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IndyCar Open Wheel

Engineer Swaps Could Be Key to Success

When the 2016 Verizon IndyCar season ended everyone was on notice that Team Penske would be the team to beat. With its four drivers, Simon Pagenaud (5 wins and the 2016 Championship), Will Power (4), Juan Pablo Montoya (1), and Helio Castroneves (0), the team racked up ten victories in sixteen events. Maybe not a surprise as Team Penske is known for its ultra professionalism and its name is synonymous with success.

This Chevrolet-powered team greatly contributed to the domination of Honda, the other engine manufacturer in the series. Scott Dixon (2 wins) driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, Sebastien Bourdais (1) for KVSH Racing, and Josef Newgarden (1) for Ed Carpenter Racing gave Chevy its other four victories. Honda, however, did win the most coveted event, the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, with rookie Alexander Rossi driving for Andretti Autosport. Also winning for Honda was Graham Rahal (driving for his father’s team – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), by stealing a victory at Texas from fellow Honda driver, James Hinchcliffe (driving for Schmidt Peterson Racing). 

Making it even harder for teams to get to Winner’s Circle this year is the freeze on the development of aero kits that both Chevy and Honda designed (kits consisting of front and rear wings, side pods, and engine cover). And, while Honda seemed to be stronger than Chevy on superspeedways, Chevy won all the road, street course, and short oval events. So if an engine manufacturer didn’t have the optimal design as the 2015 season ended, the rules prohibit changes.

One of the ways to obtain ideas on how to improve your effort is to hire people away from winning teams. And, with the majority of the IndyCar team shops located in the Indianapolis area, it makes it very easy for personnel to change employers. 

RLLR hired Tom German who was Rossi’s engineer last season at Andretti and before that had over ten years at Team Penske.

“We brought on Tom German to help out on the engineering front with specialty projects, particularly because Indianapolis was such a struggle,” explained Rahal. “German brought with him a wealth of knowledge. German implemented some of the processes that say a Penske does in areas that we weren’t that strong. Even areas we actually thought we were, and he looked at and suggested a whole bunch of stuff, At Iowa I struggled with massive tire vibration issues the last couple years; I had no hope. Yet, he’s cured me of that. On the preparation side of things, German has already pinpointed things we need to do.

“My hope, as a Honda guy through and through, is that the engine can continue to improve and overcome what the aero kit lacks. There is no doubt that there are aero kit inefficiencies. It is a little bit tough going into a season knowing we’re going to have the same uphill battle we’ve had for the last couple years. I actually believe that Honda on the engine side is pretty strong and will continue to develop. Horsepower can overcome anything!”

Newgarden won on the shortest oval in 2016, the Iowa race. His engineer at ECR, Jeremy Milless (pictured), was recently hired to fill the vacancy at AA as Rossi’s engineer. Certainly, Ryan Hunter-Reay will appreciate his expertise after his struggles at Iowa last season.

“Eric Bretzman has been brought over from Ganassi’s NASCAR program (formerly Dixon’s IndyCar engineer) as Technical Director (of Andretti Autosport),” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 IndyCar champion. “He asked what our biggest complaint was and why we weren’t addressing it.

“We also have Jeremy from ECR. One track really threw us for a loop last year. We’ve always been very, very strong at Iowa. It just completely turned on its head for us last year. In the past, I knew exactly where to put the car, what I could do with the wheel over the bumps – what I could get away with, and the car would be forgiving. This past race every bump I went over was trying to turn the car around. It was almost terrifying to drive because it was only a matter of time before something bad would happen. I can’t say I was overly disappointed when the engine expired.

“We know the areas we need to improve in and we’ve been focusing on that this off-season. There’s no reason why we can’t win four or five races.”

Justin Taylor, coming from the Audi factory LMP1 sports car program, joined ECR as JR Hildebrand’s engineer. And, AJ Foyt Racing, switching to Chevy power, added Will Phillips, who previously served as IndyCar’s VP of Technology, to be Carlos Munoz’s engineer.

With testing limited to only four days, teams look for any means to become more competitive. Hiring engineers from other teams is one way to cross-pollinate the lessons learned and bring in new ideas. And, that’s what makes the IndyCar series so enjoyable to watch with its stiff competition and versatility challenge for both drivers and teams having to adapt to ovals – short and superspeedways, and the road and street courses.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Confidence, Chemistry and Cohesion Put Hildebrand Back Full-Time

The past three years of hard work have paid off for JR Hildebrand. Last week, it was announced he would be running the full schedule for the organization in 2017 behind the wheel of the No. 21 Chevrolet.

“It’s great, man,” Hildebrand said. “It’s obviously exciting to be back full-time first and foremost. But to be back here with this team and to get it done this early in the off-season so that we can kind of get the program ready for next year is all just great. I mean, obviously working with ECR over the last three seasons now, it doesn’t feel like a new home necessarily, it feels like somewhere that I’ve been for quite a while now. I think with that, we’ll be able to just jump in and get with the program.”

Over the past three years, Hildebrand ran a partial schedule in sharing the No. 20 entry with team owner Ed Carpenter, running Indianapolis, and filling in for Josef Newgarden at a pair of tests last season. He said the process has been about creating “a home for myself here,” as he wanted to be able to do the full schedule eventually with ECR. The test opportunity just allowed him to back the theory up, showcasing his ability to work with the team on the set of goals they wanted to accomplish for Newgarden at the time.

“I think that really gave me a lot of energy to sort of sit there and go, ‘Yes, I want to be back here doing this,’ not just because I feel like I’ve got unfinished business, but because I really want to be here,” Hildebrand said. “I really enjoy it. I sort of am ready to take advantage of that type of opportunity. That was a great experience to have over the course of the season, getting a little more seat time than expected. It’s great to be able to just build from that as we get prepared for next year.”

For team owner Ed Carpenter, he felt it was only natural to have Hildebrand behind the wheel of the team’s full-time entry due to the chemistry and cohesion they’ve already built over the past three years. With the pair having similar likes in the car and the success they’ve experienced together, confidence shines through. Carpenter stated while there were a lot of conversations with a few different drivers over whom should drive the car, Hildebrand seemed always to find his way to the top of the list, dating back to an initial conversation together in 2013.

“JR and I have been talking about this before he ever ran a car for us at Indy for the first time,” Carpenter said. “It took us a little longer than I think any of us initially thought it would to get to this point. But JR has done a good job for us, has been patient with me as an owner and us as a team getting here. But every time we’ve had him in a car, at the Speedway, different races, different tests, even outside of last year, JR has always done everything that we’ve asked and then some. It gave us a lot of confidence that it didn’t need to be a difficult process, really we didn’t need to make it any more difficult than necessary because the guy we needed was sitting right in front of us.”

It’s not the first attempt at a full schedule for Hildebrand, though. The 28-year-old made a move to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011 with Panther Racing after winning the Indy Lights title in 2009. He ran a couple of seasons for Panther before things fell apart and Hildebrand made his way over to ECR.

Now entering the year driving the car which finished fourth in points last season, Hildebrand is not set to shy away from the ‘pretty high’ expectations. He believes they should be in contention to win on ovals right away, even based off his own sixth in the Indianapolis 500 last year, while building on the road/street program ECR built-up with Newgarden.

“He proved to be a threat at those places more often than not. That’s a challenge that I’m really looking forward to sort of tackling over the off-season and into the year to make sure that we’re equally competitive at those events, as well,” Hildebrand. “I think the expectation is that, kind of as Ed mentioned earlier in the call, that we continue to build from where the team is right now. I think we can hit the ground running. I think a big part of the focus for me is being totally prepared to be able to do that right from St. Pete, have there not be a period of sort of layoff and using the first few races to get back in the swing of things. I’ll be highly focused on being totally prepared to really hit the ground running when the season kicks off.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Hildebrand Returning to Full-Time IndyCar Competition

After running a partial schedule last year for Ed Carpenter Racing, it marks no surprise that J.R. Hildebrand will be running the full schedule for the organization in 2017 behind the wheel of the No. 21 Chevrolet.

“Honestly, I just couldn’t be more ready to get started,” Hildebrand said. “I’ve been close to, but still outside of, this role for long enough to really understand and embrace the opportunity to be back in the Verizon IndyCar Series full-time.

“The relationship I’ve had with Ed Carpenter and ECR has honed my determination to get back in the seat because of how confident I feel in what we could do together. Now, I’m here to make it happen.  I feel like I’ve got something to prove and can’t think of a better place to do it.”

The 28-year-old made the move to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011 with Panther Racing after winning the Indy Lights title in 2009. The Californian finished sixth in the Indianapolis 500 this past season.

“We first started talking about this in 2013 and the timing has just now worked to give JR an opportunity to show what he can do with a full-time ride,” Carpenter said. “The job that he has done for the team each time we have put him in a car the past three years has proven to us that he is the right man for the job. Whether it has been his role with the team during the past three 500s or the testing he has done for us over the past two years, he consistently shows he deserves a full-time opportunity. I am confident that JR will shine in the 21 car and that ECR will continue to post the results we have grown to expect.”

Hildebrand has been associated with ECR for the past three years, sharing the No. 20 entry and running the road courses while team owner Ed Carpenter focused on the ovals. Carpenter, the only owner/driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series, will drive the oval events again in 2017 while the team plans to field the car at the road/street events are still under consideration.

Hildebrand moves into the seat previously occupied by Josef Newgarden, as he moves over to Team Penske.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.