Penske drivers “taking big swings at setups” in 2018 IndyCar

Team Penske’s IndyCar champions Will Power and Simon Pagenaud say that drivers are only “scratching the surface” of the capabilities of Dallara’s spec aerokit as they get used to the car’s new handling characteristics.

Penske drivers “taking big swings at setups” in 2018 IndyCar

The 2014 champion Power tested at Sebring on Tuesday and then remained to observe teammates 2016 champion Pagenaud and current champion Josef Newgarden share the car on Wednesday.

Power told “Honestly, we’re just scratching the surface at the moment. And we’re taking some really big swings at it, trying to work out what settings do what to the car, how much difference they make, and then trying to figure out what’s the best compromise for each track.

“Me and Dave [Faustino, race engineer] went through quite a few setup changes, and we learned quite a bit, but when I ran it was gusty and windy so we couldn’t be totally sure what we had. And then when Josef and Simon ran, the temperature had dropped 10 degrees, and so what they were testing couldn’t really compare with what I had tested.

“That’s one thing we know: the car’s going to be very susceptible to weather and track conditions because the floor is so much more powerful now. That’s where we’re getting the majority of the downforce and on a hot day, you’ll lose a lot of downforce. I mean, this car’s harder to drive anyway – it takes a lot of finesse and it’s difficult to be consistent, because of this big shift in aero when you brake. But then you add to that how tough it’s going to be to chase track conditions and keep up with the changes in temperature throughout a day. It’s going to be very hard every weekend.”

Pagenaud agreed that not only are teams still at the start of the learning curve with the car but that drivers and race engineers are going to need to be a lot more open-minded on race weekends, especially at tracks where they haven’t tested beforehand.

“Yes, absolutely – every track is going to ask for a lot of adjustment from the drivers,” he told, “because it will be difficult to predict how the car will behave. The driver and the engineer intellect come together to try to make the best package, and you need to make a lot of big changes in a short amount of time. Like at Iowa and Gateway we have two-day weekends with very little practice so it will be very difficult to get it right.

“But everyone’s in the same situation so it will be a battle to see who can put the finger on it. We’re still very new to this and not sure what it needs… and quite frankly, half days here and there isn’t enough. It gives you a rough idea but regarding specific setups, there are a lot of unknowns.

“It’s interesting how different a beast it is –  more sensitive to temperature and more sensitive to driver input.”

Different driving styles, different approaches

Given that all three of Penske’s 2018 drivers have won the IndyCar title over the last four seasons, they have already worked together and each remains with his highly rated race engineer – Power with Faustino, Pagenaud with Ben Bretzman and Josef Newgarden with Brian Campe – the theory is that they should be able to make good progress by pooling their information. However, Pagenaud implied that the new car may emphasize the differences between their driving styles.

“Working together, open book like we do at Penske, the three of us for sure can really help each other,” he said. “Certainly we can cover more ground. But drivers like different things and it’s whatever you need to give your best that will be key, and it’s difficult to pick up on the sensation from another driver.

“It definitely requires more technique, more finesse, particularly on the entry of the corner. The braking event is a lot more complicated than before. And so I think there’s also going to be a greater variation in how drivers and engineers deal with that.”

Power suggested he was taking a different approach, stating: “Honestly, I think the key is to understand what setup makes the car fast and then adapt your driving style to that. You can’t be hunting for a car setup that’s comfortable for your driving style if that’s not actually a fast setup for the car. You can end up really stuck in a box like that, [negatively] affecting the speed just to get it handling the way you want it to.

“But whatever, having three good drivers with good feedback, we’ll feel similar things I hope, even if we then do make some small adjustments for driving style.”

Sebring, because of its bumpy nature, is used as a test venue so often in order to help teams devise setups for IndyCar’s street courses, which comprise five of the 17 races on next year’s IndyCar schedule. But Pagenaud explained that he gets even more specific according to the corners.

“Sebring is a good place to try to assess what’s happening for certain types of corners,” he said, “because you might pick one corner that resembles St. Petersburg circuit, and another that’s like Long Beach and work on those with different setups. That’s what I like to do there – make some quite big changes and see what it does in this or that particular corner and from there you build your package. And that’s what we were doing on Wednesday and trying to understand the sensitivity to each change we do.”

Close competition over the season

Power says that because the car has required such a rethink from engineers and so much adaptation from the drivers that the 2018 IndyCar season will likely feature a wide variety of winners, as usual.

“I think with a new car and not many test days, there’s so much to learn in a really short amount of track time,” he said. “So I’m expecting it to be close throughout the year, like it was when we last had a single aerokit and weren’t allowed to make many changes allowed [2012-14]. I think there’s going to be weekends where one team gets it just right, and it could be any of the teams in the paddock, honestly. I mean, there are strong drivers in every team, strong engineers in every team, so I think there’s going to be a bunch of people coming to the front at different tracks and catching out the other teams.

“And that’s going to be interesting for the fans because I reckon the championship will be wide open pretty deep into the season. So it’s going to be really important to make the best of each weekend, keep bad weekends to a minimum.

“Then in the second year, that’s when everyone has a read on the car, you’ve got a bunch of data, and the setup window gets a lot narrower and you’re looking at the small details to find speed.”

Fun to watch

Pagenaud, who has had one full day at Road America and now half a day at Sebring, said that however much the teams and drivers hone their cars, they will remain more entertaining to watch but less “nice” for his perfectionist sensibilities.

“We’ve had it so good for three years – so much grip, a car that felt perfect, didn’t really move around,” he said, “and I can guarantee that at some tracks almost all the drivers said the old car felt good. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case any more – you get your car in a good place but it still won’t feel as nice as before because you’re always going to be sliding a bit because of the big reduction of downforce.

“But that’s fun, too. The last three years, because of the weight of the rear end, when the tail broke away it was hard to control. But at Sebring I was leaving black marks on the track out of the corners and not losing any time, and the car was relatively easy to control while sliding.”

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