at the wheel is a great reminder to all of us that it's important to remember where you came from.
Carbon brakes are another feature of the new car that required adjustment from all of us, not just the drivers. They were a little bit of an issue at first but we've finally started to understand their heat properties, the kind of ducting they need plus the best driving style. At the beginning the team owners were told that a team could do the entire season on two or maybe three sets of rotors, based upon the full-season mileage allocation, and I'm not really sure that's the case. But then, the parts situation is going to be quite an adventure in itself because Dallara is still producing the spares and we have four street and road races at the front end of the schedule.
What I'm thinking is that we may need to bring Michael Johnson out of retirement to stand in our pitbox in his cleats, so if our car hits the fence, he takes a list of the parts we need and sprints to Dallara's spares truck so we're first in line! In reality, that's what's going to make or break you – enough components so you can build your racecar in advance of the next race.
Another interesting thing is that, because everything's late, a lot of people haven't been able to properly run their spare cars, so you've got to hope the “personality” of your spare car matches that of your main racecar. It's not like NASCAR where, for each of the best-funded entries, there are several cars for short ovals, superspeedways, road courses and so on, because they have so many back-to-back races. We have to rely on our given racecar to get us through stretches of back to back events, so if we're down a car, it really creates a lot of issues for us.
Imagine if a Cup team had two cars per driver or a proportional amount to IndyCar teams. To put it into perspective, they have 36 events versus our 16, so imagine if a Cup team had only four cars per entry – that would be a tough one for their teams when the fence got in the way.
That being said, I think people have a basic misconception about Dallara and so the company has taken some unfair criticism over the winter. Dallara is an engineering company that produces racecars; they're not a racecar company that produces racecars. By that I mean they create a great product and get the cars out there in the customers' hands. Then they engineer solutions to problems that arise.
Here's the difference: if you tour Dallara, what you'll find is they have a whole room full of engineers – well over 70 of them – plus multiple wind tunnels, and all the other research devices to help them design proper racecars. On the shop floor, an efficient staff manufactures items on a prototype basis and then the tooling is sent to sub-contractors who manufacture the production parts. By contrast, if you went to the UK to visit a production racecar manufacturing facility, it's almost the opposite. The majority of the employees are on the shop floor building the cars as a manufacturing rather than a prototype group, and the engineering staff is far smaller. So once those cars are sent out the door, and teams start running them, a smaller engineering staff means that it takes the company longer to react to necessary design changes.
Dallara, I think, does it the right way for building a spec chassis. Their priority is getting it in customers' hands and then they must be very open and receptive to the customer's feedback and react swiftly to adjustments that need to be made. An example was the oval weight distribution issue that arose early in the winter. They took feedback from the teams (one of them was ours) and from IndyCar and reacted to it, and they went away to change the DW12 accordingly. That's a real life example of what Dallara does best and I firmly believe that's what they'll continue to do throughout the year. You've got to appreciate, there's never been a turnkey customer car out there that didn't require changes; a new car couldn't possibly be completely right out of the box. You just hope that when the lid on the box opens all of the parts are there!
Despite the fact that the off-season has been so hectic, it's been better than the past few winters as IndyCar opened the test rules, and all of the teams actually had the opportunity to be at the racetrack. But I confess that I am still disappointed that IndyCar didn't approve independent aero kits this year. I understand why it was postponed in that it was a financial issue for the smaller teams, but my personal feeling is that aero kits should have been introduced at this year's Indy 500. There was time to make it happen, if there had been consensus – it was discussed in the owners meeting in Brazil last year, so it could have happened. There would probably have been a six-month development time to go from concept to prototype to testing to real aero kit and I think IndyCar Series needs that visual brand identification for the engine manufacturers as soon as possible. More importantly, it would have improved the performance of the DW12 on ovals.
Still, that's water under the bridge now, so let's focus on the season ahead. As I said at the start of the blog, I'm not making predictions because we have very little comparable data to work from. All three of the engine suppliers had to present for approval their final homologated design just a couple of weeks ago. Unlike Lotus, Honda and GM have been working all winter, as they went through several phases of product to reach their current state. So what was seen last November, December, January, February and even early March were not the final internal specifications of the engines, turbos, exhausts, mapping, and the rest. Right in the middle of engine development came the introduction of the spec ECU with software that's been changing daily, so it's been a lot to achieve in a condensed period of time. Honda and GM were working through durability- and performance-enhancing modifications right up to the last minute, so even at the Sebring Open Test, two weeks ago, you weren't seeing all the cars running the same spec engines as there weren't enough of the right parts
Also, remember that Sebring wasn't entirely reflective of everyone's merits, because the field was divided in half and run 48 hours apart. Our four cars ran on the third and fourth days and we've never seen so much rubber laid down at any Sebring test! The baseline you did have was that at least everyone was on the same tire, so there was a fair comparison between teammates and rivals on a given day. That wasn't the case at the Barber test, for instance. Firestone, in order to accommodate all the competitors, mixed the tires up a bit to make it fair, so that everyone would have tires to test, so there were Barber-spec tires from last year, Sonoma-spec tires and Motegi road course tires. At most tests, you could be sitting in the pits and suddenly someone says, “Hey, Driver X just went one second faster,” and you'd be left wondering, “Well is that driver's car so much better or is he on the Motegi tires?”
It's intriguing, it really is. There is a real positive buzz for the season, and last week while in St. Pete, you could feel the excitement downtown. Hope that all of you Spring Breakers will break away from your cabanas and watch us on Sunday.
Finally, at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, we're going to see a new Race Control management group, everyone on the same tires, everyone with their ultimate spec engines, so we'll get an idea of where we stand relative to each other. Not knowing that until we get to the first round is exciting for the fans, but exciting and nerve-wracking for us!
Thanks for reading. I'll get back to you soon.