James Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt Peterson car struck the Turn 3 wall at Phoenix International Raceway during Honda's test on Wednesday, but both he and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon hope the 2018 IndyCar will help the show at PIR.
Hinchcliffe said the shunt happened as he was still gaining pace in a late afternoon run, and that it has left him and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team somewhat baffled as to its cause.
He told Motorsport.com: “We were still getting up to speed on a run, not at full song yet, and hadn’t really been having any issues with the rear. Then in Turns 3-4, the rear just snapped on me.
“I don’t want to speculate but the team found something in the data that was a little questionable so we’ll look into that a bit more and hopefully have a real explanation later.
“Thankfully that was late in the day though, and up to that point things had gone pretty well. But it’s less than ideal at a time when there’s not a lot of spare parts for the new kit floating around."
Dallara’s new aerokit is shorn of around 2000lbs of downforce relative to the manufacturer aerokits of 2015-’17, and Hinchcliffe said the resultant decrease in drag and cornering speeds was very noticeable at PIR.
“You can feel a pretty big difference,” he said, “you have to drive the car a lot more, that’s for sure. Because you’re having to slow down more for the turns, there’s more scope for acceleration coming off them. Turns 1 and 2 are very different now, and theoretically that should improve the racing.
“What we’ve seen in the past is that you try and stay as close as you can to the car in front through 1 and 2, and then you'd be flat through 3 and 4, and try and draft past on the front straight into 1 again.
"Now I think because of how much harder it is to get through T1, guys' tires will be falling off and they’ll make mistakes, and I think we’ll see more passing down the back straight, into T3.
“Between the aero changes and weight distribution changes, most of our set-ups have gone out the door, and we're starting from scratch. But we were able to do quite a bit of aero work and gathered a lot of data. Overall, I think it was pretty positive.”
Hinchcliffe said the shunt unfortunately meant he wasn't able to evaluate the different Firestone tire compounds nor the ability of one car to follow the other.
“Sadly, the two Firestone runs and the run where Scott and I would go out together were the three things left on our to-do list,” he said. “But between Scott’s tire evaluation, what the Chevy guys did when they tested here a few weeks ago and the little debrief we did at the end of the day, I think Firestone has a good direction to go in, regarding what to bring to the race.
"The big thing everyone wants to see there is more tire degradation and the long runs tell us we’re going to have that, no doubt about it.
“It’s still to be seen how the cars behave in a pack creating dirty air, but the degradation should ensure the show is better than in previous years.”
Dixon strikes more cautious note
Ganassi's four-time champion and 2016 Phoenix winner Dixon concurred with Hinchcliffe – and Chevy’s PIR testers, Will Power and Ed Carpenter – that the cars are more difficult to drive now.
“You can feel the increased acceleration quite a bit and I certainly never did a lap today where I was flat at either end of the track, so that’s good,” Dixon told Motorsport.com.
“It’s a lot tougher to get it right, and that’s what we wanted. It’s harder to drive, you’re not just holding the pedal flat and steering. So I'd have to say, that is a big positive.
“Whether that is enough to enable passing at Phoenix, I couldn’t say yet. I mean, while the tires are holding together, I think it’s still going to be very difficult to pass. The track is just an odd shape for our cars. You’ve got quite a short front straight, and the back straight has a pretty significant turn in it.
“The good thing is that the lack of downforce means you will see cars lose pace rapidly as their tires go off at different rates, so you should get passing at the end of stints. I hope so anyway.
"But you need to be able to follow close enough through the turns to get the passing done on the straights because it’s only going to be one lane in the turns.
"With the downforce reduced, you don’t really have an opportunity to open up a second lane, otherwise the car tries to get away from you and into the wall. Or at least that’s how it was today."
Hinchcliffe: New car has “checked every single box”
Having now tested the 2018 car at Mid-Ohio, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Sebring, and Phoenix, Hinchcliffe said the IndyCar Series and Dallara had got the new package right.
“Honestly, I think they’ve checked every single box,” he said. “It allows for much closer racing and it’s harder for us to drive – not physically, but technically – and so there will be more passing opportunities.
"It’s more stable on the speedways in dirty air because so much of the downforce has been transferred from top surfaces to underneath the car, it’s more stable in crosswinds because the profile of the car is so much lower without the airbox and sharkfin, so there’s a lot of benefits.”
Hinchcliffe also said the meeting with IndyCar officials in Indianapolis this week had been productive, with tires being the main focus, as drivers sought more degradation from the 2018-spec rubber.
“It’s a difficult formula to get right," he said, "and I commend Firestone for what they’ve done already and being responsive to the new car as we throw more requests at them.
"They’ve been present at all the tests, and seem very much on top of it. I think they’ll bring us what we need to go and put on a good show for everybody.”
Dixon added that the meeting had been “pretty smooth because it seemed like everyone pretty much agreed the way forward.” However, he said he was still hoping IndyCar would ditch the rule that allows an extra set of tires per weekend for drivers outside the top 10 in points.
“I’ve been fighting that one for three years now!” he remarked. “This isn’t club racing; everybody is a professional here, so you shouldn’t be handed advantages just because you suck. That’s ridiculous.”