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Hildebrand: Effective IndyCar safety tweaks need time, not knee-jerks

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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.

Photo: IndyCar

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.”

Juan Pablo Montoya in the new 2018 IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

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.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: JR Hildebrand, driver of the #21 Preferred Freezer Service Chevrolet, leads a group of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.”

Chevrolet hoping it finally has edge on Honda in Indy 500

Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chevrolet engines have powered some of IndyCar’s biggest wins over the last six years.

Their drivers have won three of the first five races this season, four straight series titles and claimed the top four starting spots in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

So why is there so much chatter about Chevy vs. Honda in Sunday’s race? It’s the one mountain Chevy continues to try and conquer.

“We have more horsepower at the top end but race running’s going to be different because you’re not going to be flat out,” 2016 series champ Simon Pagenaud said. “You’re going to have to manage your tires, you’re going to have to lift a lot and reaccelerate, and the Honda is really strong at that. So I think it’s going to equalize the race and I think there’s a good chance it will show, which is fantastic.”

Pagenaud knows both engines well.

He spent his first four seasons in the series working with Honda teams before switching to Roger Penske’s powerhouse Chevy team in 2015.

Yet as dominant as Chevy has been over the years outside Indy and as good as Penske’s team has been on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval, Honda continues to have the upper hand in the 500. Their cars have driven to victory lane 12 times over the past 14 years, including a run of nine straight (six coming when Honda was the series’ sole-engine manufacturer).

Chevy has two 500 wins since returning to the series in 2012. But the engine battle is becoming far more competitive even at Indy where the disparity from the top qualifier to the last qualifier was cut from 11.083 mph in 2017 to 5.198 mph this year.

Drivers have already noticed a difference on the track and casual fans who only watch the 500 might pick up on the changes, too.

“It’s certainly exciting for the fans, for us, for the teams,” said three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, a Chevy-powered driver for Penske. “It’s all about the end. Right now, we happen to be competitive so let’s see what happens in the race.”

Last year, Honda grabbed four of the top five spots and powered two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso to the race’s rookie of the year award. The problem: Three Honda engines blew during the second half of the race and those still on the track worried they would face the same fate.

This year, some of those same questions could return after Marco Andretti blew an engine just hours before the start of the IndyCar Grand Prix. Still, Andretti has been fast and qualified 12th for the race.

The new aero kits have drivers complaining about handling and passing on Sunday. Practice and qualifying speeds haven’t provided many hints about what to expect, either.

The practice session Monday was the first time everybody worked heavily on race setups and attempted to run in traffic.

The result: Chevy and Honda each had five cars among the top 10, in practice led by 23-year-old Sage Karam at 226.461 mph in a Chevy. Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champ and 2014 Indy winner with Andretti Autosport, was third-fastest at 224.820 – and No. 1 among the Honda teams.

Chevy, however, posted the top three non-tow speeds with rookie Kyle Kaiser leading the way at 221.107. Marco Andretti wound up fourth at 220.407 and was the top Honda car the list.

Four-time series champion Scott Dixon has learned not to read too much into all these numbers. The Chip Ganassi Racing star qualified ninth and is one of only two Honda drivers starting in the first three rows Sunday.

Last year, Honda took six of the top nine starting spots and had four of the top five cars at the finish line.

“I think there’s a lot of good Honda cars. Hopefully this one is one of them,” the 2008 Indy 500 winner said. “It showed pretty good, I think, in practice. But again it doesn’t guarantee you anything. You’ve got to give it your best, put in the effort and work hard.”

And hope for the best.

“I believe, even last year, even though the Hondas were really strong, we were able to fight in the end,” Castroneves said. “It’s all about being a good, balanced car.”