Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud is impressed with the increased downforce from IndyCar’s second-gen aero kits, but believes the physicality of the cars may be reaching a critical level.
Following Chevrolet’s test at Sonoma Raceway on Wednesday, in which he joined Penske teammate Helio Castroneves and the four Chip Ganassi Racing cars, Pagenaud said: “Both manufacturers are going to have a big update for sure – it’s impressive how much you can gain by just a year of knowledge. But I think it’s certainly getting to a point when we’re over-downforced now.
Pagenaud, who hadn’t tested an IndyCar on a road course since last September at Road America, told Motorsport.com: “It’s certainly enjoyable – a bit like a video game! – but it’s getting very heavy on downforce. I don’t think there’s any car that creates more lateral G-force than IndyCar now.”
Since the arrival of the Dallara DW12 in 2012, there have been calls by some IndyCar drivers to fit power steering, although usually their reasoning has been to prevent thumb and wrist injuries when riding high curbs or in the event of a crash.
But since the introduction of the aero kits in 2015, many who originally opposed the idea of power steering have started suggesting it might be a good idea for the sake of physical strength and being able to give 100 percent from the start to finish of a race.
Pagenaud confessed he is one of those who has changed his mind.
“I was not in favor of it 2012 to 2014, but now, absolutely I think it would be good,” he said. “I think it’s got to the point where it could be a problem with safety.
“I’m happy I trained so much in the gym this winter, but for the rookies and some other guys, it’s going to be difficult to complete a race, especially on the short ovals. So I think it’s become a safety issue.
“Year on year the G-force has been increasing, and now it’s getting to a point where Popeye will be winning the race!
“It’s still fun because you can push the car to further limits, but you’re also going to make passing more difficult because braking zones are shorter. Somewhere like Mid-Ohio on red [soft, grippier compound] tires… It’s going to be full throttle at the apex and just hanging on!”
Pagenaud added that drivers had been forced to modify their driving technique in line with the increased grip.
He said: “You need to adapt to whatever the limits, and it’s a bit unfortunate that it’s taken away a lot of finesse in the driving. We can be more aggressive with braking points, how hard we brake, and how hard and soon we press the throttle.
“It’s definitely changing the nature of the driving. Very, very different to 2012, our first year with this car.”
Sonoma Raceway in Wednesday’s test was in very different conditions than will be found in the season finale in September, when the long hot summer means sand blows across the track and varies grip levels.
However, Pagenaud said that comparisons could still be made between the 2015 car as used at last August’s race and the updated aero kit.
“Yes, there is definitely more grip at this time, no sand on the race track. But you can still tell the technical direction that we’re going with the aero package. It was a good opportunity to understand the car more.
“Also, although the conditions will be different in September, remember there will be a lot more cars on the race track over a race weekend, and they add a lot more tire grip. So actually, I think we can expect to have similar grip in the corners. I think you can compare.”
Somewhat overshadowed by the aero kit debate has been the fact that both Ilmor (Chevrolet) and HPD (Honda) have been working hard on engine development. However, Pagenaud says that he could feel a noticeable progress from Chevy in yesterday’s test.
“I’m not sure what I can say specifically,” he said, “but it felt like a big improvement, especially on the drivability of the engine, so I was very pleased about the work they’ve done. We still have some ways to go but definitely we’re heading in the right direction. It was very enjoyable.”
Pagenaud was not allowed to reveal lap times, but said: “To be honest, I didn’t even look very much because Ben [Bretzman, race engineer] was doing so many changes, trying so many things on both engine and aero, that we didn’t really tune the car for [ultimate] lap times.
“The test was more about discovering what the car was doing with the various parts, and being consistent, rather than trying to set the world on fire.”