The Lessons of Mid-Ohio: Strategy is Crucial
The recent Verizon IndyCar Series Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was one of the most captivating open wheel races this season. While different strategies played out there was non-stop action. And, the new universal car allowed over 150 passes at a track known to be processional.
The universal aero kit (front and rear wings, sidepods, and engine cover) in use this season on the 2012 tub, generates 1400 lbs. less downforce. That requires the drivers to adjust their driving style. Straightaway speeds are faster due to less drag; but cornering speeds are slower, requiring drivers to brake earlier for the turns with less force pressing the car onto the racing surface.
Alexander Rossi’s pole winning lap of 64.68 seconds (125.677 mph) came close to the 2016 track record held by Simon Pagenaud of 63.87 seconds (127.271 mph) using the prior engine manufacturer designed aero kits.
Teams contemplated either a two or three stop strategy for the 90-lap race. Two stops required a significant fuel savings, achieving better than 3.8 miles per gallon (mpg). That’s tough to accomplish with so much shifting on the 2.258-mile course.
Andretti Autosport decided that was the best chance for Rossi to win from the pole. That decision was only made after the first few laps of the race. Some drivers started on a two-stop strategy and all but Rossi made three stops.
“Without a warmup, you don’t know what fuel mileage you’re capable of getting,” said Rossi, who finished 13 seconds ahead of Robert Wickens and led 66 laps. “All of the work leading into the weekend is really focused on qualifying. You don’t really get race mileage information. We went into it with the option of doing the two-stop if we could hit a fuel number in the first two or three laps. We were able to do that while opening up a gap on Will (Power). It was at that point that we decided to commit to it.”
“The simulation we did indicated a two-stopper was going to be 11 seconds quicker. And, based on being around people in pit lane, what first gear they had, I knew I had a better gear. We used it to our advantage.”
How does a driver save fuel? The driver lifts off the throttle early before entering a turn, rolling on his momentum while hoping he isn’t passed by a driver using more fuel. Rossi’s 2016 Indianapolis 500 win came down to his ability to save fuel.
A three-stop strategy requires the driver to build up enough of a lead to compensate for the extra time lost in the pits, at least 25 seconds at Mid-Ohio. The driver enters, adhering to the pit speed limit of 50 mph, stops for tires and fuel taking about seven to eight seconds, and then exits at 50 mph while cars are flying by on the straightaway at over 150 mph.
Andretti Autosport’s two-stop strategy likely included the expectation of some yellow flag laps when fuel mileage can be doubled or tripled. But like 2012 and 2013, this year’s event was caution free, even though there were 12 incidents leading up to the race.
Wickens found himself stuck behind drivers trying to avoid going a lap down after his second stop. They refused to respond to the courtesy move over flag; forcing a pass could result in an incident requiring patience.
“We evaluated both options,” stated Wickens, who finished second after leading 15 laps. “We still thought three stops was going to be the best race for us. Our strategy was blacks (tires) at the end. Unfortunately, that third stint the traffic just destroyed the race for me. I got stuck behind Sato on new reds. He was quick enough I couldn’t do anything. I had to wait for him to get a bit of deg (tire degradation).”
“I just thought it was comical for my entire third stint, honestly 28 laps, marshals were waving blue flags every lap. T.K. and Sato were fighting for position. It was kind of a risk-versus-reward. I saw a win slipping away. I waited for a mistake from Sato, capitalized on that, and was able to get by T.K. in one lap. I would have been able to challenge Rossi if I had a clear third stint. We lost a good 10 seconds. It’s a shame.”
The driver who took risks, passing 20 cars, was Sebastien Bourdais, who started last due to qualifying incident. The Frenchman finished sixth by managing to make his red tires live longer than most, and by having three new red sets for the race since he wasn’t able to use a red set in qualifying. Those grippier red tires seemed to be the advantageous choice for the cooler track temperature of 98 degrees (75 degrees ambient air) under cloudy skies.
IndyCar requires drivers run a minimum of two laps on both red and black tires. Some drivers experienced the reds falling off after 10 – 12 laps. Wickens developed blisters on his red right front tire during his second stint.
“I knew we had to push every lap on those reds,” explained Wickens. “This track was typically a left front killer. Saving the left front in the lap time, I was pushing extra hard on the right side. We were actually able to deg the right more than the left, which I wasn’t expecting. Blistering caused minor vibration but it wasn’t the end of the world.”
With the title battle heating up and opportunities narrowing with four more races left, 266 possible points, decisions become critical. For the two remaining road courses will some teams elect less pits stops for the fuel saving strategy? The wrong choice could cost the championship.
“The crazy thing about this championship, so many different elements you have to be good at,” stated Rossi, who is 46 points behind Dixon (494). “Each track requires a different approach and a different philosophy, a different mindset.”
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