How IndyCar is solving its superspeedway ‘problem’

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How IndyCar is solving its superspeedway ‘problem’
David Malsher
By: David Malsher
Oct 16, 2018, 8:25 PM

Although IndyCar’s 2018 spec Dallara aerokit came in for huge praise at most tracks, there were complaints that superspeedway racing had suffered. How big an issue was it and what are the solutions? David Malsher reports.

The ‘problem’

“I think it could be a really shitty race,” said one driver a few days before this year’s Indy 500, but after the week of practice. “We can’t pass. I mean, yeah, we can pass if there’s only one car ahead, but if there’s a lot of cars, forget it.

“I don’t know if it’s because the air is too disturbed, maybe, because we don’t have those rear bumpers any more. All I know is that it’s massively hard to follow through the turns if there’s a lot of cars ahead. Then you get a massive draft and tow up really quick but when you pull out to pass, you just lose all your momentum and then you have to back off because you’re coming up to Turn 1 or Turn 3 and you don’t want to be too close…

“So I guess we’re gonna need our pitcrews and strategists to do the passing for us. Pretty different from recent Indy 500s.”

Several – but by no means all – drivers shared these views. Some of those who’d qualified near the front, perhaps anticipating fewer cars ahead of them, were less worried.

“I bet half these guys are complaining because it’s different from last year,” said one. “They found a great setup in the old car and now they’re having to work hard again, in the [engineering] truck and on the track.

“I mean, yeah, it’s different, and it gets harder the further down a line of cars you are, whereas with manufacturer aerokits, the more cars ahead, the bigger the tow. So you could work your way forward pretty quick. That’s why we had a stupid number of passes here for two or three years. But… those passes didn’t mean much: it was like Daytona or Talladega in NASCAR.

“If that’s what people want now, yeah, they might be disappointed on Sunday. But before they make changes, I reckon IndyCar need to think about if they want the Indy 500 – our only race with a big TV audience – should be just a battle of slipstreaming, where the leader can’t break away. I think if the guy in front and his team have come up with a good setup, they deserve to hold the lead and not get passed by slower cars just because they got a good tow and could draft past.”

I was and remain broadly in sympathy with the latter point of view. But it’s undeniable that most of the passing at this year’s Indy 500 came in the first two or three laps after a restart, when some were tentative on cold tires, and others less so. Alexander Rossi’s and Oriol Servia’s brave passes made for great viewing, but yes, I also enjoyed some of those 500s over the past 10 years when folks like Graham Rahal or JR Hildebrand or Ryan Hunter-Reay were overtaking throughout a stint.

And how about Dario Franchitti’s carve through the field to victory in 2012, after getting spun to the back by an errant EJ Viso on pitlane – would Dario have been able to accomplish such a feat had the cars been running the 2018-spec aero package?

Could Franchitti have driven from last to first at Indy with Dallara's 2018 aerokit?

Could Franchitti have driven from last to first at Indy with Dallara's 2018 aerokit?

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Assessing the extent of the 'problem'

This year’s reduced passing opportunities and the one-car accidents to aces Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais was noted by those at the top of IndyCar’s technical tree. Bill Pappas, VP of competition, and Tino Belli, director of aerodynamic development sought a compromise, an adjustment to the superspeedway package to make the cars more stable yet without becoming “like Daytona or Talladega in NASCAR,” as described earlier. Could Pappas and Belli tread a fine line by encouraging entertaining slipstreaming battles, yet without negating the efforts of drivers and teams to create the best setups by allowing more imperfect opposition to just tow along in the leader’s wake?

IndyCar faced more criticism following the Texas Motor Speedway race three weeks later, although it seemed wholly unjustified. The Penske-Chevrolets that had qualified 1-2-3 used up their tires (and fuel) quicker than their principal Honda-powered opposition and lost out. Dixon and race engineer Chris Simmons came up with a superb raceday setup, and once the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda hit the front on Lap 130 of the 248-lap event, it was never again headed. Behind Dixon, Simon Pagenaud held off Rossi to come home second.

“IndyCar have ruined their racing on superspeedways!” spat one observer afterward, using Rossi’s failure to pass Pagenaud as his ‘proof’. Admittedly, said gentleman is prone to foolish comment, but his words did highlight a real problem faced by many forms of motorsport – the desire for constant passing. I grew up believing that racing should be a meritocracy where the best combination of driver/car/pitcrew/tactician prevailed. And just as it’s unreasonable to always expect a thrilling race when the grid is arranged with the fastest combo at the front and the slowest at the rear, so too I have no wish to see passes made with impunity, on any type of track.

To my mind, Rossi’s inability to overtake Pagenaud at Texas was not the result of a poorly executed aero package from IndyCar, but simply because Simon’s defense was superior to Alex’s attack. (I admit, however, that this positivity may have its roots in sheer relief at seeing an IndyCar race at TMS that didn’t become a demented carousel in which one driver’s wobble could put half a dozen of his rivals into the wall.)

Before the Pocono race in August, Dixon and Will Power tested at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to investigate new tire compounds and new front-wing endplates. Both drivers felt the aero changes had been worthwhile, although each pointed out that only two cars in convoy hadn’t really been a problem back in May, and that improved mechanical grip could be key to improved racing at IMS and other superspeedways.

The Pocono race wasn’t a thriller, despite IndyCar allowing extra front-wing elements as a result of observations made by drivers following Indy and Texas. But how much of the dearth of action was down to IndyCar’s superspeedway aero package? It’s debatable. On the one hand we had Dixon saying he couldn’t get past Marco Andretti even when the latter was into major fuel-saving mode and circulating five or six miles per hour off the pace. On the other, we saw Rossi make short work of re-passing Power when the Penske driver emerged ahead following a pitstop.

Frankly, it just looked as if the cars came home in the order of their relative speed, which should surely surprise no one who follows racing. After the red flag caused by the collision between Robert Wickens and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the race ran green to the end – 189 laps for the order to be arranged according to pace, without wildly alternate strategies or reshuffles caused by full-course cautions. Surely then it’s inevitable that the race order is defined by some drivers/teams getting it wrong, some getting it right, in the first year of a whole new aero package.

For instance, in order to make Honda-matching fuel mileage, Power had the mixture on his Chevy dialed to lean for the majority of the race but he was still relatively fast in a straight line because to further improve fuel consumption he had taken out a lot of drag, and was prepared to deal with a loose car. It proved to be the right tactic when he actually lapped his Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Pagenaud – but next year they’ll know better, as will their race engineers.

Which is a point that seems to have been forgotten; with one season of experience and another off-season of research, team engineers should be able to find better aero compromises for 2019. Nevertheless, IndyCar’s tech team, led by president of competition Jay Frye, has decided to dive in and make some tweaks to aid the racing on superspeedways.

Passing was possible at Pocono, as Rossi proved on Power.

Passing was possible at Pocono, as Rossi proved on Power.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

What's being done

As any technically minded Formula 1 fan will tell you, front wings have a profound effect on the aero flow over the body of a single-seater, and that area has continued to be IndyCar’s primary area of focus, while piggybacking on Firestone tests. The first was at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago with Pagenaud of Penske and Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan, while the second is tomorrow at Indy, with Dixon and Power again, as well as Rossi, Rahal, Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan.

“After doing some exhaustive CFD [computational fluid dynamics] work with Dallara, we’ve found some things working at the front wing and endplates,” Pappas tells Motorsport.com. “It’s an offshoot of what we tried with Will and Scott at IMS before the Pocono race. We looked at the most economical way to make the modifications and notching out the end of the front wing main plane seems to help.

“We tested that at Texas and it was favorably received by Simon. I think on Sebastien’s car they missed on aero balance quite a bit so it was harder for them to judge.

“But we’ll keep on verifying the pieces at Indy with the six cars and check that it works with a longer line of cars and that it works at Indy as well as TMS.

“The idea is to make the front end more consistent in clean air and in the wake. Instead of behaving like an on-off switch, it seems to maintain that grip as you turn the wheel and throughout the entire arc of the corner.”

One of the engineers’ grumbles during the Month of May and at Texas is that they didn’t have enough aero options to fine-tune their cars. Spec meant very spec this year with the new kit. Hence the aforementioned additional elements to the front wing that were allowed for Pocono. There will be further additions allowed in 2019 for IndyCar’s only tri-oval.

“We’re going to introduce an option that will allow the teams to run a rear wing wicker – a pretty economical piece – depending on weather and track conditions. So if a team wants to add another 100lbs of downforce, that is available to them. We’re trying to give them a few more options for that race track. But Pocono is and always has been a compromise. Any of the veterans will tell you that you could only get a car handling well in two of the three turns!”

Pappas wasn’t convinced by some of the emotional ranting he heard regarding the quality of the racing on superspeedways this year. It’s clear that he’s very much inclined toward subtle changes to the aero package rather than being bullied by those who simply missed their setups by a country mile. He wants the big ovals, like the other tracks on the IndyCar schedule, to produce the right winners.

“I think the new bodywork has played out in the way the drivers were asking for last year, in terms of making the car harder to drive,” he says. “That’s what we set out to do – reward the guys who do the best jobs – and if you look at our three superspeedways, that’s exactly what happened. Will did an extraordinarily good job at Indy in light of the conditions, Scott was able to optimize his race setup around the tires at Texas and did a hell of a job, and Alexander did great at Pocono.

Pappas:

Pappas: "We’ve come up with an aerokit where you have to be a professional race driver now…" Such was amply demonstrated this past season by Scott Dixon at TMS.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

“That’s what racing is about for all competitors – getting it right. And they did, because we put the driving back in the drivers’ hands. So what we’re now doing is just listening to the masses and making some small changes. We’re not reinventing the wheel.

“We’ve come up with an aerokit where you have to be a professional race driver now to get the most out of it. You can’t just leave the throttle on the floor and aim it. You’ve got to drive, lift off the throttle and get back on the throttle at the optimum time. You’ve got to make forecasts and smart decisions with your race engineers, you’ve got to provide feedback, you’ve got to maximize the tires over a whole stint because the car is sliding more so the tires can’t go on indefinitely.”

Pappas admits that it’s been tricky for him and Belli to find a way to enhance car stability and consistency in corners, while also avoiding the trap of making the car less demanding.

“Yeah, you’re right, it’s a very fine line,” he says. “You obviously don’t want a slower driver and car being able to hold off a faster driver and car indefinitely. Coming originally from the performance side [as a team race engineer and technical director] I’m starting to realize it’s a finer line than I once thought. The races need to have entertainment value.

“But still, these are supposed to be the greatest, most versatile drivers out there and we need to showcase the ones who are. And actually, one of the important things to remember is how big a part weather can play in these situations. With 20deg lower track temp and 10-15deg lower ambient – and remember, you can get big fluctuations in May in Indy! – I think you’d have seen a lot more drivers feeling that extra downforce and grip and confident to make passes more often.

“So that’s another reason why it’s been important for us not to overreact."

Firestone’s help

It’s extremely easy for any company in any sport to be complacent when it has a monopoly or, in Firestone’s case, provides a ‘spec’ product. Unless there is an obvious reliability or safety issue that is clearly the fault of said component, company directors or engineers can take the attitude, “It’s the same for everyone – deal with it.”

This is emphatically not the Firestone way – witness the new rain tire it introduced mid-season – and it’s proactivity and willingness to work with IndyCar has long been one of the series’ healthiest relationships. To this end, Pagenaud and Bourdais tested numerous tire compounds at Texas, scene of blistering issues back in June.

Cara Adams, chief engineer and manager of race tire development for Firestone, tells Motorsport.com: “At the Texas test we ran 22 different tire specifications and each team ran at least 20 sets of tires so it was a very busy day. Track temperature was up to 116degF and so that’s a little cooler than what we saw during qualifying, but warmer than the race.”

But does the tire specification for TMS need adjusting? During practice, yes, there were issues with blisters but as soon as even one driver/team – in this case, Dixon – doesn’t have an issue, that surely invalidates everyone else’s complaints? It’s up to the other drivers to drive more like Dixon, up to the other engineers to set up their cars a la Simmons.

Adams is too politically correct to say anything on the record that implies criticism of Dixon’s rivals.

“Since the track was reconfigured two years ago, it’s added a lot of heat into the tires, so we’ve tested different right-side compounds and constructions to help even out the tire wear. We want the tires to run a little cooler but also have more dropoff over a stint.

“Any time you increase dropoff, you’re going to create a differential between the teams and drivers who can take care of their tires and get the most out of them over a whole stint, and those who overuse them too quickly. We feel that adds a little bit more interest in the race.”

Tomorrow’s test at Indy is different again. Yes, as Pappas noted, Firestone is verifying the tires it tried with Dixon and Power a couple of months back, but it’s also gaining data on the new surface.

“The tires we’re taking to IMS are a new construction and best compound that we ran there with Will and Scott in August,” says Adams. “But this is mainly a surface verification test. Indianapolis Motor Speedway put down an emulsion surface treatment to extend the life of the racetrack and because of that it may change grip slightly. It’s going to be a slightly darker surface which means there will be more heat in the track, therefore adding more heat to the tires which may mean a little less grip.

“But one thing we don’t yet know is how long the surface will retain that dark color. The winters can be harsh in Indy so we may end up with a surface more similar to what we raced with in recent years. So that’s why we’re doing this verification test – so we have data pre-emulsion and post-emulsion, to cover whichever eventuality we encounter next May. There’s an open test, too, a couple of weeks before practice begins, and although by then we’ll have already chosen our tire specification for the race, we’ll accumulate more data at that test.”

Asked if Firestone is playing an active role in helping IndyCar improve its superspeedway racing, Adams remains coy.

“As the car specifications change, we continually adapt our tires to help car performance and our engineers are always getting feedback from teams and drivers. So if there’s some way we can help all the cars, then that’s what we do.

Getting feedback from drivers such as Graham Rahal and consulting with IndyCar's tech boffins has long been an important part of Cara Adams' role at Firestone.

Getting feedback from drivers such as Graham Rahal and consulting with IndyCar's tech boffins has long been an important part of Cara Adams' role at Firestone.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

“We also have good conversations with Jay Frye and Bill to understand what they want out of the tires and make sure we’re providing the best possible tire for the aero configurations and downforce levels.”

Says Pappas: “I think it’s important to give credit to Firestone, in working with us to create more consistent grip and feel from the front end. Scott and Will reported very favorably about a couple of compounds they ran in that test in August, so already we’re confident in the direction Firestone have gone in for superspeedways.

“It’s been a healthy dialogue all along. We just sat with them, asked them what they feel they can do to fine-tune the cars’ front-end feel, asked Dallara to look at what they can do to fine-tune the aero. And hopefully tomorrow we’ll find that Dallara’s CFD work, Firestone’s tire work and our work has all paid off.”

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Series IndyCar
Author David Malsher
Article type Analysis