IRL notebook: Tire option adds strategy variable

  • By Mike Harris Associated Press
  • Friday, April 3, 2009 3:25pm
  • SportsSports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Add tire selection to the variables already facing IndyCar team strategists at the street and road courses this season.

Beginning with Saturday’s time trials for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix, Firestone will provide the teams with a primary tire and a red-sidewalled alternate. The alternates are identical to the black-sidewalled primaries except for a softer tread compound. That will produce faster lap times than the primaries, but less durability.

“A softer tire has more grip, but they go away quicker,” former IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan said. “Our races are so competitive already, this will make it even better.”

The teams will receive three sets of the alternate “reds” for each race weekend at a road course or street course, like St. Petersburg. They will be required to use a new set of the alternates for at least two green-flag laps during the race.

The alternate tire concept was first used by Firestone in 2004 in the Champ Car series, which was absorbed into the IndyCar Series last season. The big difference in moving the alternates to IndyCar for the first time is that each team will be allowed three sets of the alternates instead of two.

“I think it adds a whole different level of competition to the sport, because it’s so different,” said defending St. Pete race winner Graham Rahal, who was fastest in Friday’s practice and drove in Champ Car in 2007. “A lot of times the engineering is a lot different. For instance, in Champ Car the handling was completely different from the reds to the blacks. This is a completely different car, completely different series. It’s going to be a new challenge.”

HVM Racing, which was a mainstay in Champ Car, is fielding an IndyCar for E.J. Viso, who was fourth on Friday.

“It’s a lot like what we are used to, so it’s good for us,” said HVM team owner Keith Wiggins. “It’s another element and opportunity to get the tire combination right. It can go either way, right or wrong, and that’s exciting for the fans too. … Once the fans understand it, it’s another positive for everyone moving ahead.”

Al Speyer, executive director for Firestone Racing, said teams will have to manage their tire use wisely to maximize their performance on the street and road courses.

“The added strategy could yield even more unexpected results in both qualifying and the race,” Speyer said.

Firestone, which has supplied tires to the IndyCar Series since it began competition in 1996, will supply only primary tires for the 10 oval events on the 17-race schedule.

BACK AT WORK: Racing crewman Keith Jones is back on the job after being critically burned in a pit fire last July during an American Le Mans Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Jones went through a difficult recovery and months of physical therapy in Indianapolis before returning to Gil de Ferran’s ALMS team for part-time work early this year. He worked in the pits for the first time since the accident two weeks go during the Sebring 12-hour race.

“Sure, it was tough for a while,” said Jones, who was the crew chief for Dario Franchitti when he won the 2007 Indianapolis 500. “But it feels great to be back at the track and working with the team again.

“The team has been very supportive through my rehabilitation and I have been anxious to return to the team.”

The accident also postponed Jones’ marriage to Elaine Swingley, but they finally got that accomplished on March 26 in Indianapolis.

“Everything was put on hold after the accident,” he said. “But she was so good throughout the recovery and rehab that I wanted to fulfill my promise to her. It was a tremendous ceremony to have our family, our crew and some racing friends attend.”

FAST LEARNER: Simon Pagenaud put his new Acura ARX 02a sports car prototype on the pole for Saturday’s American Le Mans Series race, a support event for the IndyCar Series opener.

The Frenchman, who co-drives with team owner and former Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran, had never seen the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit downtown before practice began here Friday morning. To help prepare, he downloaded a couple of video games that had simulations of the St. Pete circuit.

“I kind of knew the track went left and right, but I didn’t know where the bumps were,” Pagenaud said. “So I went out watched the practice in the morning.”

After watching de Ferran run some laps, Pagenaud took over the radically new Acura, the first car to run with the same size tires on all four corners in a major racing series in about four decades. His fast lap of 1 minute, 3.776 seconds easily beat the 1:04.722 lap by Scott Sharp in another of the new Acuras. Sharp will co-drive in the race with David Brabham.

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