Overheard in St. Petersburg – Friday

Ryan Hunter-Reay still trying to find speed with the Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay still trying to find speed with the Honda

The new IndyCar season is finally underway with a healthy crowd assembled on Friday around the streets of St. Petersburg. Of course Friday is a free day so attendance really does not mean much. With Chevy stacked with the best teams a lot is riding on the new aero package for Honda as a way to help some of their minnow teams run up front with the Chevy teams. But with Chevy dominating the opening practice session, the Honda engineers look a bit worried.

Word is that Dale Coyne will almost definitely run Pippa Mann for the Indy 500 but we do not know who his third driver will be since Dracone’s deal is only for the first four races.

With all the winglets on the new aero package the first question that comes to mind is how much the teams can adjust them. Well some of them are not adjustable at all. Generally the ones in front of the front wheel and the ones behind the rear wheels are adjustable.

We hear Marco Andretti may have thought that they found more speed in testing at Sebring this week, but in fact he did not. Because of the rubber down on the track from the 12 Hours of Sebring the IndyCars were able to take Turn 3 flat out. Hence lap times were fast. In practice Friday Andretti was only 20th quick, meaning he is even slower than last year.

It was noted that both Simona de Silvestro and Jack Hawksworth’s car have no primary sponsors, but they are working on it.

Derrick Walker told me that the aero kit prices and parts are locked in for this this year. However, in 2016 each manufacturer has three areas they are allowed to change. If one manufacturer is much slower than the other, they can apply for a special waiver and use 1, 2 or all 3 of their changes (tokens) in 2015 as a way to catchup, but then in 2016 they will only be able to change parts if they did not use up all their tokens in 2015.

With all the new bits on the car, we asked Walker how the IndyCar officials determine if a team is cheating. “We laser scan the entire car now as part of the inspection process and all the pieces must be within tolerance. Some of the winglets are adjustable and others are not.

The rear of the Hondas.  You can get a good tow from the new bodykits
The rear of the Hondas. You can get a good tow from the new bodykits

We asked Walker about another engine manufacturer coming in but it does not look like any will come until they know if IndyCar is going to change the engine formula in 2018 when the new car is due. The 2018 date is not set in stone, it’s just tentative if it makes sense. IndyCar has the opportunity to steal some big races and a huge number of fans from F1 if they would change their engine formula to ‘scream’ like the F1 cars used to. That sound is magic and that magic is now lost for F1. Is IndyCar smart enough to capitalize?

With the cars now generating more downforce from the wings vs. the underbody (which has been reduced from last year) if a driver breaks a wing during the race, the handling of the car will be affected more now than ever before, so drivers have to be very careful.

And we don’t know if the aero kits are going to make passing nearly impossible because of increased turbulence and shorter braking distances or not. The new aero kits are making a bigger hole in the air which is going to help with slipstreaming. Rahal told us that he really sucked up behind Marco Andretti in testing at Sebring. He was really surprised by the change from last year. He thinks that by the time the trailing driver is halfway down a straight he is really going to start to pick up the big tow.

Josef Newgarden
Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden told us that the neck muscles really feel the added downforce, especially the back of the neck when you brake because with the added downforce, the braking forces are much higher. They are braking 50 to 75 feet later into the corners.

Michael Andretti told us that "It's really been unbelievable what the teams have been having to go through the last few weeks (with the new aero kits), not only just getting the cars on track and all that, but to understand it.

"I think we're still far away from understanding the whole package because there is so much adjustability to this new package.

"I don't think anybody's going to really have the right combination in the first race. I think it's going to take a little while to understand it.

"It sort of goes back to the old days when you had the new car every year, you almost forget what you did last year, know you have a new product. A new product normally needs something different in setup than the old. That's where we're at right now."

"Well, what it does, though, is it does confuse things a little bit. You come down to now: Is the engine okay? Do you have more drag? Does the other side have less drag? Now you have to figure out, if you have made improvements in the engine, but it's not showing on the track, is it because of more drag, whatever. Same with looking at our competition. It makes it a lot harder to see if the problem is the motor or the kit.

"So it definitely makes the job of the engineers a lot harder. They've got to do a lot more investigating and things to try to see, Okay, are we hurting here in the engine or with the kit?

I think engineers are having a blast with it, yeah. It's a great engineering exercise, for sure. Me as an owner, I don't know if it is. When you got to write the checks, it's not as much fun

Michael thinks the Chevy kit will work better at some tracks and the Honda at others. He also said he expects to have 5 cars in the Indy 500.

We asked Derrick what he thought about the European Carlin team coming into Indy Lights. It’s great said Derrick and I hope some other European teams see what Carlin is doing and they come over too. Derrick is fairly confident that Carlin will move up to IndyCar before long.

Luca Filippi
Luca Filippi

Quote of the Day: Italian Luca Filippi when asked how many laps does it take to find the limit of a car, in broken English he dead panned, “it takes just 7 or 8 laps. If it takes more you just need to go find another job."

The biggest news of the day was Michael Andretti announcing that Justin Wilson will drive both Indy races for the team. "At the moment we are able to get him in the car for a couple of races," said Andretti. "The goal is to get him in for a lot more. But right now we can announce that he's going to be doing the Indy Grand Prix and the Indy 500 with us. Excited about that. I think it's going to be a great program.

"I'm really thankful to Honda for making this happen. Honda has been such an awesome partner for us. Couldn't have happened without them. So thank you."

Justin Wilson is elated to be driving for Michael Andretti for the two Indy races and they are trying to get sponsorship for many more. "It's a great opportunity," said Wilson. "That was the one thing, when I look back, how do I want to plan my future and what's the next career move.

"Michael has put together such a great outfit, a great team. They're always so competitive at the 500. That's the one race that every driver wants to win. That's why when you look at it, you think, Okay, right now it's just two races, but it's two of the best races. The Indy 500 is the best race. It's the one race in your career, if you win that, it changes everything.

"I just figured this was giving myself the best shot at winning. There's no guarantees. There's still 33 cars that are going to be out there and any one of them can win. Knowing you're driving an Andretti Autosport car at one of those races definitely gives you a slight edge. I'm looking forward to feeling that out and getting the experience.

Sebastien Bourdais
Sebastien Bourdais

"But, yeah, I got to thank Dale Coyne Racing. I'm still good friends with Dale. We haven't ended things on a down note. I respect Dale for what he's done. He's helped me so much in my career. He's just a great guy. Winning for him has meant a lot, but it was time for him and myself to look at something different."

Michael said he has been trying for 4 or 5 years to land Wilson. Honda was very instrumental in the deal coming together because they really have no sponsorship for the car yet. Michael said twice in the off-season they thought they had a full season sponsor for Justin, but the deals fell thru in the 11th hour.

We wonder how much of a factor the miniscule TV ratings on NBC Sport Network had on their decision? Teams have little problem landing sponsors for the ABC races, but the NBCSN it’s nearly impossible. It comes down to this – IndyCar collects a fat check from NBCSN, that funds the team welfare program, instead of foregoing the money and putting the races on network TV (Some ABC and some NBC) so that over a million people watch each race. That enables teams to land more sponsorship and the welfare program could go away. Like all welfare programs in society, there is no incentive for the recipients to try harder.

The good news is that IndyCar is trying to negotiate a change to their ABC deal that would allow ABC to put some races on ESPN and NBCSN to put some races on NBC.

While the cars are some 3 seconds per lap faster at St. Petersburg this year than last, they still have not broken the track record set by the superior Champ Car almost 12 years ago – Sebastien Bourdais with a time of 1m00.928s in a 2003 Champ Car. However, I expect that mark to fall in qualifying tomorrow. It just took IndyCar 12 years and many added aero appendages to finally do it. Mark C. reporting from St. Petersburg

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