Are Two-Car Teams The Secret To Success?

There is a general school of thought that in today’s IndyCar world, that a team must have at least two cars in order to be successful. Statistically, that would appear to be correct. I mean the teams that are generally considered to be the top organizations in the paddock – Penske, Ganassi and Andretti – have four cars each.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports expanded to a two-car fulltime program in 2013, when they hired rookie Tristan Vautier to pair with veteran Simon Pagenaud. Even the very frugal AJ Foyt Enterprises expanded to two cars in 2015 when they hired Jack Hawksworth to partner with Takuma Sato.

For the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, there were only two teams that were considered single car teams – KVHS Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

The reasons given for two-car teams are many, but the one given most often is the sharing of data between the cars. One driver may feel something that another does not, or one engineer may think of something new to try that an engineer on another car never thought of. Like anything, there is strength in numbers.

But that success is based on full transparency between cars. If one car is hiding something from another car on the team, it is counter-productive. At that point, a team stops being a team and it becomes an organization of two or more cars competing against each other.

Perhaps that is why Team Penske is so successful. They have two long-standing rules between their cars – don’t take each other out and all data will be shared. Now Will Power and Simon Pagenaud may have been reluctant to share all secrets, but from what I understand – all data was on the table.

Given all that – is it safe to say that teams must have at least two cars in order to be successful? Well, not exactly.

Both single-car teams from this past season experienced more success than some of the smaller two-car teams. Sébastien Bourdais won the first race of the double-header at Belle Isle for KVSH, while Graham Rahal gave his famous father’s team a win at Texas. The two single-car teams – one from each manufacturer – were able to pull off wins, while the smaller two-car teams of Schmidt Peterson, Dale Coyne and AJ Foyt could not.

To be fair, the two single-car teams from this past season are heading in totally different directions. No one seems to know if KVSH will even be in existence when the 2017 season begins at St. Petersburg next March. No one seems to be talking and that’s never a good sign. But the future there seems murky enough to make Bourdais take a lesser ride at Coyne, simply because he knows Coyne will answer the bell and KVSH may not.

It wasn’t that long ago that KVSH, or KV Racing Technologies, was a three-car team. In 2012, their drivers were EJ Viso, Rubens Barrichello and Tony Kanaan; who finished twentieth, twelfth and ninth respectively. The following year, KV condensed to a two-car team. This past season, Bourdais was their only fulltime effort. Even though Bourdais won at Belle Isle, it was not a good season. He and KVSH struggled to a fourteenth place finish in the points. To say the future at KVSH Racing is uncertain is putting it mildly.

Conversely, the one-car system seems to be thriving at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR). Is it an anomaly that their one-car team should flourish while many two-car efforts struggle? I’m not so sure.

Remember that RLLR went part-time after the 2008 season. They were either an Indianapolis-only team or ran a few selected races throughout the season. They returned to fulltime status in 2012, with Takuma Sato as their sole driver. Although Sato came within three turns of winning the 2012 Indianapolis 500, they only finished fourteenth in the final standings.

The following year, Graham Rahal joined the team with James Jakes as his teammate. The results weren’t pretty. Rahal finished eighteenth in points, while Jakes finished nineteenth. Since 2014, Graham Rahal has been going it alone at RLLR. That first year was horrendous, with Rahal finishing nineteenth – behind two drivers (Jack Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin) who did not start every race as Rahal did.

There were rumors that Rahal couldn’t get along with teammates, or even those on his own crew. I can’t speak for how well he gets on with the guys on his team, but there were a couple of gripes from Rahal about his teammates that made me think he may not play well with others. He openly complained about his Newman/Haas teammate Robert Doornbos, and I never felt much love between he and James Jakes. To be fair, I think Rahal and Justin Wilson got along very well at Newman/Haas as well as he and Oriol Servia.

But I’m thinking going solo may work for RLLR and Graham specifically – and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is no questioning that this is Graham’s team, the first name on the logo notwithstanding. And you certainly can’t argue with the results. The past two seasons, Rahal has finished fourth and fifth respectively in the final standings. He has three wins in that time and a total of ten podium finishes in that same period. For two years running, Rahal was the highest finishing Honda driver in the standings. Given Honda’s struggles for the past two seasons – that says a lot.

So while common sense tells you that a team must field two cars to be successful, just look at the most recent IndyCar season. Two single-car teams won races, and one of them was at least in the championship conversation late in the season. Three of the two-car teams failed to win a race and never threatened to place anywhere near the championship.

More does not always mean better. Just ask Larry and AJ Foyt. But it usually does.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Are Two-Car Teams The Secret To Success?”

  1. Takes me back to the old Team Scandia days! Seriously though, I think in most cases a teammate is a help but some it is not. I wouldn’t force it on Rahal, but a team like KVSH, they seemed to do better with 2 cars.

    I was just reading up on Jayski, on he NASCAR side, the same thing going on there. Former Champ Car standout AJ Allmendinger’s team is thinking of expansion. That is an example of a mistake because the team’s first car struggles, why wouldn’t the 2nd car?!?!? That is very Foyt like, with the struggles they have faced recently.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I’m sure JTG-Daugherty’s thought process on adding a second car is that it would help Allmendinger’s car, especially on the mile-plus ovals where they seem to struggle the most. “Struggle”, perhaps, is too strong a word, given their situation as a single-car team whose “technical alliance” is with a team that hasn’t won anything in 3 years. In fact, Allmendinger has won with Childress’ engines more recently than a Childress team driver has. A second car done right should help, but can it be done right?

      I am certainly surprised to hear the idea, because the team never seemed like it was in the kind of financial shape necessary to field a second car. They pulled out of the Sprint Unlimited in 2015 because they didn’t have sponsorship for it. Now they have the money to field a second car and acquire a charter for it? A second car for Greg Biffle, apparently, who has can’t be bringing much money as he has been running Ford and Roush logos on his car for half this season? I’ll believe it when I see it… though as a fan of both Dinger and The Biff, I would like to see it.

      If they are doing this hoping that the money will materialize, it is surely a mistake.

  2. I disagree. Rahal has been top 5 two years in a row, and a championship is not out of the question. But, to actually win it, I think they’ve got to get a second car. I would even have been okay with Sato if that is what it took to get Rahal a teammate. As a single car team you might be able to win races, but I don’t see how a championship is going to be possible. In the past in Indycar/CART when a single car team won in the 80’s or 90’s they often did an incredible amount of testing. Now there’s a testing ban, and some tracks have limited practice time (Texas, some street courses, Iowa, Pocono) so while Rahal’s work has been great, to consistently beat Penske, Ganassi, and ECR he’s going to need help. I attribute some of Newgarden’s slow start to 2016 to the lack of a teammate at the first couple road/street races.

  3. If a team is stuck with Hondas when Chevys are clearly better, than success for them might be an occasional win or podium finish regardless of how many cars they have. Beyond that, I think it comes down to money. If a team can afford a top driver, the best mechanics, the best pit crew, they will be sucessful whether they have one car or six cars. Of course intangibles such as team chemistry also play in. You can’t buy team chemistry with money.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Having two (or more) cars is a definite advantage, provided the team truly has the resources and talent to field two competitive cars. To reap the benefits of a second car, a team must have more than another chassis, engine, decent driver, and set of data. They need enough quality people to staff two engineering groups and two competitive pit crews. They need the money to pay for all that talent, on top of the equipment. And they need the leadership, from owners and drivers, to balance the demands of fielding multiple cars.

    If a team cannot handle that, a second car is uncompetitive at best and a rift-causing distraction at worst. This seems to be a significant part of the reason why Coyne, Andretti, and (especially) Foyt struggled last year, and why KV and Rahal have both struggled when fielding multiple cars in recent years.

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