VIR Post Race – Occam’s Razor

You have to check the small stuff.
This was an extremely disappointing weekend. While it started off great, the gremlins had other ideas.

Testing on Friday was good. With tires that had been through at least one race, two practices, and several test days, I was still able to manage 8th in both practice sessions. I prefer to do this when we already have good data on the car, so if anyone is watching, they don’t get to know how fast we really are. Sort of like the Mercedes AMG F1 team.

Qualifying, the car was fast, and I was finally in the groove. The slicks on the TCA car take longer to come to life than on the TCB car. I didn’t start getting fast until about the 4th lap. With newly discovered grip and confidence, I was able to pull a burner and secure P5 for the race. The car felt great. Score one for me!!

Race day, a day like any other, except the gremlins decided to pay a visit. They took up residence in the engine compartment, and since they’re invisible, you have no idea they’re there until it’s too late.

I bobbled slightly on the start due to some really odd movement from the other cars. Apparently, even though they were all in the meeting, everyone tried to go on the first green. That was for the TC cars. We weren’t supposed to go until the second green. Now, the field is out of formation, one rookie driver actually passed the entire TCA field, but we got the green anyway. This should have been a wave-off to a single file start the next time around. The starter didn’t follow the procedure laid out in the meeting, or maybe just changed their mind. I moved up quickly to third , but my teammate made a great run and took over the spot while I made trouble for the leaders. I needed to keep them occupied so Eric could catch back up. I sat in fourth and worked with him for a few laps.

Then I felt like I had a little power drop. I attributed it to the heat, but wasn’t sure since I had never driven this car before. I did a few early lifts, popped out of the draft if I was in one, and was braking a little earlier to allow the engine to cool, but no dice. It was apparently running at the normal temperature, but power was definitely down a little bit. It appears the throttle was not actually going to 100%, but that was no change from the previous day. It was just not getting the same power as the other MX-5 (NC version) cars.

At this point, the gremlins were tired of hinting, so they took it up a notch. Coming through Hog Pen, I got a big stutter from the engine. This allowed the MX-5 I was battling to come around me like I was standing still. We nearly collided the fall-off was so bad. Power came back and I was able to catch him up, but then going into Roller Coaster, right at the downhill before the braking zone, power cut completely and I was just coasting down. Power restored itself, but then at the bottom portion of Roller Coaster, the double left, it sputtered again, and then again at the exit of Hog Pen.

Falling back, lap times now 3 seconds or more slower than I had been running, the chance of getting back up to the podium is basically zero.

Shortly thereafter, in a battle with a new (ND) MX-5, I got passed under yellow. The #97 car passed me in T1 where there was a clearly displayed yellow flag. I had been able to keep him at bay, just barely, and when the yellow came out, I naturally backed off a bit. The driver of the 97 apparently didn’t care about the safety issue, and passed me. I reported it to the team, who in turn reported it to the official in the pits, but the stewards never got the report, even though there was an exchange of information with the pit marshal for about a minute about the car, numbers, location, etc., nothing happened. (I tried to report it again after the race, but none of the stewards were anywhere to be found…busy with other races.) As it turns out, the stewards never got the report.

I ended up 7th, even though the car was easily capable of a spot on the podium. Gremlins – 1, Michael – 1.

The brain trust assembled to see what was going on with the car. Low fuel? Nope…2 gallons at the end of the race. Spark plug gap? Maybe…check in the morning. New engine flash acting up in the heat? Possible…go back to the one I was using in practice.

The car chief, Devin, even checked the ground wires to rule out the simplest solution. You know, Occam’s Razor and all.

Race two, Sunday afternoon, rolling out of the pre-grid to the pits, the car sputtered. Just cold? We wait in the pits, car is warm, and roll out for the formation lap. Going through T1, Horseshoe, small sputter. That’s not good. Coming through NASCAR, complete cut. This is just the formation lap. We’re not pushing hard at all, but the car won’t keep running. Pulling up the back straight to Roller Coaster, power is back, but not for long. Sputtering through Roller Coaster and Hog Pen, I think I know my race is done. Up to the starting position, lights on, revving the motor to the proper starting RPM, lights out, we’re off!!! The car doesn’t accelerate with the same fervor. I’m passed by the entire TCA field by T1. Going through T2, I see the TCB field closing in, and at the overrun area at NASCAR, complete cut. The TCB field starts to pass me. By the time we’re at the Climbing Esses, the entire field, TCB and all, has passed me. I could get them back on the uphill to Roller Coaster, but then it would die again.

In the pits, the car chief looked completely lost. Watching the video from my GoPro, I’ve never seen anyone so lacking in confidence, not a single idea of what to do. The car chiefs from the other cars are trying to help, but the rules allow only so many people over the wall.

Finally, after several trips in and out of the pits, sitting 30+ minutes behind the leaders, Neftali came over the wall, wiggled the ground wires, and found a bad connection. He cleaned the connection and reconnected the ground, and the car was running beautifully.

Sadly, over 30 minutes behind the leaders, with 10 minutes left, there’s no chance to catch up. There’s not even a chance to push the car since the car in front of me is lallygagging to catch up with the rest of the field, and we’re under full course yellow so I can’t pass.

It looked like we found the problem, even though the car chief said he checked the ground wires, he obviously didn’t do more than looking at them. I tested as best as I could on the course, and no more cutting out. I think it’s fixed. And as we come around, checkered flag, still under yellow.

So, in all, a completely disappointing weekend. If my car had run, I would have been on the podium both races. Starting from a high and going to the trough is a terrible way to go. The weekend was trashed all because of a ground wire that didn’t get checked. Gremlins – 2, Michael – 1. Gremlins win. Occam’s Razor my friends…the law of parsimony, among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Also stated as other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones.

Much appreciation goes out to Neftali Lopez and Michael Everett for finding and fixing the problem. If they had been assigned to my car from the beginning, we never would have been in the position.

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