IndyCar

Is this the year Dale Coyne Racing wins the Indy 500?

When Sebastien Bourdais suffered his awful-looking 228mph accident during qualifying for the 2017 Indy 500, he not only broke his pelvis and left hip, he also blew apart his and Dale Coyne Racing’s best chance of Indy 500 glory. Seb was on the third lap of his qualy run, and his first two were the fastest we’d seen that day. There’s little doubt he could have carried that pace through to the Fast Nine and at least landed a spot on the front row.

We know, too, that Dale Coyne’s team had a good race set-up that year. Rookie team-mate Ed Jones finished third the following Sunday, barely half a second behind the winner, despite damage to the nose of the car both costing him downforce and adding drag. Coyne could only shrug and wonder what might have been.

In fact, his team has produced strong speedway cars ever since the arrival of the Dallara DW12; in both 2012 and 2013, the late Justin Wilson had his DCR in fifth for the race’s final restart, while a recovered Bourdais qualified fifth and seventh in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Rookie Alex Palou would have been on the front row in 2020, but for a broken weightjacker from lap 2 in the Fast Nine shootout.

Wilson, Bourdais, Palou – all road course experts who proved adept at adapting to ovals, and who had the requisite talent to win the world’s biggest race. But they hadn’t actually done so, and that’s what makes this year very different for Dale Coyne Racing. In Takuma Sato, it has a proven two-time Indy 500 winner.

And already that oval pace is apparent. Sato qualified third in Texas last month, while in last week’s two-day test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was second fastest, quickest of the Honda drivers. Sure, that was with a tow, but so was everyone else’s fastest laps, and part of the Indy game is timing the tow and knowing what to do with it, using its benefits on the straights, dealing with its downside of dirty air in the turns. A veteran of 12 Indy 500s and one who has twice conquered the race will know that sort of thing.

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing w/RWR-Honda

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing w/RWR-Honda

Photo by: IndyCar

Coyne’s perspective

“It was a positive test, and yes, we looked good in Texas until the pitlane issue and then Takuma was knocked into the wall by another driver,” Coyne tells Autosport. “So Indy…? Let’s say, I think we have a chance.

“We’ve consistently had fast cars at the Speedway no matter who’s in them, and a big part of our allure for Takuma was knowing that. Equally, a big part of his allure for us was knowing that he’s great at Indy and knows what he wants from his car, for qualifying and the race. Experience has just given him this really strong instinct.”

Instinct, yes, but the 45-year-old veteran is also malleable, so he didn’t arrive at DCR from four years at Rahal Letterman Lanigan thinking he knew it all.

“The way we set up a car is very different from how Rahal’s team does it,” says Coyne, “so I think Takuma had some trepidation about that. But after Texas he said, ‘Yeah, this is definitely the way to do it.’ So we’re excited and I think he’s excited too.

“No matter what a team owner will tell you about the resources available, having extra cars for the 500 will always be a distraction” Dale Coyne

“I think it’s going to be important to qualify him near the front. We don’t know how easy it will be to make passes in the heat of late May, and that’s where Taku’s won from before [fourth on the grid in 2017, third in 2020]. After that it’s up to him and us to execute in the race.”

That’s a profound understatement, especially when it comes to pitstops. You’d soon run out of fingers if you counted up the fast Indy 500 driver/car combinations down the years who have lost out on potential victory due to tardy or faulty pitstops. With anywhere between five and eight stops over the course of the 200 laps of the iconic 2.5-mile track, stumbling crew members can have a dire effect on the outcome for their car. In that area, Coyne expresses no doubts over the squad on Sato’s #51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR – “They’re good, really good” – and we know the best ones aren’t being spread too thin: for a second straight year, Coyne hasn’t added an extra car (or two) for the 500.

“I’m sure Takuma is happy we’re running just him and David [Malukas] – I know for sure that I’m glad about it!” he chuckles. “No matter what a team owner will tell you about the resources available, having extra cars for the 500 will always be a distraction. Running with just your full-time drivers and working with the same group of people you do the other rounds of the championship with, things just run smoother and there’s less chance of unexpected issues.”

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Coyne spent a while in the off-season convincing veteran engineer Don Bricker to join his team, and took a tad longer to convince Sato that Bricker was the man for the job. So he’s proud to see the pair “have evolved a nice relationship” in the opening rounds of the season.

“I thought it would work out,” says Coyne, “whereas at the beginning Taku wasn’t crazy about the idea, saying that Don didn’t have a resume like some of his past engineers. I said to him, ‘No, but he has the right temperament and the right approach, like you,’ and I think that’s how it’s worked out. They’re methodical, they discuss things in very detailed way, they each listen to the other and obviously as Taku’s trust has grown in us because of our pace on the ovals, his trust in Don has grown, too.

“Now, I would say our car has a smaller sweet spot than the Rahal car that Taku was used to, but I think our car’s sweet spot is sweeter, if you know what I mean. And I think having Taku with us will help us expand that operating window – plus he knows how to deal with a car when it starts getting tricky in a stint.”

So is this Dale Coyne Racing’s year at Indy?

“Barring bad luck or cautions going against us, I think we have a car, a crew and a driver that can have us fighting for the win in the final stint. And we all know what Taku can do when he’s put in that position.”

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda, pit stop

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda, pit stop

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

Sato’s perspective

Sato, now in his 13th year of IndyCar racing, understands fluctuations in performance both within a team and within himself. He’s survived career misfires with dignity and humility, and his charming personality has won over his peers, his team bosses and the veterans of the sport. His ratio of one win every two years doesn’t seem great, and he has never finished higher than seventh in the championship, but when one considers that two of his six IndyCar wins have come at the 500, it’s easy to appreciate that Taku has experienced extreme highs and lows. This has given him a deep but also broad perspective.

“Dale’s team is very different from what I’ve been used to at other teams,” he tells Autosport. “In terms of resource, team numbers, it’s probably closest to what I had with A.J. and Larry [Sato spent four seasons driving for the Foyts]. But we’ve seen in recent years, DCR is very strong in engineering and has shown tremendous pace at the Speedway, and also speed and consistency on road and street courses. I was fascinated to come in from outside and find out how they do all that. I am very impressed.

“Just one single test day before the season, because of the regulations, is not really enough time when you’re changing teams. You want to learn these unique engineering philosophies and how they make the car react on track. We were OK at St. Pete and Long Beach, but Texas we were very strong, very good speed.

“We had a very deep engineering discussion before going there, looking at the car set-up, and it was quite different from what I had run at my old teams. I had taken pole at Texas with RLL in 2019 so I knew what a fast car should feel like there, so I thought, ‘Hmm, how does this DCR setup work dynamically?’ You don’t know until you can actually drive it. We had 90 minutes of practice and I thought, ‘This feels good,’ and then I added maybe three tiny elements, small adjustments that I preferred. When we got to qualifying I could run the line I wanted, the car was very predictable, and we were third quick, just two-thousandths from pole.

“Just one single test day before the season, because of the regulations, is not really enough time when you’re changing teams” Takuma Sato

“We had a problem in the pits in the race [Malukas stalled as he left his pitbox, obstructing his team-mate coming into his] but I think speed-wise we were very strong. I would tell you a lie if I said that I wasn’t also thinking about how this might translate for the 500, and that made me very excited. Obviously the Texas track is a very different style from Indy, but some fundamental philosophies they have in common, and a car that’s fast at Texas should usually be fast at Indy – and that was shown by our speed in the test.

“The temperatures and conditions at Indy were a lot different than we expect at the end of May. But we could still prepare, combining what I like with the generic Coyne setup and seeing how they work together. I do think we have a lot to learn, and so I wish we’d had more running. For example, I was adding things I learned at my previous ‘homes’, and the engineers were like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s very different but it works’.

“We understand we cannot get too excited about our speed – we don’t know what fuel levels or tyres the others were running when they set their best laps, and we don’t know the effect of the tow on our best lap compared with others’ best laps. But remember the tow means we also lose downforce in turns as well as gaining speed in the straights, so I think a 229mph lap is impressive and we should be happy. It’s productive for the team mentally, too – it’s nice to end the day seeing my guys with big smiles on their faces.”

David Malukas, Dale Coyne Racing

David Malukas, Dale Coyne Racing

Photo by: IndyCar

As Coyne predicts, Sato reveals he’s happy with the team’s decision to run only two cars at Indy.

“Honestly, if you’re able to run five cars all on the same level with good quality drivers, then I see the benefit of having all that extra data, especially at the 500,” he says. “But focusing on just two cars is very good when you are a smaller team like DCR. The engineering is so strong and we know what we’re doing.”

So despite Malukas’s rookie status, he is becoming increasingly helpful in providing data from his #18 Dale Coyne Racing entry that Sato’s engineers can consider for the #51.

“David is a very talented driver, but he is also inexperienced too, particularly on ovals, although he did some in the Road To Indy,” says Sato. “So we don’t yet completely know from his feedback what we can apply to our car. But the situation is improving all the time. He drove a great race in Texas, didn’t have an incident – except in the pits with us – and completed all the laps and gained a lot of positions in the closing laps.

“Now he has the Indy test, and then he will have a lot of track time in practice at Indy. So more and more we are going to understand David’s feedback. In the test, the things I learned, we applied to his #18 car and his feedback was similar to mine, so now I’m thinking if he finds something that he feels is better, then I think we will try it on my car, like a normal exchange between veterans.”

Which is increasingly how Sato views his relationship with his engineer Bricker.

“It is no secret that it was a last-minute call to get Don onboard, and it is no secret that it’s tough to find quality engineers at the moment,” smiles Sato. “Don had been a consultant engineer for many teams, but not a primary race engineer for a long time – not over a whole season, anyway – so for me there was a question. Honestly, I was a little bit nervous before we started.

“But Don has over 30 years of experience and then I saw his approach and quite liked it. I can be quite an aggressive person in terms of, ‘Let’s try this,’ where Don is more on his own pace, more conservative, saying, ‘Let’s make sure we really understand this, first.’ So he’s not like engineers from my past like Eddie Jones [at RLL], certainly not like Garrett [Mothersead, from Andretti Autosport] and not like Don Halliday [from AJ Foyt Racing]. But I do really enjoy working with Don and we really talk a lot, emails, phone calls, between races, so the relationship is building. Each weekend we learn more and we seem to balance each other. He really listens to me and so I appreciate the team’s commitment but also Don’s personal commitment.”

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda pit

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda pit

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

No team or driver in IndyCar is immune to misfortune, especially caution periods that fall in a way that razes a carefully constructed strategy. So however highly one rates Sato as an Indy 500 driver and DCR as a producer of fast cars at the Speedway, there’s always a chance that the #51 can get shuffled down the order by yellows. In those circumstances, you want Dale Coyne as your strategist to figure out the best remedy, and that’s what Sato has in 2022.

“Obviously we don’t know how strong our competitors will be, but right now I really think we have a good chance” Takuma Sato

“Yes, that is very nice,” he agrees. “We have not been able to do anything radical so far this year, because there have been no real surprise yellows where Dale can make a difference. But if we have to do that at some point, he is the right guy to make those decisions, I’m confident of that. Of course, I hope we don’t need a miracle from Dale! I hope we run up front all day and the strategy becomes really straightforward.

“If we keep improving the car through practice to qualifying, and then there are no surprises, and no mistakes, and we keep improving the car through the race, I think we have a good chance to be fighting for the win. Obviously we don’t know how strong our competitors will be, but right now I really think we have a good chance.”

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing w/RWR-Honda

Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing w/RWR-Honda

Photo by: IndyCar

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