In his first column for Motorsport.com, Chip Ganassi Racing's four-time champ discusses why he believes IndyCar needs to head in a new technical direction, and why he loves the Ford GT.
The IndyCar off-season has been too long, we all say that. But it’s also been very busy. I’ve been traveling a lot, and I’ve also spent a lot of family time which was cool. We did New Zealand, then England, and then Scotland for New Year with Dario. That was my first time up there and it was sweet – a really nice area.
Then I’ve been doing a lot of racing work too, be it simulator stuff, testing and racing the Prototype, testing with the GT. It’s been pretty full-on. With IndyCar testing starting as well, I think in February I was only home for five days, and March is heading that way too…
New aero kits
I can’t give you figures, but I can tell you that the new aero kits have seen a sizable move forward by Chevrolet. Last year, getting aero kits for the first time, I don’t know the numbers but we probably gained 15 percent more downforce from 2014 to ’15. This year, there’s been a very noticeable addition on top of that. And I think we’ve only tested one of Chevrolet’s aero upgrades, which are coming in stages through the year.
In terms of drivability, the cars aren’t bad and you adapt to whatever’s given to you. But in the interest of racing, I don’t think the rules can continue in this direction. All drivers want more grip and more power – we just want to go faster! – but in terms of balancing the two, I’d say the downforce is now too high for the amount of power we have.
It’s time to look at how the downforce is created. We need to get rid of top-surface pieces, because everything keeps getting bigger there, which makes the dirty air even more turbulent and that makes it harder for the car behind to even get close. Right now, our diffuser is quite small, and the underwing of the car isn’t doing much because it’s got two giant holes in it. It’s used by the series to control the speed of the cars because it’s common to the Chevys and the Hondas.
But we’ve taken so much natural underwing aerodynamics away from the car, that to replace it, the manufacturers have added giant pieces hanging off the top surfaces. As well as turbulent air, that means there’s also a lot of potential debris, which is bad for the fans in terms of races going under caution, and can be dangerous for the drivers.
That’s where I think we should shift direction – we need more power in the cars, we need to get rid of a lot of surface aero pieces, and then use the underwing better, so we can run closer.
Consensus of opinion
A lot of us drivers are talking to the series about that, but I know we’re just one piece of the puzzle. The series has to consider things like keeping the manufacturers sweet, because they’ve invested a ton of money to design and build these aero kits. And the manufacturers’ engine guys need to be listened to as well. One manufacturer could say, ‘Let’s put the boost up,’ and the other one could say, ‘No, we don’t want to do that,’ because they’re worried about reaching the 2,500-mile engine requirement if the engine is making a lot more power.
Something we need to do better is getting representatives from each manufacturer, from Dallara, from IndyCar, from teams and from drivers and have them in the same room. At the moment we have decisions made by individual departments, so when things get formalized sometimes the rest of us are left wondering how that conclusion was reached. There are a ton of veterans involved in the sport who have learned a lot through experience; I think it would be smart to use their knowledge and have them all talking and all listening.
I’m pleased to say Bill Pappas [IndyCar’s new vp of competition and engineering] has already been pretty proactive and I think he’s going to do a very good job keeping the lines of communication open. He’ll also understand there’s no way to keep everyone happy all the time, so it’s got to be safety first [click here for Dixon’s opinion on Formula 1’s Halo device] and then product. We’re performers so we’ve got to keep our product good.
Finding performance deficits
Looking ahead to our IndyCar season, at Ganassi we’ve become known for making slow starts to the season. Even in 2015, apart from Long Beach, we didn’t have great results in the first half of the year. Normally we’ve been able to say ‘Look, we’re fast; it’s stuff beyond our control that hurts our points standing.’ This time it’s a bit different. We look back on last year and can see performance deficits.
Road course wise, I thought our pace was good for both qualifying and race day. Short ovals, we were also OK. In qualifying, Penske were a little bit ahead across almost all types of track, but I would say we fared decently and were strong on race days. The team’s focus this winter has been to try and turn around our street course form, and also work on Pocono. Street courses used to be one of our strongholds, but I think we lost our way on setup last year.
Changing the caution procedure?
Having said we’re lacking a bit in qualifying, I’ve got to say with how the yellows fall… man, sometimes it’s better starting near the back or midfield! There were some races last year when the full-course cautions could not have come out at a worse time for us. I think it’s time for the series to look at how to neutralize the field under caution, without the fast guys getting penalized.
I know there are certain people who love the way it is now, because they want to see the order messed up or they want to watch the fast guys come through from midfield to get in front. But ultimately it’s not really fair for the guy who’s leading and making his fuel go longer, to suddenly find himself in 15th just because the yellows came out right before he was going to pit but right after the slow guys pitted. So I believe the series has been looking at how to set the field under caution, similar to Formula 1’s Virtual Safety Car.
Whatever the rules, it’s good to be with the team that just has that fixed mindset of maximizing everything, every time, whatever the setbacks. Whether it’s the management, or Chip’s mojo speeches before the races, it works for us: this team has 11 championships, which is pretty stout considering Chip’s only in his 50s.
Ready to race the “kick-ass sexy” Ford GT
My racing season has started already, because of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Our last race in the Daytona Prototype didn’t go the way we wanted but now I’m doing the Sebring 12 Hours in a Ford GT, and I’m pleased about that.
I admit, it’s going to feel weird to be lapped! Even in testing it felt strange to keep looking in the mirrors for Prototypes coming through. So many times while you’re in a Prototype, you see GT cars battling ahead and when you come to lap them, you start swearing at them because they move the opposite way to what you were expecting, even when they’re trying to be courteous. Now, I guess I’m going to learn why these scenarios happen.
But I’m excited. The competition is so fierce in GTs, the racing is fantastic, and I think we’ll be competitive speed-wise. It’s hard to tell what the other teams are doing, because there’s a lot of politics and mystery around the Balance of Performance. But we should be very close to the front, even though it’s important to appreciate it is a new program, so there may still be teething problems that didn’t get addressed at Daytona.
I’ve been impressed at how much public goodwill there’s been around the whole project. For one thing, the Ford GT looks absolutely kickass sexy. And the fact that there are four of them at Le Mans this year, on the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT40’s first victory there, is also special. For me personally, I like the fact that two New Zealanders, Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren, scored that first GT40 win.
So does that mean I will be part of Ganassi’s lineup at Le Mans? I honestly don’t know yet. We’ve had good discussions but logistically it’s tough. Le Mans practice happens around Detroit IndyCar time, and then to make tech inspection on the Sunday before the race – which is mandatory – we’d have to finish the IndyCar race at Texas on the Saturday night and fly executive jet to Le Mans right away.
Is it possible? Yes it is. Do I want it to work out? Yeah absolutely. I think the decision is made later this month, and I hope it goes positively.
Thanks for reading. Hope to see you in St. Pete… from Victory Lane.
– Scott was talking to David Malsher