The introduction of a standard aero kit for IndyCar in 2018 presents the series with a golden opportunity. An opportunity not only to level the playing field between Chevy and Honda, but to enhance the racing spectacle – particularly on ovals.
IndyCar aero kits: a nice but flawed idea
IndyCar is to be applauded for ditching bespoke aero kits in favour of a standardised design. It is a mature admission that the concept simply did not work.
That is not to say it was not worth trying; the intentions and concept were sound in principle. Sadly when the aerospace firms and tech start-ups did not take up the offer to get involved, the whole idea was effectively dead leaving Honda and Chevrolet to fill the void. Poorly in the former’s case.
At a basic level the change will deal with a couple of major issues that have dogged the series: chiefly the performance disparity between Chevrolet and Honda; and the cost to teams.
Cutting costs for IndyCar teams
Team owners were unhappy about the eye-watering cost – about $350,000 for a complete kit. For a part of the car that tends to get bent, bashed and broken often it was a costly exercise. Michael Andretti made what turned out to be prescient comments a while back about the cost and impact on the racing in the series.
Whilst IndyCar has still offered up great racing during the aero kit period, the quality of racing has been diminished. The standardised kit will look to not only address the lack of parity between the two manufacturers in the series but also the issue of the dirty air created by the kits.
Reducing costs for the series is always going to be well received and the Honda teams will be delighted to get a chance to regroup. Despite winning the 100th Indianapolis 500, the Japanese brand has been soundly beaten. But 2018 feels like a big golden opportunity that will be wasted if cost saving and performance balancing are the only significant outcomes.
Downforce is the enemy of racing
The switch to standard aerodynamics could allow the series to fundamentally address what IndyCar racing looks like – particularly on ovals.
As I have talked about before, the performance of IndyCar’s on ovals needs some sort of fix. Beyond the core IndyCar support, sports fans are not interested in oval racing, IndyCar-style. And this is despite the cars running ever faster. But that is where the problem lies.
To quote Rick Mears: downforce is the enemy of racing. From the outside it ‘looks’ easy to drive an IndyCar on an oval. Despite what the drivers, commentators and teams might say, to your average Joe running 220mph plus at Indy looks and sounds easy.
Simply nail the throttle and turn left a few times. This perception has undoubtedly contributed to the fact the monumental crashes witnessed at Indy in recent years have garnered more attention in the mainstream media than the outcome of the race itself.
Making cars harder to drive but less on edge
Removing downforce for ovals (or ideally across the board) and upping power output would remove the ability to run flat on ovals. Drivers would be provided with a more significant challenge and ironically, it could stop the cars running on such a knife edge.
These days when a driver loses a car on an oval he or she is heading for the wall and no where else. With less reliance on downforce, speeds will naturally reduce giving drivers at least some chance to recover when the tail kicks out. And most importantly, less aero performance means less wash for the following car.
Most street and road courses lap records would never be beaten as a result but that would be a small trade off if drivers can run closer to the car in front. Closer racing and more ability to pass will be good for road and street courses as well as ovals. Especially for circuits like Alabama and Sonoma where overtaking is a rare occurence.
We might have to drop the 230mph qualifying lap dream at Indy but if that is the cost of better racing on ovals and more action on street/road courses then I am all for it.
Downforce, IndyCar safety and cockpit protection
There is also a safety consideration in pulling downforce off the cars. In terms of the current debate about cockpit protection Rick Mears made some very insightful comments about car speed and driver head protection recently. In an interview with David Malsher for Motorsport.com Mears made a whole load of sense:
“I’d like to point out that a huge safety improvement that would require nothing done to the tracks or the cars’ tubs is to reduce downforce so the cars aren’t going through the corners so fast, so that when they hit the wall, it’s as if the wall is softer and the car stronger.
“Like we talked about last fall – like we often seem to talk about! – downforce is the enemy of racing. And the best thing we can do, a fundamental thing, is make sure the cars aren’t hitting the walls so hard that they explode and create debris for all the other drivers. And the best way to do that is reduce downforce, so you reduce corner speeds.”
This a big opportunity for the series. We have to hope that the maturity shown in admitting bespoke kits did not work is only exceeded by bravery in pushing the boundaries this time.