Aero changes expected to ‘subtly’ improve this year’s Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
1 Comment

INDIANAPOLIS – Expect “subtle” changes to the competitiveness and performance level in this year’s 103rdIndianapolis 500, NTT IndyCar Series drivers told NBC after last Wednesday’s “Open Test” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In an effort to improve racing in this year’s 500-Mile Race, INDYCAR officials devised a collection of aerodynamic changes last Fall. Firestone pitched in with a new tire construction for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Speedway itself added a sealant to the 2.5-miles of asphalt to help fill in some of the gaps and spots that have worn away since the last time the track was paved.

The complete equation was tested last Wednesday during the Indy 500 “Open Test.” The 30 car/driver combinations that participated in the test expected seven hours of testing, but that was severely limited because of lengthy rain delays that considerably shortened the test session.

Those drivers noticed “subtle” improvement to the racing package. That’s just the way INDYCAR officials wanted it.

“We keep one eye on safety, we would like everybody to feel more comfortable in the car this year; but we certainly don’t want ‘Pack Racing,’” INDYCAR Director of Aerodynamic Development Tino Belli told NBC “We want the best drivers and the best teams to win the race. That is what racing is about.

“We wanted to make a bit of an indent into the problems they had last year. We didn’t want a complete re-set.”

From 2012 to 2017, the aerodynamic package used on the Dallara DW012 turned the Indianapolis 500 into a “Draft Party.” Because of the rear-wheel pods, it created a huge wake in the air and drafting became very important in the Indy 500.

There were 34 lead changes in 2012, breaking the previous record of 29 lead changes in the 1960 Indianapolis 500. The record increased to a whopping 68 lead changes in the 2013 Indy 500. The number remained impressive with 34 lead changes in 2014, 37 in 2015, 54 in 2016 and 35 in 2017.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris OwensThe 2015 through 2017 seasons came in the “Era of Aero” as Honda and Chevrolet were allowed to create elaborate aero kits that dramatically increased downforce. The expense of those kits, however, proved to be a focal point of controversy among the teams and manufacturers, so INDYCAR created a sleeker, simpler aerodynamic package that produced more mechanical grip and less aerodynamic downforce for 2018.

The new cars looked much better than the bulky bits and pieces on the aero kits and have performed impressively on the street courses, road circuits and short ovals. The superspeedways, however, reverted back to days where track position and strategy were the keys to getting to the front.

Drivers at last year’s Indianapolis 500 complained that it was harder to race close to the leader. To add to that, last year’s Indy 500 was among the hottest ever, with temperatures at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway approaching 97 degrees. Because of that, the track was hot, slick and slippery.

Despite that, there were still 30 lead changes in the race. Ed Carpenter started on the pole and led a race-high 65 laps. Will Power started third and led 59 laps, defeating Carpenter by 3.159-seconds to win his first Indianapolis 500.

Last year’s Indy 500 was still a good race because it rewarded driver skill, strategy and track position. But it followed a series of sensational Indy 500s that frankly, spoiled fans and the media when it came to lead changes and on-track action.

INDYCAR wanted to make the current Dallara IR-18 more stable at Indianapolis, and with the additional changes made to the superspeedway kit, teams now have more adjustability in the package.

“We will get feedback from all of the teams and see if there is anything we can do to help or if they can work around it,” Belli said. “There really isn’t a lot of time left before we are back for practice on May 14.”

Carpenter indicated his team at Ed Carpenter Racing got a decent amount of work done and that gives his three-car Chevrolet team a good starting point when practice begins for the Indy 500.

“We didn’t get to get through everything today, we had a pretty aggressive test list,” Carpenter told NBC “I’m ready to come back when we can fully get into our test plan and get further than what we were able to today.

“It was still productive. I’m happy and content with the way the car is driving.”

INDYCAR Photo by Joe SkibinskiCarpenter indicated the improved drivability of his race car is not dramatic, but it is an improvement.

“The track is in good shape and it’s going to be a competitive month, but it’s too early to see if the car is going to draft better,” Carpenter told NBC “For me, I don’t expect to see drastic changes from last year. Everything is going to be subtle. The weather and tires will be the biggest things.

“The same issues people had last year are going to be the same issues we will be managing and trying to do a better job to solve from the next guy.

“It’s not going to be the ‘Aero Kit Racing.’ We have a little bit more downforce available but it’s still far less than we used to have.”

As a driver, isn’t that a good thing?

“If you are up front,” Carpenter said. “I don’t think you are going to have racing in this car like we did with the Aero Kit car. I’m managing my expectations. The changes we have outside of the tire are all very subtle.”

INDYCAR Photo by Joe SkibinskiCraig Hampson is Sebastien Bourdais’s race engineer at Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan. He believes the changes should help, especially considering last year’s race had several of the best drivers in the field lose control in single-car crashes.

Bourdais was one of those drivers.

“The aero package is subtle changes to the front wing, the rear-wing wickers which add downforce but add drag, I certainly would have taken those last year, as hot as the Indy 500 was,” Hampson told NBC “Those would have improved the show last year and heck, might have saved Sebastien from crashing.

“The tire changes, this is the first time we’ve run the new tire. I really don’t think Sebastien felt much difference in the car.”

David Faustino was the winning race engineer in last year’s Indianapolis 500 when Power finally won the Indy 500 for the first time in his career. He said it is still very dependent on the weather how the car will handle in the race.

“If it is hot like it was last year, it will be a little bit better as far as the race goes,” Faustino told NBC “It will keep the cars a little bit closer. Other than that, the changes seem pretty small. In the grand scheme of things, it shouldn’t change too much.

“It will be interesting to see if the sealant on the track does anything when it gets hot. That is a big question mark for us. The sealant is blacker so that means the track will got hotter, but we don’t know if the surface will get slimier. We’re still waiting to see that.

“I think the teams having more time with these cars will bunch things up, more.”

Everything gets magnified at the Indianapolis 500. As the biggest race of the year, every change and issue are analyzed under a stronger lens. Any changes made to the racing package become an important topic.

That was the case with last week’s test, but thanks to the weather limiting track time, it remains a work in progress.

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment

DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

JOSEF’S FAMILY TIESNewgarden wins Indy 500 with wisdom of father, wife

Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500