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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

FR9 engine's Michigan performance a good sign for Ford teams

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- What’s going on with the Fords this year?

That’s a common refrain being heard each week, and even back to 2009, as the Fords racing each week haven’t been competing at the levels they are used to from past seasons.

I was able to talk this past weekend with some of the people behind the scenes are Ford Racing, to get their take on what’s different and how they hope to get back in gear.

David Simon, race engine engineer for Ford Racing, said one of the key elements Ford is hoping will boost its stable’s performance is the new FR9 engine, which has been sampled over the past half-year, and at MIS was run for the first time in all the Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and Wood Brothers cars.

“The FR9 has a lot of advantages in terms of thermal efficiency, mechanical efficiency. It makes more power. We are going to see some advantage to running it. Hopefully it will increase our performance on the track,” Simon said.

So far, it seems to be doing OK. Kasey Kahne’s Ford came in 2nd at MIS on Sunday, and 4 other Fords finished between 9th and 14th in the race. It was hardly dominating (Denny Hamlin was pretty unbeatable), but it was a good sign of things to come.

Simon, who works at Roush-Yates engines in Charlotte, said the FR9 will be used for the rest of the year, with the exception of the road courses, Bristol and Loudon.

“We’ve been finalizing race spec on the engine. We’re through the development,” he said. “Now it’s time to race it full-time.”

What’s most notable about the FR9 is that it’s the first ground-up NASCAR racing engine Ford has ever built for their racecars. Before, all engines were production-based. This one is built strictly for racing, and it’s the first major engine change in about a decade.

Despite the promise it brings, Simon noted that nobody should expect any miracles because of the FR9’s arrival, as it’s only one part of the car.

“Every aspect of the car has got to be right to compete. It’s not a magic bullet,” Simon said. “But it is better than the old engine, so there will be some performance increases. Chassis, setup, aero all has to be on. If you’re off in any one area, chances are you’re going to struggle.”

Another reason change won’t be instant is that the FR9 sits differently in the car. This affects the chassis, which must then be modified, which then affects the handling of the car. It’s a domino effect, and a whole fleet of new cars will be built this year by Ford’s teams to accommodate the new engine.

Simon went on to say that the engineers are continuing to try to get as much power out of the new engine as possible. “We’re continuing to work on power. The engine is never done.”

Some Ford drivers also weighed in on the new engine at MIS. Carl, who won nine races in 2008 but has struggled to reach Victory Lane since then, doesn’t just want to catch up to the other makes, he wants to pass them. And he hopes the FR9 will eventually become the standard others strive to equal.

“Everyone at Roush-Yates engines works very hard. It will be nice for us to have an engine everyone is trying to catch up to, instead of us trying to catch up to them. We’ve got to think how we can be the guy they’re trying to catch,” Edwards said. “The engine seems reliable, makes great power. I can only hope that in the future it produces more power, we can run more tape.”

Greg Biffle also weighed in on the Ford squadron’s performance of late, and said he hopes that the success the team is seeing in the showroom will soon be echoed on the racetrack.

“The engine is just one part of the puzzle. It runs better off the corner, so we’ve leveled that playing field a little bit. It has a tad bit better cooling. We may be able to run more tape on the grill. Our car not being as fast is mostly handling. We’re continuing to work on that, but it’s one piece of the puzzle.
“I certainly wish we could bask in the glory of how well Ford’s done on the racetrack compared to off the racetrack. I was at Ford and got to drive 11 of the new products coming out. It’s no wonder they’re leading the industry. I wish we’d hold our end of the bargain up.”

Simon said that if the teams can get all aspects of the cars improved, the FR9 should give them a boost as the Ford teams try to surge past the other manufacturers.

“With everything right, the FR9 will give us a little more power, hopefully help the aerodynamics a little. The center of gravity is lower, which helps the front out. All those things are incremental moves in the right direction,” he said.

During this effort to regain top billing in the series, Ford remains committed to the teams and will do everything it can to help, said Kevin Kennedy, Ford Racing Technology Communications Manager.

“If you look at the overall charter of our group, it’s to provide technical expertise and resources to complement what the teams have,” Kennedy said. “Simulation, aero work, engine and engine simulation, testing facilities.”
“We take all resources from Ford Motor Co., Ford Racing, and the race teams, and hope that leads to results.”

While financial support has been pulled by Ford from Nationwide and Truck series teams, Cup teams have not seen any cuts in support, he said. And the lower series drivers are still welcome to use Ford resources, such as test facilities, and purchase Roush-Yates engines.”

Pat DiMarco is NASCAR program manager for Ford Racing and works with the Ford Racing teams. He explained how the testing ban in effect for 2010 has changed how teams must determine the proper way to build their cars.

“With no NASCAR testing, you have to rely on simulation,” DiMarco said.

DiMarco said Ford provides simulation software to the teams, as well as personnel and test facilities to do simulation and further chassis development.
“We have a 40- percent scale model of the car that runs in the wind tunnel. That allows us to do underbody development,” he said.

The tricky thing about computer simulations is they can go both ways for teams. In 2008, when Carl Edwards won 9 races, the Roush Fenway team found something that put him above the competition and led to him nearly winning a championship. In 2009 and into this year, they haven’t gone as well, and Jack Roush suggested publicly last week (though he blamed third-party vendors, not anyone at Ford or Roush Fenway).

Despite issues like this, DiMarco said that after a disappointing 2009, things are picking up for the Fords in 2010 and the future looks promising for Ford drivers.

“Teams are definitely making progress compared to last year as a whole. We don’t have cars that run up front all day and lead the most laps yet. But compared to last year, we’re on average 5 to 10 positions better. It’s not like you flip a switch and all of a sudden run better.”

As an observer of NASCAR for a long time who has seen the history of Ford’s success in NASCAR, I’d say it’s a safe bet that once the latest technical issues are worked out and the teams get better data and the new engines, they will be up front once again.

Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR

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