From Lotus to Chevy – What happened at Indy for Dragon Racing

Remembering the turmoil in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012 prior the the 96th race in Indianapolis as we head into the 97th running of the Indy 500.

As we prepare to return to Indianapolis for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, let’s remember the turmoil in the IZOD IndyCar Series this time last year.

After the 2012 Long Beach race, all the Lotus teams but HVM were jumping ship to either Chevrolet or Honda. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Bryan Herta Autosport and latecomers Dragon Racing just couldn’t deal with the fact that they were so uncompetitive. They had sponsors to answer to and, in the case of BHA, an Indy 500 win in 2011 to repeat. The Lotus engine was nowhere near ready, thanks to the company’s internal political and financial changes.

The changeover to Chevrolet was fairly seamless for DRR and the same held true for BHA, which didn’t make the third annual trip to Sao Paulo for the fourth race of the year. The same couldn’t be said for Dragon Racing, which began the month of May with lawsuits aimed at Lotus for its non-payment of funds and delivery of engines, as agreed-upon earlier in the year.

Sébastien Bourdais, Lotus Dragon Racing Lotus at Saint Petersburg, 2012
Sébastien Bourdais, Lotus Dragon Racing Lotus at Saint Petersburg, 2012

Photo by: Eric Schwarzkopf

Dragon Racing had two drivers in 2012: four-time Champ Car World Series titleholder Sebastien Bourdais and former Toyota Atlantic, Champ Car and touring car ace Katherine Legge, who’d been working hard to get back to her open wheel roots. Bourdais needed to run a refresher course before practicing with the balance of the field; Legge had to complete the entire Rookie Orientation Program. Both crews had to remove the Lotus engines in their primary and backup cars and insert new Chevrolet engines.

But first came dealing with the politics and preparing to make the change on their Dallara DW12 chassis. While race engineers Neil Fife (Bourdais) and Brandon Thomas knew they wouldn’t be running on opening day but were hopeful of a Tuesday appearance on the track. “In the end, it really turned into Thursday for ROP and refresher runs,” Thomas explained.

During the waiting period, which seemed to stretch on forever with the Dragon garage doors firmly mounted in the down position, Fife and Thomas reviewed INDYCAR technical bulletins, which gave them the GM/Ilmor engine installation issues, the specific parts they needed to use and what they needed to spec out for the upcoming changeover. The team, once it had a clue of parameters, began “sourcing, ordering, borrowing (a lot) and implementing these changes,” Thomas said. “Some were relatively simple, others were not.

“From a mechanical standpoint we had to quickly make several new fluid lines, modify our fuel pump plumbing inside the fuel cell, modify our radiator/oil cooler installation details, and change the bellhousing. A little known fact,” Thomas revealed, “is that each manufacturer approached the clutch slave cylinder mounting differently so that even though there is a series mandatory clutch there are different bellhousing castings between GM and Lotus.”

This was definitely not a plug-and-play endeavor, made even more difficult with the data acquisition anomalies. Using the series’ technical bulletins, Dragon Racing had to modify its data acquisition configuration and its alarm condition, with several channels remapped into its logger. The team engineers also looked at changed boost controls, shift strategy and rpm traces before putting cars on the legendary 2.5-mile Brickyard track.

Most of this education was accomplished by the team using tech bulletins – and working with Ilmor personnel – and since it all happened before Dragon Racing signed on the dotted line with Chevrolet, it occurred with emails and conversations, as Thomas put it, “In odd locations.”

The garage doors remained down on Tuesday and Wednesday of practice week, but installation of the Chevrolet engines took place at that time, with assistance from Team Penske and Andretti Autosport personnel when Dragon ran into the usual installation questions. They also had to borrow bits and pieces because the engine manufacturers don’t tend to keep a stock supply of parts that aren’t directly part of the engine, Thomas told me.

Chevrolet engineers opted to mount two large carbon boxes on the rear of the manifold area, Thomas said, and these interfered with Dragon’s shock installation from the Lotus engine, making more work as they had to relocate the dampers’ gas reservoirs.

“Once we had all the exhaust, turbos and plumbing finally installed, we were allowed to fire the engine – still with the garage doors down,” he said. Of course by this time their story was widely known around the garages; like most racing stories it was no secret and was even less of one “as exhaust gases and noise came pouring out of the Dragon garage.”

There were still no visible Chevrolet logos on any of their Dallara bodywork, team clothing or car parts at this point on Wednesday. While the team was hoping to get Bourdais on the track late on that Wednesday afternoon for his refresher – during normal practice hours – the legal hurdles hadn’t been straddled. They finished the car in time to practice but weren’t permitted to get out on the track – yet.

That came the following morning, with Legge looking on as her teammate took his first exploratory laps in the Chevrolet-powered Dallara DW12. While there were customary issues, none of them were engine related. “Looking over a typical pre-2012 speed trace, we knew about how much speed should be scrubbed off in a corner and we knew how fast the other Chevrolet cars were lapping in practice, so we installed gears to run similar straight-line speeds.

“We ended up close enough to get through the runs on Thursday and then could adjust for wind and for the boost increase that was coming for Friday through Sunday,” when INDYCAR increased boost levels for qualifying. Bourdais completed his refresher and Legge, by the time Thursday ended, had two of three Rookie Orientation Program phases under her belt.

Katherine Legge, Dragon Racing Chevrolet at Indy 500, 2012
Katherine Legge, Dragon Racing Chevrolet at Indy 500, 2012

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Although Dragon Racing had zero test miles on an oval with either Lotus or Chevrolet power, “We weren’t shooting for a specific distribution prior to the engine swap,” and were grateful the weight of various engine packages was fairly well balanced by the rules. “We built the car up and began work on the setup, relied on the drivers’ feel and our data to adjust weight percentages from there,” Thomas advised.

For sure, theirs was a stressful “Month of May”, but it went fairly smoothly from a technical standpoint, Thomas said. Grateful for the experience and depth of knowledge at Ilmor and from personnel at Chevrolet, it was still, from a team standpoint, “Very disruptive to be waiting for so long and then [be] extremely busy trying to catch up, but everyone did an excellent job of adapting.”

For qualifying they had to have “excessive downforce” to even crank out 215+ laps for Legge and Bourdais. As it was they only ran about 20 total outings before qualifying on Bump Day. “After reflecting on the race we were about as competitive as we could have been given the time constraints. Both cars finished, 1 lap down to the leaders in 20th (Bourdais) and 22nd (Legge) positions.”

Brandon Thomas, who helped me understand exactly what went on with this exercise last May, departed Dragon Racing after Indianapolis. This experience aided his decision to return to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and he’s currently doing simulation, setup development and race planning for Richard Childress Racing.

“I suppose I had fond memories of the late ‘90s CART era and was expecting some of that still,” after working with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers during that period of time. He then went to Roger Penske’s Cup program and has been “running in circles ever since as an engineer, race engineer, crew chief and R&D engineer.”

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Series INDYCAR
Article type Commentary
Tags bourdais, bryan herta autosport, chevrolet, dallara, dragon racing, dreyer & reinbold racing, honda, indianapolis 500, indycar, legge, lotus, thomas