JR Hildebrand is one of the smartest drivers, if not the smartest driver, in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock. He also, like Samson, may get his strength from his long, flowing hair.
Hildebrand deferred his acceptance to MIT owing to his burgeoning racing career as he came up through Indy Lights, but nonetheless, a conversation with the Sausalito, Calif. native always seems to lead to other topics far beyond just the year at-hand.
Getting that out of the way first, the 29-year-old Hildebrand is a free agent at year’s end and has four further races to impress as he completes his first full season back in the series in five years with Ed Carpenter Racing. He’s not worried about the silly season speculation at the moment.
He’s done excellent on short ovals but for whatever reason hasn’t had the luck, results or consistency in any road or street course races, and ranks 15th in points heading into next week’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (Sunday, August 20, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
But considering his knowledge base, provided he does get to drive the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit on a full-time basis, it’s worth wondering his thoughts on how the car evolves from a safety standpoint.
Hildebrand was part of the 2018 elements’ initial testing base during summer 2016 runs at Mid-Ohio and believes the car will race better based on what’s been designed. Although given how close the competition is already, can it get much closer?
“I think if we’re just looking at it in terms of improving the show, that’s what it’ll do. Certainly getting more of the downforce from the underside of the car makes it easier to drive closer to other guys, at short ovals and road courses,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports.
“I’m not sure it’ll fundamentally change races like Phoenix; but it might make more opportunities for when guys go off. Same thing for road courses. You should see more passes from running behind. And it also creates more stability for the manufacturers to not have to worry about the aero kits. In terms of competition; it’s a good thing. But our series can’t get a lot closer than it already is.”
Enhanced frontal cockpit protection, in the form of an windshield or similar type device, is anticipated to get tested later this year. Formula 1’s addition of the “Halo” device for 2018 has drawn some interesting, perhaps mixed, reactions.
Hildebrand cautioned against INDYCAR (sanctioning body) rushing into implementing such a device without doing proper research and analysis, and also guarded about the laws of unintended consequences. But he did say the technology should be explored.
“There’s a part of it where I understand we don’t want to make knee-jerk reactions to stuff like that,” Hildebrand explained. “In any sort of the examples of additional cockpit protection devices; there’s downsides to all of them. Situations could exist; there’s all kinds of issues, whether it’s ingress, egress, fire, weird accidents, or that kind of stuff.
“For me at the end of the day, the fact that we’re all so sensitive about how the cars look and having to arrive at an incredible solution on the first version – that’s not really how effective change actually happens. Effective change happens from a constantly iterative process in place with the intention of arriving at the best possible solution through a lot of ideas, trying, and dialogue; not necessarily implementing.”
Hildebrand looks at the evolution in sports car prototype racing as a perfect example. LMP1 chassis gradually have moved away from open-cockpit cars to coupes over the course of the last decade; the last open-top LMP2 cars raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year and the LMPC cars, which Hildebrand ran occasionally in 2010 with Genoa Racing, will be phased out of active competition at year’s end. With the high-end LMP1 and LMP2 models, perfecting a screen was not done instantaneously.
“If you look at the arc of development of fully closed roofs, cockpits, in an LMP1 car or similar – and I’m not advocating for a roof here – but look at all the issues that existed, and those are essentially the same types for us,” he said. “There’s the getting out of car, visibility, the car catches on fire, a driver’s unconscious or whatever.
“The fact there was that each individual team came up with their own solutions, made it to those problems getting solved quickly. We’ve seen with the curved screens on those cars, like windshields, I’m sure they probably weren’t great when they started. But their engineers worked on the curvature and density, to get good visibility, and solved for problems that exist.
“I think in F1 and IndyCar, and a lot of racing series, the regulatory sets are so restricted. We get ourselves in a position where we’re searching for one answer. That makes it a highly insulated R&D project. I think there’s a lot of ways to open these things up.
“There’s a lot of great technology for accumulating ideas from people and arriving at potential solutions. Just at the end of the day, the input and ideas from a lot of people will move the needle quicker more than substantially than a select few. Safety stuff or otherwise, we’ve got to start thinking about all of it a bit more.”
While INDYCAR has dodged a couple bullets this year alone with Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon surviving some savage looking accidents at the month of May at Indianapolis, Hildebrand did note INDYCAR’s gradual but consistent safety improvements have done their job. The side intrusion protection coming for 2018, designed to reduce pelvic injuries, is another big step in that development process.
Hildebrand said looks aren’t as important as developing the right type of technology for additional protection, as ensuring there’s consensus from the key stakeholders before implementation.
“At the moment, we don’t really have a mechanism in place to figure this all out. That to me is more of what I look at when we look at this,” he said.
“Yeah we have to arrive at a good, safe conclusion. But we have to know what we’re doing if we’re doing it.
“We shouldn’t be fearful on the front end of the process by the immediate reaction of what it looks like. From everything we’ve seen, the series continues to push forward. There’s a lot of elements of how quickly it can happen.
“Regardless of the outcomes, what ends up being viable, we should be pushing along with it, if for no other reason than a continuous research project.”