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Pippa Mann is bright, sharp and determined, and of the eight IndyCar races she’s started, three have been in the Indianapolis 500. This year, driving for Dale Coyne Racing, she’ll start from 22nd on the grid, ahead of one former winner, two former polesitters and two Ganassi cars.
She’s always been social media-savvy, but now Pippa is also gaining attention as one of the voices on IndyCar radio at the tracks. In fact, despite racing only sporadically, she probably has a higher profile than some of her full-time counterparts, and she has earned herself an ardent fanbase. Her relationship with the media, however, is more complex. Having twice had her fingers burned (pun intended) by one of the UK national newspapers which is now known for sensationalism, she’s wisely become more wary of the non-specialist journalists. Yet the ones she does trust put Mann’s sponsors and causes, as well as the IndyCar Series as a whole, into places it doesn’t normally reach.
That truth is sometimes resented by her rivals and the specialist media: why all the focus on someone who only does a couple races each year? In 2014, however, it’s hard to say that without sounding callous, because Pippa’s cause is Susan G. Komen, the largest and best-funded breast cancer organization in the United States. The organization’s funds will be further boosted this Sunday by public donations, based on how far Pippa travels in the race – surely a good reason to hope she at least finishes.
RACER: I’m not sure this is a unique arrangement but it is an unusual one. How did you make it happen?
PM: It’s something I’ve been working on since February and there was a while when I didn’t think it would happen for 2014. But Dale Coyne has been incredible, and talked to me all winter about having me back whenever I could, whatever I could do. Well when I got the introduction to Susan G. Komen of Central Indiana, the idea started as turning my classic red and yellow helmet pink, with the company’s pink ribbon logo on top, and auctioning it for charity. But then the idea grew, and when I approached Dale to do the whole car for Susan G. Komen, he really liked the idea, and saw its potential for the future. It’s the only time we expect this car to be on track this year but there are already plans in the works for bringing it back in 2015 and maybe beyond.
Susan G. Komen has dabbled in IndyCar in the past – normally in October, Breast Cancer Awareness month – and they’ve worked in the past with Sarah Fisher, a female driver who I’ve always looked up to. But to have the opportunity to bring them to motorsport’s biggest stage in their first association with me was really cool. Then, around the time of the Long Beach race, I found out how my car was going to be staffed and that made me fairly giddy with excitement. The opportunity to work with Brandon Fry again, who I worked with at Conquest Racing, and then have the car staffed by the ex-Muscle Milk Racing sports car team is the kind of thing I couldn’t have hoped for.
Dale had already gone to Honda over the winter and asked if they would be able to supply another engine for the “500” and in St. Pete I was able to explain to them what was going on and what we’d be doing with the car. That seemed to be the clincher. I’m really excited by how much Dale is behind this project, and it’s a beautiful paint job – although she’s now got a few chips on her livery from me following other cars so close. When we announced the project here in Indy, having the local media come out to it, having Susan G. Komen people fly up from Dallas to attend it, and then coming back for the race, it was very cool and I’m very pleased it was able to be done in the right way.
Do you feel extra pressure from that – how many people will people will be behind you almost by default because it’s such a worthy cause?
You know, I did at first because people are pledging donations to Race With Pippa (http://www.racewithpippa.com/) and there are lap packages. So people can pledge per 50 laps completed, per 100 laps, per 150, etc. including practice and qualifying laps. And it’s not money to run the racecar – all the money goes directly back to Susan G. Komen to raise breast cancer awareness and fund research.
Did that influence your practice strategy in terms of how many laps you did each day?
Ha! No. It’s really cool to see the laps rack up but we’re doing them because I’m on a longer engine program this year so I actually can do plenty of miles, and taking advantage of that is crucial. I’ve been able to do full-tank-to-empty runs, I’ve been getting more experience of running in dirty air, and so on. I’m better prepared this year than ever before.
We were one of the people who didn’t get out to do a baseline run the day before qualifying on the Saturday but thought we’d be OK with just the morning warm-up to do any last tweaks. As these things always do when you’re under the gun, we ran into a couple of gremlins that affected our first two runs. Then finally, on the third run, we put up a number that we wanted and that was really a big relief, a weight off my shoulders. And then it got even better in the qualifying session on Sunday.
Before practice started, had you done any testing since last year?
No, Fontana last year was the last time I’d been in the car. I don’t even own a go-kart. I’d love to but I have a little two-door hybrid that doesn’t have a tow-hook and we don’t have a garage. I have been out to Fastimes [a karting center in Indianapolis] a few times but I don’t think that really counts! When I got back into the IndyCar it took me only five laps to get back up to 218mph. Whenever I get back in after the long periods of time that seem to come between my races, it worries me whether I’ll get back up to speed, but so far, when I’m showing up to somewhere I know, I seem to be OK at re-adapting.
People who are racing full time throughout a season probably don’t always appreciate the incremental improvements cars go through every two or three races. For you, it must stand out how the DW12 has evolved, and also the jump from the old IR03 that you raced in 2011 to the DW12. What are the differences?
I’d say the way the DW12 has evolved since Indy last year, is how it behaves in traffic. At Indy last year, I hadn’t really had the opportunity to run in traffic until the actual race, so I found it difficult to get comfortable in dirty air; the DW12 gets affected much more than the old car in terms of understeer when you’re following someone. And you get the effects of the car in front of you from seven or eight car lengths back. With the old car you could get a tow without getting disturbed air. So that was a tricky difference, and last year I paid the price of that inexperience because I got a bit too close to someone and ran out of room and understeered up the track and bent a toe-link when I bounced off the wall.
But the Dale Coyne Racing setup has also evolved nicely. Bill Pappas and John Dick were such great engineers last year, but Michael Cannon’s great too and brings a different perspective to the team. Early last week, we were encountering that same issue of struggling to get within four to five lengths of someone but on the Thursday, we’d made good enough changes where I could get within two or three car lengths of people.
Hmm, sounds like that’s less car evolution and more the fact that you’ve at last had a chance to really investigate the parameters of the DW12.
Yeah, that’s fair. It’s really nice to be in a situation where we can experiment with that stuff before race day. The laps I did to get 229.2mph in the DW12, it was trimmed to the same extent as the old car in 2011 when I did a 223.9 – very similar amount of car movement going on. The interesting thing about the new qualifying format was that because on the Saturday you could keep going out, you could keep trimming out and trimming out the downforce, so there were a lot of cars that were really on a knife edge. I heard on the radio that I almost hit the wall, but I think they exaggerated: there was at least an inch to spare!
One of the really interesting things about the DW12 is that it has a much bigger critical yaw angle than the old car, so you can get it much more sideways and it will come back. In the old car, you only needed it a little bit sideways and it would spin. But the trimming we did last week was getting this car back to those levels. Firestone has brought a tire with a little more grip that is allowing us to be more aggressive with removing downforce.
And those tires are lasting longer; if your car’s balance is right, you don’t seem to be running out of front or rear grip as aggressively as you used to over the course of a stint. If you’re outside that setup window, you are still going to run out of tires at one end of the car or the other pretty rapidly. Even if you hit the sweet spot, though, you’re still going to need to use your tools from the start of one stint to the end of it, but you can keep the speed up.
Given the vastly different temperatures between practice and what is forecast for race day, is your experience from last year’s (hot) race going to be applicable, or have the DCR setups just moved on too far for that to work 12 months later?
The honest answer is that we all like to think we’re being smart about it, and one of the big ways you can help yourself is by not going out in traffic while you have too much aero on the car and while it’s cool, because as the temperature goes up, the aero effect goes down. So you don’t want to get used to it in those conditions and then the amount of car movement you feel on the hotter race day comes as a surprise.
Right now, we’ve got the car in a good place but we know that as ambient and track temperatures go up, we may lose that setup window and then we’ll have to work really hard on Carb Day. The good thing is that it applies to everyone out there, but it would be easy for us to make a wrong call on Carb Day, and that’s where having two teammates, especially one of them as experienced as Justin [Wilson], is going to really help.
Given that difference in experience levels, how close have you dared to go toward Justin’s setup?
Pretty close. Because I’ve worked with Brandon before, he’s been pretty good at translating driver-speak into engineer-speak and found some really good stuff at the front of the car that Carlos [Huertas] really loves and Justin came part of the way there. We have very similar damping, pretty much the same springs. Justin is being a little more brave – he’s the most experienced so he’s a little more trimmed. But when he and I were doing race-sim work for 20- or 25-lap stints, we were swapping places every three laps or so, and not because the one ahead was lifting but because we were genuinely working on getting tows and completing the passes. It was really cool to be able to do all that because it taught me so much about what my car was doing and what I still wanted to have done to it, and similarly, Justin felt his car was a little less good, so he had things that needed to be done. It really does work for both of you when you can do that running together.
What are your ambitions for this year?
Well, I finished 20th in 2011, and last year I was running 23rd or 24th and going to the front when I clobbered the wall, so the first priority is to do what I did in my first year – stay out of trouble and not make a dumb mistake. I never have as much seat time as I’d like, and so it is very tough to come and jump in a car, but at the same time, I’m so much more comfortable this year in the DW12 than anywhere we’ve been with it before. In fact, for the first time, I’m more comfortable in this car than I was in the old car in 2011. Some of that I’m sure is because of the guy I’m working with, Brandon, so coming back to a team I know, a chassis I know and a race engineer I know is combining to give me confidence.
So to your point, I’d love to say we’re shooting for a top 15, and based on the pace we’ve seen in race trim, so long as I can make smart decisions all day long and get in and out of my pit box well all day long – not taken for granted when you’re not doing this all the time! – I genuinely think a top 15 is possible. If we get a top 10, that’s a win for me and my car. A top 15 is like a top five.
That’s realistic; I honestly don’t think I’m setting a goal that’s not achievable. It’s going to be tough, I’m going to have to do my part and no mistakes by me on pit road, but on pure pace, I think I’ve got the car to go do that.