When the in-car camera shot of Will Power's No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet showed him turning the steering wheel to keep his car going in a straight line following contact with the wall 30 laps into the Honda Indy Toronto, the immediate diagnosis was a bent toe link.
While relatively easy and quick to change, needing a few minutes in pit lane for repairs at a track where the lap time is less than a minute spells disaster.
“I could have continued, but it was just so unstable and the last thing you want is for it to break in the middle of the back straight,” said Power, who was completely out of contention when he returned to the track two laps down on July 15.
“You can almost change it and not go a lap down, but it's so hard when it's on the go like that. You have to practice for it. Once I got it fixed, I was one of the fastest cars on the track.”
A toe link looks like a wishbone, an airfoil-shaped tube made of metal and carbon fiber helping connect each wheel on a car to the chassis. It controls the amount the tire is angled toward or away from the center line of the car.
When you look at a Verizon IndyCar Series car from the front, you might notice that the front tires aren't exactly straight. That's the toe links doing their work. Normally, they are angled slightly so the left tire points a bit to the left and the right tire points a bit right. This is called “toe out.” The front tires are positioned this way because it helps the car turn quicker. It's more difficult to tell on the rear tires, but they're normally opposite to the front and instead “toe in” to help with stability.
Toe links are often bent or broken when a tire is hit from the outside, one of the most common ailments after a brush with a wall or side-to-side contact with another car. As the amount of toe in or out is measured in fractions of inches, when things change by even half an inch, it can get dicey. Cars are often said to be “crabbing” when a rear toe link breaks or bends because it looks like it’s going a bit sideways.
Despite the challenge of piloting a car that doesn't want to stay straight, drivers sometimes compensate and keep going.
That's what James Hinchcliffe did after one of the front toe links on his No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda was damaged due to contact at Toronto.
“For me, we picked up a lot of understeer (the front of the car not wanting to turn) in right-hand corners and a lot of oversteer (the rear of the car wanting to step out) in left-hand corners,” said Hinchcliffe, who explained that dealing with a front toe link issue is slightly easier than on the rear.
“I kind of had to learn where on the track it was going to oversteer and where it was going to understeer, and then figure out how to drive around the problem. It was really bad on cold tires, so the restarts and the out laps after the last pit stop were just horrendous for us. I figured out where it was all going, but it cost us performance.”
Despite the issue, Hinchcliffe kept good pace and crossed the line in fourth place, much to the delight of his hometown fans.
Although Power wasn't as lucky as Hinchcliffe in Toronto, he has been able to successfully deal with a bent toe link in the past. In his first race with Team Penske, on the streets of St. Petersburg in 2009, Power was hit early, knocking the rear out of whack. He continued and finished sixth despite the damage.
“I was just literally turning one way and not in the other. Luckily in St. Pete, it actually helped in a lot of the corners. So, it was like it was a right-hand track because there's only one left-hand turn that matters,” said Power, insisting that the decision to race on with toe link issues depends on the track.
“Ovals are way to finicky; no, you wouldn't want to do it.”
The next race on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is the Honda Indy 200 this week at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Practice begins Friday, with Verizon P1 Award qualifying airing live at 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN. Live coverage of the 90-lap race from the permanent road course begins at 3 p.m. Sunday on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with an encore telecast at 6:30 p.m. on NBCSN.