IndyCar and ovals: still going the wrong way

From the crapshoot that was the Rainguard 600 at Texas to plans for push to pass next year, one thing is clear. IndyCar is still going the wrong way with its oval plans.

Less than a month after another epic Indy 500, normal service has been resumed. The 500 was a race that ran out of superlatives as we witnessed 5-wide racing at times, multiple lead changes and occasionally 3 grooves around the hallowed Brickyard. Now we are back to the status quo of oval races offering an unsettling mix of danger, paltry crowds and a lack of real racing.

Texas demonstrated that IndyCar in its current spec is too fast and has way too much downforce for a 1.5 mile oval. Heavy rain prior to practice doubtless did not help. But the aero configuration was the main culprit for a race which – as Marco Andretti put it – had one and half grooves at best. The snooze that was the Desert Diamond Grand Prix at Phoenix back in April was problematic for similar reasons.

Does IndyCar want frenetic and scary?

The racing at Texas this past weekend was frenetic and scary once more. However it was not good racing. Consider the final 20 laps of the race as a case in point. Scott Dixon tried unsuccessfully to pass eventual winner Will Power on the high side. With both cars glued to the track and so little performance difference between Honda and Chevy engines, stalemate was inevitable. A race where the leader simply has to stay tight to the bottom of the track to win is not entertaining.

And so we come back to a familiar issue that has plagued open wheel oval races for a while. Drivers are making less of a difference on short oval tracks and it is all because of downforce.

It’s all about downforce, more or less

IndyCar is considering upping the power levels by introducing push to pass on ovals. A second successive ‘procession’ at Phoenix triggered IndyCar’s decision to evaluate that option for 2018.  In principle it makes sense: with high downforce and power in an equilibrium of sorts, something needs to change. The issue of course is that more power in isolation is not enough. As JR Hildebrand succinctly put it on Twitter after Texas, more power combined with less downforce is.

JR Hildebrand IndyCar Texas quote
JR Hildebrand kept his opinion on IndyCar racing at Texas short and to the point.

Time is not on IndyCar’s side on this issue, for two reasons. Firstly oval attendances outside of Indy are still hugely disappointing.  Secondly and more importantly it feels like the series is pushing its luck when it comes to accidents on short ovals.

IndyCar pack racing is not good racing

Pack racing is thrilling but Texas was not a good race. Drivers were stuck behind each other for long periods. Once a car was on the inside groove there was little scope to move out to progress. Ditto the half groove on the outside. Pack racing at Texas might attract some but the processional Phoenix races will not. Fans do not come out to watch a driver repeatedly try for several laps to make a pass stick and fail every time.

More worringly for the series is that by allowing pack racing (by not tackling the down force issue) IndyCar is by default banking on the entertainment value coming in the form of the ‘big one’. And that is not a road IndyCar should go down.

The rise of the IndyCar ‘big one’

The ‘big one’ of course is NASCAR-speak for a huge shunt that takes out half if not the majority of the field. NASCAR fans and commentators relish its arrival at tracks like Talladege but it is something IndyCar should avoid like the plague.  There simply is not enough protection for drivers in open wheel – despite the huge strides made – to accept multi-car ovals shunts with relative impunity. NASCAR can get away with it nine times out of ten, IndyCar cannot.

The fact a large number of drivers were clearly delighted and relieved the race in Texas was over speaks volumes. Sebastien Bourdais appeared to speak for the largely silent field when he said he was happy to be injured and miss the Texas race and maligned the short memories of Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident. Ed Carpenter by contrast seemed to be in the minority by suggesting the drivers and not the car configurations need to change at tracks like Texas to prevent a repeat of Saturday night’s carnage.

2018 an opportunity IndyCar cannot miss

As I wrote a while back, 2018 is a great opportunity for IndyCar. The series would be wise to take time now to consider cutting downforce levels for tracks like Phoenix and Texas.

IndyCar President of Competition Jay Frye has suggested that the 2018 cars could feature a higher percentage of downforce generated by the floor. Meaning downforce could be stripped from the bodywork of the car and result in a net reduction in overall downforce.

This needs to be achieved for the 2018 season and should be a top priority for the series as testing begins with Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia later this year. Otherwise races like Texas might not be on the calendar much longer. And the reasons why might be heartbreaking.

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