Impressive Harding team still needs to make “big leaps”, says Chaves
Gabby Chaves says Harding Racing’s performance in its inaugural street course race at St. Petersburg was strong but there are “still big leaps to make” to try and compete with Penske and Ganassi every race.
In the team's fourth IndyCar event, Chaves took full advantage of the dry-wet-dry qualifying session at St. Petersburg to qualify his Harding Racing-Chevrolet eighth and then held off Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon until a pitstop problem.
However, the 2014 Indy Lights champion, who is running solo for Harding and made the team’s first three starts last year at Indy, Texas and Pocono, said there is still a lot of work to be done to keep up with the big teams at the remainder of the tracks on the schedule.
“We were very proud of how we went in St. Pete,” he told Motorsport.com, “but we are not fooling ourselves. That’s not going to happen every week. There are still big leaps to make to be truly competitive with those guys.
In the IMS roadcourse test last week, Chaves was less than 1.2sec off the fastest time, but the earlier test at Barber Motorsports Park saw him complete just four laps before overheating an engine due to a water hose being improperly connected.
“That’s a new-team error, they can happen,” said Chaves, “just like a rookie driver can make a mistake. It’s unfortunate but you move on and you just learn.
“If you look at our positives, we can see that our race pace was strong at St. Pete. We were as quick as those around us.
“We passed Dixon before our first pitstop when we had that issue [fuel lever not pulled down enough to deliver fuel] and we raced with Pagenaud the whole race after he had a pitstop issue as well.
“From my perspective, the only outstanding ones were [Robert] Wickens and [Alexander] Rossi. Apart from them, we were right on pace.”
Chaves said that as the driver on the only fulltime one-car team, it’s qualifying where he expects to struggle the most, lacking his rivals’ ability to exchange data and investigate more setup possibilities.
“That’s more of a disadvantage this year than previous years, because of the new data and information to learn from the aerokit,” he explained. “We still have a lot of unanswered questions, and if I’d had a teammate then maybe a lot of those questions would have been answered already. So yes, it will be tough.
“But we knew the situation going in, and once we get the big issues resolved, a lot of the little ones will become clear, too.”
The 24-year-old Colombian said he is working hard to adapt his driving style to the handling of the cars with the new aerokit.
“To be completely honest, the really fast guys, the best of the best, are going to be able to adapt to whatever a car requires,” he says, “so that’s what I’m trying to achieve – to be regarded as one of those guys. That’s my job.
“It just so happens that this car is a bit more lively and maybe some drivers prefer that, some drivers don’t. And I kinda enjoy it. But whatever, the best drivers will make the car work and that’s what we all need to do.”
Given that Harding’s first roadcourse test didn’t occur until early February at Sonoma, Chaves said the team can be proud over the progress made since then.
“We’ve cut our gap to the top teams by half – more than half, actually – so that’s strong, and we need to keep taking big steps like that,” he commented. “It’s so tight, after that, it’s about finding the details.
“I think it will be on smoother road courses that we will find there is a bigger gap between the more inexperienced teams and the top-tier teams. There’s so much less that the driver can make up for. On a street course, there’s less of a performance gap between the cars anyway and so if you have a good balanced car, a driver can hustle a bit, make up the gap. On a road course, if you hustle and slide the car around, you’re losing time, not gaining, and it comes down to how much a team has put into its damping programs and mechanical developments.
“So a team just getting started is obviously going to be at a disadvantage in those areas. But again, we expected that. We’ll just work at it.”
Looking ahead to next week’s race at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway – where the preseason Open Test started slowly for Harding Racing, but was followed by notable progress on the second day – Chaves said he was still expecting a tough weekend.
“Although we started frustrated and ended up positive, we still were quite far down the timesheets,” he said. “The progress, like you say, was encouraging and we can feel a bit more confident in the direction we’re heading. But again, it’s so tight between the teams and it will be our first short oval.”
Chaves said he was more encouraged for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – a track where in Indy Lights he racked up a second for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013 and a victory for Belardi in 2014.
“That’s one of my favorite tracks,” he said, “so I’m really looking forward to that. I think we can run a fairly similar setup to the one we ran in St. Pete, so I’m fairly confident we will have a fairly good car to start and then also apply the newer things we’ve learned, too.”
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