ROSSI: The mysterious art of oval racing
Sunday, 09 July 2017
By Alexander Rossi / Images by Levitt & Abbott/LAT, IMS Photo
"Ovals – fast, potentially dangerous, but ultimately straightforward. Let's be honest, you only are turning left, and when you're watching onboard footage, the car looks so glued to the ground you barely have to turn the wheel or lift off the throttle. Road and street courses are hard, but pretty much anyone can drive in a circle."
This was my thought process for the majority of my racing career, and I fear that this is also the perception that most other drivers and fans have adopted as well. As I've come to learn though, this logic is more flawed than eating everything in your fridge because it broke.
First, no oval is the same. Like, not even close. I'm sure you are thinking that I am stating the obvious, because a place like Iowa is 7/8 miles long and Indianapolis is 2.5 miles long. But not only are tracks different, but so is your car, your setup, your approach, and your techniques. It is why the Verizon IndyCar Series is the most diverse in the world, because not only do you not drive superspeedways and short ovals the same way, but you have to take a totally different approach to Pocono to what you do at Indianapolis, despite their both being superspeedways.
The line that you take, the way you turn in, the angle of attack on entry... all of that is different for every corner, on every oval, every time. Even Indianapolis, where all the corners are mathematically identical, requires a completely different approach for Turn 1, versus Turn 3. The slightest bump, change in wind direction, or temperature difference will affect the car balance enough that you as a driver have to adapt to this on the fly. This is more exaggerated than a road course because your margin for error is zero, and also because you are so much lighter on downforce that the car is ultra-sensitive to miniscule condition changes. Now, speaking of downforce...
Qualifying on ovals is insanity. Let's take Phoenix, for example. From the outside it looks fairly straightforward, but two qualifying laps inside the car it is more intense than racing wheel-to-wheel for 500 miles over 220mph. The reasons? First off, there is a bigger swing in downforce from race to qualifying than at any other track on the calendar. To put that in perspective, a normal trim step at Indianapolis is somewhere between 90 – 150lbs.
At Phoenix, it can be up to 1,000lbs. What this means is that the car goes from becoming an absolute beast that forces you to use all of your upper body force to get around, to a delicate, fragile thing that demands that think through every tiny input in order to not end up in the wall. And the courage that it takes to turn into Turn 1 at Phoenix is absurd. As you are approaching the corner, you realize that directly opposite to you is the corner exit – and you are required to turn in flat to be even remotely close to competitive.
Here's another thing I didn't appreciate before I arrived in IndyCar: Following cars on an oval is virtually impossible. The easiest way to explain this is how Michael Andretti explained it to me before I first got in an IndyCar. Imagine the wake on a boat, and then think about a similar 'V' shape coming off of the back of a race car. You can be in it, but you can't cross it while in a corner. When following a car, you have to find a way to keep at least half of your wing in clean air, either inside or outside of the car in front of you. The problem with this is that the car in front obviously knows that you are looking for that bit of clean air, and in competitive situations they can change their line and take that clean air away from you – and when this happens, you are literally just a passenger.
For those of you that have seen Top Gun, this is a similar situation to when Tom Cruise got into the jet wash and the plane was irrecoverable. The reason this can cause a crash is that by the time the air can reattach over the wings to restore downforce, you've normally slid out of the groove (or off line), and no amount of downforce can give you enough grip to deal with the marbles to bring you back.
The next lesson I learned: ovals are physically and mentally draining. Short ovals are where we see the highest lateral G-load, and with lap times being in the 17s range, there is virtually zero time to recover, especially if you consider that more than half of the lap is spent cornering. Couple that with our aforementined zero margin for error due to the lack of runoff, and add the intensity of racing wheel-to-wheel with 20 other cars, and you can start to imagine why there is so much preparation for racing drivers to outside the car.
It doesn't always translate to a viewer, but oval racing is by far one of the most dynamic and challenging forms of motor racing on the planet, and it's something that despite having a year of experience under my belt, I am still learning about lap by lap. Each time I roll out of pit lane, I begin to unravel another technique and pick up on different nuances that I didn't know existed even on the last lap. I initially feared it. Then I hated it. And now I am getting to the point where it's becoming addictive. If you don't already have it, I hope that you find a similar affection for this circular insanity.