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An interview with Chief Engineer Eric Zeto
Throughout the season Conquest Racing will be giving you a more in depth look at the team and their challenges of making the transition to the unified IndyCar Series. In this first installment, through a short Q&A, Conquest’s Chief Engineer Eric Zeto offers further perspective on the differences in the teams competitiveness and expectations on ovals versus street courses.

Q: How can you explain the difference in performance on ovals between the established IndyCar Series Teams and the former Champ Car teams coming in?

A: At Homestead , the ex-Champ Car teams were facing multiple hurdles.  In our case, we had drivers that were seeing an oval track for literally the first time.  As any of the current IndyCar drivers will tell you, learning to adapt to the constantly changing conditions, running in traffic with cars literally inches away at over 200 mph, and getting accustomed to having a car on the ‘knife edge’ in terms of balance is a very tall order.

To compound the issue, the teams were just not fully prepared. Just looking around the paddock during the race weekend, long after the IndyCar regulars had left the track for dinner, the Champ Car teams were grinding on bodywork, fitting backordered parts that had just arrived, and just generally trying to build a racecar.  Rather than running the parts we wanted like specific suspension, bodywork or roll bars. We were running what we had on hand.

The other factor of course was lack of spares.  Graham (Rahal’s crash in testing) was a prime example of what could happen with a misfortunate incident.  With another race the following weekend, we couldn’t afford with our rookies to be overly aggressive in race trim.  We made our car safe (but slower), to ensure that they were brought home with all four wheels intact.  I don’t want this to be misinterpreted, because I’m not implying that after 2 or 3 more events, we’ll be running with the big boys, but I certainly think we can put on a more respectable showing in time.

Q: If there was such a difference on ovals, why were the “transitional” teams so strong on the street course?

A: The biggest misconception I think that the media has about the challenge facing the so-called ‘transition’ teams is that we will have a difficult time ‘learning’ the new Dallara.  In actuality, the car is quite similar to what most of us have been running for years whether it be the Lola or the newer Panoz chassis.  The wheelbase is basically the same, the track widths are in the same ballpark, suspension geometry is easily calculated and configurable, the vehicle weight is similar, we’re using dampers that we’re familiar with and the wheels and tires are effectively identical between the two series.  So at a place like St. Pete, for the ex-Champ Car teams, we’re using ‘tools’ that we’re very familiar with.  With Champ Car in recent years becoming defacto spec with the Lola and then subsequently full spec with the Panoz, teams were focusing on the subtleties and details of road course racing, things that in a more open environment, we quite frankly didn’t have time for. 

For example, we weren’t agonizing over internal damper dynamics or differential lockup and release characteristics back in the 90’s when there was essentially complete freedom to develop the major aero components of the car or design completely new suspension.  So when you have a situation like we were facing at St. Pete where the IRL has limited the scope for development with the road course package, we effectively had a ‘spec’ car to deal with so it really was a fairly familiar exercise.  Once we came to grips with how to use the power band of the Honda, the rest of the car was fairly well understood.

When you look at the oval situation on the other hand, like we had at Homestead , we were facing the opposite problem.  Whereas the IndyCar regulars have had time these past five years or so to really hone in on the details of an oval racecar, we had to ‘broad stroke’ our adjustments just to try and get into the window in the time available.  You have to remember, a lot of us have been around long enough to have at least been racing when it was CART and we were running (and winning) on ovals against Penske, Ganassi and Green, so it’s not like oval racing is a complete ‘mystery’ to us.  The difference is that those teams have had the time to focus on the details on an oval that in the past we put way down on the priority list because we were playing with things like completely different sidepods rather than making sure the sidepod ‘gaps’ were perfect.

Note that I keep making reference to ‘time’, because that really is the crux of the issue.  The ‘transition’ teams all thought they were going to be racing in Champ Car at the beginning of March.  So in a month or in some cases less, these teams effectively had to re-invent themselves – build new cars, purchase all new parts, build pit equipment, revise engineering tools etc.  When you think about it, when in history have we seen a collection of rookies who had never even previously seen an oval let alone race on one, complete about 100-150 laps of testing and then go straight into a full blown race weekend on a superspeedway no less?  Ultimately an IndyCar is still a racecar with four wheels on it and what the ‘transition’ teams and drivers need is miles and lots of it.

Q: Can we expect the same competitiveness on road courses later this season as there was on the street course in St. Pete?

A: The series has done quite a good job keeping the package fairly spec for road courses. Other than a few small aerodynamic components and freedom in the area of dampers, there isn’t really any major gains that can be made with the package.  This definitely highlights the talents of the drivers, which fortunately for us, we have a couple of very good shoes.  In that regard, particularly with our comfort level with the circuits, I expect that the parity should remain over the course of the season.  Of course, other than at Edmonton and Surfers, the ‘transition’ drivers and teams will have the disadvantage of having to learn the tracks, but given the format of practice on Friday and qualifying on Saturday, that shouldn’t be too great of an impact.

Q: Will all the practice time for the Indy 500 help in leveling the playing field?

A: The Indy 500 is a whole different animal – it really is like a separate championship.  The track is so unique, that no other circuit on the schedule can prepare you for it or serve as a point of reference.  I’ve had the fortune of participating in the past and I’ve seen great success and great failure all compressed into the one month.  With all the practice days and practice laps, one would get the feeling that everyone would converge on a solution and the drivers would all find a comfort zone, but this is rarely the case.  The conditions can change so dramatically hour to hour even, that you can spend an awful lot of time just chasing the track.  Rather than level the playing field, I think Indy really highlights weaknesses – separates the men from the boys so to speak.  It’s a place that you either grab a hold of or it grabs a hold of you.  Fortunately, I think our guys are up to the task and will respect Indy rather than fear it.
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