2014 has mirrored Chip Ganassi Racing’s 2013 IndyCar Series season in many ways. Winless through the first 10 rounds, Scott Dixon began last year’s championship charge at Round 11 in Pocono where the team scored a 1-2-3 on the “Tricky Triangle.” The Kiwi would then add three more wins to help secure his third title at the season finale in Fontana, and teammate Charlie Kimball would also score a popular maiden win at Mid-Ohio, bringing Ganassi’s victory total to five.
Entering Rounds 9 and 10 this weekend in Houston, the expanded four-car team, which now includes Tony Kanaan in the No. 10 Target car and Ryan Briscoe in the No. 8 NTT Data entry, has zero wins to its credit and its drivers sit a surprising eighth, ninth, 13th and 14th in the championship. Rewind the clock 12 months and yes, it is a familiar situation for the kings of mid-season recovery, but having to dig out from a significant deficit, as Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull (LEFT) told RACER, is never easy.
“When your results don’t match your work ethic every day, it’s frustrating as hell,” he admitted. “But you know if you keep everyone focused on results, they’ll do that – they’ll get to the results they deserve and their effort deserves. Teams that have a lineage of winning, that have an expectation to win, may have a bad season, but they will figure it out.”
Hull drew a parallel between what the defending IndyCar Series champions are working through and the trials of another storied sporting franchise.
“You look at a basketball team like the [Los Angeles] Lakers,” he continued. “They are expected to vie for a championship every year based on their history, but it’s impossible to maintain that level every year. Down years happen. Ours is a more reactive sport – you can make a lot more changes at any time. They’re locked into a situation where they can’t make as many changes so pulling out from a bad season is much harder.
“Fortunately, that isn’t the case in motor racing, so when you have all the right pieces, and everyone’s working in the right direction and knows how to win, you’d better get out of the way. We have the right people and our people are responding to adversity like champions.”
One year removed from an epic comeback by Dixon and the No. 9 Target team, repeating that feat now looks rather unlikely. Despite holding eighth in the standings, Dixon’s point deficit to championship leader Will Power – 214 to 370 – is nearly insurmountable. But that hasn’t stopped the powerhouse program from reaching back and calling an audible on the play that turned their 2013 season around.
In what has become a legendary test, a trip to the Sebring road course just prior to its Pocono 1-2-3 helped Ganassi to find what was missing from its damping and overall chassis setups, and you’d never guess where the team just spent two days prior to Houston…
“I read a story somewhere last week that said all of the big teams went testing again in Pocono,” Hull said with a hearty laugh. “I guess we no longer rate as a big team because we spent our time at Sebring, and Sam Schmidt joined in too on the second day, so I guess they aren’t big either…
“Joking aside, testing is such a limited thing now that you truly have to make the most out of a restricted number of days and we chose to go to Sebring with our drivers because we believe it posed the greatest benefit to find improvements.”
All four of Ganassi’s drivers earned at least one top-5 finish at the recent Dual in Detroit double-header, with Kanaan (Saturday) and Kimball (Sunday) claiming their first podiums of the season. As an operation, the team hasn’t been bad on road and street courses, and showed promise at Belle Isle, but Ganassi’s IndyCar outfit should be capable of a lot more than occasional third-place finishes. Hull hopes last week’s Sebring test will be the remedy that steers the team to Victory Lane.
“Testing at Sebring was very productive for us for lots of reasons,” he explained. “You guard your test days so heavily now and end up doing a lot of one-day tests, but we decided to use two days and make Sebring a lot like an old school test where we made a lot of changes, a [suspension] geometry change or a differential change – something in combination with other changes, tried it, and then gave ourselves time to change it back and compare. We really wanted to dive in on a number of things without having time as the limiting factor.
“So we didn’t get as much time on the racetrack that we might have on a different test plan, but this wasn’t about burning lots of mileage and more about each individual entry getting the time to try things we just don’t have time for on a regular test day or during a race weekend. Each car went through its own testing plan, did their own thing, and it was really a unique test for us and the things we learned individually, with each car, and altogether from the information we generated was big. We came away from the test with a really good feeling.”
Speed is a cure-all for any racing team needing to improve its fortunes. If Hull and the Ganassi camp can come out of Houston with another win (Dixon won Round 1 and finished second in Round 2 last year), the team might be able to leave the forgettable first half of the season behind and focus on a strong rally to close out the championship.
As much as the team’s struggles have been pinned to a lack of pace, bigger changes in the organization, including a switch to Chevrolet after leading Honda’s charge for two seasons, the loss of the well-oiled working relationship between Dixon and Dario Franchitti (when the Scot was forced into retirement), the new relationship for the incoming Kanaan and veteran Ganassi engineer Chris Simmons to sort out, plus the addition of Ryan Briscoe and engineer Eric Cowdin to the fold has left Ganassi with more offseason changes to contend with than any of their major rivals.
Dixon’s longtime crew chief Ricky Davis was also moved laterally to oversee Briscoe’s operation, and Hull hired his mentor Jim McGee to help on race weekends as another layer of management and oversight for the No. 8 car. Put it all together, and it would actually be strange for the team to continue uninterrupted while adjusting to all of the changes it has undergone.
“We had a great partnership with Honda, we now have a great partnership with Chevrolet, and we’re now coming to grips with how we can help each other on and off the track,” said Hull, touching on the biggest year-to-year technical change they’ve experienced. As simple as unplugging Honda’s 2.2-liter turbo V6 for Chevy’s 2.2-liter turbo V6 might sound, the switch required Ganassi’s engineers to alter its setups, and for some of its drivers (Dixon and Kimball) to learn the performance characteristics of a brand-new engine.
“We’re making big gains there, for [Chevy] and for us, and it’s related to the weight distribution of the car, the drive style changes they can make for each of our drivers, how we adapt to the usable power band itself, how we adapt to the basic fuel settings – how our drivers use their right ankle to help with that situation at some tracks, and how to effectively use [turbo] boost control,” Hull said of their engine-related learning curve.
“It takes time and it’s not an insignificant process. At the same time, we’re a big team and there’s no excuse: our performance is not where it needs to be, but those are contributing factors to what we work on to make ourselves better.”
Dixon and Franchitti had different driving styles and preferred dissimilar setups, yet had enough experience working together to help the team head down the right paths on chassis changes and development items. With Kanaan entering the program, the same kind of productive relationship is also in the works with Dixon, but Hull says it takes more than the six months they’ve had to form a tight-knit duo.
“To compare Tony and Dario, what’s in common with them is they’re equally unselfish teammates,” he noted. “They’re very able to communicate where they are with the car. They both get frustrated when things don’t go the way they want because they’re highly competitive people. But they aren’t so competitive that they let it get in the way of being good teammates. What’s not in common is their driving styles are different, and both are different to Scott Dixon.”
As Dixon and Franchitti pushed and learned from each other, Hull is starting to see the same process building within the Dixon and Kanaan relationship.
“I think the relationship with Tony and Scott is growing by leaps and bounds on a daily basis,” he confirmed. “It’s now easy to see they’re on the same wavelength to support and help each other like previous teammates. I think one thing people don’t see is Scott Dixon is still growing as a driver. What has contributed to that growth, here, is his teammates. He’s studied, very carefully, how his teammates are better or faster in places, and then worked to make himself better in those areas.
“If you think back to that, when Dan [Wheldon] was here, Dan could drive inside a thimble faster than anybody, and Scott was already an accomplished oval driver, but he wanted to learn all he could from him until he was a better Dan Wheldon than Dan was. Dan helped him with that, and in exchange, Scott helped Dan with his road racing.
“And when Dario turned up, he had a knack for street circuits, which Scott picked up and also gave back some of his skills. That process builds a bond, to make each other stronger where they’re weakest, and I think that’s developing with Tony and Scott. We’re going to see a really positive result from that. We saw that in testing a Milwaukee, at Texas, at Iowa. It’s coming along. That’s the byproduct of drivers that are willing to accept each other and do that level of trading at high-stakes racing.”
The last change Hull touched on was the team’s fourth entry for Ryan Briscoe. With a best finish of sixth at the Grand Prix of Indy, the veteran has shown flashes of speed yet has little in the way of meaningful results during his return to Ganassi.
Pre-season predictions, including those from this writer, called for the Aussie to serve as part of an intertwined Dixon-Kanaan-Briscoe attack at each round, but he’s been out-performed by his luckless and less experienced teammate Kimball at many races. Like the other facets of Ganassi’s mid-season reboot, Hull believes Briscoe and the No. 8 entry will achieve better results as the championship continues.
“Being able to capitalize on the test we just went through, which I think he’ll do, Ryan was a hundred-watt bulb the entire time – he really took a leading role in what we accomplished,” he added. “And now we need to build momentum for Ryan because we know he’s a winning driver and he has winning people surrounding him.
“Still, there’s a lot of new people on his car, people working together for the first time, and we need to make sure they come together and give him all the positive momentum he needs to deliver on the race track. If we can do that for him and tighten up everything else we’ve been working on, I think you’ll start to see the team in a more familiar place.”