The best of Chevrolet’s 101 IndyCar wins in the current era

Chevrolet has won 101 of the 173 IndyCar races held since it was lured back to the series by the 2.2-litre turbo formula in 2012. But which of them was best? The Bowtie's current and former IndyCar programme managers reflect on the company's modern century

The best of Chevrolet’s 101 IndyCar wins in the current era

Aurally, the change was welcome. The normally-aspirated V8s of the Indy Racing League/IndyCar 1997-2011 era, at high revs, tended to sound as if 20-plus Canada geese were locked in one’s tympanic cavities and never needed to draw breath. This could have a near nausea-inducing effect when the sound was bouncing off the concrete walls and buildings around a street course.

The arrival of the 2.2-litre V6 turbos smoothed off that edge, and while still loud – particularly when going along the echo chamber of the back straight at Long Beach – it’s no longer unbearable.

But the most welcome aspect of the switch in engine formulas was that it lured back Chevrolet for the first time since it had withdrawn from the series at the end of 1993. IndyCar now had an engine war, a second OEM to compete against Honda. Actually, it also briefly gained a third, but the less said about Judd’s effort on behalf of Lotus, the better.

The Bowtie’s 2.2-litre direct-injection twin-turbo V6 won first time out at St. Petersburg in 2012. Helio Castroneves took the chequered flag for Team Penske to rapturous applause, climbing the fence on the newly-renamed Dan Wheldon Way to honour his fallen colleague.

Within a couple of races, Chevrolet found itself giving ground for the good of the competitive spectacle. Honda Performance Development decided that running a single turbo was not the smart way to tackle the formula, and IndyCar allowed the company to re-homologate its unit with a twin-turbo, the same as Chevy.

It wouldn’t be the last time Chevy had to make a concession. At the end of 2015, the first year of the manufacturer aerokits, IndyCar imposed rule 9.3 to encourage greater parity. Honda was allowed to make modifications to its aerokit in more areas than Chevrolet for 2016, in order to help HPD catch up, as its original Wirth Research-designed kits had proven inconsistent and difficult to get “in the window.” As an annoyed Honda driver told Autosport at the time, “Our sweet-spot is about 10 times smaller than Chevy’s.”

Some might regard it as karma, therefore, that in the battle for supremacy in the 2.2-litre era, Chevrolet has the edge in terms of victories (101-72) and driver championships (6-4). But there’s no questioning the strength of the opposition: Honda has won seven of the last 11 Indianapolis 500s – including the last three – and has powered the last two series champions. The manufacturers’ championship is easier to describe: Chevrolet won the first six, Honda has won the last four.

Power's Detroit win was the 100th for Chevrolet engines in IndyCar

Power's Detroit win was the 100th for Chevrolet engines in IndyCar

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

An HPD driver, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson, also sits atop the points standings eight rounds into the 17-race 2022 season. Over the next nine races, Chevy is depending on Will Power, Josef Newgarden (both Team Penske) and Pato O’Ward (Arrow McLaren SP) to try and topple Ericsson, and also stave off his champion team-mates Alex Palou and Scott Dixon.

While Ericsson won last month’s Indy 500 for HPD, Chevrolet landed its 100th victory in the next-best venue – its home race in Detroit, courtesy of Power. It was appropriate that the 2014 champion should deliver this milestone, since he has been the marque’s most successful driver in this engine era, with 26 wins. Apt, too, that Newgarden should follow this up with victory 101 just a week later at Road America, as all 23 of his IndyCar career wins have come while his car was adorned with the golden Bowtie.

Last week Autosport caught up with Chevrolet’s previous [2012-2015] programme manager, Chris Berube, and current [2016-present] programme manager, Rob Buckner, to discuss their favourite memories from the past 10 years of IndyCar racing.

Berube, who recently led the engineering group on the Cadillac CT4- and CT5-V Blackwing models and now works for GM’s Defence division, says IndyCar’s switch in engine formula came at the right time for Chevrolet and all those who seek road relevance from their racing cars.

"Our first Indy 500 win with Tony Kanaan and KVSH Racing in 2013 is a race I will never forget" Chris Berube

“I wasn’t there for the decision to follow that formula,” he recalls, “but it certainly did align with Chevrolet’s portfolio of small-displacement turbocharged engines, direct injection, and the ability to run E85 fuel, and it remains valid today.”

Berube is a man of great poise, who in public is able to compress the peaks and valleys of inner emotion into an outward display of equability that sets him apart from most inhabitants of a highly-charged sport. Nonetheless, this writer has seen him truly elated after triumphs, and his enthusiasm for IndyCar hasn’t waned since he returned from whence he came in the GM boffin department.

“While wins were certainly important, they were the building blocks to what we really wanted, which was championships,” he says. “I was personally held accountable to win the drivers’ championship, the manufacturers’ championship, and the Indy 500. My review every year was basically, ‘Did you do that?’, so when you’re set that sort of challenge, every race win is a building block to that, and that gives you an idea the pressure I was under and Rob is under!

“Our first Indy 500 win with Tony Kanaan and KVSH Racing in 2013 is a race I will never forget; the feeling of going to Victory Circle and seeing our engineers there was fantastic, and it was a Chevy 1-2-3-4.

Kanaan leads fellow Chevy runners Carlos Munoz and Ryan Hunter-Reay past the twin checkers at Indy in 2013, a key highlight for Berube

Kanaan leads fellow Chevy runners Carlos Munoz and Ryan Hunter-Reay past the twin checkers at Indy in 2013, a key highlight for Berube

Photo by: Jay Alley

“Another less remembered victory for us came at Texas Motor Speedway in 2014, and it was very special to me. In my role I maintained an equal access position to all of our teams, so I would never hang around just one team’s pit for very long; I’d switch between them all throughout the course of a race.

“But for that one, I decided to don the Nomex and go on the pitstand with Ed Carpenter Racing – and he won that night! It’s not like I did anything to help him win, but it was just cool that the one time in four years that I jumped on a pitstand for a race, it happened to be with the winning team and driver. I still have the ‘1st Place’ hat, too! Ed tried to get me back on the stand for future events…

“Rather than another favourite race win, I want to say that the 2015 season, my last, was my favourite. That was the culmination of everything we’d been working toward aerokit-wise, but that was also the year that we won the manufacturers’ championship, the drivers’ championship [with Dixon] and the Indy 500 [with Juan Pablo Montoya]. We also won every pole position [Power 6, Castroneves 4, Montoya and Dixon 2, Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud 1].

“So that was my drop-the-mic moment in IndyCar. I’m not taking credit for that run of success, because you know what it takes to execute a race win – there are so many people involved in an engine programme. But being part of that team was a very special memory.”

By the time the 2.2-litre turbo engines are superseded by the 2.4-litre turbo with hybrid units for 2024, they will have run for a dozen years. Over the course of this time, IndyCar has sought parity and cost containment by carefully opening or closing areas of development where Chevrolet-Ilmor and HPD can upgrade their engines for the next season. Some years those areas are substantial, other years they are small. In that context, the gains made over the past decade have been startling, with acceleration from tight corners visibly improved and fuel mileage night-and-day better.

“Those improvements are the results of total team efforts,” Berube says, “and by that I mean Chevrolet, our race teams, and our technical partners, working together. It continues to be a race-by-race journey where you’re trying to get better, faster, more efficient, and the work never stops.”

Buckner adds: “With this 2.2-litre, any time we think we’ve found the last bit of performance, somehow we come up with a new idea, or revisit an old one, and find just a bit more. We’ll discover a way to make a little bit more power while using a little less fuel.

“Certainly this year I think we’ve been able to prove that the work never stops. It’s pretty amazing to see the improvement we’ve seen from that first race engine that went on track at St. Pete in 2012 to what we’re racing today. It’s the same basic framework and architecture to the engine, but it’s being pushed so much harder and making so much more performance.

Berube (second from right) also cites Ed Carpenter's Texas 2014 victory as a high point of his time running Chevy's IndyCar engine programme

Berube (second from right) also cites Ed Carpenter's Texas 2014 victory as a high point of his time running Chevy's IndyCar engine programme

Photo by: Chris Jones

“We lean on the teams a lot for direction with where we’re deficient, because our race teams are the best at knowing what they need in order to compete, and it’s on all of us on the Chevy side to ensure we’re addressing all our shortcomings. Even when you have a good weekend, you have to be very honest with yourself when you leave the track about the five, ten, fifty things that you could do better the next time you come back to that track or somewhere similar. The work and effort can never really stop.”

Buckner’s harder to pin down in terms of his favourite wins, because he admits that it’s difficult to remove personal bias and because “all 101 of them have been special in their own way.”

However, he goes on to state: “For me, the 2019 Indy 500 is a big one, because that was just an ideal month with the #22 car (Penske’s entry driven by Pagenaud), winning the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the pole for the Indy 500 and then the 500 itself. Simon really embraced everything about being an Indy 500 winner and he made it a lot of fun for his team, his sponsors and us as the winning manufacturer.

“I also think his battle [with Alexander Rossi in the Andretti Autosport-Honda] for the Indy win was one of the best battles we’ve seen in this whole 2012-to-present era. The 2014 battle between Helio and Ryan Hunter-Reay was another great one where unfortunately we came out on the wrong side, but then 2019 it all worked out. But that’s starting to feel like a long time ago now as it was our most recent Indy 500 win…”

"That win that Pato scored for Arrow McLaren SP last year at Texas, his breakthrough win, was pretty special to me" Rob Buckner

Chevy wasn’t really in the mix for victory at Indy in 2020, but last year that man Pagenaud overcame Penske’s qualifying nightmare to finish third, just 0.56s behind winner Castroneves. Had the race been the Indy 510, or had he started 16th instead of 26th, he might have taken his second win. And no one needs reminding how close O’Ward came to usurping Ericsson for the win last month. O’Ward, in fact, is subject of another of Buckner’s favourite triumphs.

Interview: Why Ericsson’s Indy 500 win is a significant mental turning point 

“That win that Pato scored for Arrow McLaren SP last year at Texas, his breakthrough win, was pretty special to me,” he says. “I had worked very hard to build that relationship, to get that team changed over [from Honda] toward the end of 2019. That team was going through a lot of change at the time, with McLaren buying in, and then there were decisions being made to completely change their driver line-up for 2020. So that was a very gratifying win, knowing too what they’re building for the future.

“With the knowledge of how much effort it takes to compete at this level, it’s neat to think we’ve run 173 of these events, and won 101 of them, because it’s always such a challenge. I’m really proud of our group, especially to land win 100 and then seven days later reach 101. I think my upcoming favourite one will be whenever we get to 102.”

Although Chevrolet doesn’t play favourites among teams or drivers, Buckner notes that Power (Penske) and Newgarden (CFH/Ed Carpenter Racing, then Penske) “between them very nearly get us halfway to our new milestone”. But that stat in turn reminds him that there is no time for self-congratulation.

Buckner cites O'Ward's breakthrough win for Arrow McLaren SP at Texas last year as a high point after his involvement in switching the team from Honda

Buckner cites O'Ward's breakthrough win for Arrow McLaren SP at Texas last year as a high point after his involvement in switching the team from Honda

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

“Will and Josef’s boss, Roger Penske, is not one for looking in his rear-view mirror,” smiles Buckner. “He’s not going to be reflecting on the last X amount of wins we’ve scored together. He’s very forward-thinking, forward-looking. That said, of course that relationship is always incredible for us; for Chevrolet to be associated with Team Penske… well, there’s no denying what their contribution to this programme has been.

“In the recent past, we’ve struggled for points in the manufacturers’ championship, sometimes due to performance deficiency, sometimes due to lack of depth. So we’ve been trying to build that back up. Last year was really good for us, with Penske, Arrow McLaren SP and Ed Carpenter Racing all scoring wins for us, and we need to keep going in that direction.

“I think we still have potential to unload better, in that I feel we are stronger on three-day race weekends than on two-day weekends, and that’s significant because I think we’re heading in a direction where we’re only ever going to get fewer laps, fewer test days. So we have to adapt to that trend, which means there’s going to be greater emphasis on simulation tools between races.”

The immediate future is all about the 2022 championship quest, while in the medium-term, there is a final year under 2.2-litre regs due to the 2.4-litre hybrid introduction being pushed back to 2024. Does Buckner believe there are more gains to be found from an engine about to enter its 12th year?

“I think so, yes,” he says. “A year ago we thought there was nothing left and yet we managed to find some good gains. That is certainly the expectation of the engine development group, and we’re not going to let up there.

“I think it’s very hard to differentiate yourself. The field has a lot of depth, both engine programs are very strong, and there are a lot of very talented teams and drivers on both sides. The one thing that hasn’t changed since 2012 is that to be on the podium or win, you have to be damn-near perfect through the whole weekend, so it takes a lot of people executing perfectly to get good results.

“The championship battle this year is crazy-tight, we expect the same next year, too, so that’s why we keep on pushing to find new gains with this 2.2 while also working on the 2.4.”

Newgarden's triumph at Road America this month was Chevy's 101st under the current 2.2-litre engine rules

Newgarden's triumph at Road America this month was Chevy's 101st under the current 2.2-litre engine rules

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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