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.
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