A look back at a packed weekend of IndyCar, IMSA, Indy Lights, and World Challenge racing on the streets of Long Beach with our long-form Rewind column, starting with…
JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED
Kicking off the 2015 with two mildly disastrous events left the folks at the Verizon IndyCar Series with the need for a problem-free race at Long Beach, and thankfully, the championship departed Southern California for this weekend’s race in Alabama with its first semblance of momentum.
Aero kit componentry, barring a few bits and pieces, remained affixed to most of the 23 cars in the field during the 80-lap race, and even with the kind of dirty boxing that always takes place at Long Beach, it didn’t result in crashed or extended caution periods. Coming off of what was widely regarded as a new low for IndyCar at NOLA, Long Beach served as a pleasant reminder of the heights the series can achieve when everyone behaves.
What the race lacked in frenetic passing was more than compensated by the furious battles for position. Compared to some recent Long Beach events where cars were strung out, Sunday’s race was notable for the swarms of Chevys and Hondas fighting over every inch of ground. It might not have resulted in a lot of overtaking, but there’s little doubt that the field – as a whole – raced harder than ever to get to the checkered flag.
If the series is lucky, Sunday’s race at Barber Motorsports Park and the second running of the Grand Prix of Indy on May 9 will generate more thrills but, after dark days at St. Pete and NOLA, I’m content with Long Beach being remembered for its lack of problems and a return to normalcy.
A BAD REPORT CARD
Scott Dixon’s long overdue win at Long Beach was only one part of the all-Chevrolet celebrations in American Honda’s backyard. The Bowtie secured the top three qualifying positions and then scored an emphatic 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 in the race to sweep the second street course event of the season. An on-form Marco Andretti in eighth and teammate Carlos Munoz in ninth were the only Honda drivers keeping Chevy from locking out the rest of the top 10. And on raw pace, the disparity between the two brands was even more troubling.
A post-race report of the fastest laps set by all 23 drivers revealed positions 1-12 were recorded by Chevy drivers while 13-23 belonged to Honda. That statistic alone bears repeating: Every single Chevy driver was faster than every single Honda driver in the race. Understanding why Chevy is winning the war on road and street courses involves a small amount of technical jargon, but hopefully it will make sense below.
If there was a viral video among Honda drivers on Saturday, it was the on-board footage from Helio Castroneves’ record-setting lap that earned the Chevy-powered Team Penske driver pole position. Honda’s best pilots marveled at the flowing composure seen from HCN’s in-car camera; his hands were steady and deliberate; his car was poised and responsive at all times. As many Honda drivers remarked, their on-board footage was the polar opposite – it looked like they were trying to arm-wrestle an octopus.
Their hands were a blur of motion dealing with oversteer or understeer in the corners. Dabs of throttle only exacerbated their problems, and compared to Helio’s effortless speed, Honda’s finest described their qualifying performances in terms usually reserved for a boxing match.
As we’ve chronicled since pre-season testing began, the advantage held by Chevy has been decisive, and with three races now in the books, it’s clear that one manufacturer is beating the other on a routine basis. The reasons for Chevy’s dominance, however, aren’t as obvious. And it isn’t because one engine is more powerful than the other – it’s all about aerodynamics.
Honda’s shortcomings are due to something called “pitch sensitivity,” which we began documenting at Spring Training, and continues to serve as the most formidable opponent Honda drivers are facing. On bumpy, low-grip street circuits like St. Pete, Long Beach, Detroit, and Toronto, it’s an even bigger problem, and as Honda drivers will tell you, it’s also casts them into a vicious circle.
In basic terms, pitch sensitivity is a phenomenon where too much downforce is gained or lost under braking or acceleration – as the car pitches forward or backward. Drivers need a car to be stable and predictable under braking, again when they turn into a corner, and also when they apply the throttle to leave.
If you think of a car like a rocking horse on the approach to a corner, it comes in relatively level, then rocks forward – the nose dives down and the rear hikes up – under braking. Once the brakes are released, it rocks back to something close to level, and when the throttle is applied, the rear squats down and the nose rises. Level, down, level, up. It also leans to one side, depending on whether the corner goes left or right, as the chassis tilts and returns to level.
Throughout that entire process, a driver is waiting for the front and rear tires to feel firmly planted – for the chassis to feel well balanced – in order to drive the car hard into the braking zone, lift, turn, and power out with authority. If the car handles all of those rocking motions in a smooth, controlled manner – just as Helio’s car did in qualifying – you’ll have a happy and fast driver.
If a leading Chevy driver has any aero kit complaints, I’ve yet to hear them. Pitch sensitivity, according to one of Chevy’s biggest weapons, isn’t a concern. The Honda drivers aren’t as lucky.
They continually describe a lack of stability – poor balance – from the moment they enter a braking zone or corner, to the time they exit on the other side. With pitch sensitivity, and the sudden loss or gain of downforce when Honda’s aero kit faces those routine rocking motions, it makes it almost impossible to do the same brake-lift-turn-power dance with Chevy-like conviction.
“Pitch sensitivity makes the car more difficult to drive,” said Graham Rahal. “Even if you need to do a little lift, it wants to spin around like a top at times. That’s what we’re working really hard to cure.”
In medium- or high-speed corners where downforce is an integral part of going fast, pitch sensitivity can cause downforce changes that feel like the road beneath the car has gone from tarmac to ice and back to tarmac. It might even go back to ice for a second time. This all takes place in a few seconds.
As Honda drivers are forced to wait for their cars to settle down in the corners – or as they work to keep their cars from swapping ends – the Chevy drivers gain invaluable fractions of a second. Over the course of a lap, those tiny gains in cornering speed and earlier acceleration add up to the separation we’ve seen between both camps in lap times and race results.
HONDA’S VICIOUS CIRCLE
Pitch sensitivity isn’t the only issue Honda teams are facing, but it is, without a doubt, the primary reason behind their struggles. The vicious circle is found in the most common method used to improve the problem. To reduce the rocking and tilting motions that expose a pitch-sensitive aero design, teams traditionally increase the spring rates on each corner of the car.
If, for example, a team would normally use 1000-pound spring rates at the front of the car and 700-pound springs at the back, they might go up to 1400s and 1000s – making it harder for the chassis to compress the springs – to reduce pitch sensitivity.
With stiffer springs reducing the rocking and tilting while braking, turning, and accelerating, the car’s aerodynamics are more stable and predictable.
While that method of partially – or mostly – curing pitch sensitivity works on road courses with smooth track surfaces, it’s not an option for bumpy, gripless street circuits like Long Beach. A stiffly sprung car on a street course takes away the tire’s ability to absorb the bumps; the car drives like a skateboard with no suspension, skipping and bouncing over the smallest surface imperfections. The moment that starts to happen, lap times get slower and slower.
To reduce pitch sensitivity last weekend, Honda teams would have had to use stiffer springs…which would have made the car even more devilish to drive. It’s an unfriendly Catch-22, and with Detroit’s double-header on the horizon and one more street race after that in Canada, I’m guessing Honda teams can’t wait to get them out of the way.
Smoother road courses like Barber, the GP of Indy, Mid-Ohio, and Sonoma – places where they can use stiffer springs to combat pitch sensitivity – represent the best chances for Honda to deliver stronger finishes.
An interesting first-time meeting took place at Long Beach between the men in charge of North America’s two primary sports car series. IMSA President Scott Atherton and WC Vision CEO Scott Bove, who runs the Pirelli World Challenge series, sat down for the better part of two hours Saturday morning to get to know each other. Atherton and Bove vowed to keep the details of their meeting private, but the encounter was described as extremely positive. With PWC boasting a large grid of GT3-spec cars, and IMSA preparing to convert its GT Daytona class to an all-GT3 category in 2016, both series will be vying for the same customers next season. It’s unclear whether Scott A or Scott B ventured into that topic or any others that have helped form a healthy rivalry in recent years.
IMSA race director Beaux Barfield celebrated an infamous anniversary at Long Beach. “It was 20 years ago this weekend where people got to know my name for the first time…for getting pinned under Diego Guzman’s car,” he said with a laugh.
Barfield, who was a promising young open-wheeler at the time, graduated from F2000 to Indy Lights with the tiny Breezley Motorsports team from Oregon, and qualified an impressive 13th out of 22 cars.
An issue at the old Long Beach Turn 1 – cars turned right instead of left as they do today – found Barfield scrambling to steer away from Guzman, who nosed into the tires. Beaux’s efforts were unsuccessful, and the photos from the encounter made the headlines in local newspapers the following morning.
“It was a late race restart and I was having a bad day already, and I was just far enough back from a group ahead of me where I didn’t see the incident but I was close enough to where they didn’t have time to put out a yellow flag,” Barfield recounted. “I came through Turn 1 just hot enough behind Diego, whose car was sticking out enough to where I almost avoided him, but just caught the back of his car with my left-front tire, and I wasn’t going fast enough to rip a corner off, so I acted like a wedge and lifted his car over mine.
“I have such a vivid memory of his Firestone tire rising above me and wedging me in the car to where I couldn’t move. I was fine and uninjured, but was on the radio to the crew telling them to get this damn thing off me. It was also the first time I met [IndyCar doctor] Steve Olvey, who took good care of me. It’s definitely a funny story to look back at…waking up and seeing me on the front page of the Press-Telegram with an Indy Lights car on my head…”
Once the cars were cleared and the race was restarted, Barfield went on to finish eighth. The late Greg Moore, who would go on to win the 1995 Indy Lights title, also won the Long Beach race. Moore, who died at Fontana in 1999, would have turned 40 today.
THE BAR IS HIGHER
Simon Pagenaud was bristling after Sunday’s race. Team Penske’s newest driver found his own teammates were hell-bent on preventing the Frenchman from getting by and, after a mounting number of vigorous defensive maneuvers from Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya, he was left wondering if intra-team etiquette had been breached.
JPM’s repeated door slamming into Turn 1 and HCN’s age-old practice of weaving deterred Pagenaud from improving his position, and while their tactics were incredibly blunt, it should not have come as a surprise to Simon. No one races harder than Montoya, and you’ll struggle to find a wider car than whatever Helio is driving – those are realities. Pagenaud has the pace to become a champion but, as we’ve seen so far in 2015, the path to the title will likely involve beating the other three Penske drivers, not to mention a few from Chip Ganassi’s squad. Getting the better of JPM and HCN will involve beating them at their own game, and as he learned at Long Beach, they won’t give an inch to others, much less a teammate.
DITTO FOR TUDOR
The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s 100-minute race on Saturday afternoon set the tone for IndyCar’s headlining race on Sunday. With the exception of a quick local yellow on the opening lap, the 17 Prototypes and GT Le Mans entries fought hard without interruption, and managed to produce a pair of jubilant winners.
Wayne Taylor Racing celebrated the one-year anniversary of signing Konica-Minolta as their primary sponsor by scoring the overall win with their Corvette DP, and local hero Bill Auberlen worked with co-driver Dirk Muller to return BMW to Victory Lane for the first time since 2013. Like the IndyCar contest, passing came at a premium, yet the effort expended by the winners and those who chased them was spectacular to watch. Ragged driving, while maintaining control, was the theme for IMSA and IndyCar at Long Beach.
If fans were bored by good behavior from the two major series in attendance, they saw a weekend’s worth of crashes packed into Sunday’s closing event as the Pirelli World Challenge series recorded one of the ugliest races in its 26-year history. By the time the 50-minute race ended, just seven laps had been completed under green.
Grand Prix at Long Beach chairman Jim Michaelian visited the media center moments after the race and wasn’t shy in proclaiming there were “too many cars, not enough good drivers.”
Based on the litany of fines and penalties doled out by PWC after the race, it’s clear the series is sending a message to its drivers that a repeat of Long Beach will not be tolerated.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
Horrible race today. Felt I was in a fist fight with my own car all day. Pit strategy backfired. Just went from bad to worse. On to Barber!
— Ryan Hunter-Reay (@RyanHunterReay) April 19, 2015
• LMP3 has certainly caught the attention of IMSA.
• The ARX-04b P2 coupe, according to HPD VP Steve Eriksen, will likely undergo development later in the year with an eye to racing the sidelined prototype. As the only North American-based manufacturer that is currently capable of producing a complete chassis on their own, HPD has also reiterated its desire, through IMSA, to become one of the four P2 constructors nominated by the ACO/FIA in 2017.
• Indy Lights race winner Zach Veach could make his return to the series with defending champions Belardi Racing. The young Ohioan is also set to make his IMSA debut at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with the JDC/Miller Motorsports PC team.
• My pre-season prediction that said KV Racing’s Stefano Coletti would launch into his rookie campaign looking like a veteran has been 100 percent wrong. The Monaco native’s propensity for hitting walls, tire barriers, and other cars has been one of the few constants in 2015, and has helped 2014 Indy Lights champ Gabby Chaves take an early lead in the Rookie of the Year standings. Chaves has also shed his fair share of Bryan Herta Autosport’s bodywork, but he appears to be calming down and settling in at a faster rate than Coletti.
• Charlie Kimball was the unsung performer on his way to 15th on Sunday. Pitting for a front wing replacement stalled the Californian’s charge, but once he returned to the track, “Charlie Murphy” managed to motor away from the leaders, despite being out of contention. Although his finishing position doesn’t reflect it, the work Kimball and driver coach Dario Franchitti have done this season is starting to show in Charlie’s pace.
• Helio Castroneves’ pole was 1.19 seconds faster than Ryan Hunter-Reay managed on his run to P1 without an aero kit in 2014. Looking to sector time comparisons from 2014-2015, top average speeds were almost identical in qualifying (161.777/161.824). The most significant speed increase from aero kits was revealed in the I6-I7 timing loop that begins just prior to the braking zone into Turn 9, and ends after cars exit the Turn 11 hairpin. That sector features the fastest string of consecutive corners recorded in the data, and showed the extra downforce carved 0.398 seconds from that stretch of road in one year (13.6165/13.2178).
• Former IndyCar driver EJ Viso won a Super Stadium Truck round at Long Beach and, afterward, mentioned he’d been contacted by Dale Coyne to take Carlos Huertas’ ride, but without his custom seat, was unable to accept the offer.
• An IndyCar team is looking to join the Indy Lights series as soon as it can procure a car.
• Sebastian Saavedra was nothing less than impressive on his debut with Chip Ganassi Racing. The error-prone Colombian came into Long Beach cold, yet drove like a veteran and came away with a clean run to 10th.
• Having missed the NOLA IndyCar round in favor of covering the WEC season opener at Silverstone, I was given at least a dozen accounts of how IndyCar’s first visit to Louisiana resulted in the worst experience imaginable for those who braved the rain, mud, and parking nightmares that ensued. Based on the those accounts, and provided IndyCar returns to NOLA, I’ll find a reason to be elsewhere in 2016.
• Conor Daly has received universal praise for his last-minute drive in Dale Coyne’s Honda, and it’s certainly deserved. Daly’s spirited drive wasn’t a surprise; we knew he’d be good, making Rocky Moran Jr.’s performance on Friday a genuine revelation. I hope he gets another shot with DCR once his broken thumb heals.
• Speaking of Huertas, DCR says it will welcome Grumpy Cat back to the team once he gets his finances in order.
• Jack Hawksworth was impressive all weekend and appeared to have the measure of his teammate Takuma Sato, who won the Long Beach race in 2013. Granted, Taku was hindered by two slow pit stops, but Jack was on a mission from FP1. It’s good to see A.J. Foyt Racing’s expansion to two cars has come with strong competition between teammates. Jack holds 16th in points entering Barber while Taku is 20th.
• Chris Simmons got his first win just three races into serving as Scott Dixon’s race engineer. Simmons moved over to Dixie’s car after Eric Bretzman, who engineered the Kiwi’s car for more than a decade, transitioned to Ganassi’s NASCAR program.
• With all the custom IndyCar liveries at Long Beach, the high quality of colors and designs throughout the field was rather pleasing to the eye.
• From six total races for CFH Racing’s tandem of Josef Newgarden and Luca Filippi, the pair has earned four top-10s. Newgarden holds ninth in the standings—ahead of Graham Rahal, and as the team continues to jell, I expect CFH to become a consistent player at every round.
• Plenty has been said about Helio’s jumped start. From the view provided by the helicopter, Castroneves started hard acceleration while Marco Andretti, who was 10th on the grid, was dead center in the hairpin…
• With all of the front wing damage that has been incurred this season, Penske is rumored to have purchased 25 new mainplanes from Dallara.
• Ed Jones’ mastery of the 2015 Indy Lights season continued at Long Beach where the rookie scored his third consecutive win. Jones and Carlin Racing are threatening to run away with the championship unless other teams find whatever they’re missing ASAP.
• IndyCar’s call for Chevy to remove the wing-on-a-stick from its road course aero kits (until tethers can be added to keep them attached in an impact) did not slow the Bowtie drivers down in a meaningful way, but the mild loss of overall downforce and mild increase in drag did impact their ultimate pace. With the units installed, the Chevys would have been even faster around Long Beach…
• The average age of the three drivers leading the championship (JPM, HCN, and Tony Kanaan) is 39.3. The average age of the three drivers at the bottom of the standings (who’ve completed two or more races) is 23.