BROOKLYN, MI, July 26, 2003 - Bet you didn't know there was a wine industry in the Irish Hills of southern Michigan. Well, perhaps the spelling is wrong, but there was a bit of whining going on in the IndyCar Series garage and paddock on...
BROOKLYN, MI, July 26, 2003 - Bet you didn't know there was a wine industry in the Irish Hills of southern Michigan. Well, perhaps the spelling is wrong, but there was a bit of whining going on in the IndyCar Series garage and paddock on qualifying day, as the reality of what Brian Barnhart and the Indy Racing League have done to assist GM Racing's Chevrolet division is finally setting in.
When Sam Hornish Jr. and his Panther team showed up at Michigan International Speedway for race #10 of the 16-event IndyCar Series season, tongues began to wag as their competitors watched a small British contingent from Cosworth assist the Panther crew with installation and tuning of the new Gen IV Chevy Indy V8. Hornish is the leader of the Bow- Tie Brigade and, for that reason, the first to race the Gen IV engine. After all, the guy's won the title two years in a row for General Motors. They have a stake in Sam.
On Thursday afternoon, an engineering crewmember on the Andretti Green three-car team wondered aloud why the Panther team was swapping motors before practice had even begun. The answer was pretty simple: the team had planned a final private test Wednesday afternoon, but rain scotched that idea.
When practice began on Friday, Hornish was immediately quick. The seven Cosworth team members who had made the trip from Northampton, UK to see this formerly stillborn motor at work had smiles on their faces. It was worth it. You could almost hear them exhale.
Hornish's quick morning time held up as fastest of the day as the surface got even more slippery and different types of rubber mixed. Although not the fastest guy in the afternoon session, Hornish expressed pleasure with the day. "I really want to win a race here," Hornish stated. "We knew after testing that it would give us what we needed to be up front. I'm glad we get to run [the Gen IV] this week; we knew help was on the way and that we just had to be patient, go out there and keep working on our race cars."
The competition began to get a little hot under the collar when cornered during qualifying today, beginning with Greg Ray, who was the fastest Honda driver out on the track. "Sam Hornish set a unique precedent for change in the IRL. He opened the gate and now it won't get closed." Sounds like sour grapes from a guy using a Honda engine - actually built by Ilmor, the company that supplies Mercedes-Benz motors to McLaren in Formula One. Racing has always had diverse affiliations.
Al Unser Jr. was a bit more conciliatory. "Sam got me a bit worried; he's a bit quick this weekend, isn't he?" Still, Unser thought "the decision by the IRL to allow the Gen IV was good. It will tighten the field and make it even more competitive."
Hornish did not take pole position with the Gen IV, but he did land fourth on the grid, pretty much where you might have expected Hornish and Panther Racing to be. Last year. "We had some good laps yesterday and a lot of people were upset about that. I think it puts us to even as far as the horsepower goes." Hornish has shown he can race without horsepower over the last nine events; now he has another tool.
It hasn't been much fun for guys - and Sarah Fisher - accustomed to running up front in the IndyCar Series, being saddled with this boat anchor of a motor in 2003. Buddy Rice, you'll recall, started and finished second at Michigan last year with Infiniti power. Was anyone whining then? Of course not, because most of the IRL elite ran Chevys last year. Now they've got Toyotas and Hondas. And they've been fast since the first lap of competition in Miami.
"All we can work on is race setup," Rice sighed. "There's no sense worrying about qualifying at this point. We're ready to prep the car for Gen IV (should he be the second driver to race the engine at Gateway); we've got the Dallara parts we need for installation. Today we just trimmed it to the max and our goal tomorrow is to finish. It's very difficult to compete," Rice emphasized. "Our main goal is a top 10."
Robbie Buhl summed it up for the Chevrolet contingent of himself, Fisher, Rice, Buddy Lazier and Vitor Meira, the latter fastest of the Gen III Chevy Indy V8 drivers, a full 5mph behind polesitter Tomas Scheckter. "What we've got is what we've got." Lazier was actually slower in practice than qualifying. "It works to draft with a pack," the 1996 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner said. "In racing you have to be patient. I've been fortunate to have chances to win so I can't complain. We've just got to get through the next two weeks."
While she does "understand GM's reason for engine allocation, it's too bad we don't have one. I did really well here last year," Fisher said. "When you're 7mph off the pace of the leaders, there's just no way. Kentucky should feel like Christmas for us."
This is the first time Meira has competed on a 2-mile oval and he was wide- eyed about "always drafting, drafting, drafting. Something's missing in our race setup. It's so difficult to race without expectations," he admitted. "My foot was right to the floor and there's nothing else I can do." He starts 17th on Sunday in the 200-lap Firestone Indy 400, the fastest driver still working with the Gen III engine.
It's strange to hear competitors whining about the new Chevrolet engine while, for the first nine rounds, Toyota and Honda drivers have been head- and-shoulders above the IRL Chevy stalwarts. From the stands it looks like Chevrolet has managed to change its fortune with the help of Cosworth, who had an engine just sitting there - already approved for competition - but no dancing partner with an appropriate badge.
The proof will be out tomorrow, when the checkered flags fly. After having things their own way for nine races, how can anyone begrudge GM Racing for having the ability to race for wins once again?