Schmidt Peterson Motorsport’s Canadian ace James Hinchcliffe says the configuration of the 2018 universal aerokit will cause most difficulties for IndyCar drivers on the series' five temporary tracks.
Last week, Hinchcliffe got to test the SPM car equipped with the new universal aerokit at Mid-Ohio SportsCar Course, along with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon. The five-race winner, whose most recent victory came at Long Beach in April this year, said that he expects the street courses to be the biggest challenge as drivers adapt to the new-for-2018 aerokit.
Hinchcliffe told Motorsport.com: “Certainly there’s a big difference. I think IndyCar has done a good job in terms of the car being balanced and still comfortable, but it’s up to us to get used to relearning how to drive certain tracks, relearning braking points and so on. It’s a very noticeable loss of downforce.
“I think we’re actually going to feel the loss of downforce more at street circuits than we will on a road course. That seems a little weird because obviously Mid-Ohio and Barber are max-downforce tracks but street circuits are max-downforce as well – it’s just that you can’t run the super-low ride-heights you can at road courses. You’ve got to deal with bumps and so you don’t get the efficiency of the floor of the car.
“So now, with the 2018 car having so much downforce-generation switched from the top surfaces to the bottom, raising those ride-heights will make a more dramatic difference in terms of when you get on the brakes, corner entry speeds and things like that. And obviously with no street-course testing – the closest we can get is Sebring, for its bumps – then we’re going to be very busy in our practice sessions.”
Although Hinchcliffe said the reduced drag of the 2018 kit is very obvious on the straights, he said drivers would quickly adapt to that, and it would be the longer brake zones that would be the bigger challenge.
“You get used to the higher straightline speed pretty quickly because we’re used to ovals at 220-plus mph,” he said, “but obviously the 2018 car’s higher maximum speed combined with the lower downforce means you’re extending the brake zones and that’s always going to be a good thing for racing. I think it will force us to be more consistent, more precise.
“I didn’t get a chance to run behind Scott [Dixon, also at Mid-Ohio testing with Chip Ganassi Racing] but it sounds like these cars will be able to run much closer in traffic which opens up opportunities to pass. So when we make mistakes, there’ll be more of a penalty because there could be someone now able to follow right behind you, ready to make a pass when you mess up.”
Hinchcliffe echoed the sentiments of other drivers who’ve been able to sample the 2018 car, observing that the Firestone tires would probably need to allow a greater slip angle.
“Yeah, I think the tires will need to change because the tire we had for the high downforce manufacturers kits had a lot of grip but when it reached its limit it would break away quite quickly,” he commented. “That would be a confidence-killer for drivers, and if you want to see drivers getting sideways off corner, that’s a lot easier to do if we can feel it coming and it’s not just a sudden snap oversteer that makes us not want to do that next time through.”
Despite the reduction in overall downforce, Hinchcliffe said that he’s not expecting the 2018 cars to be much slower at roadcourses.
“Somewhere like Mid-Ohio, I reckon we’ll get down to just a second slower than we were doing this year,” he said. “The difference is how we get that speed. The minimum speeds in all the corners – even the slower corners like Turn 2 and Turn 12 – has dropped; and in the quick corners like Turn 4 and Turn 11, we’re going a big chunk slower. But then we’re making up a lot of time on the straightaways and we’ve got decent-sized straights there.
“It’s good. Speed through somewhere like Turn 4 is no longer just a function of who’s the bravest guy in terms of braking and rolling speed through. You can’t just come off the brakes and change down and then snap the throttle wide open. There’s more technique required.”
Hinchcliffe said that he is expecting to see a widened gap between fastest and slowest cars on the grid, and not just because of the renewed emphasis on driver skill.
“There’s no doubt that the downforce we had before was essentially a band-aid for poor mechanical setup,” he said, “so as we take downforce away, teams with a superior mechanical package are going to rise to the top. If you’ve been using downforce as a crutch in the past then you’re not going to have that any more.
“We’ve seen almost the entire field at Mid-Ohio covered by eight-tenths of a second before and that’s just not going to be the case in 2018. OK, some people will be worried about the field being more separated, but actually, once the green flag drops, the pockets of cars on the racetrack are going to be able to run closer together and race each other better. So even if the gap from the leader to the last-placed car is bigger than before, the spectacle will still be better than we’ve seen.”
Hinchcliffe is expected this week to be confirmed for a fourth straight season at SPM. Meanwhile for the second seat, DTM ace and compatriot Robert Wickens is believed to be favorite, after team owner Sam Schmidt narrowed his original list of 28 potential candidates down to four, just two weeks ago.