Challenges and conundrums on Indy’s road course

(via – The IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course is entering only its sixth year, but the track possesses a unique blend of demands and considerations that present a huge challenge, as Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe explains to David Malsher.

It’s inevitable that the IndyCar Grand Prix is regarded as the appetizer before the banquet that is the Indianapolis 500. This year’s edition is only the sixth IndyCar race to be held on the 2.439-mile left-and-right track, whereas the 500 two weeks later will be the 103rd running on the iconic oval Speedway.

But the IndyCar GP is hugely important in and of itself: it pays the same number of points as all but two of the IndyCar races (the 500 and the finale) and it is a home race for the majority of the teams.

The road course runs clockwise and uses several infield roads, but Turn 11 takes the IndyCars onto the oval’s short chute between Turns 1 and 2, and the majority of the oval’s front straight is also the pit straight for the road course – albeit run in the opposite direction.

Some have accused the track of not being demanding enough because some corners are very similar and the grip level is quite uniform, so if a driver and team can get their car to work well in one of the turns it should work in at least four others. Those critics may even justify their point of view by noting that the fastest and slowest drivers in qualifying are barely more than a second apart – hardly surprising in the NTT IndyCar Series, but yes, quite unusual over a near-2.5-mile lap.

Yet such criticism is nonsensical: those narrow time gaps between drivers increase the challenge, so that what might strike you or I as an infinitesimal mistake can cost a driver several places on the grid.

Whenever someone says a track is insufficiently difficult, it’s worth remembering that three-time Formula 1 champion Sir Jackie Stewart did not pick the 1968 German Grand Prix in torrential conditions at the fearsome 14-mile, 176-corner Nurburgring Nordschleife as the greatest race of his life, despite the fact that he won by over four minutes. He instead picked his drive in the 1973 Italian GP at Monza when he picked up a puncture, was therefore forced to make an unscheduled pitstop, and re-emerged in the second half of the 24-car field. Over the remaining laps, he sliced and diced his way past his rivals to finish fourth and clinch his third world title.

His reason for picking this as his supreme performance was because he felt that any decent driver could lap quickly at Monza, so to make up so much time on his rivals – and duck 0.8sec under his fastest qualifying lap – required him to produce consistent inch-perfect precision for lap after lap after lap.

So if all the IndyCar drivers can lap the IMS road course competitively, in order to truly excel a driver and team must have everything absolutely on point. Last year’s Indianapolis GP was very promising for the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe who started second and fourth and finished third and seventh. This is also an event that the team won in 2014, with then-driver Simon Pagenaud. Hinchcliffe says Arrow SPM’s previous form here and a recent test on the Grand Prix course provide reason to be optimistic for this weekend’s event, too.

He tells “What we’ve seen so far from track to track, is that a car that was strong last year is also strong this year, at least when the tires haven’t been modified. For this race there has been a slight change to the tire compound, but I think our cars should be good. The ideal scenario would be what we had at Barber Motorsports Park – rolling off the truck with a strong package so the rest of the weekend is spent making just minimal adjustments to the balance of the car according to track conditions, fine-tuning it to get the very last fractions of time from it.

“I think it’s a fun track, usually pretty good for racing because you have those two long straights followed by 90-degree turns so there’s heavy braking, and there’s usually decent grip off-line so you can go side by side through several of the turns. I like it.”

One of the defining characteristics of the current breed of IndyCar, at least in road and street course trim, is that there is so much less drag from the Dallara universal aerokit compared with the heavy downforce 2015-’17 manufacturer kits that it has reduced fuel consumption. Races that used to be on the fine line between demanding three pitstops and being feasible in just two are now fairly easily accomplished with only two.

However, the Indy road course remains mathematically demanding for the team’s strategists and data acquisition staff. Given the tortuous nature of its pit entrance (not shown in the diagram) and its long pit exit, a pit stop costs 32-36 seconds if a car’s fuel tank is filled – in other words, anyone determined to run it in three stops by charging-stopping, charging-stopping, charging-stopping-charging would need to gain well over half a minute on the drivers who are using two-stop strategies. Yet while that sounds impossible, it starts to sound more feasible – preferable, in fact – when you appreciate that a two-stopping driver will have to save so much fuel that he’d be running considerably slower than his three-stopping rivals… should there be no caution periods.

“Well that’s exactly it,” says Hinchcliffe. “It all depends on the full-course cautions. All it takes is one well-placed yellow period and suddenly fuel mileage is no longer an issue, and we’ll be able to start pushing to the edge of the car or tire performance. Historically, there have been one or two caution periods in the IndyCar Grand Prix, but you can’t depend on that history, because we’ve also seen some really clean races throughout the last couple of seasons. That’s because the standard of driver keeps improving and there are fewer people making mistakes – or not big ones that cause full-course yellows.”

There’s an interesting aerodynamic conundrum to consider as well. The length of the IMS road course’s front and back straights, and the fact that the surface offers a lot of grip, might lead you to assume the cars are trimmed out to run minimal drag, in order to be as fast in a straight line as possible and not lose much in the corners. This is not the case however.

Hinchcliffe explains: “With the old car, you would set a trim level to run X amount of pounds downforce for X amount of drag and you’d feel the downforce loss from the drivers’ seat but you’d also see the gain in the straightaways. With this car, you’ll see the numbers on paper that suggest you are losing X amount of downforce while gaining X amount of speed on the straights, but the reality is different. I mean, it just doesn’t happen!

“So the benefit you get from trimming and being a tad quicker in a straight line is not worth the loss of downforce in the corners; there’s just not enough of a gain to justify it – very similar to the oval kit in that regard. Although the straights at Indy’s road course are very important, so are the big brake zones at the end of them – Turns 1 and 7 – and that’s where you want to have all the downforce you can get, to help keep the car under control in the braking zone, and corner entry and not have it sliding through the turns and using up your tires.”

But if that appears so cut and dried that it’s plain to see why the cars would run maximum downforce, there is a counter-argument. A driver whose car is running maximum downforce is not only going to have a slightly lower terminal speed, he’s also punching a bigger hole in the air, creating a bigger drafting effect for his most immediate pursuer. Yes, the hunter will have to deal with more dirty air and a loss of downforce in the fast turns, but he will have a bigger advantage once they are onto the straights.

“For sure,” says James, “there’s always a trade-off. Some rough circumstances in qualifying at Long Beach left us starting toward the back, so we trimmed out more to give us a bit of a straightline speed advantage. As I’ve said, it’s not a lot, but every little bit could help.

“When I was speaking to Felix [Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing] after the race, he told me he couldn’t close up on me like he could some of the other cars, because not only was I bit quicker at the end of the straights due to the reduced drag, I also wasn’t towing him along like other cars would have done. So trimming out can be a defensive tool as much as an offensive tool, and not doing it this weekend will help the guys behind…”

Another complication to consider, referring to an earlier point made by James, is the need for the teams to roll out with a good setup right away. The IndyCar Grand Prix is compressed into two days, so first practice, second practice and qualifying are all held on the Friday. Start off with a deficit and you’re likely to stay that way; start off with an advantage but fail to keep pace with evolving track conditions and you’ll pay the price then, too.

Easy to see why, as at any IndyCar race, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and its rivals will be walking a fine line throughout the event. The Indianapolis road course may not offer the widest variety among its 14 corners but the challenge of beating the other teams and drivers to the checkered flag is as complex as ever. The IndyCar Grand Prix is far more than just a curtain-raiser for the venerable Indianapolis 500.

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