Q&A with the man behind Chevrolet's triumphant IndyCar return

Chris Berube, Chevrolet’s IndyCar program manager for the last four years, reflects on the Bowtie’s statistical dominance since returning to the sport and picks his favorite victories.

Q&A with the man behind Chevrolet's triumphant IndyCar return
Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske
2015 champion Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet with Chip Ganassi
Tony Kanaan, Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Luca Filippi, CFH Racing Chevrolet
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Race winner Tony Kanaan, KV Racing Technology Chevrolet celebrates
2015 champion Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet and Chip Ganassi and team
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Chris Berube, Chevrolet IndyCar Program Manager
Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske Chevrolet
Race winner and series champion Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Roger Penske
Race winner and series champion Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet with team owner Chip Ganassi
Race winner Will Power, Team Penske
Victory lane: winner Helio Castroneves, Team Penske Chevrolet and Brieanna McCutcheon, Miss Edmonton Indy 2012
Tony Kanaan presents his likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy
Race winner Will Power, Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet
Will Power, Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet
Dan Wheldon Memorial and Victory Circle unveiling ceremony: Helio Castroneves put the first plaque for his 2012 win
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Since returning to IndyCar racing in 2012 following the 2.2-liter turbo regulations coming into force, Chevrolet has won all four manufacturers’ championships, scored 43 wins out of 68, powered three of the four series champions and won two of the four Indy 500s.

Chris Berube has headed up The Bowtie’s IndyCar program over this period, but is now heading back to the street car/truck division. As engineering group manager, he will be in charge of test engineering and systems at the global vehicle dynamics center at Milford Proving Grounds.

Berube is a smart cookie – highly intelligent, in fact – but was the master of understatement and showed admirable modesty throughout his time in the sport, despite Chevrolet having a whole lot of reasons to crow. Finally, he lets his guard down (a bit) to look back on Chevrolet and Ilmor’s proud heritage in IndyCar’s current era, and recalls his favorite victories.

You personally go out on the ultimate high, really – Chevy-powered cars ran 1-2-3 in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship and 1-2-3-4 in the Indy 500. Can’t get much better than that.

Well, yes; those are the two amazing statistics from our year in IndyCar. Honestly, it’s not something I can take credit for personally. But to be part of that team for the last four years has been a privilege. It’s a team – it takes a village, not an individual – and it starts right from the top. You know, Mark Reuss [GM’s North America president] has shown constant commitment to the project, and is so obviously in it to win, not just show up. So the resources have been applied accordingly. That gives us the chance to surround ourselves with great people. From our side, that’s Ilmor, GM Powertrain engineers, Pratt & Miller. And then we partner with the best teams and drivers. Together, everyone has shown focus and an ability to execute.

The stats hold up nicely – a 63 percent race win rate.

Yes but execution is not just about everything having to go right, because you have to accept it’s never going to go right 100 percent of the time. It’s also about what you do in response to something going wrong. You look back at 2012, our first year, when we had to change a component in the engine during practice at Long Beach. Back then the regulations said that if you did that before the 2000-mile engine life, you took a 10-place grid penalty. We dominated qualifying at Long Beach, but all our cars were put back 10 places on the grid, and we still won.

This year it happened again at St. Petersburg [opening round] – we took a huge points hit after that race, because we had to repair all 12 engines after the race. We were 240 points negative in the manufacturers’ table! But we stayed focused, made sure we were executing throughout the rest of the season, and by Indy we were back on par. And then we went on to win the Manufacturers’ championship.

Those circumstances are the ones that make winning particularly memorable, I’d say.

That’s an interesting point, because Chevrolet’s changes do seem to be pre-emptive, whereas we don’t have to think too hard to recall Honda cars blowing up in a rather public manner…

Reliability is an ultimate priority for us, and so knowing our product is essential. Failures on track were really not allowed! So this year’s repair after St. Pete was because we didn’t think the engine would make it for their specified mileage [2500 miles in 2015]. We had to do something about it and so we sucked up the points penalty for repairing the engines ahead of schedule. That was tough, because you really don’t want to start the season on minus points!

I don’t want to comment on HPD policy, but yes, we know our product well, examine engines very carefully as they progress through their mileage life. We weren’t perfect, we had engines fail, but I think we’re strong at figuring out what the issue was, understanding it, engineering a fix and then implementing that fix.

So out of your four straight manufacturers’ titles, I’m assuming 2015 ranks alongside Chevrolet’s first year back, 2012, in terms of job satisfaction.

They’ve all been satisfying in their own ways. The thing is, you can’t try and win championships. It all comes back to winning individual races, make sure you’re getting strong points positions each time, and that’s what you manage throughout a season. Those wins and scores build up to a championship. Focus too hard on the long game and you’ll miss it. It goes back to what [Chip Ganassi Racing team manager] Mike Hull said about the Ganassi team’s approach to championships – “What can we do today?”

You say you don’t want personal credit. But with these successes must come some satisfaction, surely?

Hmm… As an engineer, I’ve learned a lot of good lessons and certainly regarded it as a privilege to be in this role. Being associated with the teams we partnered was hugely enjoyable. Our key partner philosophy worked well, whereby all our teams received the same support all the time, and that is actually something that’s difficult to do, because they’re competing with each other, too!

But we carried it off, had a meeting at each race in the coach with representatives from all our teams, going through everything that’s relevant to them, downloading the same information to all of them. That’s just how we operate, and that was one of the things I was measured on – how well are we elevating the performance of all our teams. So when you see they all won at least one race, that is satisfying.

Do you think the Manufacturers’ championship gets enough attention?

There’s a hierarchy there. I mean, it’s very important to us, going up against Honda, but I think the priority is appropriate. The Indy 500 is obviously the marquee race and winning the drivers’ championship is extremely important to us too. You know, the goal is to win everything!

Ultimately, we don’t care who wins those races and championships, so long as it is a Chevrolet driver. But we like the story of Scott Dixon restarting at Iowa and gaining that extra point that allowed him to match Juan Pablo Montoya’s points at Sonoma. We think Ed Carpenter winning two straight Indy 500 poles in his home city is epic. Tony Kanaan winning Indy, another classic. 

So, favorite memories?

Well you can’t beat the two “500” wins. Obviously the loss in 2014 by 0.06 seconds was a stinging loss although super exciting for the fans, but I think the final 10 or 15 laps this year were the most exciting…

Sure, because you couldn’t lose! If Juan [Montoya] and Will [Power] had taken each other out, you had Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon ready to bring home the win…

It was fairly well stacked for us, yeah…

So Kanaan and Montoya provided two of your favorite wins, at Indy in 2013 and ’15.

Yes. They are all special, and we had a tradition of breaking open champagne after every win. And those will always be special memories, seeing everyone enjoying the fruit of their labor. But winning Indy was very satisfying.

The Detroit wins were special for obvious reasons, but not just because it’s our home city. It’s because we struggled there the first couple of years, and then got it right. If you don’t win, go figure out why, really analyze it. Because although it looks a long time off, you will get a chance the following year. My group was responsible for keeping what’s going right going right, figuring out remedies for things that weren’t going right.

I recall that first year back at Detroit, when Honda scored a 1-2-3, Power was best of the Chevys in fourth and he said there was a torque issue on a couple of key corners…

Yeah, that’s fair – corner exit speed on tight corners. And knowing that was what our drivers were struggling with, we had to get into the data and found out what the issue was. And other street courses with tight turns like that – Long Beach’s final hairpin for example – improved as a result of those learning experiences and our efforts to remedy the problem.

When Ganassi switched from Honda to Chevrolet at the end of 2013, Dixon told me one of the noticeable differences was that HPD could tailor the engine’s throttle response and torque curves to a particular driver’s style, whereas Chevy gave just a couple of alternatives regarding engine mapping. Do you agree with that analysis and if so, was that a policy that kept engines within your set parameters and therefore benefited your reliability record?

I’ll take Scott’s word for it because I can’t comment on what HPD offers its drivers compared with Chevrolet. We didn’t set ourselves a certain number of variables, but we knew what the engine would allow reliably, and allowing variations that take the engine outside the reliability range was never going to be our policy.

What I’d say is that it’s a constant negotiation process with each driver as to what they think they’re not getting that they feel they need. Depending on circumstances, you might feel OK to take a risk but the majority of the time, we preferred to work it out with the drivers, give them something they could win with, without putting the engine into the areas of risk.

I think there have been times over the last couple of years where the other guys [HPD] turned the wick up in order to compete, and something bad happened.

OK, so best wins…

Well, I showed up at St. Petersburg in 2012, two weeks into the job. Winning that race [with Helio Castroneves and Team Penske] as IndyCar entered a whole new era, was pretty exciting. Having been a race fan all my life, and club raced myself, suddenly I was on the other side of the wall at a professional level. And Chevrolet wins first race back. That was special.

I’ve got to say just a couple races later, the win at Long Beach was great for the reasons I mentioned earlier so that’s got to be in my top five. Our highest guys on the grid started 11th and 12th, and Will came through and won on a track where they say you can’t pass. And we won with a combination of speed and fuel economy.

Tony Kanaan scoring our first Indy 500 win of this era was very satisfying. He’d come close the year before, and this time he made it. Obviously that got a little overshadowed by it being Tony after all his near-misses in his career, but we took a lot of satisfaction from that and were very proud of him and the KV Racing guys.

Can we count Belle Isle, Detroit, 2014 as one? After our struggles there in 2012 and some misfortune in ’13, getting the two wins there with Will and Helio in 2014 was fantastic, especially with Roger Penske obviously being the man behind that race and being synonymous with Detroit.

Scott Dixon’s win from last place at Mid-Ohio in 2014 was also right up there. That was just so hard to imagine, even despite all his success there down the years. Another of those, “How did he do that?!” moments.

Like we said, this year’s Indy 500 was another highlight, but I’d like to include one more and that’s this year’s Grand Prix of Indy, seeing Will and Team Penske win for Chevrolet. Actually, he dominated it and that meant a lot to me personally. I had been a big proponent of Indianapolis Motor Speedway holding that road course race in the Month of May, because I believe it’s a big part of growing the whole Indianapolis experience.

My dream would be that Indy had a triple-header – a street race downtown, a road course race and then the “500”. To me, that would reflect what the series is all about – that blend of circuit types – in its spiritual home. I think that would be so cool.

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