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The Way It Is/ Dixon and Wheldon sweep Indy qualifying for Ganassi

by Gordon Kirby
Chip Ganassi's drivers and team put on a great show last Saturday to beat Team Penske and Andretti-Green Racing to this year's Indy 500 pole. Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon qualified one-two with a pair of mid and late-afternoon second attempts which pushed Ryan Briscoe to the outside of the front row ahead of teammate Helio Castroneves who will start the race from the inside of row two. This was Dixon's eleventh IRL pole but his first at Indy and the first time a Ganassi car has been on the pole at Indy since Bruno Junqueira turned the trick in 2002. The team's one-two sweep also was a bit of redemption for Ganassi's team after enduring an unhappy pole day last year.

A disappointed Andretti-Green team couldn't hit the right combination for qualifying but the team's four cars will still start fifth (Danica Patrick), sixth (Tony Kanaan), seventh (Marco Andretti), and ninth (Hideki Mutoh). With Sunday's rain-out only the first day's eleven qualifiers are set for the 92nd Indy 500. The other three are Panther Racing's Vitor Meira in ninth, Vision's Ed Carpentier in tenth with Luczo-Dragon's Tomas Scheckter completing the first day's qualifiers. Only eight other drivers made full, four-lap qualifying runs on the rain-shortened opening weekend at Indianapolis.

Dixon and Wheldon were very strong in this year's first three IRL oval races and Ganassi's team appears in good shape to make a serious run at winning its first Indy 500 in eight years, since Juan Montoya dominated the race back in 2000. Dixon was second last year, of course, and Wheldon finished fourth in '06, his first year with Ganassi's team.

"I think the results we've had so far this year have been really good," commented team manager Mike Hull. "In fact, that's a bit of an understatement, but the reality is they've been what we've hoped they would be. I think what's happened is the drivers themselves have made enormous progress because they've gelled together very well. They definitely support each other and in turn the team members support them really well, and I think that has a lot to do with the success we've had this year. Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon are very unselfish with each other and when you can have that symmetry between two race drivers it pays large dividends."

Hull compares the working partnership enjoyed by Dixon and Wheldon to the team's great days ten years ago with Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser.

"Zanardi and Vasser were meant for each other at that point in time, and I think Dixon and Wheldon are meant for each other at this point in time," Hull remarked. "They aren't anything alike, except for one common thread--they both want to be better today than they were yesterday. They haven't lost sight of where they came from and they don't feed off each other. They learn from each other. Their diversity in approach is probably a benefit. That's certainly helped us in the past, like with Zanardi and Vasser.

"The more unselfish you can be as a teammate, or for that matter, a team member, the more your eyes are open each day to learning. And that's what Scott and Dan have in common. If they can continue down that path, no matter what they do with their lives, they can look back and say they achieved a lot, and that's where they are as two people racing for us today. Their driving styles are a bit different, but they've learned to compare their styles to understand how to help each other."

Hull says Dixon and Wheldon have learned to drive their cars loose with the tail out in qualifying.

"In order to achieve a really fast lap at Indianapolis it takes a lot of experience," Hull observes. "You can give somebody the setup that Chip Ganassi Racing had on Saturday afternoon and the driver may be able to drive the race car, but can he drive the car across the short chutes the right way to get the speed that he needs? Scott and Dan have got to the point in their careers where they can do that and they're doing it together and that compounds your ability to get to the next level."

Hull says the IRL's change this year to Indy-style, four-lap qualifying for all its oval races prompted Ganassi's team to work hard on achieving the most consistent car it could over four laps.

"We've certainly worked on refining our oval program, and it's paid off," Hull remarked. "We try to learn from where we've come and make it better, and we decided that we would be more aggressive this year in qualifying. Our expectation was that it would be very fierce competition to get to the front row at Indianapolis this year, and it was, but the weather during the week might have dampened some of that.

"Indianapolis qualifying for a century has been about four, consistent laps. It's a very basic concept and we worked on that not only at Indianapolis but for the first three oval races because the IRL helped us by changing the qualifying rules. So we've worked on four, consistent qualifying laps since the beginning of the year and we brought that forward to Indianapolis and worked on that when we were able to on Tuesday and Friday last week when the track was available for practice.

"You never really know exactly where you stand because you always get tugged around during practice by tows from someobdy else. Even if a car is entering turn one and you're exiting turn four it still affects not only your speed on paper, but it also affects the balance of the car. And that's what you really have to try to understand.

"With the two drivers we currently have they have a great sense for the balance they need when there's turbulence on the racetrack for a qualifying lap. So we were able to generate four, consistent qualifying laps during practice and we just had to match the setup for the track conditions during the day on Saturday."

Ganassi's team knew both its drivers would make two, four-lap runs on Pole Day, playing to the maximum the recent rule that limits each qualifying day to only eleven qualifiers. In the end, Dixon enjoyed the best conditions with a headwind down the front straight and a tailwind on the backstraight. When Wheldon went out for his second run two hours later the wind had shifted so it was less perfect with more of a crosswind.

"We played the eleven position qualifying game," Hull said. "We knew we were going to withdraw our first times. Both of our guys did that and each of them improved their time and we ended up with the fast cars at the end of the day."

This week, of course, Dixon and Wheldon will get ready for raceday.

"We'll concentrate really hard in practice on Wednesay with our race setup, not necessarily a pure speed priority but more of a long run mentality," Hull noted. "We need to be able to be in a position by the end of this week's practice to feel confident that we'll be able to tune the car to the track during the race in addition to having a good starting place.

"I don't think we were purposely trying to make ourselves favorites," Hull added. "We're trying to prepare ourselves to race. There's no place I want to be on raceday except at the Indy 500. We grew up to want to win this race and we've got two fantastic chances. In one's life in motor racing when that opportunity happens you're either going to be really happy, or be very disappointed, and I'd sure like to have a smile on everybody's face when we're done on raceday. If we do, it'll be because we worked together to get there."

Circumstances are very different for the former Champ Car teams making the transition to the IRL. Among those who failed to qualify last weekend were Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and drivers Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal. Both Wilson and Rahal made two qualifying attempts but weren't quick enough to make the field on the first weekend. Newman/Haas/Lanigan's general manager Brian Lisles assessed his team's situation in the middle of the month of May.

"Just to get here has been an uphill struggle and really, it all comes back to time," Lisles acknowledged. "You can say these parts are missing and we're awaiting for this and a shortage of that, but all of those things are a product of timing. If the convergence of the two series had been done in November, which is what I think everybody would have liked and expected, most of the difficulties would have been much reduced for the teams who came over from Champ Car. But the reality is we are living hand-to-mouth to get the car on the track on-time for each day."

There's also been plenty to learn about how the Dallara goes together and how to read and interpret the IRL's complex rulebook.

"Almost every aspect of the way the car goes together is somewhat different to anything we've been used to before," Lisles observed. "So there's an element of training required to know how to put the car together in an effective way. When we built our first car we literally had parts left over and had to call and find out where they went! It was comical but also indicates the lack of knowledge we had about the product that we're still discovering.

"The way the series has evolved it has a very complicated rulebook. If you've been in the series for a number of years you've grown-up with the rulebook and you probably understand why some of the rules are the way they are and why they were implemented that way. But there are definitely some quirks in what you have to do to the car to make it legal. We've had a number of pitfalls where we made an honest attempt but it turned out we had built a car that was not consistent within the rules.

"We've spent fifty percent of the time we normally spend trying to improve the car for the next run just assuring that the car is legal. So once again, time is our enemy, and there are a lot of things we still don't fully comprehend about putting the cars together so they are legal."

Newman/Haas/Lanigan spent many hours at Indianapolis this month getting one of its cars in correct order to pass the IRL's technical inspection.

"We had tremendous trouble getting one of our cars to pass technical inspection," Lisles said. "It was all trivial things but there were numerous items and we were continually trying to fix it and go back though tech. It's not so much what's written down in the rulebook. It's the way it's interpreted which all has an influence on what you're shooting for. It's been very frustrasting for the guys. We're used to putting a car together and knowing it's correct and getting on and doing other things, and that's certainly not been the case so far this year.

"I'm sure we'll learn to understand it because it's pretty clear that the top teams who've been doing this for some time know where they're at and don't waste any time on those things. We have some equipment on order to help us try to build the cars correctly but again, time is our enemy because we probably won't have that stuff for another two or three months."

Newman/Haas/Lanigan is also extremely hard-pressed to find the time and people to complete its inventory of back-up cars.

"We're trying to build-up all our spares and our spare cars," Lisles commented. "We don't have any spare cars here at Indy. We may have one spare car by the time the race starts. We're hoping to have two spare cars built by the time we go to Milwaukee a week after Indy, but we're not even sure we can get that done. One of our cars, for instance, still doesn't have a fuel cell and we've had to put so much effort into getting our two cars together it's left us with no time to work on the spare cars.

"We don't have very many people back in the workshop to put the two spare cars together. Years ago we might have brought one here to work on it but again, given the overhead to keep the cars running and to keep them legal because of our inexperience, there was no point bringing an unbuilt, third car here because it would have remained in the same state as it was when it got here. So we left both spare cars in Chicago. We have to get these cars built by the end of May because, if we don't, the schedule is such that we probably never will get them completed.

"Another thing we're fighting is that with the separation of the two series, as we all know, sponsrship has been difficult to get. Our sponsorship has declined over the past decade so our team has gotten quite a lot smaller, particularly as far as our resouces back at the shop."

Lisles doesn't to expect to see any quantum leaps in performance this year.

"Quite frankly, I think our performance will stay fairly similar through the rest of the season compared to what you've seen so far this year," he commented. "We expect to be at least in the hunt in the road races and either midfield or back from there on the ovals. I think all the ovals are fairly unique in one way or another, so there is no way we have the information to get prepared correctly for those tracks compared to those teams who have been to those tracks several times. And of course, we have two drivers who are essentially rookies on ovals so they're also learning their craft. But both are doing very well.

"I have to say, so far, in many ways, I'm pretty pleased because at all the oval events we've been to so far this year at least our cars have been well-balanced and secure for the drivers, and that's the most important thing to start from at any oval race. The speed will come, given some time. I would hope that if everything goes as one would expect with a winter's worth of work we'll close the gap maybe halfway to the leaders, maybe a little bit more than that.

"But obviously, the closer you get, the more difficult it is to finish the gap off because the IRL teams have five years of R&D behind their cars and we have zero time. By the beginning of the 2009 season we will be doing a lot more subtle things that take time to learn. We will have done a year so we'll have an understanding of all the tracks."

Lisles believes Newman/Haas/Lanigan's deep experience on street circuits was a key item in Graham Rahal's win at St Petersburg last month.

"I think we'll be good on the road courses, but I think because St Petersburg is the only genuine street course the IRL has, it probably is the lowest priority on the existing teams R&D schedule," Lisles observed. "But for us, because we've done a lot of street circuits, it was pretty high up the priority list. When we go to the road courses I'm sure the existing teams will have done relatively more work than us and I think it will be relatively more difficult for us to be right up front on the road courses.

"So it's going to be a very hard row to hoe this year and it's extremely tough on the guys just because of the physical work required. I hope the other Champ Car teams will be able to find the resources to get through this year and hopefully start to reap some benefits next year. It's extremely tough on everyone in terms of work hours and, of course, the schedule after Indy is going to be pretty tough, too.

"It's hard and it's wearing people down but you have to keep plodding on. When times are tough all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. It's going to take us some time to get out of this hole we're in, no doubt about it."

The team also had to cope with the murderous loss last week of veteran crewman Davey Evans.

"There was the immediate impact of having to deal with the grief and the stress and having to help the Evans family deal with the circumstances and make all the arrangements," Lisles said. "It was a very, very tragic thing and it made it very tough on everyone in the team."

Lisles revealed that the pressure of so much work means Newman/Haas/Lanigan has not been able t put much effort into understanding and improving its cars' aerodynamic package.

"In terms of manpower, we've probably put four or five percent of our time into it," he said. "We have done some wind tunnel work. We did the straightforward, simple stuff first. We're trying to make progress. In terms of engineering improvements, we have already identified some things that we need to make better. There is one thing on the car which visually is a Newman/Haas/Lanigan piece that is different to everybody else's. It only has a very, very small improvement in our testing, but we have started. We know there are a number of areas we need to look at. We already have some information gathered, but again, it's time needed to get everything executed and getting the cars ready for each event.

"There are a number of things we found we thought we needed to do for Indianapolis but by the time we figured-out what we needed to do and got those things expedited a lot of it was too late to have any influence at this event this year. So that's kind of disappointing. A certain percentage of the effort we made to prepare for Indy won't get done in time. So once again, time is our enemy."

Lisles hopes Newman/Haas/Lanigan can begin to get a grip on its vast workload by the end of the season.

"Personally, there's been so much to do and every moment there's a new question or problem. We had no road map of where we should be going and that means it's very difficult to give direction to the guys. People like to have some idea of what the plan is and that's been very difficult to do. Certainly, our senior people were almost overwhelmed with new information and things we had to get done.

"At this point, my desk is totally disorganized. We're just living from one phone call to the next, or one email to the next. Instead of having a sense of where we should be going we just keep fighting fires and we're still putting fires out. That's okay in the very short term, but it's no way to run a business."

So while the established IRL teams are focused on refining the many details of their cars and operations for this year's Indy 500, the former Champ Car teams are simply trying to survive.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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