Editor’s note: Christopher DeHarde of Luling is a regular contributor on IndyCar racing to motorsport.com and tributeracing.com as well as co-hosting a weekly racing show on blogtalkradio.com. He is a 2012 LSU graduate. During the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana, DeHarde will be providing analysis for The New Orleans Advocate.
It’s often said that a bad carpenter blames his tools, but isn’t it also often said that a carpenter is only as good as his tools?
In any sport, this usually is the case. A good football player needs the right shoes just as a good baseball player needs the right bat or the tennis player needs the right racket.
But when it comes to motor sports, specifically the Verizon IndyCar Series, the common question remains on who is responsible for performance.
Is it the driver, or is it the car?
After all, the driver is the one making the car go around the track and is perhaps the biggest variable to determining how high the car will finish. However, without a good strategist to plan out his pit stop schedule, the driver could be mired deep in traffic, rendering all of their efforts to nothing.
However, without a decent engineering staff to set the car up or a good pit crew to perform fast pit stops, the greatest drivers in the world could only overcome so many setbacks before the end of the race occurs.
It is a debate that will be contested this weekend in Avondale at the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park.
There are many schools of thought to this question. Some may say that it’s all about the driver, that the car isn’t as important for finishing position; while some may say that it’s all about the car, and no matter who you put into the driver’s seat, the car will find its way to the front of the grid. There are extreme examples throughout the history of motor sports that seem to prove both schools of thought to be correct.
However, one school of thought is that both the driver and the car are equally important. It’s not man nor machine, it’s man and machine. However, different people in the industry have different perspectives on this question, including former IndyCar driver and race winner Bryan Herta.
“You cannot have a weakness,” said Herta, owner of Bryan Herta Autosport, which will be represented by Gabby Chaves in the Grand Prix of Louisiana.
“There’s nowhere to hide. If you don’t have a great driver and can’t give him a great car, then you won’t be successful. You have to have all those elements,” Herta said.
Not everybody agrees with Herta’s point of view, including one of his contemporary competitors, Jimmy Vasser. Vasser was Herta’s teammate in 1995 and won the IndyCar championship in 1996, retiring with 10 wins to his credit. He now co-owns KVSH Racing.
The new aero kits for 2015 that gives the manufacturers some individuality on how their cars look seems to influence Vasser into thinking that they help the driver push harder to make the car go faster.
“The drivers are still pushing the same that they did last year so any speed gained is mostly the car.
The aero kits will give some guys more confidence but in reality if you gave them no aero kits they’d be driving as fast as they could drive,” Vasser said.
Another take on this question comes from one of Vasser and Herta’s rivals as a driver in the ’90s and also as a team owner today. Michael Andretti won the IndyCar championship in 1991, has 42 wins over his career and has led the most laps at the Indianapolis 500 without winning the race. He owns Andretti Autosport, which fields multiple cars full time in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“Well now it’s going to come down to more of the car than it used to be because now there’s something different out there so if one kit’s better than the other, it doesn’t matter who you are as a driver, you might not be able to make up that difference,” Andretti said.
Andretti was alone in placing the majority of credit on one side of the argument, but all three questioned were former drivers. Current drivers, such as New Zealander Scott Dixon, are the ones who know best of all how the credit should be shared.
With 35 IndyCar race wins (including the 2008 Indianapolis 500) and three IndyCar Series championships under his belt (2003, 2008 and 2013), Dixon is one of the more qualified drivers on the grid to discuss such an issue.
Everybody is due the credit, the same way you do in horse racing, including the horse,” Dixon said.
“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when there was a lot of innovation, perhaps your car had a major advantage, but with an IndyCar we had up until this year, everybody had the same car. You have different engines in Chevy and Honda, but in the confines of the rules, they’re pretty close,” Dixon said.
“So now it’s up to up to the driver, engineer and the team to extract the most out of the car,” said Dixon.
That makes teamwork between the driver and their engineering staff essential.
“You see that some drivers can probably extract a little bit more than some others,” Dixon said. It is a combination in any situation, but you usually see that driver is the most prominent piece of the picture,” Dixon said.
Dixon’s mentioning of the engineer and team bring in one more opinion to solve the car or driver equation. Mike Hull, Dixon’s race strategist, also is the managing director for Chip Ganassi Racing’s IndyCar program and was very open about his perspective regarding this debate.
“I think it’s a combination,” Hull said.
“You have to weigh them (the car and the driver) evenly depending on the experience level of each driver and how they communicate with each other and how they look at the data stream from each car after practice,” Hull said.
So, is it the man, or is it the machine? At this point, it’s probably more accurate to say it’s man AND machine.