GANASSI’S SURPRISING NON-SURPRISE
Rumors of the Chip Ganassi Racing team’s interest in switching camps from Honda to Chevy have been circulating for more than a year, making Friday’s confirmation of Ganassi-bound Tony Kanaan and the Chip’s Bowtie twin-turbo V6 engines for 2014 an interesting proposition.
Chatter about the move to Chevy intensified over the past week, yet the final decision by Ganassi to part ways with Honda was kept from the manufacturer until late Thursday night. RACER confirmed Ganassi and Honda were negotiating for an extension to their two-year deal, but the 2012 Indy 500 winners learned their most successful team would be joining the likes of Team Penske and Andretti Autosport on GM’s IndyCar roster at 9:30 p.m. last night.
The news also appeared to catch some of the Ganassi drivers off-guard, with the best example coming from Kanaan, who texted one member of Honda’s PR this team saying how happy he was to be back in the family.
Four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti took the news in a more personal manner, sharing a note of gratitude for Honda’s role throughout his career.
“While I’m very excited about our new partnership with Chevrolet next year, I really want to thank all of my friends at Honda for their hard work over the last 15 years,” he wrote via Twitter. “It’s been a lot of fun! Every IndyCar race and championship I’ve won has been with Honda power. I’m very proud of that and the friendships I’ve made which will continue long after I’ve stopped driving racing cars.”
Conjecture regarding Honda’s next move one to tip the balance back to a more equitable position dominated the afternoon, and with many possible scenarios in play, RACER will cover that topic in a separate feature.
BETTER THAN NEW ORLEANS
What everyone expected to happened did happen in Houston. With a narrow window to erect the track in and around Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans NFL team which played at home Sunday afternoon, the start of Friday’s opening IndyCar practice was delayed by 2.5 hours when track grinding was required on the front straight.
Those who recall Baltimore’s first day of activity in 2011 might remember a similar delay for a similar problem cars launching on the front straight and surface grinding being required to solve the problem. Baltimore’s delay was something on the order of four hours, but as one racing veteran remarked, “It’s better than the IMSA street race at New Orleans (in 1992). They didn’t get the track done until Saturday”
Just as the grinding proved insufficient at Baltimore (which led to a chicane being installed to slow the cars before running over the train tracks), a temporary tire chicane was installed in Houston to achieve the same result.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s Josef Newgarden was the first to make contact at the chicane, damaging the right side of the Strike-liveried No. 67 Honda, and 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay soon followed, bending the suspension of his No. 1 DHL Chevy. Track officials plan to continue the grinding overnight, and if they are successful, the tire chicane will be removed, giving cars a longer run to the first proper chicane at Turn 2. Based on the number of spins and bypasses made in that single-line section Friday, it could make Baltimore’s narrow Turn 1 look like a 10-lane highway. If carnage happens in either of this weekend’s 90-lap races, Turn 2 has all the ingredients for mayhem.
Friday’s planned qualifying session was moved to Saturday morning where drivers will get their first chance to run on the new front straight. With 12 minutes to set a time for both groups, teams won’t have time to make gear ratio or major setup changes if they are needed.
Frequent yellow and red flags on Friday also prevented teams from doing long runs, which could make it hard for some entrants to get an exact feel for fuel consumption figures and tire consumption rates. It all adds up to Houston Round 1 having more questions than answers for teams and drivers, and as we’ve seen in similar situations this year where limited track time was available, the race could be anything but predictable.
With a championship on the line, Saturday’s race will be one to watch.
TAKE ME BACK TO 2007
The first running of the Houston Grand Prix, held from 2006-’07, provided lots of passing opportunities for the Champ Car drivers and a layout that flowed. The 2013 version of the track, held on the same configuration around Reliant Stadium, is a far cry from what some IndyCar drivers had expected.
Gone are the open-radius corners, forcing drivers to make slower entries and exits, according to Team Penske’s Will Power, who posted the second-fastest lap of the day.
“They tightened all the corners up too much,” said the Aussie who finished seventh and 11th in two tries on the 1.7-mile circuit. “It will make passing really hard. Maybe you can pass in Turn 1, but they should have left big corner entries to create passing zones.”
Power’s former Team Australia teammate Simon Pagenaud, who participated in the 2007 Houston event, offered a similar view of the track.
“It’s now a small track; it feels like it is in a parking lot,” said the Schmidt Hamilton Racing driver. “It’s definitely a different track to drive than when we were here the last time, but you have to deal with the challenges and make the right changes that suit your car. It’s the same for everybody, so we all have to deal with what we’re given.”
Event promoter Mike Lanigan confirmed the event will not only return next year as a double-header, but could be held in cooler conditions, provided lighting can be added. “Yes, we’re investigating a night race,” said Lanigan, who co-owns the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.
GLOW TURNS TO FIRE
With temperatures closing in on 90 degrees, adequate cooling for IndyCar’s spec Brembo brakes proved to be an issue for some drivers on Friday, while others complained they were unable to get enough temperature into their braking systems.
“We were down almost 200 degrees at the rear and the fronts were running cool, too,” said Graham Rahal. “We’ve been really good that way all year, and I wish I knew why, but it’s going to help around here.”
Most teams used the largest brake ducts Dallara offers, but for some, it wasn’t enough.
“My brakes lasted five laps,” said Will Power, who pitted at the conclusion of the first practice session and watched as a small brake fire broke out. “We’re cooking them, but my guys will get it sorted out. We’ve got the new [big] ducts on, but it’s still hasn’t been enough.”
Many drivers complained of being unable to generate brake temperature during their first few laps, which could also be an issue as the field charges into the Turn 2 chicane and looks for stopping power.
“I had a hard brake pedal,” said Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson, who topped the time charts on Friday, of his first few laps of an outing. “But the car wasn’t stopping.”
BUSINESS AS USUAL FOR DIXON
Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon needs to have a phenomenal weekend to catch and possibly pass points leader Helio Castroneves, but as he told RACER, he won’t be trying anything out of the ordinary during the double-header.
“I just have to go as hard as I can the entire time, get all the points I can,” he said. “But that’s really no different than any weekend, if I’m to be honest. It’s not like we don’t try to win every race, so there’s not a lot more trying to do. We’ll give it everything and see where we end up. Hopefully, it’s ahead of Helio.”
NEW LID FOR SIMON
Pagenaud’s familiar red helmet was noticeable absent Friday afternoon when the Indy cars ventured out for their first session. The Frenchman, who holds third in the championship, had a new lid black with white piping that was designed to keep him in a competitive mindset with the title on the line.
“It’s my war helmet,” he said with a bright smile. “I wanted something new, something meaner, to take with me as we try to get this championship.”
Practicality, due to the soaring temperatures and humidity, made the Frenchman leave the black lid behind when he returned for the second practice session.
“It’s too hot!” he added. “I like the idea of the black helmet, but maybe I’ll have to save it for Fontana where the sun shouldn’t make it so hot for me”