IndyCar Must Get Phoenix Right
After the “Test in the West” or “Prix View” or whatever they called the open test at Phoenix International Raceway last weekend, it seemed that some things never change – Team Penske set the pace and Honda was lagging behind Chevy. That’s pretty much the way things shook out after two days of “Spring Training” last year at Barber Motorsports Park. The only difference was, Honda teams left this year feeling concerned, while last year – they left Birmingham embarrassed.
There were some sessions when a couple of Honda drivers were at or near the top, while other sessions showed a clear indication of dominance of Chevy over Honda. A combined chart of all sessions over the two-day test showed that all twenty-one cars broke the twenty-year old track record of 183.599 mph set in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk.
Helio Castroneves set the fastest lap of the test during the last session at 190.894 mph. His Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud was second quick; turning a lap of 190.747 mph during the third session. Teammates Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter were third and fourth respectively. Newgarden was just a tick behind Pagenaud at 190.714, while Carpenter ran a Session Three lap of 190.321. The top-four speeds of the weekend were all turned in by Chevy powered cars. You had to look all the way to fifth to find the fastest Honda – that of Marco Andretti at 190.286, turned in the final practice.
Does this mean anything? It’s hard to tell. Honda teams will say that they were working or race setups while the Chevy teams were going for speed. Chevy teams might say they were working on race setups also.
Does it really matter who was the quickest? Not if you’re a Chevy team. They were clearly the fastest last year and didn’t really have anything to prove. Honda was the one that has the questions going into the season, but I don’t know if a two-day pre-season test in Phoenix was the place to try and make a statement. Someone could have been sandbagging, while others may have actually been working on race setups. Where it is important to make a statement will be next weekend in St. Petersburg and three weeks after that when the series returns to Phoenix to race.
One might get a real indication of who was fastest by what teams want more downforce in Phoenix for the race and which ones don’t. Michael Andretti is correct in saying that IndyCar really needs to get things right for the show on April 2. In order to accomplish that, the owner of Andretti Autosport feels that more downforce needs to be added to all cars before the series returns to race in Phoenix. His argument is that current downforce levels make these cars tough to pass. Scott Dixon, of Chip Ganassi Racing feels that the downforce levels used during the test are just fine for racing. Andretti runs Hondas, while Ganassi has Chevy engines in his cars. Hmmm…
I am not an engineer and don’t pretend to be one. But I did hear Jon Beekhuis say on Trackside the other night that he thought that the downforce should remain the same for the race. He discussed ideal weather conditions and grip levels that sometimes make little or no sense to me, but what did make sense were the g-loads. Beekhuis said that g-loads are already approaching what they have at Iowa and more downforce would increase g-loads.
One thing I did agree with Andretti on is the show. IndyCar cannot afford a bad show at Phoenix. They want and need for those in attendance to leave the track wanting more, not glad that a parade is over. After a ten-year absence, IndyCar must do what it can to make sure that this time around in Phoenix works. If it doesn’t work this time, that’ll be it.
Those that know more than I do, say that the crowd at Phoenix will be small this year. Their logic is that it’ll start out small but grow over the years if the product on the track is good. Personally, that logic scares me. That’s the same formula that has been used at Pocono since the series returned in 2013 after an absence of more than two decade. The crowds have been very disappointing, even though the racing has been good. For the last two years, we’ve been waiting on edge to see if it shows up on next year’s schedule. At some point, Pocono will throw in the towel if things don’t improve dramatically.
The story at Milwaukee was much the same until it finally went away for this season. Optimists said that history and great racing was on its side. They figured that as long as there was a decent crowd, Michael Andretti would never pull the plug. Historic or not, Milwaukee is gone and I’m not sure it will ever come back.
Open-wheel racing has much more history at Phoenix than at Pocono, but not near as much as Milwaukee. Unlike Pocono and Milwaukee, Phoenix is an ISC track that has to answer to shareholders. They will probably not be as patient as Pocono has been and Milwaukee was. My thinking is that IndyCar has to make a much more immediate impact at the gate.
As I said, I’m not an engineer and I trust Jon Beekhuis and ultimately Bill Pappas who will be the one to make the downforce decision. But if they don’t change the downforce and we watch cars in a parade the night of April 2nd, Michael Andretti is going to be able to say I told you so. I’m thinking Michael would probably prefer to be wrong in this case.
The season hasn’t even started yet and there’s already chirping from the Honda and Chevy camps. We already know it will be an interesting season. I just hope that Phoenix is an interesting race.