Minutes after his first run in a Dallara IR-12 equipped with the new universal aero kit earlier this month at Sebring International Raceway, Tony Kanaan gave the car a cautiously optimistic approval. “I’m not going to say it’s much better or it’s much worse,” he said. “It’s just different. I like it, but it’s different.”
The difference in the car – and the racing – during the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season will be markedly different than previous years. The new kit – which will be used on all car in the upcoming season following three years of manufacturer kit competition between Chevrolet and Honda – provides less downforce and is expected to bring the drivers’ skills back to the fore.
That was the primary point of the change and the primary reason why Bill Pappas, INDYCAR’s vice president of race engineering, is eager to see the process move from the oversight of the series and its manufacturers to the teams and drivers. After six months of testing orchestrated by INDYCAR, Chevy and Honda, team testing is permitted beginning Jan. 8.
“You’re always optimistic when you come into a project like this,” Pappas said. “But in the back of your head as an engineer, you’re always thinking, ‘What can go wrong? What’s the next snag? What do we have to deal with next?’ Surprisingly, this thing went very smoothly. It’s a huge relief. I’m looking forward to seeing all of the teams now start testing it.”
The Dec. 12-14 test at Sebring was the final under the direction of the series’ two manufacturers. The initial phase testing, which began in July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was overseen by Pappas and his INDYCAR engineering team, including director of aerodynamic development Tino Belli. Before joining the series in 2016, Pappas worked as a race engineer for Indy car teams for more than 30 years.
Honda and Chevy oversaw an expansion of the testing process in the fall to multiple teams and drivers, and now the teams will take over. The most extensive testing is expected at an open session for all full-season entries Feb. 9-10 at Phoenix Raceway.
But the first two stages of the introduction of the new kit went well, Pappas said, receiving a mostly positive reaction from drivers and engineers. The key will be how the car races – and how the drivers react to it.
“In general, we hit our targets from all aspects,” he said. “From a performance standpoint, we’re putting the driver back in the cockpit. There was so much downforce with the last couple of years of the (manufacturer) aero kits. The driver was basically riding. … You never were using the drivers’ talents.
“With this thing, because of the reduced downforce, they (the drivers) have to decide how early they want to brake. They’re working on technique again as far as how they carry speed. When they go back to the throttle, it’s not just matting it. They get wheel spin and the car slides. If drivers can cope with the car slipping and sliding around, they’re going to be really successful.”
Oriol Servia and Juan Pablo Montoya, who drove the cars during the first phase of the testing process, were praised on Twitter by Jay Frye, INDYCAR’s president of competition and operations, following the Sebring test.
“A little late on this but really appreciate the great effort and input from @jpmontoya and @OriolServia,” Frye wrote. “A lot of fun and got it done!”
Among the biggest issues in marrying the new kit to the chassis (both produced by Dallara) involved wiring, Pappas said.
“We continue to be concerned about making sure there are no weak links,” Pappas said. “The installation difference between the Honda and the Chevy was a challenge, but both manufacturers came up with good solutions. We’re trying to repackage all the electronics, which was the biggest challenge. … When we moved the radiator and created the safety structure on the side of the car, all of a sudden we had to move all of the electronics. That was a huge challenge, to be honest.”
The intended reduction in downforce had the desired effect, Pappas said, bringing throttle control, braking and the ability to manage traction to the fore of a driver's skill set.
“The drivers think it’s going to be a lot more fun to drive, and they’re very excited about it,” Pappas said. “Right from the start, both drivers (Servia and Montoya) felt the car had less turbulence, and they thought it would suck up better. They were very excited about how they thought it would race at Indianapolis.”
Once the manufacturer phase of testing began, brakes and electronics became the focus during a September test at Sebring. Among the drivers participating were Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Spencer Pigot, Servia and Montoya.
“It was a hot, slippery day,” Pappas said. “It fell after the hurricane, so the track was in about as bad a condition as you’ll see there. The drivers there felt the car was forgiving on a slippery track. They felt that with some work on the setup, it would be good on street circuits as well.”
After that, the manufacturer testing continued at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix before concluding with the three-day test at Sebring. Once the teams have had time to experiment with the kits, the real test begins at the 2018 season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, on March 11.
“The ultimate proof in the pudding will be St. Pete,” Pappas said. “If we show up there and the cars race well and the drivers are excited about it, then we will have hit all the objectives we set out to.”