Opinion: Why IndyCar must get radical with 2018 car

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If IndyCar is to continue offering the greatest track diversity in motorsport, it needs to make oval racing a success – compelling action that is also a true test of driver talent. The 2018 car offers that chance, as Rick Mears tells David Malsher.

Following IndyCar’s Texas chain-reaction massacre last month, when 15 of the 22 entries in the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 retired or lost several laps due to crash damage, it seemed all drivers agreed the race was ugly but there was some debate regarding the primary cause.

Ed Carpenter blamed the carnage on driver indiscipline.

Alexander Rossi said the previous day’s second practice session should have been held at sunset to replicate the time of the race, thereby giving drivers, teams and series a heads-up as to what to expect.

Scott Dixon said testing should have been done at the track much nearer the time of the race to replicate the ambient/track conditions, in order to allow the series and Firestone to get a true picture of what kind of racing might transpire.

Sebastien Bourdais, sitting on the subs bench, described the race as bullshit

Winner Will Power said he knew it would be a pack race and that it was the easiest race of his life to keep out front by hugging the white line at the bottom of the track.

Some drivers and fans denied it was a pack race, but whether you’re endlessly lapping two by two (a la Texas 2017) or three by three (a la Fontana 2015), that’s still a pack. If the second-placed driver gets sucked up by the leader, fails to complete the pass because of the drag hitting his car as soon as he pulls out of the draft, but can then can hang on with impunity on the outside line, foot flat to the floor (watch the Power vs. Dixon battle from Texas), then you have the start of a pack formation.

The driver immediately behind the leader gets sucked up onto his gearbox but has nowhere to go; the driver following the P2 car on the outside line also has no room to pass but he too tows directly onto the tail of the guy in second. Suddenly you have four cars running two abreast and it can continue on down the line. It’s only a matter of time before disaster strikes.

After the race, a couple of drivers insisted that no, they were not flat throttle all the way around the track, that it wasn’t that easy.

“They weren’t flat all the way around,” sneered one driver, “because they were never in clean air. The reason they had to back off wasn’t because their tires were degrading or because they had too much power compared with grip. That never happens now. They backed off to keep from running into the cars in front because they had such a great tow.”

The problem is that every single one of the drivers listed above made a very valid point. What’s upsetting is that they even needed to. It seems like every oval we go to now, there has to be an endless debate about downforce levels because either the cars can’t pass (Phoenix this year and last) or because the cars are virtually on top of each other and the difference between the most and least talented drivers is negligible.

Thankfully current management has seen the light to a certain extent, and the 2018 car is a tangible expression of their good intentions – improving the aesthetic ‘wow’ factor and shifting downforce production from the top surfaces to underneath, in order to improve the racing.

Now, says Rick Mears – three-time IndyCar champ, 29 time race-winner, four-time Indy 500 winner – is the ideal time for IndyCar to ensure the other important step is taken: dramatically decrease total downforce to make ovals a greater challenge for the drivers, while also creating a degree of separation at different points of any given stint, allowing drivers to complete a pass.

Too close, too fast for too long

Mears agrees that the status quo cannot be maintained – and he’s prepared to say that despite his affiliation with Team Penske which, on ovals in the current era, has succeeded very nicely, thank you.

“People love to focus on tracks – ‘We shouldn’t be here, the track’s not right for our cars…’,” he tells Motorsport.com. “Well that’s BS; it’s up to us to come up with the right car configuration. When we do, there’ll be virtually no oval we can’t run on.

“We have spent too long just nibbling at this aero problem with the cars, taking a little bit of downforce away here and there. Well that’s often going to catch you out because conditions can change enough at these venues that it can ruin your carefully devised formula.

“The track just needs to be 10 degrees cooler than you expected and suddenly everyone’s got too much downforce, too much grip, they can drive anywhere on the track and so everyone’s on top of each other, running in a pack.

“Texas was a great example. The new surface and new tires meant there was a lot of grip and the tires didn’t degrade so the drivers just had to steer. Well, if everyone is able to drive at the same speed and for a whole stint, then there’s something wrong. It means the challenge has gone.

“So to my mind the best way to resolve the pack racing issue is to get far enough away from the current formula to where you don’t have to worry about that. We shouldn’t start with maximum downforce and then take a little bit off. Start with minimal downforce and add a little if the drivers feel they can’t get close enough to the car in front.

“The problem at Texas – and again, it’s not the track’s fault – was that combined with the new surface, teams had enough downforce options to make Turns 1 and 2 comfortably flat on the throttle for the driver, even though they’d lowered the banking. And of course that meant that 3 and 4, which are steeper, were no-brainer flat.

“If you have a minimal downforce level where you’ve got to roll out of the throttle before 3 and 4, then that’s going to make 1 and 2 even more difficult – which is how it should be. Ovals are supposed to be difficult.

“That heavily reduced downforce level also lessens the apex speed which effectively makes the SAFER barriers softer, so if someone does get it wrong and hits the wall there’s less damage to the car, less chance of injury for the driver.

“But even before that – and I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s true – if you reduce the lateral load, you give the driver more feel, so you’re going to reduce the chance of accidents. The same weekend we were at Texas, Formula 1 was in Canada, and in the first session there were an unusual number of spins.

“Sure, the track hadn’t rubbered in, and the cars were twitchy because they run less downforce there because of the long straights in Montreal. But the real problem is that F1 tires are so wide this year, they can take much higher lateral load – but then when that grip goes away, it goes away quicker. It’s much less progressive, so the drivers get very little warning; they can’t feel where the limit is.

“Well in IndyCar we’ve created that same effect on ovals, but with aero downforce instead of tires.”

Drivers to blame for some aero decisions

Mears is convinced that one of the reasons that IndyCar has backed itself into an aero-package cul-de-sac is because the series heeds the input of drivers who’ve gotten used to cars needing just subtle tweaks to optimize them for any given track.

He says: “I was looking at images of the 2018 car and when I saw the superspeedway kit, I said, ‘That’s the configuration that needs to run everywhere. Period.’

“Why are we forcing teams to buy two new sets of kit to make the cars aerodynamically optimized for different tracks? We’ve gotten into a mode where drivers want the cars to drive the same everywhere we go.

“Well, to me the whole point of IndyCar and its diversity of tracks – the challenge of our series compared with any other series – is to have the cars handle differently at each type of track. Running a road/street course aerokit on short ovals is a way of making the car handle the same across all three.

“The series shouldn’t be effectively customizing the cars to suit the tracks. Why can’t the cars stay roughly the same aero-wise and so it’s the different types of tracks themselves that make the drivers drive the car differently and let’s see what each driver and engineer comes up with, within a certain framework.”

Mears says he’s also baffled by certain drivers wanting the car to be less demanding, and says the insinuation is that they lack faith in themselves.

“If you strip the downforce drastically, yes, at first we’d see some separation between the cars as drivers relearned how to drive them, but eventually they’d all start running similar speeds. We’ve seen the same thing with cars: when everyone’s running the same kit, but one car or team is 3mph faster than everyone else, you know the others will eventually catch up. They’ll check out the fastest cars, see that they need to stack the blocks a different way, and then be up to speed.”

As a driver with 40 pole positions to his name, it’s not surprising that Mears has grown disenchanted with the meaninglessness of qualifying at ovals.

“Any time the car can run on the short line, down by the paint, and that’s quicker than the racing line, then the car has too much downforce for the track,” he says. “There’s no satisfaction from staying quarter of an inch closer to the paint than the other guy.

“If, as a driver, I don’t have to start out by the wall, turn down to the apex, roll off the throttle and foot quiver on the brake pedal, maybe touch it, and then open up the steering and head out to the wall on exit, then there is too much downforce, and the challenge has gone.

“The challenge should be, ‘How late and how much can I get off the throttle? How soon and how much can I get back on the throttle and minimize the speed loss for the turn? In that regard, ovals should be very like an very high-speed road course. If I roll out to qualify, put my foot to the floor and feel my job is over apart from steering, then it’s not right.”

2018 car holds promise and opportunity

Mears says the ‘cleanness’ of the top surfaces on the 2018 IndyCar is going to be a major aid in improving the nature of oval racing.

“The aero package we have at the moment not only creates too much downforce but also creates too much drag,” says Mears. “It creates a big hole in the air so the car behind tows up really quick – but as soon as he pops out of the slipstream to make the pass, he hits a wall of air, and can’t complete the pass.

“So that means the guy doing the passing needs a much bigger advantage over the guy ahead to make that pass? Well how is that going to happen if the aero is effectively the same, the engines are very similar, there’s no tire degradation, and the driver skill doesn’t come into it because they’re flat on the throttle all the way around?

“So that’s why you see them start circling endlessly side by side. And if doing that isn’t difficult, then something’s wrong with the formula, as we said.

“The great thing about next year is that with spec aerokits, it’ll be much simpler for IndyCar to make the right technical moves that keep the racing so the crowd is entertained, and passes actually get completed rather than going two abreast for lap after lap.

“The series will be able to make changes during a weekend if that’s necessary, but going back to my first point, those last-minute changes shouldn’t be necessary at all, so long as we’ve gotten a long way away from the current formula.

“With a decent amount of testing of this new car and a radical stripping of downforce, that need for fine-tuning by the series rather than the teams pretty much goes away.”

Marketing the series the right way

Making Indy car racing more demanding on ovals will, according to Mears, offer a firmer base from which to market its USP – track diversity.

“I was discussing this with [Penske team president] Tim Cindric the other day,” he says. “If Formula 1 is the technology series,  NASCAR is a stock car series that’s almost entirely ovals, then IndyCar is something truly different. It’s a cliché but it’s true – we have a greater mix of tracks than any other series.

“So Tim said – and I’m in a 100 percent agreement with him – that IndyCar really needs to be promoted as a driver series. The tech is good but not necessarily cutting edge, but we have two world-renowned manufacturers who get their due credit. The teams… yeah, they get good recognition, especially if a smaller team beats a big one. But in general, the marketing department’s spotlight should be on the drivers.

“And that means we need to show why we’re taking a big step in downforce reduction. 1) Safety – so the driver can feel where the limit is, and he won’t hit the wall so hard because he’s already easing off the throttle on turn-in, and not pre-programed to keep flat on the throttle for lap after lap. 2) It’s a challenge that puts the outcome more in the hands of the drivers, not the aerodynamicists because all the aero is basically the same.

“So then we can say, ‘Look, our drivers have to try and excel on short ovals, superspeedways, high-bank ovals, flat-track ovals, street courses, road courses. These are the most well-rounded drivers in the world.’ And if someone like Fernando Alonso wants to come over again and take on all those different challenges, then great. We should be encouraging the best from other series to try it out, and if they end up running near the front, then all credit to them; they’ve earned it and we shouldn’t be scared of that.”

Conclusion

Personally, I find it easy to get towed along in the draft of Mears’ enthusiasm on this subject, while also agreeing that 2018 offers the next great opportunity for IndyCar to make a significant change to its oval racing. The majority of fans want a package that increases the challenge for the drivers, but also improves the safety measures and reduces costs for the teams through less crash damage and allows drivers to not just tow up to each other but actually make passes.

Before writing this column, I asked one of the top race engineers in the series for the maximum straightline speeds and minimum speeds (apex or just before) on a few of the ovals on the current IndyCar calendar. Typical speeds in race conditions came out as… Phoenix – 189mph/173; Iowa – 184/173; Texas – 223/212. So those disparities are 16, 11 and 11mph respectively.

Not much, in other words – and not surprising given the somewhat anemic engine outputs in oval form (approximately 580hp) and high amounts of drag. I’m thinking at least double that disparity is required – ideally achieved by increasing straightline speed and reducing corner speed, rather than just doing the latter – will be necessary to get oval racing back to where it puts the races back in the hands of the best drivers and smartest engineers, not just the best aerodynamicists.

You don’t need to look too deep into forums and comments sections following races like Texas this year to see people saying that IndyCars should no longer run on any ovals except Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or that IndyCar has ‘outgrown’ tracks like Phoenix.

Like Mears, I believe this is BS because the situation is easily remedied by the series. But how soon before cash-strapped team owners start concurring with the critics, because they’re sick of spending $400k repairing crash damage after oval races that have been attended by just 12,000 people, have poor TV ratings and offer little prize money?

Track diversity is one of IndyCar’s highest cards, and it would be quite tragic to see ovals consigned to the series’ scrapheap just because there were too many vested interests, too much pigheadedness, to change the car formula.

Oval crowds have been dwindling for almost 20 years. At least let’s get the product right, then zero in on the marketing message, so we know that we’ve done all we can to tap into Indy car racing’s roots.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Scott Dixon , Rick Mears , Sébastien Bourdais , Will Power , Alexander Rossi , Ed Carpenter
Article type Commentary