IndyCar's new tech and new rules for 2016

IndyCar's VP of technology Will Phillips has revealed and discussed some of the finalized and potential changes for 2016 and ’17, covering competition rules, safety measures and car modifications.

In a meeting held in Indianapolis on Monday, Phillips met with team managers to discuss proposed revisions to be implemented over the next couple of seasons of the Verizon IndyCar Series. 

Speaking exclusively to, Phillips not only revealed some of the changes but also the philosophies IndyCar is following. 

First, however, there was a small aero kit-equipped elephant in the room that needed to be dealt with…

When would you expect to have Honda’s revised 2015 aero kit re-evaluated and revised under Rule 9.3 so you can move on with the 2016 aero kits? And how will you gauge it?

It’s a work in progress right now, and I don’t know if it’s this week or next week, but I’d say we’re expecting in the near future to be able to move on with our decisions. I don’t want to be more specific than that because we haven’t quite finished. Regarding how we judge when Honda’s 2015 kit is close enough to the Chevrolet one, we have to isolate aero kit performance and use that metric, and only that metric. That’s how we’ve conducted the assessment using the full-size windtunnel [at Windshear, N.C.].

Potential safety measures

The NASCAR-style flaps on the lower beam of the rear wing to prevent cars taking off when they spin backward at oval speeds. Have these been confirmed yet?

They’re something we’re working on. We have done some specific wind tunnel tests on that project and plan to utilize them, so long as we don’t find a flaw, some possible unwanted unintended consequence of having them. The research hasn’t finished yet.

I understand IndyCar's research on the three airborne incidents at Indy during the Month of May revealed there was little if any difference in how the two aero kits behaved going backwards. The reason it was three Chevy cars that flew at IMS was because they happened to be the ones that went backward because their superspeedway design meant they snapped more abruptly/less progressively when they went beyond the limit of adhesion. However, are such inherent characteristics of an aero kit’s design something IndyCar should adjust under Rule 9.3 or any other rule?

We don’t dictate what a team can do with its setup – they can make it extremely nervous at the rear or they can make it understeer like a pig – that’s entirely in the hands of the engineers. We don’t step in and say "You can’t put a stiffer rear spring than a front spring," for example. What we do have to do within the aero kit regulations is have the manufacturers demonstrate they have done their due diligence and satisfy our criteria for safety. That is our responsibility, and so we have been working with both Chevrolet and Honda to ensure that requirement is stepped up moving forward.

On the topic of cockpit protection, especially in light of Justin Wilson’s death, what’s your philosophy regarding what can be done in the short-term to the Dallara DW12?

All I can say is that it’s something we’re actively investigating. The potential consequences of retro-fitting something can occasionally be worse than what we already have, so progress is made very carefully. The size of the challenge is reflected in how long it’s taking anyone to find a satisfactory solution.

The Mercedes-Benz F1 idea – the overhead arch with the central strut – looks interesting, but someone within IndyCar has pointed out a potential flaw. Otherwise harmless debris being thrown up could actually bounce off the underside of the hoop and be deflected into – rather than away from – the inside of the cockpit. What are your thoughts on it?

I wouldn’t like to comment on that specific device. But there’s another vital factor to bear in mind when considering cockpit protection. That is the car’s potential to send debris beyond the perimeters of the track. The nose of a car, or its cockpit canopy, at 30 or 40 degrees slope to the horizontal, has the potential to launch debris that strikes it, especially at oval-type speeds.

By sad coincidence, it was Justin’s pelvis-breaking accident at Fontana 2013 that fast-tracked the retro-fit improved cockpit side-protection in the DW12. A canopy, I assume requires an entirely different scale of work.

Yes, like James Hinchcliffe’s accident at the 2014 Grand Prix of Indy [which triggered IndyCar into regulating extra helmet protection], that was a much easier modification to make to prevent recurrence of the same results should similar incidents arise.

In circumstances like this, how vigorous can an IndyCar official like yourself be in forcing through new regulations for retrofits? And is your case helped considering many team owners dug their heels in and spurned the idea of a new car for 2018? Doesn’t that compel them to accept upgrades to the current cars?

You could put that suggestion forward, but I also think that the presentation of a new car in 2018 could also present an alternative, like ‘How about slipping a new and improved chassis into the existing aero/engine/suspension parameters that currently exist?’ Now, granted, a $90,000 chassis doesn’t make them cheap, but it’s more palatable than say, a whole new $500,000 car. So I think that’s another option.

Increased boost, but no to power steering

Last year there was some discussion about changing the operation of the Push to Pass boost, whereby the driver ahead would be locked out of hitting his P2P in response to the guy behind using his. We saw IndyCar start that philosophy by removing evidence of Push to Pass operation on the live Timing and Scoring screens. What’s next?

As far as transmitting when a driver is on the Push to Pass, the new LED panels on the car – which were well received, I think – show not only where the car is in the running order, but also communicate when Push to Pass is activated. If we keep that info hidden on the timing stand but visible to everyone around the track, is a team going to put four people around the circuit with binoculars and radio communication to the pit stands so they can immediately relay to their driver when his rival is on the boost? If so, that defeats the objective of keeping the P2P info hidden. Encouraging its use proactively rather than defensively is actually very difficult to implement without us being thwarted by the people on the pitstands.

Regarding a system whereby we can actually prevent the driver ahead from using his Push to Pass as a defensive tool, the problem we have is the downtown street races where we’re restricted regarding where we set our timing lines, because of drains, sewers, street wiring, and so on; it’s hard for us to make the system operationally consistent across both street and road courses.

And anyway, are two drivers duking it out while both on Push to Pass any less exciting than one charging past the other? I think informing our fans when a driver is using P2P [and therefore allowing the display on the live timing] is probably better for the show.

What will be the change to the boost level?

In round figures, it will be going up from 50hp to 70hp in 2016. The manufacturers have already agreed to that change.

I'd say the paddock is pretty divided over power-steering and whether it needs to be introduced. Some drivers complain about the physicality of the cars now, others say there's too much kickback when they clip curbs or hit tire walls. But there are others who like the point of differentiation from F1 and other series and worry that the system would be too heavy. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Well I can tell you there will be no power steering in 2016. And yes it is heavy – 12lbs with all its components. However there is further development planned, and there's the potential for integration with a steering damper help protect drivers wrists and thumbs.

Regarding the competition rules, how much do you think needs changing?

Well, I think the 2015 Indy 500 was a spectacular race, and if we could replicate that for every oval, I think we’d be onto a winner! It’s fair to say that oval racing is requiring more focus at the moment. I mean, there is one configuration that covers all the road and street events, whereas there is a different configuration for each individual oval we go to. But if you agree that diversity of tracks is one of IndyCar’s strengths, then we have to accept that specific management for the very varied oval types is necessary; there’s no way around that.

The ongoing downforce debate

How do you answer calls – and these have been mainly but not exclusively aimed at ovals – to slash downforce and drag, and thus considerably increase the difference between terminal speeds on straights and apex speed in turns?

Well I don’t think changing the nature of the Indy 500 massively would be good for us. We need to tread carefully and keep the good things that we have, try and enhance the safety – that almost goes without saying – but if we can enhance the show, then that’s got to be good for us. There are some who believe that huge restrictions in downforce and, like you say, increasing the disparity between straightline and cornering speeds is the way to go. There are others who tell us that isn’t the way to go because having 10-12 cars on the lead lap going into the final stages of the “500” is way more compelling. There will always be those disparate views, and we can’t satisfy both of them.

But I would point out there has never been a philosophy in IndyCar stating a wish for high downforce. That came about through competition in the aero kits, and the aero kits came about through discussions held back in 2010/’11 – prior to me even being here! – about brand recognition. It developed into something much more singular than that – pure competition between our manufacturers.

How quickly and radically can you adjust the oval aero packages – say, after first practice – if you foresee the potential of pack racing because track/rubber/weather conditions are different from what you expected going into the weekend?

We definitely missed where we wanted to be at Fontana last season because of the cooler-than-expected temperatures. But we were smack on at Indy, very close at Pocono, slightly further away at Texas. We have joked about having rulebooks that change according to temperature, like those shirts that are orange when hot and turn green when it’s cold. But seriously, our intent would be to issue specifications with the rulebook and try and avoid change, rather than go to tracks with a setup and then tweak it. That’s not good for the teams or manufacturers who do their homework. If we had to make a change during race weekend, it would be on the grounds of safety.

Without wishing to labor the point about Fontana, considering it’s not even on the schedule next year, it’s fair to ask why you’d set the “general” downforce philosophy at a point where you have such a fine line between what is great racing and what is a pack race. If a temperature change can so easily tip the action the wrong side of how you want the racing to be, isn’t that a sign that the downforce is generally too high, and therefore you need to radically reduce the downforce?

The challenge is that we can’t ever do it with just aero. We have to match the aero to the engine power and the tires. To dramatically cut downforce – say 30 percent – might require Firestone to re-engineer all of its tire specifications. As you know, Firestone runs multiple different specs at multiple different tracks and the lead time, the R&D time required to select those specs would mean looking way down the road. If we gave them radically new regs now, it would take until 2017.

Now look at it from the rules stability perspective. We’re mid-way through a two-year aero kit regulation, and the manufacturers have spent many millions of dollars to get where they are now, and it’s not in their interests to suddenly change direction. They give us an enormous amount of support and we have to work with them; in fact, a lot of decisions about technical direction is done with them. It’s very valuable to have their input.

If you wished to maintain the current levels of downforce through developments on the underside of the car and make the top surfaces less prone to creating this huge wake of dirty air, is there a swift and relatively cheap way to do that, using tunnels?

There are a lot of safety aspects to the underwings that we run. The way the DW12 was conceived, the underwing is one of the primary side-impact crash structures so we have to be very careful of what we change. Everything has a consequence.

Component alterations

Lighter-weight driveline components was another point that came up in the team manager meeting. What’s the purpose behind that, how easy is it to implement, and would that be introduced in 2016?

Xtrac is one of our suppliers and, just as an example, they might come to us and say, “We’re almost out of stock of these parts, and the life of them is way beyond what we expected it to be. We have an opportunity to save weight by producing them in lighter form, but that might add two hours of machining time and therefore they’ll cost $100 more. What do you think?”

So we put in front of the managers a host of components and their prices. One of the things we as a sanctioning body get most criticized for is changing things that raise costs, so the idea is to become much better at informing our teams way ahead of time so that they can give us feedback. Some will always go for the lighter parts, others will say no, we don’t want to spend a dollar more. Some of the proposed new components are for 2016, some for ’17. There didn’t seem to be much appetite for them among the team managers.

What’s the purpose of the new domed undertrays and how do they work?

Domed skid plates were used on the old IRL car to improve its yaw/spin characteristics. But when the DW12 came along, we went to flat undertrays because there was such an increase in yaw stability and the car in a flat spin was far less likely to overturn than the previous car. But  when the three cars went airborne at Indy this year, we immediately went to examine how we could improve safety.

The first thing we introduced in response were the rear wheelguard infills [blanking plates] at Texas, and we’ve already talked about the flaps on the beam wing for 2016. An additional idea was looking back to see if one of the older modifications would work and we found that sure enough, it would improve stability if we put a domed skid plate on the bottom of this car. That will be introduced for the superspeedways in 2016.

The idea is that the more downforce you can keep on the car as it goes through the spin, the more speed you’ll scrub off. But it does have a consequence in that it’s thicker than the 3mm-thick flat skid plate that Dallara used initially and, as a consequence, the car has a slightly higher ride-height. It’s convex, so at the edges it’s only two or three millimeters but at the centerline it’s 10mm thick.

But like I say, we’re not wanting to alter the nature of the Indy 500, so we’ve been looking at how to address the fact that this domed skidplate and the ride-height alteration will reduce downforce around the Speedway.

The combination of downforce levels and vertical loads caused by the bumps at Iowa are taking the current components to their limit. Has that been addressed? Could it be resolved by something as simple but radical as running the superspeedway kit there and thus remove a lot of downforce?

That situation is under review. The less radical approach would be for the bumps to be fixed! But even so, that wouldn’t address all the issues, so we’ve done a fairly good study on it, so that is another work in progress.

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Series IndyCar
Article type Breaking news
Tags new rules, new tech, will phillips