There’s an old cliche about statistics: “Numbers never lie.” Indeed, this is technically true. Numbers and statistics provide pieces of factual information that cannot be refuted. They are, in fact, incapable of lying.
However, they can often fail to disclose other elements of the story. Case and point: the timing and scoring results of the two-day Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway. The practice results reveal a driver’s fastest individual lap, both during a single session and across the two-day outing. The numbers themselves are 100% factual and cannot be disputed.
However, they do not indicate speed over a series of laps (e.g. 5 laps, 10 laps, 20 laps, etc.). Such data is far more crucial in that it indicates a car’s performance over a stint, the pivotal aspect of dialing in a strong race setup.
Further, the time sheets do not indicate chassis adjustments a team sampled. Test sessions often serve as big science experiments for the race teams. It is their time to take their research and development theories to the track to see what works and what doesn’t.
Did a team adjust suspension and damper settings between runs? Did they alter aerodynamics, either by adding downforce or taking it away with wing adjustments? Did they adjust gearbox ratios? Are they experimenting with engine maps? Did they run on brand new tires or a used set?
All these questions, and more, go unanswered by the time charts. What’s more, the data the individual teams gather about their experiments is proprietary, so they won’t be keen to share it with outsiders. Consequently, lap times need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti explained that new strategist Bryan Herta is keen to keep the focus on the No. 27 hhgregg Honda while blocking what other teams are doing. “Bryan is very good at keeping me focused on the 27. ‘How can we maximize the 27?’ And then it’s very easy to be, ‘Oh, Penske went this fast’ — we need to focus on what we can do to go faster.”
Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay explained this point further, detailing how crucial it is to keep your attention away from your opponents. “It’s just like you’re here by yourself testing, and your teammates. And we’re just going to operate in our own little bubble and (we’re) not really worried about where anybody else is because people are on different trim levels, people are up and down on engine power, people are getting toes, some aren’t,” said the driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda. “Everybody is on a different tire program, tire life, you name it. So we’re just going to stay on our end and focus on it, and like I said, try and bring back the best race car that we can.”
There are more factors to consider as well. Phoenix is one of only three short ovals, along with Iowa Speedway and Gateway Motorsports Park, on the 2017 schedule. The other ovals (Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono) are bigger speedways, and 12 events will be held on road and street courses, meaning the data acquired at Phoenix may be inappropriate to use at other tracks.
Complicating matters more are weather conditions. This open test was held on February 10 and 11, and the ambient temperature topped out at 80 degrees on Friday evening while the track temperature hit a max of 94 degrees on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. But Saturday was much cooler, only into the mid-70s ambient and lower still at night.
With the race itself not scheduled until April 29, weather could be drastically different on raceday, as Team Penske driver and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud indicated. “It was interesting: we come here, the track is perfect right now, temperature is not too bad, and we’re going to come back here (on April 29). And then it’s going to be very greasy, very loose, and it’s going to be very different. So you need to be able to counter effect that.”
There are some observations we can take away. Team Penske looks as stout as ever, though Ed Carpenter Racing looks poised to remain a thorn in the side of all of the big teams in 2017. Chip Ganassi Racing came out of the box down on speed to their rivals, but they’re early in their development with Honda’s engine and aero kit and should find more speed as the year continues.
However, a number of unknowns persist, and they may not get answered until the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12.