Sunday, May 17, 2015
Aero package is center of attention
(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 5-15-15)
It's the year of the aero kit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And already, Chevrolet's and Honda's unique modifications to the IndyCar Series' standard Dallara chassis are causing a buzz -- the kind that comes with updated looks, faster speeds and the shadow of risk that has always followed speed, as seen here Wednesday when Helio Castroneves pulled a 200 mph somersault in a practice lap and walked away without a scratch.
In the first five races of the season, all on street or road courses, Chevrolet had the speed advantage, winning four races to Honda's one.
Now, as action switches to IMS for the first oval race of 2015, "low drag" replaces "high downforce" as the design brief for engineers. And just as series officials had hoped, Honda's solution for the 240 mph demands of the Brickyard not only looks markedly different from Chevy's, it also appears to be a much more competitive proposition. Andretti Autosport's Carlos Munoz set the fastest speed of the month Wednesday at 230.121 mph in the No. 26 Honda.
The aero kits were implemented this year for several reasons: to help fans differentiate between Chevrolet and Honda cars, to create an engineering and marketing platform for the manufacturers outside of the 2.2-liter turbocharged V-6 engines they have supplied to the IndyCar Series since 2012 and, hopefully, to achieve a new track record at Indy in 2016 in conjunction with the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
The current one- and four-lap records (237.498 mph and 236.986 mph, respectively) were established in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk. The following year, IndyCar mandated lower-tech cars with the intention of cutting costs and reducing speed in the name of safety. Luyendyk claimed pole position for the 1997 race at 218.940 mph and speeds have generally stayed at 230 mph or below over the last two decades.
This year's pole speed is expected to be in the 233-234 mph range.
Of course, as speeds increase, so too does the potential for danger. The decision to pursue a new track record was not taken lightly; advances in chassis safety, and most importantly, the development of the SAFER barrier, make high-speed ovals like Indianapolis a much less dicey endeavor than they were 20 years ago or more.
The dangerous side of chasing speed was put on display Wednesday, when a mundane-looking oval crash involving Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis winner, turned spectacular.
Castroneves had just warmed up with a 219 mph lap when he lost control and spun 180 degrees in Turn 1. Traveling backward at around 200 mph, the rear end of Castroneves' Chevrolet lifted and the car performed a graceful aerial backflip, landing on its roll hoop before bouncing back onto its wheels. Castroneves quickly clambered out, extremely fortunate that he did not hit a fence or anything else during his airborne adventure.
The scene repeated itself in part on Thursday when Josef Newgarden's Chevrolet also hit the wall and flipped, though not as spectacularly as Castroneves'.
The problem with racing accidents is that they cannot be created or replicated in a laboratory, nor are any two incidents the same. Speculation immediately centered on whether the Chevrolet aero kit played a factor in Castroneves' car taking flight, or Newgarden's car flipping over.
"The surprising thing is he got airborne while the car was going backwards and we're going to have to look at that," said Castroneves' car owner, Roger Penske. "It's the first time we've run the speedway bodywork and it's pretty hard to simulate that in a wind tunnel.
"But we've got smart guys and we're going to investigate."
On Thursday, the Chevrolet teams were allowed to remove a three-quarter inch wicker "spine" that bisects the center line of the chassis in the belief that the component had contributed to Castroneves' flip. Honda's cars retained the trim piece, which is intended to stabilize the car and prevent it from flipping when it gets sideways (in a state of yaw).
But the stability of the Chevrolet aero kit was again called into question Thursday when Newgarden crashed heavily late in the day. His Chevrolet spun 360 degrees before striking the Turn 1 wall almost head-on. The car then nearly went upside down before flipping onto its side as it came to a rest. Newgarden appeared fundamentally OK, but shaken, before being transported to the IMS infield care center.
For the time being, drivers, teams, fans and series officials will be waiting with bated breath for the next crash, wondering whether the car will react as expected upon impact without taking flight.
Even after an accident, the show -- and the search for speed -- must go on.
The aero kits haven't come without controversy. They were prioritized by Chevrolet when it re-entered Indy car competition in 2012 after six years of sole Honda engine supply. The biggest fear was the return to a competitive engine market would reduce the parity that the IndyCar Series used as a selling point during what was essentially a spec-car era from 2006-11.
To some extent, that has held true. Since the turbo V-6 formula was instituted in 2012, Chevrolet has won 37 of 55 races and the IndyCar manufacturers championship every year. However, Honda won the 2013 drivers championship with Scott Dixon and two of the last three Indianapolis 500s.
"Aero kits improve the diversity of the fan experience and renew technical engagement, while providing a controlled cost structure," said Derrick Walker, IndyCar's president of competition and operations. "This is an important step in making incremental changes to our cars toward further enhancing speed, innovation and safety."
The additional variable of aerodynamics increases the possibility of one manufacturer becoming more dominant, and that's been the case so far in 2015. But Honda claims that Indianapolis was the priority when it designed its aero kit and the balance between manufacturers has been much closer this week.
In fact, most of the top speeds achieved without the benefit of a draft or tow have been achieved by Honda cars.
Still, Michael Andretti, owner of Munoz's Honda and four other Indianapolis 500 entries, isn't convinced aero kits were the right move for the series and its manufacturers.
Costs for the components are capped for teams, starting at $75,000 for the first kit and rising incrementally. But the manufacturers are absorbing millions of dollars in development costs, and Andretti questions the need.
"You're adding huge expense to the series, and you're messing with the product on the race track, which I think is the best racing out there," Andretti said.
"Now we potentially have a split field and I can't see how it is going to get any more people in the stands or watching on TV."
In defense of the aero packages, Walker said they will drive innovation and make the series more interesting to casual fans and gearheads alike.
"Car development has been frozen since the chassis came out in 2012, and at Indianapolis, the pole speed has increased nearly 5 mph since then even without any aerodynamic development," said Walker.
"When you say to designers and engineers, 'OK, you can make some changes,' you'll get some different shapes and certainly you'll get more performance.
"Records will be broken, and for the casual fan or the technical enthusiast, there's a lot more to look at."
(video of Newgarden's crash)