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IndyCar Open Wheel

No Vacation Spent as Teams Work Through Off Season

With the current schedule, the Verizon IndyCar Series runs from mid-March to mid-September, therefore leaving half a year is without competition. So what happens during the off-season?

While it may appear that they’ve taken a six-month vacation, teams are still hard at work trying to find an edge over their competitors. 

Teams methodically go back through all the information they’ve collected during the racing season, analyze and dissect it, trying to discover how they can be better. Race weekends offer little chance to make corrections other than small tweaks for a given track. If the car rolls off the transporter with the wrong set up, there is little track time to make corrections and still fine tune the car. 

“During the off season, teams typically take the car apart trying to get it back to its minimum weight,” explained Bill Pappas, IndyCar’s VP of Competition – Race Engineering, a former team engineer. “Every time something is added, such as a safety feature, it causes the car to gain weight. As the team tries to rebalance the car, they look at the drive line components, the shafts and joints. While they can’t change the gear box, they may improve performance with coatings and by polishing parts. Teams also work on their uprights (wheel assembly) to have the lowest drag as possible for ovals.”

The off season can actually be very busy as teams bench test as much as possible and take advantage of computer-aided simulations. Making use of these tools is at a premium since IndyCar has limited private team testing to only four days (from the Sonoma finale to mid-April) due to the aero kit development freeze (body work consisting of front and rear wings, side pods, and engine cover).

“This is the first year we are using the same aero (kits),” said Kyle Moyer, Team Penske’s Competition Director. “In the past, we had to learn how to run the new car. Sometimes we test using the seven poster rig or use a wind tunnel. The car isn’t changing for 2017 so we still have that data. IndyCar has opened up some rules that allow us to make refinements such as changes to the roll bars (driver cockpit adjustment).

“Everyone is changing over to Performance Friction Corporation (PFC) brakes. We’ve only had one day to try them out. You have to learn their characteristics as the PFC brakes are different than the previous brakes we’ve used (Brembo). They run at different temperatures and the brake bias is different. We can now modify the brake pedal with the rules opening up with a mixation system, which hasn’t been allowed since 2012.

“We have spent the off season at Team Penske expanding to a fifth entry for the Indianapolis 500 (for driver Juan Pablo Montoya). Both Tim (Cindric) and Roger (Penske) have told us that effort needs to have everything the other four cars have, including pit equipment and fuel tanks.”

Some teams are better at figuring out which aero kit parts to use and in what combination for a particular track. It’s not until the fastest driver demonstrates what is achievable that a team can know that they haven’t succeeded in finding the optimum performance.  

“Our mechanical package really suited the DW12 (2012 chassis with universal body work),” said Andretti Autosport driver and 2013 IndyCar champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay. “We figured it out, we nailed it, and we were fast on street courses. With the new aero load, the different package with the aero kits, it rendered some of our street course set ups useless. We had to start reinventing the wheel all over again. That’s been a process where we’ve been a few steps behind.”

With Chip Ganassi Racing changing from Chevy to Honda power this season, their engineering staff has carefully studied the performance of every Honda aero kit part.

“You can pick up on things quite quickly using segment times and overlays, looking at statistics and the data you have every weekend at these tracks,” described Scott Dixon, four-time IndyCar champion (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015). “You discover exactly where the deficits are. Over the winter, we’ve found some good gains. Whether it’s enough at some places, or maybe not, we know where the weaknesses are.”

Moving to Dale Coyne Racing for 2017, Sebastien Bourdais recalls how far behind his 2016 season effort was after losing all his team members during the off season. Only his engineer returned at KVSH Racing. That uncertainty alone would reduce driver confidence. Bourdais cited that his right front tire man had never changed a tire before the first race.

“You just can’t go backwards for five months out of the year,” explained four- time Champ Car titlist (2004 – 2007), Bourdais. “You are only as good as the team and the team is only as good as its people. Dale (Coyne) has an effort that runs from January 1 to Dec. 31. While the resources and personnel are limited, it’s not all about the means but more about the consistency.”

With aero kits frozen for 2017, results will depend on engine performance and how well teams fine-tune their use of available parts to suit each track after their off season homework.

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

Ed Jones Pleased with Initial IndyCar Testing

While many drivers dream of being able to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series, that dream is coming true for Ed Jones this year as he will be driving for Dale Coyne Racing.

“I’m really looking forward to my first IndyCar season,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “There’s been a lot of work during the off-season by the team, as well, in taking in some new engineers, changes and having Sebastian on-board. The pre-season has gone testing really well so far. I feel really good going into St. Pete, feeling confident, that we can make a good first race. We know it’ll be tough as well, but we’re doing quite well, and Dale is putting in the work to keep improving.”

Last season, DCR was solid with Conor Daly scoring five top-10s, including a runner-up in Detroit, en route to finishing 16th in points. Since then, though, the team has been hard at working at improving the program to be stronger this season.

Coyne hired four-time CART Champion Sebastian Bourdais, who has scored eight career IndyCar victories through his career, as well as bringing in new engineers, including Craig Hampton and Oliver Boisson, which have both worked with Bourdais in the past. The decision was then made to hire Jones to drive the team’s second car.

Thus far, things have been going well between the teammates, with Jones noting how much of a help Bourdais has been already.

“I’m thankful for that, and it’s a great position to be in having someone with a lot of experience to learn from,” he said. “I think it’ll really show when we get to the race weekends. It’ll be important to have someone to talk about things, and help me move forward.”

The feeling is mutual between the teammates, as Bourdais expressed confidence in his young teammate while speaking with Popular Speed last month.

“He’s got the talent, not rushing through the series as he’s taken steps, and knows some about the ovals, so he’s not coming straight from Europe and having to learn tracks and rules,” Bourdais said. “So I think he’ll do a good job. For me, of course, it’s better to have an experienced teammate, but I knew all along that in Dale making the commitment on our side, there would have to be a compromise on the other side. I think a rookie can help you and the team in general. I think they picked a smart rookie who won’t do anything stupid and wreck stuff every weekend, so I’m happy with that.”

The discussion surrounding Jones’ move up to the IndyCar Series doesn’t just stop at Bourdais, either, as many people within the industry at expecting him to do well following the past two seasons in Indy Lights.

After becoming the European F3 Open Champion, Jones made his move to Indy Lights in 2015, winning three races and finishing third in points for Carlin Racing. Jones returned to Carlin this past season, putting together a very impressive run en route to his first career series championship.

After starting off the season with a 10th and a seventh, Ed Jones turned up the heat with four straight top-tw0 finishes to take over the points lead following the sixth race of the season. From there, he continued to put in the top-five performances, only slipping up on a couple of occasions. Though while the season was full of great moments, it’ll all be remembered by Jones’ teammate Felix Serellas letting him by on the last lap at Laguna Seca to clinch the championship ahead of Santiago Urruita.

By winning the championship, he picked up the $1 million Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires scholarship, which locked him in for three Verizon IndyCar Series races with any team he could make a deal with, including the Indianapolis 500. The award, combined with other sponsors, will allow Jones to run the No. 18 Honda on a full-time basis in 2017.

While there may be expectations on him based on these performances, Jones isn’t setting anything concrete till he sees how he and the team stack up against the competition in the series opener at St. Petersburg. However, he notes one of the keys will be learning as much as he can this year.

“They’ll be a lot more going on than I’m used to – pit stop strategies, fuel saving,” he said. “But I think we should be able to be on the podium towards the end of the season.”

He’s gotten the chance to test out the IndyCar thus far, taking part in the series open test at Phoenix International Raceway, where he felt he was able to get comfortable behind the wheel “quicker than expected.”

“I feel I’m jelling with the team real well,” he said. “I think Phoenix is one of the toughest ovals with how it is with the speed into the corners. The biggest surprise was the aerodynamics and how much it affects when you’re following another car. I had that in Indy Lights, but IndyCar is a much higher level.”

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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Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY: Can Coyne Challenge The Big Boys?

A lot of INDYCAR experts (myself included) raised eyebrows this off-season when four-time ChampCar World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais announced he was joining Dale Coyne Racing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

And why not? Bourdais and his former employer KV Racing had posted a victory the previous year at Detroit and had collected ten top 10 finishes in 16 events. Once the evidence of an iffy situation at KV was revealed, as mentioned previously on Embury’s Outlook, it appeared the Frenchman was moving quickly to simply secure a full-time seat for the future. The evidence behind Bourdais’ reasoning was then further divulged in a recent interview with Popular Speed’s Ashley McCubbin.

However, now with everything on the table, perhaps the questions are being erased. After all, the off-season has witnessed the Chicago-based operation loosen the purse strings a little bit to bring in top line personnel. Craig Hampson, who was Bourdais’ engineer at Newman-Haas Racing during his four-year championship run has been added to brain trust, while Bourdais’ engineer at KV last year Olivier Boisson, has also been hired. The moves have given the veteran wheelman the belief a team known more for simply perservering in both CART and INDYCAR is now capable of mixing it up with the best of the bunch on the North American open-wheel racing tour.

In this edition of Embury’s Outlook, we will look at what it will take for Bourdais and his new teammate Ed Jones, the reigning Cooper Tires Indy Lights Champion, to become contenders not solely for race wins, but to have an outside chance to win the 2017 championship.

If there is one thing from last year adding to the optimism, it is the fact Coyne’s squad certainly made some steps forward on the road courses, especially in the case of Conor Daly’s efforts. The second-generation driver was within a quicker pit stop away from possibly pulling off an upset win at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, settling for sixth at the finish. The Indiana-native then finished second to Bourdais in the first leg of the Chevrolet Duel in Detroit and placed sixth in the second leg the following day. Daly went on to post two more top six results before taking his services to A.J. Foyt Racing for 2017.

While the road and street circuit half of the equation appear stout, the team must improve its efforts on ovals to become a full-fledged title contender. While Honda’s two 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series wins came on the high-speed circuits, DCR placed no better than 14th in any oval track round this past season.

The team must also qualify higher up on the starting grid. While Daly did post results, a majority of those efforts had to be gained through aggressive driving or clever strategy to make up for lackluster efforts in time trials.

Of course, the other barrier Coyne must clear is a plethora of strong teams that are part of the Honda engine camp. Not only does the addition of Chip Ganassi Racing make the situation more difficult, but when you consider the resumes of Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, you will witness four operations which all have shown few weaknesses despite the limited number of victories a year ago.

So while it may be tough to jump from worst to first in one season, a 2017 campaign that sees either Bourdais, Jones, or both pilots reach the top ten on the final points table, should be considered a victory for this operation. After all, they’ve been able to tough it out and continue to battle, while other more successful operations have either regressed or left the sport entirely.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

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

Stability, Personnel Make Coyne Right for Bourdais

Going into the Verizon IndyCar Series season, there are lots of questions surrounding how things will play with all the changes happening.

One of those – how will Sebastien Bourdais make out with Dale Coyne Racing?

Back in October, DCR announced that Bourdais would drive full-time for the organization beginning in 2017 as part of a multi-year deal. It’s a deal which brings excitement, “a new challenge”, and “quite a bit of anticipation” for Bourdais in the group he’s surrounded himself with.

“To be honest, what Dale had to offer was very appealing to me,” Bourdais told Popular Speed. “He’s in control of his cost, been in the series for a long time, and a strong believer if you can reunite the right group of people around you, you can achieve a lot. Hopefully, we can prove that, have a lot of fun and put the results in front of the expectations.”

For Bourdais and Coyne, the discussions started early – dating back to the middle of 2016 – to try and put something together for this season. Those discussions began after concerns surrounding KVSH Racing’s future for Bourdais were heightened due to a tough off-season heading into the season.

“We had a very complicated off-season, which seemed to be going very well till January 2016 arrived and the pieces started to fall apart,” he said. “We started losing people, firing people, running out of the cash and it was very difficult to see the high hopes from the ’15 where we had strength in the organization and moving forward and everything seemed to be in the place. It seemed like we were losing every mechanic and having to rebuild as the season was knocking at the door.”

Based on everything that happened, Bourdais feels their season suffered from that as they weren’t ever fully able to recover from that, especially on the engineering side.

“We obviously didn’t do what we needed to do during the winter because we couldn’t,” he said. “That was really disappointing, and the real main reason why I started talking to other people because I didn’t want to go through that again.

“But I’m still very thankful to everybody at KVSH because they gave me a shot and we won some races. We did win one last year. It wasn’t the season we were hoping for, but we did the best with what we had and like I said, that’s all we can do. But for sure, the start of the season was very tough and got back a bit more in line towards the end. We showed some good things, but it didn’t quite work the way we wanted.”

Compared to the situation of last year, Bourdais says it was a “no-brainer” to partner with Coyne, knowing what he had to offer, along with the opportunity to work with Craig Hampton and Oliver Boisson.

Hampson joins DCR after spending four years with Andretti Autosport. He previously worked with Bourdais in the Champ Car World Series, scoring 31 victories, 31 pole positions and four consecutive Championships from 2004 to 2007. Meanwhile, Boisson was Bourdais’ Race Engineer while at KVSH Racing the past couple years, claiming four victories.

“I think the key factor was to be able to do all that, and do that early so we wouldn’t be scrambling around to get it together last minute,” Bourdais said. “Dale’s commitment to these guys, bringing them in early in October – first Oliver, Craig quite a bit later – to give them enough time to put procedures in place in how they wanted to work in the environment was key, and it’s already kind of in motion and quite honestly, in full gear. They’ve been working to take the team from where it was and get it better and better. Mike Cannon staying was key as well.

“While there’s enough time to build a revolution, we’re just trying to build on the strengths of the team and get better.”

It’s worth noting Coyne was able to have some success last year, with rookie Conor Daly behind the wheel. Daly ran up front, leading laps and posting five top-10 finishes, including a runner-up in Detroit.

While there’s excitement, Bourdais is quick to admit he’s being “cautiously optimistic” right now till he gets the test at Sebring International Raceway on September 24 and 25. He had a chance to test already at Gateway Motorsports Park, though notes it happened before all the personnel pieces fell in place. Switching from Chevrolet to Honda, Bourdais says it felt right.

“I think we all see from the outside what I think it is and then it changes when you get to drive it,” he said. “I got to drive it at Gateway, which was really early and before Oliver was with us, which I was quite pleased with how it went, concerning the motor and power. To compare the aero kit would be difficult as we didn’t collect any data or anything like that. But the engine, I was quite pleased and I think it’s going to be good. Again, I don’t want to come out bush about the whole thing, but I’m pretty excited about it.”

The opportunism from Bourdais is not a surprise, considering Tony Kanaan stated he felt Honda could win more races than last year based on what he saw at his recent test with Chip Ganassi Racing as they switch from Chevrolet to Honda.

“I think when you look at the season last year and the whole thing in generally in racing, most packages have strengths and weaknesses,” Bourdais said. “Regardless what side you are in, some weekends will give you an upper hand and some you won’t; there will be equal opportunities for both to do well. For us right now, I spoke to the Ganassi guys and got a first take in what they thought they saw and everything. It was quite interesting, actually. Not going to get into details, but they were quite pleased.”

With everything at play right now, Bourdais has yet to set any concrete goals, but rather focus on doing the best that he can once the year gets started.

“For sure, everybody wants to win races and wants to be on poles and stuff, but for me, it doesn’t really make any sense and come out and say what we need to do and if we don’t, then what? We’ll be disappointed, of course,” he said. “I think we’re just going to work as hard as we can and do the best job possible, and hopefully it takes us to podiums and wins. Hopefully, we do a good job; that’s all we can hope for. If that gets us in the top-five in the championship, that’ll be great.

“I don’t think there’s anything productive in setting targets; it just adds pressure as far as I’m concerned. I just trust everybody in the organization to do their better, and I’ll do the same.”

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

Ganassi Teammates Join Ford Quartet For Rolex 24

After regular appearances in the battle for overall victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar teammates Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon’s efforts in January 2017 at the Daytona International Speedway road course will be in a different form.

Despite earning multiple overall wins over the past decade, Chip Ganassi Racing’s focus in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship has shifted from the purpose-built racing designs to the grand touring muscle car wars. With the latest announcement, two former Indianapolis 500 champions will represent one-sixth of a twelve driver, four-car lineup as Ganassi begins his second season with the relatively new Ford GT challenger in the GT Le Mans division.

After entering just two cars in its debut effort in 2016, Ford and Ganassi have doubled its attack to a full quartet for 2017, matching its output posed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this past June when Ford won the GT division in its first effort in France in over a decade.

New Zealand’s Scott Dixon, was a part of Ford’s Le Mans effort, finishing third alongside former IndyCar regular Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. The Iceman is also no stranger to contending for victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, having taken the overall win with Ganassi on two occasions in 2006 and 2015.

The 2017 Ganassi Ford GT program at Daytona will represent Tony Kanaan’s third effort in the grand touring divisions at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with his best finish coming in his debut run in 1998 with Tom Gloy Racing’s Ford Mustang squad when he finished third. Like his IndyCar teammate Dixon, TK was a part of Ganassi’s overall victory in 2015 and also nearly won the 2007 12 Hours of Sebring with Andretti Autosport, finishing second overall.

In addition to the Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar teammates, the four-car Ganassi Ford effort will also feature the services of Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais won the Rolex 24 at Daytona overall for Action Express Racing in 2014 and finished second the following year. The Frenchman was also part of Ganassi’s Ford GT debut effort last January, and alongside co-drivers Joey Hand and Dirk Muller earned the GT class win this past June at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The three confirmations increases the number of full-time Verizon IndyCar Series regulars in the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona to five as both Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal were announced as drivers for Michael Shank Racing’s Acura NSX squad in the GT Daytona class earlier in December.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

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

Bourdais Says Personnel Decisions Key to Coyne Move

Each season, Dale Coyne Racing has continued to get stronger as an organization – and perhaps they’re about to put the final piece together to make them a serious contender.

The organization announced earlier this week that Sebastien Bourdais signed a two-year agreement to drive their Honda full-time in 2017. Bourdais stated he was able to make the decision based on his knowledge of Dale Coyne Racing as an organization, how the deal came together and the effort put in by Dale Coyne with decisions.

“Dale’s commitment is a testament to what he wants to achieve,” Bourdais said. “I couldn’t be any happier, thanks to his efforts and all the personal investment and all that, that we could be able to do that. I’m really, really excited about it.”

Dale Coyne says the pieces came together based on their previous experience with Bourdais. The Frenchman originally raced for DCR back in 2011, making nine starts with a best finish of sixth.

Coyne now believes he has the right pieces, especially in bringing Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson on board. Hampson joins the organization after spending four years with Andretti Autosport. He previously worked with Bourdais in the Champ Car World Series, scoring 31 victories, 31 pole positions and four consecutive Championships from 2004 to 2007. Meanwhile, Boisson was Bourdais’ Race Engineer while at KVSH Racing the past couple years, claiming four victories.

“For me to be able to continue with Olivier, my engineer from KVSH, and to bring a guy of the caliber of Craig in the system, was definitely the key,” Bourdais said. “Super exciting factor to try and be confident that we could be really competitive and build a strong organization, engineering-driven.”

With everything Bourdais feels they’ve put in place, he feels they can build on DCR’s success last year with rookie Conor Daly. Daly ran up front, leading laps and posting five top-10 finishes, including a runner-up in Detroit.

As to who will be Bourdais’ teammate, that has yet to be announced but Coyne says the team is in the process of working that out. He noted they should know their line-up by the end of October.

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.J