Will IndyCar's 2018 aerokit produce another thrilling Indy 500?

IndyCar aimed to ensure its new superspeedway aero package will emulate the Indy 500 battles of recent past. The figures suggest the series has got it right. Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud gave their opinions to David Malsher.

Remember the closing moments of the 2012 Indianapolis 500, with Takuma Sato clinging to the tow of the Chip Ganassi Racing duo, drafting past Scott Dixon and then trying to penetrate Dario Franchitti’s stout defense into Turn 1? Or how about Helio Castroneves’ mesmeric duels with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014 and Takuma Sato in 2017?

Yes of course you remember, and if you liked it, you’ll be pleased to hear that IndyCar feels this is how Indy 500s should be – drafting duels and split-second finishes.

Is that how it should be? That’s open to debate, especially if you’re a purist. No one can deny those battles were thrilling, but as a veteran observer remarked after witnessing the 2014 finish, “It’s gone a bit NASCAR, Daytona- or Talladega-style, hasn’t it? It’s all about positioning for the final few laps.”

A couple months ago, 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud echoed that sentiment, telling Motorsport.com: “Lately at Indy we’ve just been stacking downforce on as much as we could, because we knew that however quick our car is, you can’t get away from the pack.

“It was more a game of defense and protection than a game of attack, which I thought was a bit of a shame. You were basically just positioning yourself to stay in the lead pack until the end of the race… more of a chess game than a driving game, in my opinion.”

Yet that may be the kind of action sought by many fans, especially those who tune into IndyCar only on Memorial Day Weekend. Come May 27, were someone to lead 115 laps as Dixon did in 2008, or 155 laps as Franchitti did in 2010, it’s not hard to imagine the forums and Comments sections turning toxic with complaints. Were anyone to win by two laps, a la Rick Mears in 1984, there would be calls for IndyCar’s tech department boffins to commit seppuku.

Of course, there’s virtually no chance of domination by any one driver because not only do the cars share aero and have roughly similar power outputs, the governing body also played it very canny as it reverted to spec Dallara-produced aerokits for 2018.

The series slashed top surface-generated downforce for the road course/street course/short-oval package in order to 1) improve the racing by allowing the cars to run closer and 2) emphasize driver talent. Worthy motives, both. However, there was a different agenda for the superspeedway version of the aerokit. In order to continue generating memorable Indy 500 finishes, IndyCar sought to retain the downforce/drag ratio of the original spec Dallara DW12 [2012-’14] and IR15 [the DW12 equipped with manufacturer aerokits, as used 2015-’17].

Thus while the 1.022-mile Phoenix’s ISM Raceway saw the difference between an IndyCar’s maximum speed and minimum speed increase from approximately 11mph in 2017 [197mph/186mph] to 21mph [196/175] in 2018, there has been a far smaller change around the iconic 2.5 miles of Indianapolis Speedway. Motorsport.com asked one of the top race engineers to compare figures from last Monday’s open test with those in similar wind/temperature conditions last year. On condition of anonymity, he revealed that his car’s max/min in race trim last year was 230/221; this year it’s 230/219.

He added: “So we think we have a bit less downforce and more drag for 2018, but that’s not a surprise. Comparing this spec kit to the manufacturer kits from last year, Indy has the least change in aero numbers of any tracks we go to. I think because the racing has been pretty good at the Speedway these last few years, IndyCar were looking for roughly the same drag and downforce ratio.”

Indeed so. Bill Pappas, VP of competition and engineering at IndyCar told Motorsport.com: “We tried to target what the race-type downforce and drag had been for what it should be, going forward. Obviously there’s no way we could match what Honda and Chevrolet did with their aerokits to reduce drag for qualifying, so we focused on what would make for a competitive and entertaining main event, the race, and this is where we ended up.”

Obviously, the speeds recorded this past week at IMS are by no means definitive; even the best teams haven’t yet tapped their cars’ full potential.  In addition, as our anonymous engineer points out, “We’re very similar [to last year] in terms of gearing, but at the test we were a little shorter. We needed a taller gear than we had for when we got a big draft.

“The other thing is, the manufacturers won’t tell us but I expect there is some more engine performance to come.”

Running solo, going for pole

Given the similarities in max/min speeds between IndyCars equipped with manufacturer aerokits and the new spec kit, I asked Pagenaud how different the cars are in terms of handling, after he turned 108 laps of IMS on Monday. He implied the quirks of the old car have been ironed out.

“Running alone, the feel of the car is nice, very well balanced. It’s sane, it doesn’t do anything weird. The aerodynamics are quite stable in terms of how the center of pressure moves through the corners, and that gives you confidence. I thought everything reacted very well – although it was just the first day, and there’s a lot to do.

“The biggest difference is the weight distribution – a 2 percent change, which is massive. So now, for us, it’s about changing the balance of the car around that. The aerodynamics is one part, the mechanical setup is the other.”

And that latter point has assumed more importance. The spec aerokit’s arrival gave IndyCar the opportunity to cut costs by making heavy restrictions on the aero variations available to the teams. The result is that a car’s mechanical setup has greater importance than ever at the Speedway, especially in qualifying when the teams take out as much downforce and drag as possible.

As 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi explains to Motorsport.com: “With fewer downforce configurations open to us, the bigger factor will be mechanical setup and who will scrub off the least amount of speed. If you look at Saturday last year [the day that decided which drivers would progress to Sunday’s Fast Nine shootout], Sebastien Bourdais was running more downforce than myself and Scott Dixon and yet he was significantly quicker. Obviously we know the end result of that, but I think a lot of that speed was down to how free his car was and the minimal steering angle he was able to use on turn-in – very similar to James Hinchcliffe’s pole lap in 2016.

Pagenaud adds: “The last three years, we could change so many parts to go fast in qualifying – wickers, bodywork, flicks… all these devices. Now everyone’s in a much smaller box and they’re all going to get down to the minimum settings pretty easily. So the mechanical setup will definitely have a bigger effect on qualifying speed.

But how much importance will he put on Fast Friday and qualifying weekend, when boost gets bumped up from 1.3-bar to 1.4? Pagenaud started on the front row in 2015, but more memorable (and relevant) was the #22 Penske’s pace in the race in ’15 and ’16.

“Starting up front can make your life easier,” he says, “but I’m a big believer that starting mid-pack is good experience for the end of the race, because it teaches you what you need to run in traffic. When you start up front and something happens in a pitstop and you get shuffled back, it’s really hard to come back because you have less experience in dirty air, in the draft and so on.

“So qualifying well is nice and there are some points to gain there – a lot less this year than before, which is good – but I’m more focused on my racecar. We’re talking about 500 miles instead of 10, you know?!”

The nature of the racing

The IndyCar drivers reported this week that the 2018 speedway aerokit punches a bigger hole in the air than its predecessor. That is perhaps surprising when you note that this year’s kit has the aggressive-yet-svelte look of a Guigiaro design, whereas last year’s aero devices rendered the car as elegant as a Pontiac Aztek.

But if the new IndyCar in superspeedway form tows up to a rival car as well as – or even better than – the 2015-’17 model, it’s now a trickier beast to handle in another car’s wake when it reaches the turns. Rossi spent several laps on Monday running in close proximity with his fellow Indy winner and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, and then around eight laps of group running.

“Yeah, it’s harder to follow,” he says. “Running behind just Ryan, I was pleasantly surprised that already, when we’re just scratching the surface with this car, I could stay flat. But from my limited experience, if you’re five or six cars back and there’s that much more turbulence, I… doubt anyone will be able to stay flat.

“But I don’t think it will make a great amount of difference to the race itself because the draft effect is so great. It may take a little more to get a pass done, but I think you’ll see as good a race. What I do think you’ll see is more defensiveness, because the tow is so big even if a guy is not right on your gearbox, you know he’s going to be there by the end of the straight. So we’ll see the guy ahead take a more aggressive line, more often, to block the inside – kind of like what we saw between Ryan and Helio in 2014 – forcing the passing guy to go for the outside.”

Pagenaud broadly agrees, despite completing even less running in dirty air.

“It’s not easy to get the car balanced in traffic, although I admit I didn’t spend all day trying,” he says. “But you pick up a lot of speed in the draft which means that I don’t think you’ll see anyone run away, so very similar to what we’ve seen in the past. With the draft being so strong, the cars are still going to be very close to each other.”

One of the big unknowns at this stage is how the cars will react to temperature changes. Rossi described the Monday test conditions of 73degF as “beautiful”. The teams and drivers, of course, have to be prepared for less-than-beautiful and highly-variable come race day.

“At Indy, the key is to go into the race with a setup that is versatile to deal with a wide range of conditions,” says Pagenaud, “but it’s hard to tell beforehand what those conditions might be. That’s the beauty of the race.

“Because of the perfect conditions in Monday’s test, we still don’t know how sensitive the new car will be to temperature changes, for example. On the road and street courses we’ve seen this year’s car is very sensitive to changes in temperature because of how much it relies on the underfloor for downforce. The hotter it gets, the more that affects the balance.

“With the old car, you could find a sweet spot, although it was very hard work to get there. This car will be even harder and I think actually you will have to live with some weaknesses; the aerodynamics are less ‘perfected’, I would say, because it’s a universal kit. Again, that’s going to give more relevance to the mechanical setups.”

Extra strength in numbers

In the past, there have been questions regarding certain teams overstretching themselves by adding entries for the Indy 500, but they’re hardly accusations that could be leveled at either Team Penske or Andretti Autosport. And this year, with quite radical changes to the cars, these two teams’ multi-pronged attack could provide a significant advantage over even top-quality Indy-winning operations such as the two-car Chip Ganassi Racing squad.

Says Rossi: “On Monday, all we did really was go through basic changes to see how these cars react to those changes, and to give me track time to get a feel for how the car behaves. We didn’t try anything too aggressive.

“So there are still so many unknowns. I mean, judging by our recent track record, Andretti Autosport is the team to be with at Indy, but we still have so much to learn with this new car, so much work to do in the run up to qualifying and the Monday after. That’s why it’s good we’ll have six cars to try different setups.”

Aside from Bourdais, the four Penske drivers – Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Pagenaud – were the only drivers to run more than 100 laps on Monday. But despite doing “very good preparation, trying very different things from morning to afternoon,” Pagenaud says he expects that Roger Penske’s four drivers will start Indy 500 practice with quite varied setups to maximize data acquisition.

“All four of us have a lot of good experience at Indy, so for us to get as much information as we can collected and then work to put the best combination together, the whole package, will definitely help. Actually, between the four cars, we already tried quite different things in that test, and then we went back to the shop to try and draw conclusions and decide what directions to follow the next time we’re on track.

“It’s good that we’ve already started that process. That’s definitely one of the strengths of this team. Plus having Helio back is awesome because he’s always so quick at that place. Again, I would say that is extra-helpful in a year when we have so much to learn.”

As if to illustrate the steep learning curve ahead, one of Rossi’s observations, that the new car won’t see increased tire degradation, is at odds with the opinion of our nameless-race-engineer-from-a-top-team – “The cars are 10lbs heavier this year, which doesn’t affect speed much, but it will affect tire deg. We can’t get quite the downforce we had last year for the race, and at 30 laps into a stint in the test, our tires were definitely low on grip…”

So who’s got all the answers? No one. Will the team/driver/crew who gets the most answers right win the race? Not necessarily. But if you’re a fan of the racing seen at Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the last six years, you can be reasonably certain that the handsome new aerokit will help make that happen all over again.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Event Indy 500
Track Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Drivers Simon Pagenaud , Alexander Rossi
Teams Andretti Autosport , Team Penske
Article type Analysis