Could the aero kits have been tested earlier? Anne Proffit looks at the situation unfolding in Indianapolis today.
What happens inside the confines of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Gasoline Alley paddock when the third Chevrolet-powered Verizon IndyCar Series entry hits the wall and ends up on its nose after another violent impact?
Well, a bunch of meetings at the INDYCAR trailer, that’s what.
There was more conjecture than anything else about what the series would do following the three flips this week for morning practice on Sunday than any factual discussion of the rationale for these incidents.
We are reminded that this year’s running is the 99th such Indianapolis 500 engagement, with racing vehicles that have changed immensely over the past century. What hasn’t changed is the fact that they can - and most likely will - hit the wall at some point or another. The technology has advanced tremendously but the laws of physics sure haven’t.
Testing, testing, testing
INDYCAR introduced a new Dallara DW12 race car in 2012. It was tested for nearly nine months before it first competed at St Petersburg in March of that year and it has proved to be a thoroughly raceable and competitive vehicle. Since its introduction, this Dallara has evinced some of the best racing contests anyone can recall in IndyCar.
But that wasn’t enough. When the DW12 was chosen as INDYCAR’s “car of tomorrow” (to borrow that phrase), former CEO Randy Bernard decided to allow aero kits to differentiate the cars running for Chevrolet from those equipped with Honda power. Initially those aero kits were to debut in the 2013 season, then 2014 and finally, they were homologated for road/street/short oval courses and for super speedways for the 2015 season.
The road/street course configurations showed that Chevrolet had the upper hand in the first five races of the year. Honda had a single win in the wet at New Orleans while Chevrolet won the other four races.
Minimal experience with new aero kits
Everything changed once practice began for the Indy 500. None of the teams had more than a single day of practical experience with their new oval kits until May 3rd, when the IMS track opened for practice. That initial foray was uneventful. So were the first couple of days of practice leading up to qualifying weekend.
Then Castroneves had an aero balance problem on his No. 3 Chevrolet; the following day Newgarden had his issue with the No. 21’s tire pressure; today Carpenter’s No. 20 crashed, but the exact cause of his problem is not known at this time.
There have been no such issues with the Honda aero kit.
After much discussion, Hulman and Co. CEO Mark Miles and Derrick Walker, INDYCAR president of operations and competition addressed the media to confirm plans for the remainder of the Indy 500 meeting.
In the interest of safety, Miles said, all cars will qualify using the same aero setup they intend to use in the 200-lap, 500-mile contest on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis oval. Boost levels are being reduced for qualifying to race setup (130 kPa), thereby complementing the aerodynamic settings.
“Safety for drivers and fans in the top priority,” Miles confirmed. “We will continue to be proactive in our research and development to improve all safety aspects of our sport.”
Had Miles and Walker thought about that aspect prior to the month of May, things may have been different. Had they allowed added testing, they “might” know what caused all three cars to lift when they were turned around during each instance.
Simulator testing continues - and simulators are very close to showing what happens on a racetrack - but the only scientific work that validates simulation is done on a proper racetrack. Period.
While Honda’s aero kit hasn’t had the same issues as Chevrolet, it is going along with the edicts put forth by INDYCAR. Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development stated, “Even though we have every confidence in our design, we support INDYCAR in their efforts to improve safety.”
As for Carpenter, the owner/driver told the Indianapolis Star newspaper, “I definitely think we have an issue going on that we clearly didn’t have in the past. Hopefully this series will be smart and react sooner rather than later so we don’t have to keep seeing things happen like this.”
Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. vice president for performance vehicles and motorsports weighed in: “Chevrolet met with INDYCAR this morning and the decision was made to run race-level aerodynamics and engine boost during qualifying, in an effort to reduce speeds and increase downforce. We continue to review all available data from the crashes. Safety is our priority.”
IndyCar should have homologated earlier
These aero kits should have - and could have - been homologated earlier during the off-season; they were set in January. INDYCAR has an aerodynamicist on staff, Tino Belli, who is not nearly as far removed from competition as are most in their offices. Had there been earlier meetings that solidified kit specifications, and had more on-track testing been allowed prior to arrival at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s highly likely you wouldn't be reading this story.
Walker expects to have a solution for the high speed oval aero kits prior to the next engagement, which would be at Texas Motor Speedway the week after the Duals in Detroit on June 6, a solution that would then carry to the other two big ovals at Fontana (June 27) and Pocono (August 23rd).
IndyCar teams will all have one opportunity to qualify (with the last row decided after the first 30 spots are filled), with no points awarded for qualifying this year and no Fast Nine shootout, something that will certainly affect fan participation and appreciation in this 99th Greatest Spectacle in Racing.