A Midseason Catch-Up with Chevrolet’s Rob Buckner

By Tony DiZinno

The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship is set to go down the wire with a mix of emerging young stars up against the talented, experienced veterans who are more hardened and battle-tested.

Similarly, the manufacturer’s championship is closer than it may appear at first glance too. Through nine races, Honda leads Chevrolet by only 28 points – 738 to 710 – at the conclusion of last Sunday’s Rev Group Grand Prix from Road America.

Chevrolet’s Rob Buckner. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Joe Skibinski

TSO was among a handful of media members who caught up Friday with Rob Buckner, Chevrolet Racing Engineering Program Manager for IndyCar, to reflect on the manufacturer’s season so far and also discuss the road ahead as it is also preparing for INDYCAR’s new 2023 engine formula that will see displacement increase from the 2.2-liter twin-turbocharged Chevrolet Indy V6 up to 2.4 liters.

To summarize the year to this point, Buckner had a simple message: Chevrolet has been good, but not great. Yet.

“Across our whole program, I wouldn’t say we’re satisfied; the results and struggles during May speaks very clearly that there’s a lot of work to be done,” he explained.

“We’re trying to custom tailor our support package to each of our teams to make sure in some instances that we turn things around and in others keep them going in the right direction. There’s a lot to be working on at the moment.”

In 2021, Honda holds the edge in victories (6 to 3) while Chevrolet has more pole positions (4 to 3) in sessions where qualifying has occurred. Chevrolet has won the last three poles with Pato O’Ward in Detroit I, then Josef Newgarden in Detroit II and Road America.

In their second full seasons, Pato O’Ward (Arrow McLaren SP) and Rinus VeeKay (Ed Carpenter Racing) have won their first races and entered the championship picture sitting in second and sixth place, respectively.

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud also hold top-10 spots in fourth and fifth, with Will Power in 11th and just two points outside the top 10.

Penske’s Season So Far

The glaring statistic through nine races that jumps out is Team Penske’s lack of race wins to this point. As Steve has noted throughout the year, this run is the longest to start a season since Team Penske’s last winless campaign in 1999.

But with Penske having been oh so close to winning the last three races – Power and Newgarden have combined to lead 136 of 195 laps before either electrical gremlins or well-worn tires proved their undoing – Buckner noted it’s just been a freaky run of unfortunate circumstances all hitting at once.

Team Penske’s led plenty of laps, just not the right ones. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Chris Owens

“The good news is over the last few events is we’ve shown up with quick race cars,” Buckner said. “Having been involved in motorsports for such a long time, if you keep showing up with fast race cars, eventually it’s going to be your day. So especially leaving Road America; I wish we weren’t coming up to an off weekend! I wish we were going to Mid-Ohio today to keep plugging away at it. We’re so close to getting a win with them; it just seems like the last few events haven’t unfolded in our favor.

“I don’t know how I could task the Chevrolet group with preparing for Detroit or Road America any differently. It’s just circumstance, and eventually we’re going to get there. Both camps are operating that way. Chevrolet, we’re going to help them the best we can and I know from talking to Tim Cindric and Ron Ruzewski, that side is putting in the most effort possible to make sure we can close out the year strong. So far it’s all been very positive dialogue with them. One, if we keep showing up with fast race cars and no one’s style is out of control, we’ll get some wins.”

Chevrolet’s Strength in Depth of Teams

The good news for the Chevrolet camp is that where Team Penske is yet to win a race, two of its other teams have, and those are the first non-Penske Chevrolet winners in five years. In fact it was Scott Dixon, in Chip Ganassi Racing’s second-to-last race with Chevrolet before switching to Honda, that was the last non-Penske Chevrolet win in IndyCar at Watkins Glen in 2016.

Pato O’Ward celebrates Detroit II win with General Motors President Mark Reuss. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Joe Skibinski

Arrow McLaren SP has hit its stride with O’Ward’s No. 5 entry, hitting the jackpot on two occasions in Texas and at Newgarden’s expense in Detroit II.

The latter’s importance can’t be understated considering how pivotal the races are on Belle Isle to the brass watching from GM’s corporate headquarters at the Renaissance Center up the road, and who make it out to the track over the course of the weekend. That marked AMSP’s first win as the newly named entry since James Hinchcliffe’s Iowa win in 2018.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s winless drought ran even further back to 2016, Newgarden’s last year with the team, when he delivered a gritty and dominant drive at Iowa. That VeeKay’s win occurred for Carpenter at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the No. 21 Sonax machine also wasn’t lost on Buckner and Chevrolet.

“That’s an area we have worked hard to address is the depth of the Chevy program,” Buckner explained. “VeeKay in the 21 car and everyone at Ed Carpenter Racing have had their heads down and been digging the last couple years, so it’s been great to see them get some results with the 21 car.

“That was a really big win – seeing an Ed Carpenter Racing win at Indianapolis was really special for all of us being involved with him since 2012, Tim Broyles and that whole group. Really happy for them; their month of May performance wasn’t just great for them but it was great from the Chevrolet perspective.

Rinus VeeKay’s victory celebration matched the IMS wings. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Joe Skibinski

“You mentioned Arrow McLaren SP, and that program has turned out to be pretty much everything we had hoped for when we laid that out a couple of years ago and where we could go. We’ve always been excited to have Pato in a Chevy in IndyCar; he’s a remarkable talent, and we’re hoping we can keep him in the Chevy family for a long time.”

Buckner also stressed the importance of “custom tailoring” solutions to ensure the continued progression of the manufacturer’s other full-time teams, A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Carlin Racing. Sebastien Bourdais opened the year with a solid fifth and 10th but has since been stuck 16th or worse in six of the last seven races aboard the No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet. Carlin’s Max Chilton got a result he’s been due for a while, with a top-10 coming last time out at Road America in his No. 59 Match Fit Pass entry.

Adapting to Driver Changes… and Extra Cars?

Chevrolet has had 11 full-time entries this year but not all of them have had the same drivers in each. To wit, Conor Daly has reprised his role as Carpenter’s primary road and street course driver in the No. 20 U.S. Air Force machine, then shifting to Carlin’s No. 59 car at Texas once Carpenter resumed his usual oval running and then back to Carpenter’s third car, the No. 47, at the Indianapolis 500.

Two other cars have had unplanned changes, with injuries sidelining VeeKay and Felix Rosenqvist in the last two races. It’s provided opportunities for Oliver Askew, who’s filled in admirably for both on short notice, and also for Kevin Magnussen, who made his IndyCar debut in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP car at Road America. And although the Dane, the first to run in IndyCar since Ronnie Bremer in Champ Car in 2005, had track experience from testing his Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R in May he was still thrown in at the deep end in an IndyCar.

Kevin Magnussen with Arrow McLaren SP and Chevrolet crew members pre-race at Road America. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – James Black

“I feel for Kevin because his seat fit was in the middle of last week and then Road America is a tough place to go into without a test,” Buckner explained. “A 45-minute session, you might get 2-3 representative laps. He was drinking from a firehose all weekend. The team really enjoyed working with him.

“His engine feedback was interesting. He had a lot of similarities to others; he said our package can be a little difficult to drive, nothing too surprising. It’s very impressive he drove the car for 45 minutes and basically gave us the same summary of strengths and weaknesses like guys like Bourdais and Pagenaud, who have driven this package on-and-off since 2012. That speaks to the talent he is.”

Buckner also said there has been a “lot of interest” regarding extra entries running one-off races later this year.

While it’s not his news to announce, he said he would not be surprised if Nashville, Long Beach and potentially other races have bumper grids thanks to returning teams fielding extra cars.

“For us, leaving the Indy 500, we have quite a few low-mileage engines due to our car count at Indy, so doing one-off entries later in the season is pretty easy for us from an engine perspective. We just need the people to be able to support that,” he said.

Extra cars would add another wrinkle to the championship battles, given the car count has already been a solid 23 to 25 in each race thus far.

Preparing for the Home Stretch

Keeping cars to four engines or less ensures they don’t go to a fifth, and therefore become ineligible to score manufacturer points. Through nine races, Bourdais’ No. 14 car is the only Chevrolet on its fourth engine. Honda has two on its fourth, and one of them is the championship leader, Alex Palou in his No. 10 NTT Data entry for Chip Ganassi Racing. Meyer Shank’s Jack Harvey is also on a fourth.

“The best thing we can do on our side is keep our entries to four engines or less for the year, because that keeps them points eligible,” Buckner said. “So there’s a big focus on making sure the 11 full-time entries are eligible to score points, particularly for the West Coast swing towards the end of the year. Because if some are on engine five, the situation could be close enough where that’s the deciding factor.

“The easiest way to ensure it is to go 1-2 and sit on the pole, and score the maximum 96 points. Focus on winning races and the manufacturer’s stuff will take care of itself!” Buckner laughed.

Special 10th season signage on the Chevrolet Indy V6 engine. Photo courtesy Penske Entertainment – Joe Skibinski

Chevrolet’s focus on reliability, performance and efficiency has served it well in its 10th season of competition since returning to the series in 2012.

The manufacturer achieved its 100th pole in that time frame with O’Ward in the Barber season opener. It’s at 92 wins with the three scored this year, so the 100th win will have to wait until at least 2022 even if Chevrolet swept the remaining seven races of 2021.

Chevrolet won six consecutive manufacturer’s championships from 2012 through 2017, but seeks to wrest the title back from Honda after three straight for the California-based arm of the Japanese company. They’re still in good position to do so depending on Mid-Ohio’s result, and then into the pair of tripleheaders in August and September that cap off the season.

And for proof of how far the engine development has come over 10 years, Buckner noted that a 2012 Chevrolet Indy V6 wouldn’t be near the competitive level it is now in 2021.

“You’d be making a 2012 engine, probably in the neighborhood of 100 horsepower down to current race engines, while being massively inefficient in comparison with poor drivability. It’s not a very refined package. I think if you could take a 2021 race engine and race it against a field of 2012 cars, it could probably lap the field! It would be unbelievable, and that would be a remarkable performance difference.

“But that shows how both suppliers have really pushed each other in development and have to continuously be getting better.”

It’s going to be an interesting road ahead to the rest of this season’s manufacturer battle and then into the final season of this formula in 2022.

TSO will have more on Buckner’s thoughts about how Chevrolet is preparing for 2022 and then 2023 in a further feature.