Why 2018 is just the start of an IndyCar revival

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The new-look IndyCar is the culmination of two years of work to make a better-performing and better-looking product, but David Malsher writes that it’s the recent progress off-track that will be key to maintaining and gaining momentum.

At the 12-car Sonoma test in February, one IndyCar stalwart, a man I’ve always known to possess a healthy cynicism, remarked: “Is it just me or are we finally on an up-tick here? A real one, I mean – not just blowhards saying, ‘Everything’s great’?”

I agreed that his optimism wasn’t misplaced, that there had been quite a few steps forward recently.

“This,” he continued, “is the most positive off-season I can remember since the [Indy Racing League/Champ Car] merger 10 years ago. Actually, more positive, because the merger was needed but, shit, those first couple of years were rough. And we lost a lot of good people.”

Indeed. Off the top of my head I think of the demise of Forsythe Racing, Walker Racing and RuSPORT – winners all – as well as a veteran ace (Paul Tracy), a rising star who Indy car racing lost to sportscars for four seasons (Simon Pagenaud) and the brilliant Champ Car Safety Team.

Skip forward 10 years, on the eve of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and the situation is very different. There are new teams coming in – Carlin and Harding full-time, Juncos and Michael Shank Racing part-time, while Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has expanded to two cars. These more than offset the fact that Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have reduced their fulltime lineups by one and two cars, respectively.

In the driver lineup, although we lost the much-loved Helio Castroneves to IMSA, he’ll be back for Indy, as will other 2017-fulltimers JR Hildebrand, Carlos Munoz and (hopefully) Conor Daly. And there aren’t many question marks over the incoming rookies, all of whom scored wins (or even championships) in junior formulas – Pietro Fittipaldi, Kyle Kaiser, Matheus Leist, Robert Wickens, Zachary Claman De Melo, Jordan King, Rene Binder, Zach Veach. Heck, we’re even going to see Danica Patrick sign off her much-storied career at Indy.

So even diehard IndyCar enthusiasts who are always excited on the eve of a season have extra reasons to tune into every session they can this year. Much of the intrigue centers around unknowns such as the performance of the rookies and Danica’s fleeting return, but much of it is also a happy consequence of the new aerokit.

The visuals

Let’s start with aesthetics because I’ve always thought that governors of any spec or near-spec series should feel obliged to make their cars visually appealing, and that U.S. open wheel racing has been poorly served in this millennium, with the exception of the 2007 Panoz DP01 Champ Car.

The original Dallara DW12 of 2012 was a welcome change from the IndyCar IR05 relic, but was disappointingly awkward from certain angles. Then, on first sight of the manufacturer aerokits for the 2015 season, I was suddenly overwhelmed with nostalgia for that original DW12. Of course, form follows function, and Chevrolet (Pratt & Miller) and Honda (Wirth Research) had loaded their kits with downforce-generating top surfaces; they were simply doing their jobs. However, the rules should never have allowed America’s premier racing formula to feature vehicles that appeared to be a cross between one of those demented multi-wing planes from the early days of aviation and an IKEA bookshelf. For three years, IndyCar effectively refuted the late, great Dan Gurney’s assertion that there’s no such thing as an ugly car in victory lane.

In stark contrast, the 2018 aerokit looks like the previous kit now shorn of its freight crates, and while its roots, the seven-year-old DW12, are still apparent in the front section, every other visible surface has changed very much for the better.

“It’s good to hear those comments,” said Jay Frye, the series’ president of competition and operations. “Once we’d decided on the technical philosophy of the car, we contacted Chris Beatty, a design consultant in England. We knew the aesthetics of the car were important and Chris really gave it some style. Once we had a cool design, we then reverse engineered it to follow our new tech direction.”

The car’s new technical emphasis

However much the 2018 kit has enhanced the cars' looks, the best part is that they have increased the importance of the drivers’ talents and should allow the differences between them to become more visible. The removal of so many of the car’s aero appendages has removed 25-35 percent of the downforce depending on the track (and depending on who you believe…), thereby increasing straightline speeds by reducing drag, lowering apex speeds, and making the cars trickier to handle in the braking zones and on corner exit.

As VP of competition and race engineering Bill Pappas told us last week: “Going so light on downforce means you have to determine where and how you’re going to brake, how you’re going to carry speed through the corner and where and how you’re going to go to full throttle.

“It’s required the engineers to come up with solutions they haven’t had to come up with the past few years and put the emphasis back on car handling, not just piling on downforce. It’s meant the drivers and the engineers have to do more work together and the drivers have to become really strong on feedback.”

Drivers will also need to become very sharp in judging their tire usage, although this is helped by the fact that drivers can at last feel what their car is doing. Degradation has been increased by Firestone’s revised compound selections and the fact that a tire’s contact patch will now tend to slide over the track surface rather than being embedded into it by downforce.

By the way, one other useful side-effect of stripping downforce has been the reduction in steering weight. At Phoenix’s ISM Raceway, the cars have shed 1200lbs of downforce, and steering weight is down 50 percent (elsewhere it’s down 30 percent). That’s good – it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for a smaller-framed driver like rookie Zach Veach to transform himself into a Tony Kanaan v2.0.)

The final noteworthy aspect of the car is that IndyCar responded to the drivers’ calls to improve the racing. The amount of turbulent air thrown up by the previous aerokit was limiting the drivers’ ability to stay close to a car in front through medium- and high-speed turns on road courses. Meanwhile on ovals, the car ahead punched such a big hole in the air that even a slower car behind could draft with impunity – but then its drag meant that on pulling out to overtake, when it hit more ‘solid air’ it would draw alongside yet struggle to complete the pass.

Transferring the majority of downforce-generation to the underside of the car should have alleviated all those issues in 2018, but we’ll need to see the races at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, for example, to get definitive proof of concept. For that matter, we’ve also yet to see more than two 2018 cars run together at Indy and at Texas Motor Speedway. The 500 needs to be more than just a drafting battle, while in order to avoid the pack racing we witnessed at TMS last year, the car needs to feature tire deg, lateral car movement and an increase in emphasis on driver talent. Car interaction at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway during the Open Test looked a vast improvement on the last two years there, so the principle of shifting downforce from topside to belly seems to be working. Nonetheless, let’s keep the tickertape and streamers on standby for now.

Making the car work

“The car concept process started in April 2016,” explained Frye, who took on his current role the November before. “I’d gone around to every individual team owner numerous times, every team principal numerous times, and obviously Mark Kent and Jim Campbell of Chevrolet and Art St. Cyr of Honda were very involved, too. That’s how we came up with the five-year plan, and the centerpiece of that plan was the car. The first year of the plan was freezing the designs of the manufacturer aerokits for 2017.

“As we entered summer we wanted to figure out who’s gonna build the next car, and Dallara far exceeded every expectation. They’re a great partner and they were the obvious choice: Mr. Dallara, Andrea Toso, Andrea Pontremoli, the Dallara Italy and USA folks – they all deserve a lot of credit.

“Then in July, we asked JR Hildebrand [then at Ed Carpenter Racing] and Tony Kanaan [then at Chip Ganassi Racing] to test for us at Mid-Ohio. They were in 2016 cars but with rear bumpers removed – that was the most obvious visual difference, although there were other changes, too – and that was us starting to investigate downforce reduction on a road course. How would the cars feel? How close could they run to each other without losing a lot of grip in corners? Then we went to Phoenix in October and Andretti Autosport ran cars for us, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz were driving, and again we deleted the rear bumpers. We listened to all four drivers’ feedback, examined the data, and now we had some proof that this new philosophy of reducing aero devices on top surfaces was the way forward.”

Once Beatty had worked his styling magic with the configuration he was given by Pappas and Tino Belli (IndyCar's director of aerodynamic development), Dallara set to work building two cars – one Chevrolet-powered to be run by Team Penske and driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, the other Honda-powered to be operated by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and piloted by another veteran, Oriol Servia. IndyCar’s test program covered Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Iowa Speedway, Mid-Ohio road course, and Sebring Raceway – the latter of which represented a typical hot street course.

Said Frye: “I’ve got to thank Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson and Roger Penske and their team managers Piers Phillips and Kyle Moyer, who put together our test agenda. But the impressive thing was that all our major suppliers had really bought into the five-year plan and the tech direction we were taking with this new car. They couldn’t have been more supportive and helpful – Firestone, Ilmor, HPD, Pratt & Miller, Cosworth (electronics), Xtrac (gearbox), PFC (brakes). I remember going to those early tests and there were so many people from our partner companies in pitlane, it looked like a race weekend.

“The next stage was manufacturer testing – Ed Carpenter Racing joined Penske for Chevy, Chip Ganassi Racing joined Schmidt Peterson for Honda… And here we are. I just can’t wait to see what the deal is in St. Pete.”

Rare solidarity

That’s 500 words to sum up what was an extremely busy time for multiple personnel, especially when the work was having to be slotted in between race weekends during a schedule that comprised 17 events in six months. And from what we’ve seen and heard so far, it has paid off, which shouldn’t be a surprise; Frye leant on everyone he believed could make a meaningful contribution to the car’s evolution.

“I know that we’re dealing with hundreds of smart people in the IndyCar paddock – why wouldn’t we use their knowledge?” he shrugged. “For example, at the Phoenix open test in 2016, I sat with Rick Mears for an hour or more, talking about the ideas for this new car… or I should say, I listened! I mean, he’s Rick Mears, so his ideas are spot on. Since then, I’ve been to see him several times and asked, ‘What do you think of this?’

“That’s what I’m saying – we have access to all this brain power, and you’d be stupid to ignore it.”

More surprising is that within the paddock, on the topic of the 2018 car, there has been a prevailing sense of solidarity and sanity – neither of which are qualities one takes for granted in any sport among competing teams. Sure, there have been several off-the-record grumbles about how lopsided the track-time allocation has been for teams involved in series/manufacturer testing and those less blessed. Dallara’s parts-supply logjam and the teething problems with Cosworth’s new electronics systems have also raised the blood pressure of almost every race engineer and data acquisition and generation [DAG] person in pitlane.

But in terms of IndyCar’s current ethos and future plans, there have been few quibbles and no alarm bells. It’s as if team owners, team managers and drivers have suddenly remembered that a rising tide floats all boats, and politicking can remain behind closed doors. In addition, said one team manager, IndyCar competitors and suppliers all respond to Frye’s managerial attitude of wanting each meeting to result in notable progress.

“I think Jay’s been good for us,” he said. “He gives us a chance to voice opinions, but he leads us. If we start getting bogged down, he’s like [claps hands], ‘Come on guys: it’s your deal. Let’s reach a decision.’ If we need more time, he’ll say, ‘OK, go away and think about it but we need to nail it next time.' Or if we all agree that IndyCar needs to come up with different ideas, he’ll listen. He doesn’t just force things through.

“The other thing is that he’s been listening to us about costs which I – we – appreciate during a time when we’ve had to get new equipment, bodywork, and so on. Not everyone has resources like Roger [Penske] and Chip [Ganassi].”

Frye believes the keys to this sense of unity between teams and suppliers have been IndyCar consulting with all participants, and then clearly communicating the verdict of these consultations.

“Yeah, the last two years has seen a lot of what you said, solidarity,” said Frye. “Whichever group we’re meeting with – owners, managers, drivers – there’s usually a consensus on most if not all the points by the time the meeting’s over. Like, if we’re deciding on a rule change or a technical change, we’ll say, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking, here are some options, pick one… or don’t.’ There have been some items where the consensus has been ‘We don’t want to do that,’ and that’s fine, we just move on, or they might reach a consensus that it’s a good idea but we should delay that for Year 3 of the plan.”

And what about when there isn’t a consensus?

“That’s the communication part,” Frye replied. “When a meeting’s over, we send out the discussion points and what was decided, so no one calls up querying that decision, because there aren’t nasty surprises; whether it went their way or didn’t, they were part of the decision-making process.”

What else is new?

If Frye deserves praise for the relative harmony in the paddock, one that has caused – and resulted in – a democratic majority-rule environment in meetings, so too he deserves kudos for ending the regular controversies over decisions by Race Control. The moaning, justified or otherwise, was tiresome for the fans (and media!) and simply detracted from the racing. The last serious dispute regarding Race Control’s decisions was over the pitlane exit/blend at Long Beach two years ago, during the Pagenaud vs. Scott Dixon battle.

“The rules are clearer and the punishments are clearer these days,” said one ace last year, “plus I’d say the drivers are better quality, and they respect each other. And we all know we’re gonna get caught if we pull a **** move.”

Over this offseason, Brian Barnhart has left the race director role to become team president at Harding Racing, and he’s been replaced by Kyle Novak. Such is the structure within Race Control these days that being mentally sharp and having an understanding of racing ethics should be enough to see this IMSA veteran slot in without a hitch.

Schedule-wise, the only notable change is Portland International Raceway replacing Watkins Glen International on Labor Day Weekend, but whether the Pacific Northwest population’s enthusiasm for top-rank open-wheel racing can be reignited after an 11 year absence won’t become clear until the event promotion shifts into top gear.

Detail changes such as the slashing of Indy 500 qualifying points has to be seen as a triumph of common sense over nonsense, although the double raceday points for the Sonoma season finale still makes me wince, and I reckon the Indy 500’s double raceday points are inappropriate, too. To imply that winning at IMS demands more from a driver or team than, say, conquering Barber Motorsports Park or Gateway, is misguided. It just means more because it’s the Indy 500, and that extra prestige is alluring enough to render double points unnecessary.

Momentum in marketing is next priority

In 2018 there should be no shortage of storylines emanating from IndyCar’s heavily revised cars, the established aces and rookie drivers, and the new teams. As such, this should be a season that gratifies the established fan, as the on-track product improves in terms of intrigue, excitement and merit.

While describing IndyCar’s purpose in pooling opinions from the paddock, Frye remarked: “If teams and drivers are contributing advice, so that we’re acting on our knowledge and ideas and their knowledge and ideas, that keeps disputes to a minimum. Then we can all spend a lot more time just working together for the good of the series and the fans.

“This is our series, and when our goals line up and our methods for reaching those goals line up, then we grow together.”

And that has to be the next step – actually transmitting what will hopefully be a much-improved product. Sound formed in a vacuum may be a waste of time, as New Order sang some 35 years ago, and for that reason some key decisions and major deals are vital to IndyCar extending its reach, expanding its fan base. The next television/online package, the next series title sponsor and hopefully a third engine manufacturer must all play their part in attracting new spectators.

On the tech agenda this year will be deciding which areas of the car will be open to engineering modifications by individual teams in 2019 and ’20, while plans for the 2021/’22 chassis and engine formula are expected to be set before year’s end.

In the mean time, 2018 is the year for IndyCar to verify that it has the best possible product on track to lure back previously disenchanted fans, keep the present fans tuning in, and attract new fans. If the participants can maintain their current outlook of working for the common good and IndyCar can actually sell this product, then momentum can evolve into a revival.

 

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