Chevrolet’s IndyCar program manager Rob Buckner insists that there has been no time for complacency ahead of tomorrow’s Indianapolis 500, despite the Bowtie locking up nine of the first 12 places on the starting grid.
Chevy’s qualifying performance reinforced a growing sense in the paddock that the manufacturer goes into the race with a slight performance advantage, following on from two years during the manufacturer aero kit era when rival Honda had the better of it at the Speedway.
HPD president Art St Cyr suggested as much on Friday, saying that he believed Chevy had closed the performance gap.
“The other side obviously had a disadvantage in the last couple of years, and now they’ve come back strong,” said St Cyr.
“There’s a lot of things that went into this – it’s a new aero kit, and whether their engine suits the aero kit more, or if they’ve found something in the [standard] aero kit that our teams haven’t, I can’t say. Overall we were down, clearly the results show that, and we need to get to the bottom of that from our technical side – how did that happen, how did we come back from that one. We’re already thinking about next year and how we’re going to avoid that.”
But despite the strong showing in qualifying, Buckner said that Chevrolet’s approach over the past week has been anything but relaxed.
“Not at all,” he told RACER. “I’d say as a group we enjoyed pole day, we enjoyed not having any of our Chevy teams get bumped, we took our photos in Turn 1 on the Monday morning, and since then we have not talked about qualifying. It’s just been blinders on and heads down. Our whole trackside group acts as if we don’t have a single car in the top 10. There is no complacency at all. But that’s what they’re good at – we had multiple issues on cars on Carb Day. The No.13 car was in the garage; we had to resolve that and get Danica back on track. We still have enough things going on that no one is comfortable.”
This year’s move away from manufacturer aero kits means Chevy and Honda have less overall influence on total car performance than they did over the past few seasons. As a result, said Buckner, it’s not easy to pinpoint specific areas where Chevy might have made up ground with its Speedway package for 2018, but from an engine standpoint, the development aim was to build upon what was already a stout platform.
“Our engine has always done really well at 1.4 [bar] power,” he said. “If you go back over the history of the program, we’ve always run well at Iowa, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and then qualifying here [at Indy] we’ve always done well, except that we didn’t get the pole in ’16 or ’17.
“It’s tough to say, because over the last few years, it’s been the whole package – the engine was a portion of it, the aero kit was a portion of it, and it was a whole system of performance, whereas this year we can say OK, it’s just the engine. But it’s hard to compare to last year. We did all we could do with that was open for 2018; we turned over every stone and looked at every area possible to make the engine stronger in a wider rev range.
“And a lot of it comes down to the teams nailing the gearing for qualifying, and ECR, Penske and Foyt all had really quick cars.
“We’ve never given up anything here to improve our 1.5 [ED: road/street] car performance, because… I think it would be the same for us and HPD in that you’ve got to make sure that whatever you’re working on has got to be right for 1.3 bar, and then you go from there. The Speedway has always taken priority on power development.”
Along with power, good fuel mileage is a cornerstone to a successful Indy 500 campaign, as demonstrated vividly by Alexander Rossi in 2016. Paddock chatter points to Chevy having a slight edge in this department this year as well, although again, Buckner is a little more cautious.
“At the Grand Prix, we were really happy with Will [Power] – he wasn’t running on fumes, he pulled a gap out on Scott [Dixon]… I think that was huge for the 1.5 running,” he said.
“We don’t have really any fuel mileage data from Phoenix because people were short-pitting due to tire life and then there were yellows. So we really don’t know, other than we know we’re not negligent on it at 1.5, so usually that type of stuff scales. So I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
Perhaps the biggest race day variable of all is the one that neither manufacturer can control: the thermometer. The current race day forecast is 94.F and sunny, meaning that track temperatures will be hotter than at any time during qualifying or practice. According to Buckner, the impact this could have on the cars’ handling could easily offset any engine performance advantage.
“Everyone’s car is going to be the worst it’s been all month,” Buckner said. “I think every driver is going to be upset with how their car is driving. If you look at the qualifying speeds, if we do have a slight advantage, it’s not enough to change race pace. It’s not enough to fix an ill-handling car.
“The best thing we can do is have good race reliability, make sure we’ve got good fuel mileage options, try to tailor them to each driver to make sure they’ve got all the options we can have for them, and then just hope that the execution goes well. This place is finicky, and it certainly doesn’t owe you anything, so… we just try not to make her mad.”