Wednesday, May 20, 2015
How fast is too fast?
(Stefano Coletti - KV Racing)
(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 5-20-15)
The Verizon IndyCar Series held a news conference Sunday to explain changes being made for safety reasons to slow down the cars that will race in the Indianapolis 500.
At that same news conference, those same officials said they still hope to make those same cars some 10 mph faster next year in an attempt to set a new Indianapolis Motor Speedway track record on the occasion of the 100th Indy 500.
In the wake of five accidents at the Brickyard in the space of six days, one of which will sideline popular driver James Hinchcliffe for the foreseeable future, those were two very conflicting messages coming from series management.
And before proceeding with the notion of trying to flirt with 240 mph at Indy, some hard questions need to be answered to determine whether it's a goal that is really worth pursuing.
The plan that IndyCar put into action three years ago to eclipse Arie Luyendyk's two-decades-old standard for speed took a serious hit this week when the latest generation of open-wheel racers with new bodywork produced by series engine suppliers Chevrolet and Honda showed a worrying propensity to fly after crashing.
While the search for fixes to that fundamental problem was already flat out, the wisdom of chasing even higher speeds was brought into doubt when Hinchcliffe crashed heavily on Monday afternoon after a front-suspension-component failure.
It's unlikely Hinchcliffe's injuries would have been substantially less severe had he suffered the same failure at 200 mph instead of the reported 228 mph he was traveling before he hit the Turn 3 wall.
But Indy car drivers from the present and past continue to believe that major and fundamental changes need to be made to the way that Indy cars are designed to achieve their speed, no matter what that number is.
"In years past, we were much quicker in a straight line and slower in the corners," observed 2013 Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan. "Nowadays we are kind of doing the opposite. So I would say there is a balance that we need to achieve."
When Luyendyk set the track record in 1996, there was still a considerable difference in the peak velocity the cars achieved on the straights compared to their speed through the corners.
These days, there is little more than a 5 mph difference between the speed at which a driver enters a corner and exits. On big ovals, Indy car drivers are essentially battling a restrictor-plate effect.
"I've been saying that ever since I joined the series that we need more power and less grip," said defending IndyCar Series champion Will Power.
"As soon as you add too much grip and not enough power, it takes it out of the driver's hands and you're just guiding the car, you're not driving it."
Throughout the history of the sport, every auto racing sanctioning body has reduced engine power in an effort to keep speeds under control. But developments in other areas of the car -- mainly aerodynamics -- have fundamentally altered the way race cars achieve a lap time.
With straight-line speed tightly controlled, engineers have concentrated on creating higher cornering speeds, whether in Indy cars, stock cars or Formula One cars.
Modern F1 cars already look like speeded-up slot cars, and the F1 Strategy Group recently announced a plan to reduce lap times by no less than five to six seconds by 2017. Meanwhile, high cornering speed is an issue being brought to the forefront in NASCAR by several drivers, including Carl Edwards and six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears believes that the IndyCar Series needs to examine a different balance between power and downforce.
"Today, aerodynamics controls the sport," Mears said. "It dictates everything about the car. They've been going down a path with more and more downforce, and they're just boxing themselves into a corner. The drivers don't want pack racing, but they can't escape a formula that produces pack racing.
"I want to feel like I'm driving the car," Mears continued. "There's driving and there's guiding, and they're two different things. To me, the fun part was: Give me more power than I can use and let me figure out how to use it better than the next guy."
Luyendyk maintains that the key to his one- and four-lap records at IMS (237.498 and 236.986 mph, respectively) was an ideal balance between power and downforce in the Reynard/Ford-Cosworth he drove.
"It wasn't frightening at all because the cars back then had a lot of downforce and a lot more horsepower, and the combination of that produced those speeds," he said. "Also in 1996, the track had just been resurfaced, Firestone came out with a better tire, and they did away with the rumble strips, so they gave us more racetrack.
"The following year, in 1997, they went to the normally aspirated IRL cars with less downforce, and I was doing 218 with the new car," he added. "But believe me, it was more frightening to do 218 in that car than it was the to do 238 the year before."
For years at Indianapolis, the prospect of longtime public address announcer Tom Carnegie proclaiming "A new track record!" was part of the lure of being there.
It happened fairly steadily until 1973, when a difficult month of May left two drivers and one safety worker dead, prompting significant changes to Indy car regulations the following year, including much smaller wings and reduced fuel capacity.
The magic 200 mph barrier was eclipsed by Tom Sneva in 1977, and speeds continued to climb at a controlled pace until peaking in the 230-235 mph range in the 1990s.
This week, the new generation of cars featuring turbo V-6 engines and aerodynamic components produced by Chevrolet and Honda produced the highest lap speeds seen at Indianapolis since that period.
But it also created the uncomfortable spectacle of race cars traveling through the air and upside down.
Which means it's once again time to ask: How fast is too fast? Without a stopwatch, can a fan in the stands tell the difference between a 215 mph lap and one at 225?
"If you can tell the difference between a car going 230 miles an hour and 235 on the straight, then you're my hero," said Team Penske's Juan Pablo Montoya.
There's also the very real question of just how much physical force the drivers' bodies can take. A CART-sanctioned IndyCar event scheduled at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001 was canceled the morning of the race when it was revealed that the high G-forces produced while turning 235 mph laps around the high-banked TMS ovals was causing some drivers to get dizzy or black out.
Kanaan was one of the drivers who practiced and qualified for the Texas CART race that never happened. And while the former "500" winner and IndyCar Series champion supports every effort to make the sport safer, he admitted that the element of danger isn't enough to stop him from strapping into a car.
Whether he's trying to crack 220 mph or 240.
"I think as drivers, we're fully aware of that," Kanaan said. "Every time we hop in that race car, we don't know if we're going to come out of it in one piece, if something's going to happen to you. And that's something that we're going to have to live with. That's what makes us different than other people.
"That's why not everybody can do this," he added. "It's never easy to see a friend of yours get hurt or lose a friend of yours. But this is the sport that we chose.
"If people feel uncomfortable with that, you shouldn't be in the race car."