The Disparity Gap Within a Team

I was reading through the Racer Mailbag the other night and an item caught my eye. A reader had asked about massaging a chassis, especially for the Indianapolis 500. Marshall Pruett gave a fairly long answer about what all teams can do the make a car as “slippery” as possible. In the last part of his answer, he relayed a story that I found very interesting.

He talked about massaging the “spinny bits” – the rotating pieces of the suspension and drivetrain, making sure they are spinning with as little friction as possible. That makes sense. Even when I was a kid, I always made sure that my bicycle chain and wheel hubs were properly lubricated.

This is the part I found interesting. Pruett said that at the 500 one year, a large multi-car team was at their hospitality bus eating lunch – so their garage was empty. An Indy-only driver, who had joined the team for the Month of May was venting his frustrations to Pruett. The driver wanted to show the disparity in even the simple things, between his car and the cars of his fulltime teammates. All cars were on lifts, so the wheels could spin freely. The driver gave his right-front tire a spin and it rotated about three or four times, before it came to a stop. The driver then spun the left-front wheel of the car next to his, and it spun around forever. Pruett went on to explain that this driver wanted him to know that his car was not getting the same basic attention that the other team cars were getting, and it showed on the speed charts.

Clearly there was a disparity between the attention the one-off car was getting compared to a fulltime car of one of his teammates. I get it that the engineering staff will go over the data of the lead driver of the team, trying to get him or her an Indianapolis 500 win or put them in a position to win the championship. The big picture of the lead driver on the team, is a lot more important to the team, than a one-off driver who may not have a realistic shot at winning the 500. But surely there is not a great deal involved in making sure the rolling resistance in the wheels is the same.

Maybe I am naïve, but this sort of surprises me. I don’t know which team Pruett was referring to. Anything referred to as a “multi-car” team, could technically mean two cars in May. But in my mind, multi-car means three of more fulltime cars. Ganassi and Penske rarely run one-offs for Indianapolis. Penske did it in 2013 with AJ Allmendinger, then for his sports car drivers Juan Montoya and Helio Castroneves. Ganassi is running a fifth car for Tony Kanaan this May, but that is under extenuating circumstances. He has run other drivers “in association with [enter smaller team name]” such as Alex Lloyd, but I can’t think of another full Ganassi one-off, off the top of my head.

If I’m guessing, and that’s all I’m doing – I’m guessing that the team in question may be Andretti Autosport. Even if it isn’t, let’s use them as an example in a very hypothetical discussion.

Let’s say you’re Stefan Wilson in 2018, and you are part of a six-car effort with Andretti. There are the four full-time drivers; Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Zach Veach and Marco Andretti – plus Carlos Muñoz in another one-off effort and yourself. You brought sponsorship from Driven 2 Save Lives, an organ transplant organization in honor of your brother, who lost his life at Pocono three years earlier. I don’t really know how a non-profit (I’m assuming) organization that relies on donations; sponsors a ride for the 500 – but I’m assuming Wilson was given a substantial budget to take to a team to run him.

If I’m Wilson, I may concede that the team I go with may put a higher priority on Alexander Rossi or Ryan Hunter-Reay – both drivers that had already won the Indianapolis 500, and Rossi was a legitimate threat to win the championship – especially in a situation where their top cars are in jeopardy of making the race. In that situation, where choices have to be made on who gets the most attention – I would expect the front-runner to get that attention.

But to be given a car that doesn’t even have wheels that roll as easily as your teammates? That’s another matter.

Please don’t think I secretly know who Pruett is talking about, because I don’t. It could be Rahal or Dale Coyne that he was talking about. Andretti is just the first name to pop into my mind, mainly because they have a history of running Indy-only one-off efforts. That’s why I am picking this hypothetical example.

Just to be fair, let’s hypothesize that it was Spencer Pigot, we are talking about at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR) in 2016. Pigot had the scholarship funding for winning the Indy Lights championship the year before. That bought him three IndyCar races. At RLLR, Pigot had already run St. Petersburg and the IndyCar Grand Prix – so this was to be Pigot’s last race with Bobby Rahal’s team. Graham Rahal would’ve been Pigot’s only teammate that year, so was RLLR considered a multi-car team? For argument’s sake, let’s say yes.

In 2016, Pigot’s car carried sponsorship from Manitowoc – a crane manufacturing company. I don’t know if Pigot brought the sponsorship to the program, or if RLLR did. While Graham Rahal would certainly be given top-priority in a crunch situation, wouldn’t RLLR have an obligation to Manitowoc to present a car that at least rolled as freely as Rahal’s?

Again, these are simply hypothetical situations that I’m pulling out of the air.

Years ago, the disparity in equipment was obvious and sometimes a necessity, depending on what equipment a team had at their disposal. In 1965, AJ Foyt ran a Lotus, but rookie teammate Al Unser was given a Lola that was painted almost identical to Foyt’s Lotus. Unser was grateful to be out of the situation he started the month with, and never would’ve questioned any disparity in equipment. But apparently there wasn’t much, because Unser brought the car home in ninth place.

Years later, in 1991 – Foyt was in a 1991 Lola with a Chevy V8 engine. His one-off teammate, Bernard Jourdain, was given a 1990 Lola with a Buick V6.

As recently as 2003, Team Penske drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves were in two different chassis, but that was due to their personal choice. Winning driver, Gil de Ferran, chose the Panoz chassis, while Helio Castroneves chose the Dallara. Penske had both chassis available, but left it to the drivers to choose which they wanted.

I think Indy one-off drivers know going in, that they are on the low end of the totem pole (or the priority tower, to be more politically correct), when it comes to their standing within a team. But what should be a realistic expectation? If Scott Dixon’s engineer finds a little secret on Fast Friday that suddenly gives his car a half-mile an hour bump this May; should Tony Kanaan in a fifth Ganassi one-off expect that same secret to be passed down to his car? It might be nice, but I’m not sure he can expect it.

I don’t really know the answer to the question regarding expectations when a one-off driver joins a team. In this day of the spec chassis, you would think expectations might be higher, than they were thirty years ago when teammates could have totally different cars and engines. I would imagine it depends on the team. When AJ Allmendinger ran for Team Penske in 2013, it certainly seemed to those of us on the outside that all Penske cars were identically prepared as much as possible.

Am I being naïve to think a driver should expect to at least start the month out in a car that is equal to the other cars on the team? When a one-off car has a lot more rolling resistance than a fulltime car – that surprises me. To me, that just seems very basic and easy to fix. Was this just a unique situation that finally resolved itself before qualifying or is this the norm with one-offs?

I know there is a disparity in equipment between a Penske car and a Foyt car, but I didn’t know there was such a gap within each team. If anyone reading this has any insight, I’d love to hear it.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “The Disparity Gap Within a Team”

  1. Alan Stewart Says:

    I’m mostly curious why it wasn’t the same side tire that was spun on the two cars.

    Could it also have been the braking setup, or a bad caliper, or a hundred other reasons? I don’t find it out of the realm of possibility. Could it have been a driver with an ax to grind? Sure. Could it be, as you say, a lackadaisical effort by the team just to field an entry? Sure.

    We’ll just never know.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      You are standing between two cars.

      Your right front tire on one side of you and the left front of a team mate’s car on the other side of you……….

      You spin your right front and then you reach over and spin your team mate’s left front………

      From Marshall Pruett’s response that George referenced adding a touch of magic to your team mate’s wheels but not treating your wheels equally, “Same with the wheel bearings, where the artful application of polishing and other tricks can greatly reduce the rolling resistance and therefore make it easier — taking less horsepower from the engine — to spin the wheels.”

      • Alan Stewart Says:

        Thank you for the reply. I think you missed my point.

        Why wouldn’t you go to the right front of your car and the right front of the other car (or, left front of both)?

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I believe Ganassi ran Ryan Briscoe in a one-off at Indy in 2013, the first appearance of NTT Data on an Indycar. And peaking of Ganassi, disparity between Ganassi’s two sets of full-time cars (as the 9 and 10 operated out of a different shop than the 38 and 83 then) was cited by Graham Rahal as a reason why he moved from Ganassi to RLL in 2013. This disparity does not seem to exist today, if it ever did (note: I do believe Graham… I also believe he exaggerated a bit too).

    I do not have a particular insight into this, but I expect drivers who are especially unhappy with equipment and crew disparity are ones who felt that they were promised something better when they made their deal with the team. I’ll bet that happens nearly every May.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I can see a one off not getting all the attention of a full timer. But with the cost of running a car now days, anything less than a 100% effort seems foolish.

  4. Having been involved with a number of low budget teams in both the USA and Europe, I am not at all surprised. Happens all the time I’m told. Once I remember a team sending a car out with less than the minimum material allowed on the brakes. Driver had break failure and spun out at high speed. The driver is usually the loser because outside of the paddock, nobody really is aware and so presume it’s the drivers fault they spun it, or are a second or so slower than their team mate. When the brake failure happened, I complained to the team owner who said if I carried on complaining, he would just short fuel the car. Great stuff!

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