When the Sprint Cup Series rolled into Michigan International Speedway this past weekend, everyone was all atwitter (no, not the texting service for megalomaniacs) over the prospects of Ford finally having overcome their performance woes of the past 18 months. With Detroit as the backdrop for the 15th race of the 2010 season, Ford would come to the track with guns blazing, bringing the newest weapon in the Blue Oval arsenal to bear amongst all of their teams – the new FR9 engine. Would this newfound power be the missing piece to help push them over the top and get into victory lane?
On Friday, you could sense in the morning media session that the Ford drivers were eager to get moving, as they all seemed confident there was a little something extra in the tank – and between the fenders — for a change. So much so that even Greg Biffle was joking around with Denny Hamlin prior to his top-12 mandated media session, and left him with, “I think I’m gonna have something for you on Sunday.”
Until the advent of the FR9, Ford had the oldest, most antiquated engine in the field, one that – with the exception of a couple of cylinder head changes and repackaging of the intake manifold – had remained largely unchanged since 1992. With the exception of your Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains CDs, what else from 1992 do you still hold dear?
Of course, what has changed since the days of flannel shirts and Northern Exposure is that Cup cars today are aerodynamically (and visually) similar, making close to 900 horsepower. Their setups come not from data gleaned during an open test session, but from simulation programs and a team of engineers.
Remember Biffle’s win at Dover in the fall of 2008? He admitted that the car was setup almost exclusively not from the cockpit, but through input derived from both a simulation and a seven-post shaker rig.
But sometime after that September win, the computers stopped spitting out the right answer. Now, relying on that virtual technology has turned the last year and a half into wandering through a virtual 40-years-in-the-desert quest for speed, one that kept leading Roush Fenway past the same rock, over and over again. Without an avenue to validate test simulations at the tracks they compete on, it has prolonged the pains for the team that just a few years ago comprised half of the Chase field.
Last week, team owner Jack Roush confirmed during a teleconference that these are challenges his teams, who combined to win 11 races in 2008, but only three in 2009, are working feverishly to overcome.
“We’ve got third-party vendors, not Ford and not Roush Fenway, that were engaged in our data analysis and in our simulations, and, quite frankly, we haven’t gotten the results this year that we had expected,” Roush said. “Certainly, the results aren’t as good from the simulation data, that analysis point of view, as we had in 2008, and given the fact that we don’t have testing… that has been a handicap.”
“We’re looking at additional third-party vendors. We’re taking more things inside and taking them on ourselves as Roush Fenway, and the [Richard] Petty organization is looking to Roush Fenway and doing some things on their own.”
“They’ve added staff. So, we’re trying to fill that void that we had not expected.”
Over the course of the weekend, it appeared as if the RPM folks might have indeed found something. In Saturday’s two practice sessions, the No. 98 of Paul Menard was fastest in the morning session and second fastest in Happy Hour.
When the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 started, the Ford teams were indeed making progress. From my position atop pit road (next to Richard Childress), I noted the upward mobility of the Fusions throughout the event, as well as monitoring their radio traffic. By lap 78, their fortunes were improving: Kasey Kahne was third, Carl Edwards sixth, David Ragan ninth and Biffle in 12th. The new power was evident down the straightaways, as the draft at Michigan is quite noticeable, and the ability of the Ford drivers to close the gap on their way to turns 1 and 3 was unmistakable.
Lack of power was never a complaint on Sunday. Handling, however, was.
By lap 138, it was Kahne in second, Biffle in seventh and Edwards ninth, while AJ Allmendinger was starting to move towards the top 10. Allmendinger’s biggest complaint was intriguing, though: too much power. At one point, the driver radioed the crew that as he tried to accelerate out of the corner, it would light the tires up. Not a comforting feeling at 160 mph, but one that had been missing in recent weeks, as Kahne noted in his post-race press conference.
“Five of the guys had this engine last week, and I didn’t have it,” he noted. “Last week, I couldn’t draft. I could get a run off the corner, but when I got to the straightaway, they would pull away from me. That shouldn’t happen. You should be able to get the draft and suck up.”
I asked Kahne how much of a horsepower improvement we were talking – five or 10 horsepower… 20 even?
“I don’t know numbers,” Kahne admitted. “I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell me. If you can feel it as a driver when you are talking 800-some horsepower on a 2-mile racetrack, when you touch it and feel it all the way down the straightaways and through the top end as well, it has got to be a decent number.”
Fair enough. However, it is obviously not all engine, as if you look at Michigan, most of it is a turn. The main thread of any of the comments made by the Ford camp this weekend was that the FR9 fixes one aspect of their struggles, but is not the cure-all for their collective ills.
So when did it become apparent that the Roush bunch was headed down the wrong road? All of the drivers I questioned were pretty mum on the subject as far as singling out one race or instance in particular, with Edwards deferring to team owner Roush for clarification on that point.
“That’s for Jack; I am not the person to say, ‘Here is the procedural problems we have figuring out what is best,'” Edwards said. “Obviously, what we have isn’t working as well as some of the other guys, and considering we don’t have testing, having the ability to really test that simulation.”
While the question of the engine kept coming up, curbing the enthusiasm of the press and tempering expectations just because of a new engine became the task at hand. Sure, the new powerplant was welcomed assistance for a group that has been fighting itself, as well as the competition, before global warming became global cooling. But it only highlighted the areas where the Ford teams have been struggling – in the corners. Turns out they handle just fine in a straight line.
“The engine is just one part of the equation,” Biffle said. “This engine runs a little better after the corner. We were getting beat there before, but this engine has a tad bit better cooling and we can run a little more tape on the grill. On restarts, it goes through the gears a little bit better. It is more about handling, though. It doesn’t matter how much power you have if you don’t have the handling. It is one piece of the puzzle that will make us better.”
The constant questions regarding the engines continued through the weekend, though, as if that was the issue the Ford teams were struggling with. Edwards again echoed the sentiments of virtually everybody in the Ford camp.
“The problem is not our engines,” he stated. “It’s how fast the car can go through the center of the corner. The engine is a separate thing. It’s as good or better than what we had. Hopefully, through the summer we will have 10-15 more horsepower.”
It is that corner piece of the puzzle that Roush Fenway, RPM and these third-party vendors Roush referred to have been shaking the box, searching frantically for the missing piece. Roush now spends two days a week with his teams in Concord, N.C., trying to assist with getting his team’s cars up to speed.
“I’m looking the guys in the eyes,” Roush said, “and saying, ‘OK, are we missing something here, has anybody seen something that they think is different or revolutionary?’”
When I spoke with Pierre Kuettel, car chief of Edwards’s No. 99 Fusion, he was confident that they were making gains on their program, but that they were only as good as the information that they were being supplied – information that has been flawed for over a year.
“As crew guys,” he explained. “We can only work with and do what we’re told.”
And so it goes. Yet while Ford came up short in the Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Mich., they stand a good chance to deliver on last week’s mission outside of Motown as the series trades alfalfa fields for vineyards.
If Ford is to win this weekend, it will ironically be at a track where the driver plays perhaps the biggest role that they do all year; at Infineon Raceway, one of the two road courses the Sprint Cup Series stops at. Kahne won this race last year in a Dodge, while Allmendinger came home seventh in another Richard Petty Motorsports entry.
Can they do it? Putting the drivers back in control makes this Sunday as good a chance as any. Mix in some different headlight and grille stickers, a new engine with some different plumbing that can be mounted lower (assuming they run the new FR9 and not the old 452 powerplant), and two of the King’s horses and men just might help put Ford and victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series back together again.