INSIGHT: Ganassi's IndyCar driver search, manufacturer change process

INSIGHT: Ganassi's IndyCar driver search, manufacturer change process


INSIGHT: Ganassi's IndyCar driver search, manufacturer change process


No time to relax for Hull, series champ Scott Dixon and his-to-be-determined teammate this winter. (LAT photos)

With a high-profile driver search under way and a new engine partner to work with, Chip Ganassi Racing is having a far busier off-season than anyone at the Indianapolis-based IndyCar program had expected.

The longer-term project of switching from Honda to Chevy power is an interesting one, based on the close ties that were formed between Ganassi and the Japanese brand. After two years of serving as its anchor team, the move to the Ilmor-built Chevys involves a lot more than simply unbolting the Honda from its four entries and plugging in new Bowties, according to Ganassi managing director Mike Hull, and involves a widespread adaptation throughout the entire organization.

?I don’t know that it’s a hardware process as much as it is an interchange of culture and methodology for how each of us do what we do; how Chip Ganassi does what he does and how Chevrolet do what they do,? Hull told RACER. ?It’s melding those two things together in terms of the operational way that things happen. And making sure as quickly as possible that the lines of communication are absolutely open. That’s what you really work on.

?From the practical side, our team members will install the engines, they’ll install the turbo systems, and all the hardware that’s related to it. And our engineers will work on the software side, what needs to happen with Chevrolet to ensure that the engine’s going to run. But it’s a matter of understanding the philosophy of how we manage the process; that is where we don’t want there to be time lost. So I think that’s what you work on the hardest. It’s as simple as that.?

After parting ways with Toyota at the conclusion of the 2005 IndyCar season, Ganassi Racing spent eight years with Honda, forging close bonds with the team from Honda Performance Development. Of all the tasks on Hull’s plate during the off-season, figuring out the best practices and interaction styles with the team from Ilmor and GM Racing could require the greatest amount of attention.

?I think in one sentence you would still simply say, I used this ” and I saw it this morning in writing ” it’s ?eyes wide open,’ he explained. ?That’s what this is. It’s eyes wide open. And what that means to me, the definition of that is: Listen and learn together. And learn from each other without having preconceived ideas. The faster you can do that with any partner, the faster you’re going to be on the racetrack. So that’s how I look at it. That served us well over time.

?And, let’s face it, Honda is a very professional organization and they deal with their problems and issues in a very similar manner as other manufacturers do. We’ve had their way of doing things as a big part of how go about our business. But with this change, it’s just a matter of understanding the principles involved, the people, the key players and how you solve problems together. That’s where you want to make sure that you don’t get left behind. That’s the thing you work on first. And that’s what we’ve been working on is to be actively involved with them throughout this change process.?

Dario Franchitti’s retirement earlier this month has added another significant process for Hull to manage. The team had been planning to conduct its first test with Chevy at Sebring prior to the Scot hanging up his helmet, and will continue as scheduled with all four cars set to turn laps on Dec. 4.

?Our test plan is still going forward, so that hasn’t really changed, and we’ll have Alex [Tagliani] doing the testing in the 10 car,? Hull confirmed. ?Really, the only variable to that, in terms of the 10 car, would simply be we don’t have a decision at all on who will slot in for next season, I can tell you that. But once a decision is made, the decision is either going to be one or the other.

?What it’s going to be, it’s going to be a very experienced driver that could step right into the 10 car and just follow the test plan. Or it’s going to be a driver most likely chosen from a track test where we do a comparative analysis of a couple of ” I don’t know how many drivers, I don’t even want to say at this point ” but either way, honestly, we have a pretty good test plan organized for going to the team tests. That’s what we’ll concentrate on, no matter what.”Conducting driver shootouts to evaluate and select a driver nothing new for the Ganassi Indy car team. Its most famous shootout took place late in 1995 at Homestead where Jeff Krosnoff and Alessandro Zanardi vied for the seat formerly occupied by Bryan Herta, leading the Italian (LEFT) to author one of the Target program’s richest eras.

Ganassi and Hull have a clear idea of what they’re looking for with Franchitti’s replacement, and certainly aren’t lacking in options.

?The total number of people that somehow or other have been contacted or we’ve been in contact with ” I’d say probably 50 legitimate people,? said Hull. ?I use the word ‘legitimate’ meaning people who would be qualified to drive an Indy car. Fully qualified. The global response that we have, I’ve been amazed about, quite honestly. There’s some really what I consider to be very talented people that have reached out, and it’s an odd situation.?

Plenty of drivers have been mentioned as candidates for the No. 10 Target Chevy, including ex-McLaren Formula 1 driver Sergio Perez (LEFT), Franchitti’s cousin, Force India driver Paul di Resta (RIGHT), and others from across the pond. While the road and street course talents of a top-tier European open-wheeler would be easy to quantify, the demands of oval racing, at least as Hull sees it, could be a limiting factor when whittling down the team’s options.

?I think a lot of drivers that drive big cars overseas are trying to get to Formula 1, but Formula 1 only has 22 seats, right?? he remarked. ?So I don’t know how many of those drivers pay to drive a Formula 1 car or how many get paid to drive a Formula 1 car, but I know it’s become more common in recent years. I can say, of those people that called us, not one person has offered us a dime to drive the car. But because there’s only 22 seats in Formula 1, it’s no different than what we do in the United States.

?There’s only so many spaces for people to sit in over there. By the time a driver gets to that level, I think the driver, for the most part, is very, very talented. The thing that we have that’s unique to what we do in the United States is the fact that we run ovals. And as talented as road course drivers are, ovals are very difficult to get right and clearly take time to figure out. I’m not saying a top driver from GP2 or Formula 1 can’t pick up ovals quickly, but there’s a greater learning process, by default, that’s going to be required.?

Hull recounted an interesting exchange with a driver who recently graduated to the IndyCar Series and found the differences at every level of competition to be far different than what he experienced in Europe.

?There was a driver I spoke to last year after Indy and I said, ?What’s the biggest difference that you’ve found after coming to IndyCar?’ and in a way, I was surprised by some of the answers,? Hull noted. ?He said, first of all, he didn’t realize until after the first couple of races how physically demanding that it is by comparison or in parallel to his workout program. He’s kind of a workout freak. He works really, really hard and he said, because of the intensity and length of the races, he had to change his workout program? and he wasn’t really up to speed with that workout program for about 90 days from the time he started.

?So there’s one denominator right there. Anybody that comes from an open-wheel series where you run sprint races, you suddenly get into the car and as he said, it’s the physical demand ” his torso, his arms, his hands, with the loads that come back through the steering wheel toward his torso ” that he had no idea how much strength he needed there. So that’s one thing.

?So you could take the F1 guy that runs at the front of the grid, I guarantee you, he would have a problem at the very beginning. We take that for granted. And our guys, with their workout program, they work out on the cardio side but they also workout on the physical strength side that then allows them the endurance they need to drive the racecar. Our cars are heavier, they run without power steering and they require muscles, real muscles to operate at the highest levels.?If Hull’s story reveals a bit of what the Ganassi team might (or might not) be looking for with its next driver, the exchange also gave some insight on the mental fortitude required to earn a place within the close-knit outfit.

?He went on to say that there’s no break during the races,? Hull added. ?He said it’s wheel-to-wheel action, no matter where you’re racing, when you come into the pits, when you come out of the pits, whatever your matched up with, whether it be an oval or road track, he said, ?I really underestimated how mentally strong you needed to be.’ He said, ?There’s never a break. You never have a chance to just drive for a portion of a lap and think about what you just did. You’re on it all the time.’ He said it’s so different than what he expected.

?So that made me think since then, when you look at drivers, no matter what series they’re in, what that leap will actually be for them. You can be a champion in one series, but that doesn’t automatically mean it will translate here ” at least not right away. And I think that’s one of the reasons that race teams prefer to hire drivers who are currently driving in the series if they can. Because the learning curve isn’t just learning the tracks, the cars; it’s learning everything and raising your game to what it takes to become an IndyCar Series champion.?

It’s too early to know whether Ganassi Racing will opt for a veteran or go the route of a shootout, but Hull will continue to refine the decision-making process until the team arrives at a definitive path to follow.

?I don’t know how to talk to the drivers that we talk to globally or the drivers from North America and give them a solid answer on where we’re headed at this point,? he said. ?I think there’s a lot of talented drivers out there and there’s a lot of purists, IndyCar purists, that want you to hire an American driver. A lot of IndyCar purists feel that you should give somebody an opportunity that has shown their work, but hasn’t really been in the right car yet. And there’s some people that just enjoy the fact that the best racers in the world should be driving the best racecars. 

?So, because of all that, you get hit with all of those people, drivers that fall into those categories and those situations, and I don’t know how to weed through some of the people that have talked to us because I think, in fairness, it would be great to see every one of them succeed in IndyCar racing; we’d be better and our fan base would be more broad-based when we were done. It’s not a decision we’re taking lightly, and it’s not one we’re going to rush into. We have far more good choices than bad, and that complicates the matter, but it’s a problem you don’t mind having.?

For the short-term work list, the Dec. 4 test will allow Hull and the rest of the team to get a feel for how its three full-time drivers interact, and will also give the Ganassi squad another chance to work with Tagliani, who is among the candidates to replace Franchitti next season.

?If you think about it, Charlie Kimball, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, it’s three varied driving styles that we’ll be able to use comparative data to analyze, based on some of the things we learned as the season moved on, particularly in the latter part of the season, which we haven’t really had a chance to do proper (comparisons) on.

?So we’ll just have a pretty defined test plan with three different drive styles, so we’ll see where we are at the end of the day. This is also to get an understanding on Chevy’s 2013 engine to prepare ourselves for their new engine, but we’re not sure when we’ll head back to Sebring for more running. Audi’s got the racetrack for almost the entire month of December, it seems like, so that’s another thing we’ll have to figure out. I can tell you we definitely aren’t lacking in things to do at Ganassi Racing at the moment??