THIS IS STARTING TO BECOME RIDICULOUS
Looking back at the last four Verizon IndyCar Series rounds, I can’t think of a crazier, better or more unpredictable string of races.
Tony Kanaan leads 14,000 laps at Iowa, yet loses the thing after getting passed by Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden in the final minute of competition. Sebastien Bourdais qualifies on pole Saturday morning at Toronto, waits an extra day to race as rain, fog, poor surface conditions and rain tires with a bad case of aquaphobia bring the event to a grinding halt. Seb returns Sunday morning and stomps a collective mud hole in the opposition to claim his first win since 2007, and later in afternoon, Mike Conway comes out of nowhere to steal the win, making a bold move as the first to pit for Firestone Reds on a drying racetrack.
Three races, two thefts…then Scott Dixon decides to close this insane chapter by motoring from 22nd and last to win at Mid-Ohio…while mileaging out his Chevy engine during the race…and seemingly making fuel with a petroleum refinery hidden away in the No. 9 Target car. As I told one of his teammates, Dixie pulled some Yoda-meets-Kenny Powers stuff on Sunday, combining The Force and a ridiculous amount of fuel-saving swagger to demoralize his pursuers.
With the Milwaukee Mile up next, I’ve run out of ideas on the kind of madness that could be awaiting the series. Buddy Lazier shows up and dominates from pole? Takuma Sato makes amends with whatever higher power he’s offended and wins the ABC Supply-sponsored event in his ABC Supply Indy car? Mike Conway turns up in a second Ed Carpenter Racing car, charges to victory, then tells the world he was just kidding about disliking ovals? I wouldn’t be surprised if any or all came to pass…
DOES ANYBODY WANT TO WIN THIS THING?
At the rate things are currently going, IndyCar could crown its 2014 champion based on a series of “least worst” finishes to close the season.
Mid-Ohio was the latest event where the top contenders took turns either sitting on pit lane waiting for car-related issues to be resolved, spinning, serving drive-through penalties or simply underwhelming at a time when they all needed to score maximum points. Team Penske’s Will Power led the title contenders home with a sixth, nearly 16 seconds adrift of Scott Dixon. Power, who qualified sixth, put in some stellar laps on Firestone blacks yet never made a serious impression at Mid-Ohio. Thanks to a bizarre throttle position sensor failure that struck his teammate Helio Castroneves, Power erased the 13-point deficit to the Brazilian and left Mid-Ohio with a slim four-point margin heading into Milwaukee.
Power went on a tear after Indy, taking a win and two seconds, then finished 10th or worse at the next four events. He’s placed ninth, third and sixth since Toronto, but has an average finishing position of 9.5 starting at Houston. Prior to Houston, his average finish was 3.6.
Castroneves’ season has been a scattershot affair. Qualifying 15th at Mid-Ohio was a disappointment and added pressure when it wasn’t needed – the electronics issue only compounded a weekend spent in the wilderness.
Third to open the season at St. Pete, 11th at Long Beach, 19th at Barber, third at the GP of Indy…it has been a rollercoaster for Castroneves every step of the way. From Houston through Mid-Ohio, Helio’s average finish is 10.4. Prior to Houston, it was 6.5.
The two Penske drivers might hold 1-2 in the standings, but they’re coasting into the final three races without much of a tailwind.
Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay sits third, yet has a 63-point deficit to Power. 200 points are still available, giving RHR’s championship aspirations a bit of a boost, but he’ll need to go on another charge if he plans on catching Will and Helio. Two mistakes left RHR down in 10th at Mid-Ohio, and other than his wins at Barber, the Indy 500, and Iowa, the 2012 series champ’s finishing record could be mistaken for someone buried at the wrong end of the standings.
From Houston, RHR has an average finish of 11.0. Prior to Houston, it was 10.0, yet with the points from his three wins, the American holds third in the championship.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Simon Pagenaud is only one point behind RHR in the championship, and holds a 37-point advantage over Juan Pablo Montoya. JPM is closely trailed by Scott Dixon in sixth, but a separation of sorts definitely exists between the top-4 and everyone else.
Pagenaud, who took ninth last weekend, started ninth and never factored. Mid-Ohio was the perfect chance for Simon to make a statement, but the SPM team looked somewhat adrift once they reached qualifying.
After Power, the Frenchman has been the most consistent among the top-4, yet he needs some stellar results over the final three rounds if he has any intention of earning the championship. His average finish of 9.6 since Houston is only down slightly from his pre-Houston average of 7.4, and based on the numbers, rounding out the year hovering at 9.6 won’t get the job done.
In that regard, the same can be said for all of the drivers in the top-4. Power (9.5), Castroneves (10.4), RHR (11.0) are in the same boat as Pagenaud and his 9.6. Things should change – Milwaukee is a perfect track for RHR to rebound, Power and Dixon finished 1-2 at Sonoma, and Power proved he knows his way around Fontana. Pagenaud should be a front-runner at all three.
We know the championship leaders are capable of producing thrilling finishes – now they need to start delivering.
OK, tell me how this makes sense: Mid-Ohio race winner Scott Dixon lapped as fast, if not faster than those pursuing him late in the race, and did so while avoiding the throttle pedal. Those behind him were doing the opposite, stomping on the gas like they were putting out a fire.
The Kiwi’s fuel-saving sorcery is well-known in IndyCar, making his masterful victory less of a surprise than it should have been once a few cautions and a change of strategy by the Ganassi team set things in motion.
One thing that was surprising came from something Dixon’s engineer Eric Bretzman told me after the race: “Watching the telemetry, Scott was coasting through some corners faster while saving fuel than when he was on the throttle earlier in the race…”
Wait, what? I couldn’t help but giggle after Bretzman dropped that shocking nugget in my lap, and with a quick look through the sector times, the proof was easy to find. Visually, it was also there for everyone to see.
Watching the replay of the race – especially in the latter stages when Dixon was in major fuel conservation mode, his adapted driving style stood out from Sebastien Bourdais and Josef Newgarden. Accelerating out of the Keyhole, all three entered the braking zone for Turn 4, and for Bourdais and Newgarden, hard braking was followed by turning in and romping on the throttle to climb the hill towards Turn 5.
Dixon, other than a light brush of the brake pedal, would seemingly forget to slow his car, carrying that off-throttle rolling speed through Turn 4. Not only did he lift off the gas well before the braking zone, he also coasted through the corner after scrubbing a small amount of speed on purpose and had aerodynamic drag help to reduce his pace a little bit more. It was lift-brush-roll compared to race-brake-romp, and not only did it help to save a ton of fuel, it also required amazing reflexes to make it happen.
And it’s right there where we have possibly the most under-reported aspect of Dixie’s fuel-saving wizardry. We know he’s the best at making fuel mileage, but the effort and risk involved is simply unbelievable.
Looking at lap 78, where Bourdais (LEFT) set his fastest lap in the 90-lap event, Dixon’s lift-brush-roll strategy still comes out ahead against Sebastien’s attempts at maximum attack. Starting with the I2-I3A sector leading into the Keyhole on lap 78, Bourdais completes that segment in 7.0983 seconds. Dixon’s sector on lap 78, while saving fuel like mad, was completed in 7.0187… 0.0796 faster.
The most telling segment data for the Keyhole actually comes in the previous sector where both drivers accelerate out of Turn 1 toward the braking zone. As you’d expect, Bourdais is hard on the throttle until the last moment, while Dixon is lifting early to save fuel and carries speed deeper into that zone. For Bourdais, who burned more fuel by accelerating for a longer period, sector I2A to I2 was completed in 3.6647 seconds. For Dixon, who lifted early and reached a lower top speed (yet coasted at a higher rate until turning), the sector was done in 3.6778 seconds. Granted, he was 0.0131 seconds slower than Bourdais, yet nearly matched Seb’s sector time while saving fuel.
If they were racing side by side on lap 78, Bourdais would shoot past Dixon into the braking zone – at least initially – before the Target car drew even again at the point of turning in. It’s fascinating stuff.
Studying the sector data, absurd things start to happen in Turn 4 – the zone where Dixon the saves the most fuel each lap. Sector I4 to I5A covers the braking zone into Turn 4, Turn 4 itself and halfway up the hill to Turn 5, and Bourdais completes this segment in 5.6379 seconds while pushing on his fast lap. Dixon, who lifts light years before Bourdais and doesn’t touch the throttle until Turn 5, does it in 5.7356 seconds.
One driver is doing everything he can to go as fast as possible by braking late and accelerating early, and for that effort, he gained just 0.0977 seconds on the race leader who once again nearly matched his sector time by ignoring the throttle pedal at all costs. It’s pure madness.
The sector data that tells the biggest story involves the long stretch from segment I4 to I5 – entering the Turn 4 brake zone to the exit of Turn 6. It encompasses all of Dixon’s Yoda/Kenny Powers work through Turn 5, cresting the hill, a light shot on the throttle down the hill, and more fast coasting through Turn 6 – until he needs to put the hammer down through Turn 7.
An attacking Bourdais recorded a 13.8820-second trip through the sector on his fast lap, while Dixon, who wasn’t trying to set a personal best on lap 78, did it in 13.8663 – 0.0157 seconds faster… Once again, it’s just insane.
Quantifying Dixon’s performance by segment times sheds a lot of light on his remarkable talent, but understanding what’s happening inside the cockpit to make those times happen requires a deeper dive.
Dixon’s car control is legendary, and without using the throttle to set the car into a corner, those skills are put to the test. Bretzman and the Ganassi team can make setup changes to help the car turn while Dixon’s off the throttle, namely through differential settings that help to rotate the car when he’s coasting. But Dixon is still responsible for steering, counter steering and using light jabs at the brake pedal to trick his Chevy-powered Dallara DW12 through a corner without the gas pedal being involved.
Picture Dixon inside the car, his hands a blur of action and left foot working away to gently set the nose of the No. 9 Target machine with the brake pedal, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s actually taking place. The car wants to understeer without the nose being pinned under hard braking and the throttle being used to rotate the car and load the left-front tire through Turn 4, so how exactly does Dixie pull off this delicate dance?
“You lift at maybe the 500 brake marker, just touch the brakes a little bit at the 200, then coast all the way to Turn 5,” Dixon said when asked to deconstruct some of how he saves fuel at Mid-Ohio. “Typically you’ll brake hard, turn, gas it hard up the hill, so for what we did, you’re eliminating all those areas by not actually being on the throttle. The way I like a car so loose plays well into the reaction of having to coast so far.
“Typically, if you have a car setup with understeer under coast, it gets way worse. Having a car that’s neutral under coast helps a lot to control the car when you’re saving fuel because you can make it do whatever you need.”
Achieving extreme fuel saving, as Dixie describes, can also come with extreme speed to manage from his vantage point.
“Within the first two or three laps you can get within your ultimate [fuel saving] number, but to pick up another tenth or two, you end up carrying way more speed than you need in a corner like Turn 4, and that only induces more understeer,” he explained. “And if you pick up too much understeer and can’t turn the car, you’ve always got the brake to help – but that’s the last option for me, and the only time I think about using the throttle is if I feel I’m not going fast enough. But I always end up carrying way too much speed and then if the front is giving up, I’ll try something to get it turned…”
Dixon’s “try something to get it turned” had me laughing. Few drivers possess the skills to barrel through Turn 4 fighting a car that’s trying the leave the track nose-first while coasting, yet he describes the act like a normal part of the job. Those chasing Dixie thought–at least for a little while–they might have him covered. They figured he was matching their pace, and as a result, would burn too much fuel and hand over the lead when he made his final pit stop.
In the end, we learned he was recording another virtuoso performance at Mid-Ohio – one to top his other four wins at the track – and as Dixie reminded me, it was done out of necessity.
“I stood on my d*** in qualifying, and we had a fast car all weekend, but we weren’t going to get to the front doing the same thing everybody else was doing, so we had to try something different,” he admitted. “The only way to make our strategy work was to go five to seven laps longer than anyone else, so that’s what I had to do. It was a great strategy move by the team, and we made it happen. That was pretty sweet.”
If you’ve ever taken a corner too quickly, lifted and prayed you’d make it out the other side without sliding into a ditch, that’s essentially the same scenario Dixon has mastered to save fuel. That arms-crossed, eyes-closed, “Oh my God I’m going to die” moment for us is Dixie’s fuel-saving comfort zone, and while it might not be as thrilling to watch as a daring pass for the win, it requires a level of talent that few in the sport will ever experience.
We’ll all remember how much fuel he saved in order to win, but the manner in which he did so belongs in the pantheon of great drives.
A STAR IS BORN
Does this sound like a 23-year-old kid who just had a potential race win taken away through no fault of his own for the second time this year?
“We didn’t get it right. It’s a shame. We had such a strong car and, man, we had a great strategy. What a killer idea going with blacks there. All we had to do was hang onto (Sebastien) Bourdais there – we knew he was going to be stronger on reds. We just hung with him and it fell right into our seat. It was just a perfect strategy call, which was so much fun for me. I kinda knew what was happening the whole time and we planned that originally. You don’t always stick with your plan but we did that today and it unfolded perfectly for us. It was a shame that it didn’t work out, but I think everyone knew we were strong today and definitely had a shot at winning the thing. And that’s all you can ask for, we’ve had a couple of those this year and we’ll have a couple more before it’s done.”
Josef Newgarden could have blasted his team, blamed bad luck or done a dozen other things that would have been excused, but instead, he displayed the kind of maturity that escapes some of his seasoned peers.
Newgarden’s had to learn on his own at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, and now, in his third IndyCar season, something has definitely clicked. Long Beach should have been a podium, if not a win, he made Alex Tagliani look ordinary throughout the month of May, took second at Iowa, and was on course for a win at Mid-Ohio after qualifying second. Yes, he’s still got some rough edges to polish, but the speed is clearly there and the poise he demonstrated after his latest heartbreak will serve him well in the future.
He should win his first IndyCar race while driving for Sarah and Wink, but he needs to be on the short list for Chip, Roger, Michael or Sam as the Tennessean moves onto the second stage of his career.
- Simon Pagenaud will be back with the ESM P2 team for Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 4.
- IndyCar’s next generation put on a show at Mid-Ohio. We had one period where Newgarden, Carlos Munoz and Graham Rahal, along with James Hinchcliffe, were mingling in the top-6, and with Hinch as the 27-year-old elder statesman of the group, it offered a window into what the next 10 to 15 years could look like when the older generation starts to move onto other forms of racing.
- Turns out Dale Coyne Racing’s Carlos Huertas DOES NOT like the “Grumpy Cat” nickname I gave him after his solemn win at Houston. A source tells me the DCR crew calls him “Grumpy Cat” whenever possible just to get a rise out of the young Colombian… Comedy aside, Huertas is a quick study at the tracks where he’s been able to test, and started 10th, just two spots behind DCR team leader Justin Wilson at Mid-Ohio. The big opening-lap crash obviously helped his No. 18 Honda to improve a lot of positions, and he held a competitive third until making his first stop. Things soon unraveled, but it was nice to see Huertas running strong, even if it didn’t last as long as he’d hoped.
- In the nine races since the second double-header in Detroit, Scott Dixon has finished inside the top-7 seven times. If the Kiwi had to perform fewer mid- to late-season heroics, life would be a lot easier for he and the Ganassi team.
- Someone needs to send out a search party for Juan Montoya. After winning Pocono, he has four horrible finishes – P16-18-19 and an 11th last weekend. It’s the inverse of what was expected – a strong start and a tough finish – on his return to open-wheel.
- Sebastian Saavedra and KV AFS Racing team co-owner Gary Peterson looked like they were holding back tears after an engine problem cut his day short while running sixth. With teammate Sebastien Bourdais leading, KV was having one of its strongest performances from both entries, yet bad luck dealt a cruel blow to the 24-year-old.
- Graham Rahal has quietly scored three finishes inside the top-7 in the last four races. The news of losing National Guard as a sponsor certainly hurts, but if he and the team can continue on their current form, they’ll have a solid finish to sell to potential sponsors.
- Four of the drivers who finished in the top-8 came from starting positions of 17th or lower at Mid-Ohio.
- What can be said about Marco Andretti’s day? The cartoon anvil must love the taste of Snapple and Dr. Pepper because it always knows where to find Marco’s No. 25 entry.
- Ed Carpenter Racing’s Mike Conway continues to defy prediction. He finished 16th to open the season, won the next race, and then took 14th at Round 3. He finished 15th to open the Toronto double-header, won the second race, and then took 13th last weekend. The 16-1-14 and 15-1-13 routine is odd, to say the least.
- Team Penske boss Tim Cindric watched his son Austin race throughout the weekend in USF2000, and Austin also took part in some GT racing with the Pirelli World Challenge series. The junior Cindric shared a Mustang with PWC CEO Scott Bove to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Cindric and Bove combined to raise $13,555 through pledges.
- It was great to see former IndyCar driver Alex Lloyd with a helmet in hand at Mid-Ohio. The driver-turned-writer was back in action, trading open-wheels for a PWC Chevy Corvette. He took 11th in the downpour on Saturday, and had issues on Sunday that prevented a meaningful result.
- Chevy IndyCar Program Manager Chris Berube thinks I’m insane for keeping tabs on the win tally between the Bowtie and Honda at the races they sponsor. Chevy’s Scott Dixon won the Honda Indy 200 in Honda’s backyard, which Berube insists adds no value to the achievement, Chevy won both rounds of the Honda-sponsored Toronto double-header, and Chevy won both of the Chevy-sponsored Duel in Detroit rounds. In terms of poaching, Chevy has done an excellent job of exacting revenge on Honda as the Japanese brand had a penchant for taking the Chevy races in 2013. Honda’s Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, but three of the four events sponsored by Honda have fallen to their rival.