Former driver Simmons engineering success for Franchitti
Working through the myriad of potential setups of an IZOD IndyCar Series car to maximize its potential on street/road courses and ovals, Target Chip Ganassi Racing engineer Chris Simmons has one constant: driver Dario Franchitti.
“Working with Dario is like having another data acquisition system on the car, he’s so experienced and knowledgeable,” says Simmons, a former Indy Lights competitor and USF2000 national titlist. “The feedback is so clear and concise. It makes mine and Eric’s (Bretzman, Scott Dixon’s engineer) job easier for sure.”
The Simmons-Franchitti duo has won the IZOD IndyCar Series in both years of their association, though the communication and trust foundation was laid years earlier.
“One of the impressive things with Dario is how much he is willing to look at himself to find improvement,” Simmons says. “It’s just not us working on the car. It’s looking at what Scott (Dixon) does and what we’ve done in the past both on the car and driving-wise to find out how we can make the car go faster.
“I’m lucky having worked with Dario at what was Andretti Green Racing, working more next to him than with him. But I knew a lot about him already and that helped jump-start the relationship last year.”
Franchitti won his first series title – and along the way the Indianapolis 500 – with then-Andretti Green Racing in 2007. After competing in stock cars for a half-season in 2008 with Ganassi Racing, he returned to the IZOD IndyCar Series, where Simmons was waiting at the Indianapolis shop after having worked with Darren Manning, Dixon and Dan Wheldon.
This season, Franchitti recorded three victories, two pole starts and 13 top-five finishes in securing the driver title by five points over Will Power. With six top fives, including two victories, on ovals, he earned the inaugural A.J. Foyt Oval Championship Trophy. In the ’09 title season, he had five victories and 13 top-five finishes. As was the case this year, the championship was decided in the final race.
“It’s been a bit different this year,” Simmons says. “You look at Long Beach, where last year we got going and everything went perfectly (started second; finished first). We were still learning about each other and making relatively big changes to the cars. This year, we kind of got ambushed and never really found the right set-up for the changing weather conditions, even though it was the same tire (starting and finishing 12th; a season-low on a street/road course).
“It was a little kick in the butt to get us thinking, ‘Hey, we still have to work at this. It’s not going to be easy and we’re not going to be making only small changes.’ There aren’t that many big things to go through to find speed because we’re more refined on what he wants and needs in the car and the car is even more refined this year. It was a bit more difficult to find speed when we we’ve been at a deficit.”
Franchitti earned the PEAK Performance Pole Award for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which corralled a crucial bonus point in attempting to track down points leader Power. Continual preparation, including testing at the 1.5-mile oval earlier in the week, also is crucial between Simmons, Bretzman and Julian Robertson on the diverse set of racetracks.
“We have checklists for everything thing we do,” Simmons says. “I spent more time than any other event in the past two years going through data and just trying to find any little thing to get us up front and win the race.”
Franchitti clinched the two bonus points for leading the most laps, putting more pressure on Power to overtake the reigning champion. When the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car brushed the wall on Lap 135, Franchitti didn’t have to win the race anymore. Eighth place wrapped up the title, with driver and engineer celebrating in Victory Circle.
A few weeks to celebrate (a team celebration lunch was held Oct. 8 at the shop) and rest, and the engineers and crews will reconvene to begin preparations for the 17-race 2011 schedule – the last in which the current Dallara-Honda package will be utilized.
“We still have a reasonably extensive list of things we want to improve on the cars we have; we’re not at a loss of things to do to prepare for next season,” Simmons says. “It will be a lot of smaller things as every year when you have the car for year and years. In some ways it becomes more significant because if you can find one little thing that nobody else has than that’s an advantage. If we don’t look for it then everybody else is going to catch up so we’re going to keep working.”