2018 IndyCar emphasizes driver talent, says VP of competition

Bill Pappas, IndyCar’s VP of competition and race engineering, is satisfied the new aerokit has increased the importance of the driver, and is particularly satisfied with how downforce reduction is going to improve competition at Phoenix.

2018 IndyCar emphasizes driver talent, says VP of competition
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Bill Pappas, Gil de Ferran
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda Cosworth steering wheel
Ed Jones, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda engineers, Dario Franchitti
Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Pietro Fittipaldi, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Jordan King, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
Matheus Leist, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

The removal of approximately 1200lbs of downforce in short-oval specification has had a profound effect on the car’s behavior around the 1.022-mile oval ISM Raceway, forcing drivers to lift and change down, particularly on worn tires.

More remarkably, one lead race engineer told Motorsport.com that even on fresh tires, the difference in maximum and minimum speeds around ISM Raceway had stretched, from 11.7mph to 20.5mph. In 2017, during qualifying, his driver’s min/max speeds were 185.5/197.2mph, while at this month's Phoenix Open Test, a qualifying simulation run produced speeds of 175.5/196mph.

Pappas told Motorsport.com he was happy with such a notable change in the car’s characteristics with Dallara’s 2018 aero package, and that the Open Test held in mid-February had suggested the racing in Phoenix will be better than with manufacturer aerokits.

“At the test, everyone was lifting going into the turns, especially in race trim,” he observed, “and I think we’ve got tire degradation, so we’re going to have cars going to the front or falling back according to tire life.

“Speaking to a handful of the drivers, a couple of them were in panic mode on Friday, and by Saturday night they were realizing it was all about acclimation to the cars and working on setup. Some are going to miss, and some are going to get it right, and that may vary through the race, too, according to the conditions.

“So you have that recipe for significant performance differences between cars at various points in a stint and various points of the race.”

Pappas did, however, acknowledge that conditions at a February test did not necessarily tally with what drivers would encounter two months later at the track.

“Realistically, it will be the Friday evening practice session on race weekend that will see the drivers try and work out how much racing can go on there and whether the second lane will open up,” he said. “It will take drivers cooperating and cleaning the lane – and the track being cleaned, so the dust from the building work doesn’t affect grip levels.

“But I think the degradation and low downforce, and the fact that the setups won’t be perfect, will mean drivers are going to make errors, and that opens the door to the guy behind getting through. That’s why you saw quite a lot of passes out there in the test when they were doing race sims.”

Increased emphasis on driver talent

Pappas said the plans for the 2018 IndyCar to re-emphasize the driver talent had been a success on all types of track.

“I think a driver’s input is more important now than what we’ve had in the past,” he commented. “Going so light on downforce means you have to determine where and how you’re going to brake, how you’re going to carry speed through the corner and where and how you’re going to go to full throttle.

“Obviously you have to consider the limitations of basing observations on Sebring in winter, but if you go down and watch the entry into the hairpin, there, you see guys who can make it work and some who struggle. It’s required the engineers to come up with solutions they haven’t had to come up with the past few years and put the emphasis back on car handling, not just piling on downforce.

“It’s meant the drivers and the engineers have to do more work together and the drivers have to become really strong on feedback.”

Although Pappas expects the car to be more difficult to drive consistently, he said he doesn’t anticipate a major increase in errors.

“The one thing that comes out of everybody’s mouth is that they can feel the car,” he commented. “They can anticipate where the limit is, and the previous package you really couldn’t. All of a sudden you’re backwards and you can’t catch it.

“Marco [Andretti], who struggled the past three years, is suddenly grinning ear to ear. He told me, ‘I can feel the car now, I can feel what I need to do to change the balance, and improve the handling.’”

Question over Texas downforce levels

Pappas said that IndyCar was content that its testing with the new aerokit had produced the right results in terms of downforce/grip on all types of track but that the situation would be monitored.

“At Indianapolis and Pocono we’ve got what we want, and I think the same is true of the short ovals, Iowa and St. Louis [Gateway]. We’ll keep examining the situation through to Indy, and see if it has matched the racing and performance criteria that we wanted.”

The one question mark Pappas still has is over the competition at Texas Motor Speedway, which last year created a wild pack race, resulting in some driver indiscipline and several broken cars. A spectating Sebastien Bourdais described the event as “bullshit” while Scott Dixon said more pre-race testing was needed in order for IndyCar to determine downforce levels.

However, that was regarded as a political minefield during the manufacturer aerokit era because, depending on how downforce was removed, it could favor either Chevrolet or Honda. That situation has been resolved with IndyCar's introduction of the universal aerokit, but TMS’s 2017 re-profiling of Turns 1 and 2 to make them 20 feet wider, and lowering the banking at that end from 24 to 20 degrees – has given the track a unique configuration.

“There’s a Firestone test at Texas after St. Pete,” said Pappas, “and hopefully there’ll be enough cars there to run as a group. We need to get a verdict about whether we have the right amount of downforce for that track now.

“It’s quite different from anywhere else we go, but between the drivers, ourselves and Firestone, I’m sure we can come up with the right solution.”

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