INDYCAR In-Car Theater: Long Beach
In this installment of our IndyCar Qualifying Comparo, we look at two different philosophies on car setup that worked exactly as planned for one team and left the other wishing it had followed its usual form.
By the numbers, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves trounced Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports’ Simon Pagenaud during time trials at Long Beach last weekend, but understanding how the two drivers started so far apart takes some explaining for those who are new to the sport.
With three rounds of knockout qualifying, the IZOD IndyCar Series starts off with Round 1 by splitting the field in half for two separate sessions. The fastest six cars from each group transfer into Round 2, the Firestone Fast 12.
The cars that fail to make it into the Fast 12 are done for the day and comprise positions 13 through however many cars are entered (27 at Long Beach).
Once the Fast 12 session gets under way, only the six fastest transfers to the Firestone Fast 6, and those who set the times from seventh to 12th are knocked out and locked into their respective positions for the race.
The Fast 6 sets the order for where those six remaining drivers start, with the fastest earning the Verizon Pole Award.
For the rapid Pagenaud and his Honda-powered No. 77 entry, making it out of Round 1 was too tall of an order. He’d actually set a faster lap than Castroneves, who went in the other group, but that didn’t matter.
Pagenaud’s 1:07.997 around the 1.9-mile, 11-turn street course was only ninth-fastest in his group, so he didn’t transfer to the Fast 12. Castroneves, by comparison, made it through Round 1 and 2 in his Chevy-powered No. 3, promoting him to the Fast 6 where he set the sixth-fastest lap at a 1:07.969.
His French competitor would start the race buried 11 spots behind him, but what led to Pagenaud missing the Fast 12 had nothing to do with a lack of talent or effort, according to his engineer Ben Bretzman.
“On Friday, we couldn’t get a set of brakes to work, so we wrote the day off,” Bretzman said. “So on Saturday we had to pick the right direction to go on setup, and we ended up P1 in the morning session (just prior to qualifying). Those ambient conditions were really cool. The big question after that, and in general today, is which philosophy to take for qualifying.
“It’s all about getting off the corners, and we’ve changed our philosophy in that direction this year. You hear a lot of people talking about burning the rear tires off this car, but we’ve never understood that because Simon never does that. He takes great care of his rear tires, so as a result, we can be more aggressive with our setup. We never think about it. It’s our last concern.
“So what we’ve found, going back to 2012 and what makes (Team Penske’s) Will Power so fast in qualifying is that he drives an epically free race car. There’s no understeer in it; everything’s great, and no one else can drive it like that except Scott Dixon, and Simon’s also in that category. He drives a pretty free car also.
“What we think about is what kind of on-power rotation can we get to free the car up in qualifying. Well, that works just about everywhere but Long Beach. Long Beach has a massively long straightaway, so you have to respect the straightaway, but there’s nowhere in the IndyCar Series, not even at Baltimore, where you run the tall curbs like you do at Long Beach. So you have to be able to shortcut the curbs and make the track as short as you can. But you also need to respect the straightline speed.
“We looked over the trap speeds from Practice 3, and not only were we the fastest car in the session, we were the fastest car on the straight. We started out the weekend fairly trimmed out (aerodynamically) and kept trimming out even further. That’s where we screwed up.”
As Bretzman explains, going for dragster-like speed on the straights was their undoing and a rather uncharacteristic move for the veteran sports car and open-wheel engineer.
“That’s the big rule we broke from sports cars,” he said. “It was a bad mistake because you always qualify somewhat maxed on downforce, and we got a little greedy coming out of Practice 3. We seemed to be fast on low downforce levels, and in all honesty, Helio ran maximum downforce in qualifying, max on the rear wing and a big Gurney, and we were definitely lower on our rear wing and balanced the front downforce to work with that. And that’s not really the approach you want to take when the ambient temperatures come up. We got caught with less downforce than we wanted to have.
“And with Simon’s driving, the aggressive nature of the curbs when you’re driving over them and bouncing around and trying to hang on, the track doesn’t really reward a car that oversteers. You want the rear planted. And so you have to be able to supply a driver the confidence that when he lands on the other side of a curb, the car is going to stick and won’t spin and throw him into the wall. You need mechanical balance, too. You see Helio gets a little bit of oversteer at times, but it’s managed by how aggressive he wants to be on the throttle. We were off a bit there, too; we got a little bit greedy on mechanical balance, as well.”
The Dallara DW12 Indy car makes a ridiculous amount of downforce in street course trim, but by trying to cheat the wind by just a little bit – something that was less than maximum but not extremely low – Pagenaud’s qualifying attempt was pure sound and fury.
Curbs, as Bretzman mentions, are hurdled with abandon. The steering wheel is rarely at peace. Pagenaud doesn’t wait for the car to fully rotate before romping on the throttle. He anticipates the oversteer and starts correcting the back of the car before it becomes a problem, but he loses a few thousandths here and there while working to overcome the No. 77’s handling deficiencies.
“Drivers can feel it even if you take just a little bit (of downforce) out,” Bretzman said. “It’s a massive thing for traction. In all honesty, the driver and the car do respond to more downforce, but from a driving style standpoint, Simon’s been working on how aggressive he can be with the car each weekend. Since he doesn’t burn the rear tires off the car, he’s been trying to change a little bit of his approach with how aggressive he is with the throttle. I think he’s still learning. We’ve been working on how to get him more aggressive with the throttle and the car’s platform so it will do what he wants to do.”
Pagenaud’s lap is an exercise in maximum effort. With the car setup to let his fast hands, feet and prodigious talent turn the car, he’s a constant blur of activity.
And to quantify how hard Pagenaud was working, you only need to watch Castroneves’ solo lap.
Supporting Bretzman’s comments about downforce, Helio might not be able to hit the same top speed as the No. 77, but with the extra assistance from his car’s aerodynamics, Penske driver
Castroneves is relaxed and smooth as glass in most corners.
He has a touch of oversteer in spots, but those are situations he’s inducing. Pagenaud, on the other hand, is lighting up his tires and slewing sideways in places where Castroneves is on rails.
What’s amazing is how Helio’s effortless lap and Simon’s controlled explosion netted almost identical lap times. Castroneves is able to employ a more traditional driving style—braking in a straight line, turning in, applying throttle and accelerating through the corner. It looks like four distinct dance moves repeated corner after corner.
Pagenaud does his best to connect each straight, using his braking and turning as part of what seems like one continual lap. He is, without a doubt, slowing down and speeding up on entry/exit of each corner, but it doesn’t look nearly as pronounced.
Some of it is done on purpose, while some of it comes from his need to hustle his car through the corners to compensate for what his chassis won’t allow with less downforce than it requires.
“We were trying to get the car as neutral as it can be, and we nailed it,” Pagenaud said. “I like a car that doesn’t need excessive steering to go around the corners; I like to use the pedals to turn the car more than the steering. Unfortunately at Long Beach, we had a car that was very ‘alive.’ Very sensitive to bumps.
“And because of what we chose for downforce, it was tough over the bumps. As you can see, I was really trying, but it was very edgy. It makes it hard to commit. You can’t be inch-perfect when it is that edgy. I know I can’t do more than four laps like that without crashing. It requires a lot commitment.”
Bretzman and Pagenaud will continue to refine their street course setups, and both continue to have trust in each other.
“We used to have him less aggressive on the throttle and came up with setups to help the car turn more, but now we’re asking him to more of the work to rotate the car and trying to dial the car in to suit that,” Bretzman said. “As you can see, we’re still perfecting that balance of how much of it is Simon and how much of it comes from the car. We still have to find that happy medium, but in hindsight, not running more downforce was a mistake.”
Pagenaud obviously wanted to qualify better than 17th, and says he’ll give his best no matter what the setup happens to offer.
“It’s qualifying; you’re going for the maximum you can get,” he said. “I don’t think I’m over-driving, to be honest, but I’m getting the best out of the car I can get. I’m always going to try as hard as I can. I’m always going to brake as late as I can and deal with whatever happens on the exit of the corner. Always. Because of the low downforce, you’re using more track, you’re sliding more, and it looks more spectacular, but it isn’t the fastest way, which we learned.
“We, as a team, went down this path on setup, and although it wasn’t the right direction, as we learned later, we all agreed and made the most of it. I trust Ben and all my teammates, and if we miss the setup a little bit, of course we still try as hard as ever to make up for it. That’s the nature of racing. Things are rarely perfect, you know, so you give everything you have and learn how to do better the next time.”
Watch the video a few times—the overlay of Castroneves and Pagenaud has Helio’s audio on the left on Simon’s on the right—and see what you can pick out in terms of handling and driving differences between the two aces.
Marshall Pruett is a contributor for IMS.com and also writes for SPEED.com, Racer and Road & Track.