Welcome to the RACER Mailbag. Questions for any of RACER’s writers can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the high volume of questions received, we can’t guarantee that every letter will be published, but we’ll answer as many as we can. Published questions may be edited for length and clarity. Questions received after 3pm ET each Monday will appear the following week.
Q: I’m worried about my favorite hat autograph-signer, Jack Harvey. If he continues his streak of back-half finishes, does Hy-Vee start to regret making him the face of its advertising blitz? And does RLL, sensing that regret, give Jack “The Veach” and put Santino Ferrucci in the No. 45 for the rest of ’22? Or does RLL let Jack limp on this year while conducting a Kirkwood extraction mission for ’23? Or maybe Pato “I’m distracted by the poop storm that I myself created” O’Ward?
I would hope RLL doesn’t penalize Jack for a missed start due to concussion, but Oliver Askew has something to say about Arrow McLaren SP and my hope. Are my worries legit? Your thoughts welcome.
MP: I haven’t had a chance to connect with Jack to ask about his weekend, but he was off from the outset and he certainly deserves a pass after the hit at Texas. If he isn’t back to his customary form by Barber, I’ll be surprised. Jack’s 45 car has a newly-promoted race engineer Mike Armbrester on the timing stand, and like every new combination, it takes time for the relationship to hit its stride. They’re both super-talented, so better days are ahead.
Q: Just had a remarkable weekend in Long Beach! Been to the last 25 races here. Question that came up from a friend that joined me this year, and I never gave it a thought — do the drivers stay in the paddock overnight in their haulers, or do they (or some) stay in more luxury suites/hotels offsite?
P.S. Great to see that battle with Romain and Josef in the end! Stinks that it ended up under yellow, but I will not join that group and will remain a purist that accepts that sometimes this happens.
Pongo in SoCal
MP: Most stay at the Hyatt Regency that sits inside the track. If you happen to walk by the entrance early in the morning or late at night, you’ll see just about every driver’s scooter parked in front… Sato’s crash ended the party a wee bit early, but Grosjean’s alternate tires had nothing left to give and Newgarden was never going to let him go by without a hellacious fight. I don’t think the podium order would have changed if it stayed green until the checkered flag. I’m also not sure Newgarden receives enough respect as one of the best IndyCar drivers today and, if he continues down the path he’s on, as possibly the best of his generation.
Q: Bad stops for both Rossi and Herta last weekend. These bad stops have been going on with this team for years and have cost them countless races. At what point does Michael make massive changes to these put crews? Enough is enough!
Chris, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
MP: It’s been the only consistent aspect of the team’s season to date, which is unfortunate. The other point to make is how, with all the teams and drivers being so close in performance these days, it no longer takes a big mistake to create a setback; perform a nine-second stop when your rival gets out in eight, and you could be screwed. The pressure to be flawless and fast on pit lane is at the highest level of intensity I can recall during the Dallara DW12 era.
Q: Who, in your opinion, are the best five drivers in IndyCar?
Jordan, Warwickshire, UK
MP: I can’t wait to get the angry texts from drivers who weren’t named, Jordan…thanks…
Kidding aside, I’m about results, not potential results, so for those who’ve proven they are top contenders, I’ll pick Josef Newgarden, Alex Palou, Scott Dixon, Colton Herta and Will Power. Of the drivers on the cusp of displacing some of those in that top five, I’d go with Graham Rahal, Pato O’Ward, Scott McLaughlin, Marcus Ericsson, Kyle Kirkwood, Romain Grosjean, Simon Pagenaud and Rinus VeeKay.
Q: I saw the Long Beach post-race interview with Jimmie Johnson where he said “you have to live on the razor’s edge on these street courses” and “there’s no margin for error.” He did have a rough weekend. I wonder where his confidence is as he ponders the edge you have to live on in the concrete canyons of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
MP: I felt so bad for Jimmie, returning for his home race, and having things go from bad to worse to miserable. I’m more concerned about a lack of confidence to hang his car out around the next event at Barber Motorsports Park than at the Indy 500. He’ll be just fine at the Speedway. Dipping and cresting Barber’s hills with the back of his car sliding in an instant and needing lightning-fast micro corrections to keep it on the tarmac? That’s where a rough weekend like Long Beach could create doubt.
Q: This one could apply to basically any form of motorsport, but why is it that in F1 and IndyCar in particular, your pace is depending so much on your car setup? How come IndyCar title contenders O’Ward and Rossi needed three races this year to finally score a somewhat decent result after having been off the pace in Texas and St. Pete?
F1 is no different: K-Mag hit the ground running this season, scoring points in both Bahrain and Jeddah, but struggled all weekend long in Melbourne because his team started on wrong foot when dialing in his car.
As if fuel saving and tire management weren’t already painful enough to watch, messing up your car setup is probably what frustrates me the most in motorsport these days. On top of that, it looks pretty obvious to me that some drivers have better engineers than others. Just have a look at IndyCar’s Team Penske: both McLaughlin and Newgarden are the top of the class, while Power (who’s got more experience and won more races than both his teammates together) struggles in the midfield. Same thing at Ferrari: Leclerc is blossoming whereas Sainz (who’s been there three seasons longer and is notorious for being a hard worker) is having trouble matching the Monegasque’s pace. Nothing against Scotty, Josef, or Charles, but clearly modern F1 and IndyCar are both becoming more and more of an engineering contest, and less and less about driving. I might sound like an old timer, but shouldn’t motorsport be about courage, guts, driving technique, focus, giving everything your body can stand and pushing your car to the limit?
What is it in these cars that make their pace rely so much on setup? Aerodynamics/wing angles? Suspensions? Dampers? Ride height? Gear ratios? And isn’t there a way to design the cars to put the performance back in the driver’s hands (and less in the engineer’s brain)?
Xavier from France
MP: Hi, Xavier. I need to clean a few things up, first. Power’s delivered three top fives in three races, so not the midfield. Newgarden’s race engineer has been an IndyCar race engineer for three races, and won two, so he’s clearly very good, but I wouldn’t rank him above David Faustino or Ben Bretzman, both championship- and Indy 500-winning engineers with Team Penske.
Not sure about the frustration with how much chassis setup dictates pace “these days.” It’s been that way since the first automobile race was held. Race cars have always relied on quality setups for drivers to perform at their best. It’s a completely false premise you’re presenting, unfortunately.
Back when Parnelli Jones drifted Ol’ Calhoun to victory at the 1963 Indy 500, decisions were made on ride height, toe, damping, springing, tire pressures, etc., to give his roadster better performance than the other cars. Go back decades or forward decades, and the technology changed, but the vehicle setup is what gave drivers the ability to succeed or fail.