CART FedEx Championship Strategy can go a long ways towards determining the success or failure of a driver and his team during a race weekend. CART made changes to its qualifying and pit stop rules during the offseason in an effort to improve ...
CART FedEx Championship
Strategy can go a long ways towards determining the success or failure of a driver and his team during a race weekend. CART made changes to its qualifying and pit stop rules during the offseason in an effort to improve competition between the drivers and provide the fans with better racing. Effective immediately, CART made a further modification to its road course qualifying rules, beginning this weekend for the Molson Indy Montreal. Both Friday and Saturday qualifying sessions will still be 60 minutes in length, but will start with a brief open practice to be followed by a short break to allow teams to work on their cars. The break will then be followed by 35 minutes of qualifying, with 30 minutes of green flag time guaranteed.
HOW DO THE NEW QUALIFYING RULES CHANGE YOUR STRATEGY ON WHEN TO GO OUT?
SCOTT ROEMBKE - Chief Operating Officer, Team Rahal - "I think what you're going to see is ... at most tracks last year when you had 30 minutes per session, everybody would go out, do one run and make an adjustment. After that they'd go out and do a second run, make another adjustment and then do their last run and the session was over, so I think you're going to see a return to most people utilizing the full 35 minutes. You know, there's no doubt that a guy who's really quick is going to wait until the very end to do his 15 laps and you still have that maximum number of laps to get done in 35 minutes. In theory, the last lap will be the fastest because the track will have the most rubber on it, but I don't think you're going to see people sitting there for 15 minutes before they make their first run because that might be pushing it a little bit too tight. Another reason people don't want to go out first is because of all the different rubber put down by the support series, but now with a 15-minute practice session the track should be ready."
BRUCE ASHMORE - Technical Director, Player's/Forsythe Racing - "It' s going to be interesting because now it means that you'll have to watch the number of laps you do on both Friday and Saturday mornings because we only have so many sets of tires. Right now, because of the length of the races, we run as much as we can but we don't run all of Friday morning at most of the race tracks. At Montreal and at the first race in Monterrey we could run all of Friday morning because the tires were quite hard and the track was very smooth and you don't have a problem with tires. But at all the other tracks you have more time than you do tires, so we'll probably limit the number of miles we run on Friday and Saturday morning because you'll want to run that first 15 minutes of qualifying as much as you can. You want to run that 15 minutes with fairly fresh tires because that's a really good qualifying practice and then you'll run the whole 35 minutes of qualifying. That's what we do now - we go out with anywhere from 25 to 35 minutes to go and divide that up into two runs."
WHEN DO YOU MAKE THE DECISION ON WHEN YOU'RE GOING TO GO OUT AND QUALIFY?"
ROEMBKE - "It depends on our situation and where we are. Last weekend (in Road America) we wanted to go out earlier because we did not have a good setup and we had some work to do in the session. We get only 15 laps so I wanted to do three runs of five laps apiece, giving me two chances to adjust the car. The faster guys waited and they didn't even do 15 laps, they waited and did 12 laps at the end when the track was much better. We didn't do that this weekend because we determined as a group that we'd rather get all our laps and if we lose a little because we're out early then fine. The bottom line was we were one of the first cars out there, but we were also out there at the very end and our timing worked out pretty well. But if we were faster ... in Long Beach we waited until the end because street circuits get faster and faster, so we ran all our laps at the end because we were going for pole. I think it really depends on your situation and what you're trying to accomplish. At Road America we wanted to maximize our track time to get the best position we could, but if I had a really fast car and a really fast time from Friday then I can afford to be a little more aggressive and take a chance. It really depends on that car's situation on the grid, as well as other factors like weather."
ASHMORE - "From our point of view, we've always been going for the pole so we always go out later. If we've had a problem then we'll go out a little bit earlier. If we've had to change engines or gearboxes or something like that, we'll go out at the beginning of the session and give it a run. But typically, all but three drivers are going for the pole, so we'll all wait for the last 30 minutes because the tracks do get quicker."
ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT GETTING CAUGHT IN TRAFFIC THE LATER YOU GO OUT?
ASHMORE - "We just have to find him a gap in traffic and get him to run it, or else he has to make his own gap. Most times with 18 cars that's not a problem. Obviously, you've heard complaints that the drivers have been blocked on a lap and that does happen. But it hasn't happened as much as I have expected because they're all running around ... actually it should happen less with the 35-minute session because everybody is going to run around one set of laps and then the second set of laps, so they should be running around together. Because you force them to run around together they should all be going out together and should all go out on their second set of tires together. And then it'll just be down to red flags and crashes that you get caught."
ARE YOU INCLINED TO RUN MOST OF THE 35-MINUTE SESSION? ASHMORE - "You won't run the whole 35 minutes, but there's going to be some tracks where you wait until there's about 25 minutes left before you go out. You're going to see that for sure. There are some tracks where you can wait until there are 20 minutes left before you go out and that's the time when you're confident that you can get the pole."
HOW DIFFERENT IS YOUR STRATEGY FOR QUALIFYING ON PERMANENT ROAD COURSES FROM THE ONE YOU IMPLEMENT ON TEMPORARY STREET CIRCUITS?
ROEMBKE - "Not a lot different except for the fact that on a street course you tend to be a little more concerned about the traffic. It's four miles around here (Road America), it's pretty wide and even if you run into someone there's room to get out of the way. Sometimes a street course is all walls and streets and you come up on someone and they're trying hard to get out of the way but they can't. At a street course, you really look hard at what other people are doing probably a little more than you do at a place like this one. Today I was pretty much solely concerned about what we were doing with our laps and how much time was left knowing that when we got out there the track's big enough that everyone can take care of themselves. On a street course, I'm really attuned to who's out and who has more laps left because ... I did this to Michel (Jourdain, Jr.) at one race. We went out too early and when his tires were at their fastest the other guys came out and they couldn't get out of his way, so it really becomes a game of chicken. In Vancouver on Friday it was the biggest thing - everyone waited and everyone kept waiting and everyone knew that they couldn't be first because as they were slowing down the other guys were going to come out. All of a sudden, you looked up and everybody went out and there was only like 20 minutes left in the session. But that's what happens on a street course - you're much more attuned to the traffic."
DO YOU THINK THIS QUALIFYING SYSTEM WOULD STILL WORK WITH A BIGGER GRID, SAY 27 OR 28 CARS?
ROEMBKE - Well I think if CART had a bigger grid it probably would've helped a little bit with the problem of nobody going out because I think people would be forced to go out earlier. I think the drivers should really be commended. There's always one or two guys that get blocked but there seems to be a lot less complaining about traffic and blocking than I think most people anticipated. I mean, the drivers used to complain a lot more in the old sessions, but I think they understand that everyone's out there for only 15 laps and they're trying to take care of one another."
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE LAPS ALLOWED DURING QUALIFYING? "
ROEMBKE - "I would, personally. I think the laps should fill the timeframe, which in Montreal now that we're down to a 35-minute session it should be about right. I think 15 laps wasn't enough for an hour-long session."
WHAT DOES RACE STRATEGY MEAN TO YOU?
ROEMBKE - "I think it means that you don't want to do anything to take the outcome of the race out of the driver's hands. In a pure sense, if you have a fast car and a fast driver who starts on pole you want to stop the minimum amount of times, you want to not lose any positions in the pits and you want him to determine the fate of the race. If you start further back you get in situations where you can help him pass people.Through strategy and pit stops you can help him improve his position and that's what it's about. With this maximum fuel window, which we're in favor of, you can't lean it out anymore and everyone drives hard. You can't pit early, get out of sequence and take advantage of some things to help your driver improve, so the strategy is the driver is out there driving hard every lap trying to pass cars. Your job in the pits is to either help him pass them or to make sure you don't lose any of them getting him in and out of the pits. You want to make sure you get him in the pits and back out where he was or hopefully ahead as opposed to going on a strategy where you cost him three or four spots because you made the wrong move or stopped on the wrong lap."
ASHMORE - "I think of it as everything, really. You've got your grid position that you've managed to get for the weekend, whether it's back of the grid, middle or front, and the race strategy takes over from that point. Where you pit, where you run, how much fuel you put in for each stop, how you divide the race up ... I consider it strategy as well if you make a mistake and then how you recover from it. When there's a yellow do you pit? Do you not pit? All the different aspects of the race that affect you or the leaders is a strategy and your strategy has to change as the race changes."
HOW AND WHEN DO YOU FORMULATE YOUR RACE STRATEGY? WHAT'S THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS INVOLVED?
ROEMBKE - "We do a lot of work, and (Team Rahal Director of Operations) Mark Johnson does a lot of work during the weekend looking at the tendencies for yellows and the histories of each track. You do look at that stuff because I can tell you what percentages are that there's going to be a wreck in Turn One in Cleveland or Turn Three here in Elkhart (Lake). You look at that stuff but you always have to be ready to adjust. My favorite story is at Cleveland last year that because it rained during qualifying we started way at the back. I told Kenny (Brack) before the race, 'Look, don't pass too many cars on the first lap because when they're cleaning up the crash that's going to happen in Turn One, I want to be in back to pit and get a fuel advantage.' Well, there was a crash, I look up and we're P-7 and we couldn't stop from there. But who stopped? Patrick Racing (Roberto Moreno), Team Green and some others. Who won? Team Green (Dario Franchitti). And that's why they got rid of the fuel thing because it was almost an advantage to start in back. Now, it's not as big of an advantage to start in back but you sit there and look at situation ... going into one race this year I pretty much decided that I was going to stop early. But then the way the race broke out with a couple of guys in front crashing, I changed my mind and it just works out. When you have a poor starting position, I'm thinking about looking for an early (pit) window and trying to get a clear place on the track to maximize our lap times. But it depends on what happens on the first lap and what the situation is. Is it raining? Do you have a fast car? Do you have a slow car? If you're slow you can get out of sequence and get the car on the track by itself and that isn't going to help you. With Michel this year we've been lucky enough that when we've qualified poorly we've had a good car in most of the races. At Portland we got him out of sequence and he got by himself. The reason you gain positions isn't because you pit early, it's because when you pit early you come out by yourself and then all of a sudden instead of running a 60-second lap in the pack you're running 58-second laps. You do 12 laps of 58 seconds - two seconds times 12, you just gained 24 seconds. And all of a sudden, we start last and he drove a great race in Portland, was very quick, and we finished a legit sixth. Same thing, if he goes out there and he's running 60-second laps and everybody else is running 60-second laps, in the end he's still going to end up where he started - behind them."
ASHMORE - "We try and work out what we're going to do if we're at the front, what we're going to do if we're at the back and you've got a pretty good idea of what you're going to do. Obviously, we want to try and qualify towards the front and then control the race, but if that's not the case we try to figure out how that race is going to pan out. We also look at history to try and factor in how many yellows there's might be. But with the new regime at CART we have to try and figure out what they're going to do with the race. That impacts things because we've been caught out sometimes where we thought they'd go yellow and they haven't, so we do a lot of anticipation. If this happens then we'll do this, it that happens we'll do this, things like that."
IF YOU QUALIFY 13TH ON AN 18-CAR GRID AND THERE'S A YELLOW ON THE FIRST LAP, WHEN DO YOU PIT?
ROEMBKE - "It depends on what the lap times are. If I'm 13th but I'm with a pretty good group ... I remember one race when we were 12th and that's the one when I thought we would come in early. Well, I looked up and it was Michel, (Paul) Tracy and one of the Player's cars, and they were kind of in a little breakaway and they were doing pretty good. So we decided to follow that course and they were doing pretty good lap times compared to the group that was behind them - they were pulling away from the guys behind them. At that point, just stay out. But if you're just stuck in traffic and he can't get by that's when you pull him out and try to get some track position."
ASHMORE - "Well, the middle of the grid of the gray area. The front of the grid you pretty much know what you're going to do - you're going to drive right by any early yellows. At the back of the grid you're going to pit under the early yellows, but the middle of the grid is gray. Maybe what you should do is always do the same thing and then you'll win more times than you lose. We've tried them all, (laughing) and the middle of the grid is stinks. From the back of the grid you can generally make something happen and from the front of the grid you can definitely make something happen."
HOW IMPORTANT IS RACE STRATEGY? CAN GOOD STRATEGY WIN A RACE FOR A SLOW CAR OR LOSE A RACE FOR A FAST CAR?
ROEMBKE - "Both. I cost Bryan Herta the Portland race a few years back. There was an early window, we had a miscommunication and we pitted out of sequence from the lead. It was a huge mistake, we battled back and finished second, but in retrospect it was the wrong thing and we cost him the race because of the pit strategy. We got aggressive when we didn't need to. We were fast and we still gambled. On the other hand, we've probably put our guys in position to score points and win races ... you know, last year Max (Papis) won the Laguna Seca race on strategy. Any way you want to slice it up, it was decisions made by Bobby (Rahal) and Mark (Johnson) to lean him out and that was won purely on strategy. So yeah, you can cost the guy and you can help the guy. Going into a race you want to leave it up to the driver - you want to help him but you want to make sure you don't burn him."
ASHMORE - "No. The bottom line is you've got to have a good driver, a good engine and a good setup. You can't win with anything less than that. The strategy ... if you make the right calls it might pick you up more points than you expected based on your grid position."
HAVE THE NEW MANDATORY FUEL WINDOWS TAKEN AWAY WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR PIT STRATEGY?
ASHMORE - "No, I'd say it just changed it to something else because before you could have two- or three-stop races so you picked between those. Now you've got when you stop and when you don't stop. I don't think it's right, the way it is now. It wasn't right before and it's not right now. Another thing I've heard is only green flag pit stops, maybe that's a good way to write the rule. Somehow we have to try and encourage overtaking and at the moment these rules don't do that -- in fact, they encourage you to pit and not overtake. But the other thing with this is that CART is the most competitive racing series in the world and you don't have fast cars overtaking slow cars because there are no slow cars and you don't know how much of that is going on. It's a difficult one. I think it'd be good to try only pit stops under the green flag. I think it's worth trying to see if it changes things. But really and truly, the strategy and the way you think about it, no, whatever the rule is just creates something else for you to do."