Ingram's Flat Spot On: F1 overtakes NASCAR


Ingram's Flat Spot On


F1 Overtakes NASCAR
by Jonathan Ingram

It is a pleasant, if momentary, irony that Formula One appeared to have more exciting overtaking than NASCAR after all the action during a rainy and cool Australian Grand Prix. Given that Malaysia is often subject to rain, perhaps it will not be until the China round that we'll see if a ban on re-fueling will lead to more overtaking action than in past years.

Action at Australian Grand Prix.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Since they can't race in the rain on ovals, NASCAR has to find another option to spice up its racing.

The switch to a spoiler on the COT chassis, which will help make it more of the car of yesteryear as well as the car of tomorrow, is a bit like team owners changing crew chiefs when things aren't working right for one of their drivers. Why not try something different?

There's no single fix that will send NASCAR's TV ratings soaring again or start selling out Bristol once more. But the switch to a rear spoiler is another way for the sanctioning body to demonstrate a commitment to keep the NASCAR franchise and the Sprint Cup appealing, especially to fans who prefer a spoiler to a wing.

The rear wing has been a lightning rod ever since the COT's designer Gary Nelson first put on a wing, which was derived from those used on Top Fuel dragsters. An uproar ensued after the first wing appeared in a test. Stung by the criticism, Nelson was then called in by the late Bill France Jr., at the time the chairman of NASCAR, for a discussion. France Jr. told Nelson to do what he thought would work.

Of all the changes NASCAR could make to the COT, replacing the rear wing with the spoiler is the easiest technical adjustment and certainly the most visual and symbolic. But will it work?

Testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway helped teams learn more about the spoiler than prove that it will make the racing better on the intermediate ovals. Last Sunday's race at Martinsville was a typical slam-bang affair that did little to shed light on the new spoiler.

Kasey Kahne, Richard Petty Motorsports Ford looks at the new spoiler.
Photo by Action Sports Photography.

If nothing else, a technical change helps the rivals of driver Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports believe they might be able to find an edge against the four-time champion due to a change in the technical package. Although he had a mundane run at Martinsville, the way Johnson keeps coming out ahead of his Hendrick teammates, who have access to the same information, it seems unlikely the advantage is purely technical.

Will the return of the rear spoiler lead to the same kind of controversy as the change back to a "Have at it, boys" mentality?

I think the nature of the current racing in the Sprint Cup has much to do with the quality and depth of the front-running teams more than anything else. Given a standard body, whatever device is used to add stability at the rear of the car in traffic isn't going to change the depth of talent behind the wheel and the engineering skills now employed by the top teams.

Double-file restarts and late-race pit strategy will, as at Bristol and Martinsville, continue to play a major role in whether a race has some drama in it.

The days of watching a driver come back from 30 seconds down to catch and pass the leader are long gone. Those were also the days when roughly seven drivers had a chance of winning any given race and spent most of the day lapping the rest of the field. Not necessarily bad days, they're not going to be repeated, whether teams use standard bodies or not, because of the success of NASCAR and the resulting resources available to the teams.

Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing Dodge crashes.
Photo by Action Sports Photography.

On the safety front, the familiar formula still applies. Speed is the crucial element when it comes to cars lifting off. Cars that are at the limit for takeoff which are subsequently rammed will tend to lift off if they get turned sideways. Assuming top speeds remain the same at the fastest tracks, one hopes the rear spoiler will be less likely to provide lift and may help the roof flaps deploy more quickly. Maintaining the rear deck fin may be the most important development by "dirtying" the air across the rear deck lid in the case of a spin. NASCAR and participating manufacturers are also looking at other fixes to avoid lift-off as well.

One of the more interesting strategies of Nelson when it came to the COT design was moving the center of aerodynamic pressure toward the rear of the car, accomplished by relocating the "greenhouse" and extending the rear. That tended to make the cars almost self-correcting when at yaw -- especially with world-class drivers sawing on the wheel. Kyle Busch, among others, quickly became known for tremendous saves in the COT when his car got out of shape at Daytona and Talladega.

It was only after cars got turned around by contact that the vulnerability of the COT to liftoff came into play. That plus the higher speeds at Talladega occasioned by bump drafting, itself facilitated by the new bumpers on the COT. Those bumpers were designed to keep one car from submarining another. That, too, would tend to lift cars off.

The jury is still out on the issue of "aero push," one of the major factors that led to use of a rear wing in place of a blade-type spoiler. NASCAR officials believe the shape and placement of the spoiler and an upright position will help overcome the problem.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series signage.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

In the larger scheme of things, NASCAR faced the same problems as every major sanctioning body in the world when it came to advances in aerodynamics that have resulted in less overtaking.

Compared to Formula One, IndyCar or sports cars, I think NASCAR attacked the problem of dependence on aerodynamics far more successfully. And, they did it without substantially reducing lap times, which really would have dulled the appeal of the COT. The reduction of lap times is the major reason why the FIA and its teams didn't just put some high-drag rules into place to try to improve overtaking.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.