PRUETT: Farewell, aero kits
Friday, 15 September 2017
By Marshall Pruett / Images by Pruett, Feistman & LePage/LAT, IMS Photo
At the onset of IndyCar's aero kit ridiculousness, Honda teams tried making downforce with 32 wings hanging off the front of their Dallara DW12s. Thirty-two. With the custom bodywork produced by engine suppliers Chevy and Honda, IndyCar's fastest, scariest corners transcended from fourth-gear dances to flat-in-sixth madness. Neck muscles strained; arteries bulged.
With every possible airfoil element and Gurney flap installed, and those wing angles dialed up to the max, Chevy's road course/short oval (RC/SO) package was capable of generating 6,826 pounds of downforce.
SIX THOUSAND, EIGHT HUNDRED, and TWENTY-SIX.
Honda's kit, in full RC/SO insane mode, reached similar numbers, good for 6,683 crushing pounds of aero assistance.
Without the aid of power steering, drivers' forearms and wrists burned, joints were pummeled, while man- and woman-handling more than three tons of aero loading through the steering wheel. Lap after lap, all with inch-perfect precision at frightening speeds. The next time someone says IndyCar drivers aren't athletes, just point and laugh.
Whether you loved them, hated them or simply never cared, all the aero kit craziness that emerged in 2015 will come to an end after this weekend's race at Sonoma. New, universals kits are on the way that conform to a lower-downforce approach. It should help tell the story of why the series' top drivers are deserving of hero worship.
The brief, strange, three-year aero kit era helped IndyCar drivers shatter longstanding track records at road and street courses, eclipsing the achievements set during CART and Champ Car's mythical 1000hp days. At Indianapolis, slippery aero kits, coupled with modest power – well below the monstrous figures used to sail above 245mph on the straights – allowed drivers to race north of 220mph and qualify above 230mph.
Thanks to the tens of millions invested by Chevy Racing and Honda Performance Development into their respective aero kit R&D programs, unparalleled knowledge was gained on downforce production and drag reduction. Drivers and race engineers also became smarter as a result of the aero kit experiment.
To give the bodywork a proper farewell, RACER assembled a mix of personalities to share their open-ended thoughts on aero kits, and then asked each person to share one story – something incredible – to help close the chapter on the experiment.
Let's start with Scott Dixon, first champion of the aero kit era using a Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy in 2015, who now races for Honda:
I think it's easy to look down on them. Just for the sheer fact that the Dallara DW12 originally was not a very pretty car, but it raced really well, which I think was very good for the sport. Whenever you incorporate any kind of added competition or difference between manufacturers, then you're typically going to have one side make a bigger step, which ... I think Chevrolet did a very good job.
Honda had a period to re-correct some of it last year, and have done a much better job. I think for the racers at heart and the people that were involved with the process, I thought it was very cool. It added a different dimension. It added more engineering to it. It had been awhile since I had been in that scenario. I remember going and doing the first aero kit test and then the upgrades and it was really exciting. The car does this different. It does that different. It was just really, quite an exciting part to be or to work with. From a team standpoint, it was exciting.
On the downside, even this year when we changed over to Honda, you would try and explain to someone how one kit is better than the other at certain tracks. They'd be like, 'Oh, this weekend, good luck, hopefully you can win.' And you're like, 'Well, thank you, but it's probably going to be a very tough weekend.' To try and even explain that, you just see them looking at you with their mouths open like, 'What are you talking about?' So, it was just an added thing that didn't really bring a lot to the game, I guess? I think as a process and to be part of it was really cool but, I don't think it really helped the sport. I don't think most fans really cared.
It's quite a hefty expense, I'm sure, that the manufacturers went through to make it happen. I never really got a vibe that anybody really cared about them, which is a shame. It would have been nice if they could have put that money into marketing or something like that.
Simon Pagenaud, winner of the second aero kit title in 2016 in his Team Penske Chevy:
I think it's funny, we always talk about the old days and how much love there was for the cars. I think we will forget how fun the aero kit cars were to drive over one lap of qualifying. The racing isn't bad at all, it's just been hard to follow, but we all got used to it. We all set up our cars now to be good in traffic. I will regret how much fun it is to drive, how much it feels like a video game sometimes.
I'm welcoming less downforce because it's becoming very, very difficult to make a difference and I found that a bit of a shame. You can just rely on the [aero kit] downforce. I'm welcoming finesse back and welcoming a little bit of sliding and tire degradation as well.
Team Penske president Tim Cindric, whose program has won more aero kit races than any other:
I think it was a welcomed differentiation in motorsport. The fact that the manufacturers were involved in a program or project – that's what you need. In any kind of motorsports, the most successful ones have the manufacturers engaged. And it's the first time in a while that manufacturers have been engaged beyond engines in IndyCar racing in quite some time.
So, I think from that perspective, it was refreshing. What we had hoped is that over time, there would be more evolution of things, both on the manufacturer level but also on a team level. For it to be successful for the long term, I think the teams still had to have a way in which to differentiate themselves – a way to make up for any shortcomings that there might be. Unfortunately, the handcuffs were such that we ended up with essentially two spec cars because of aero kits instead of one spec car.
After the initial couple years, we started to question why we have the differentiation. It's always frustrating to know that you're going into a race weekend and fifth might be your best opportunity for reasons that aren't of your making. So instead of having that, you'd almost rather have the same opportunity as everyone, rather than the same opportunity of a few.
Charlie Kimball, son of an Indy car chassis designer, with experience racing three different Dallara models for Chip Ganassi:
It was really neat to see the two manufacturers' development processes. I think one of the things that, with the Chevy aero kit, when the Honda kit came out, Chevy were not sure how the sidepods were going to work, but they were really impressed I think with the bumper pod pieces (upper element, pictured below). And vice versa.
I think that the Honda guys were really impressed with the Chevy front wing (upper element, pictured below), and the cleanliness and user friendliness of the Chevy kit, but didn't quite understand the bumper pods.
And then you look at the evolution they did in year two, and two ways of skinning the cat started to come together. As an engineer-minded individual, a mechanically-minded individual, I really appreciated seeing that evolution, and seeing those two different groups come up with two very interesting and similar, but different, ways to skin those cats.
I think the great thing about what Jay Frye's [IndyCar] competition group has done with the new universal kit is hopefully to encourage more passing. With all this downforce, we've gotten to a point where brake zones are so short, and terminal velocity is a very real thing on almost all of our racetracks that we get to a point where you just can't accelerate past anyone.
It's seeming to show in testing that moving the downforce production from the top of the car to more underneath the car with the universal kit, you create cleaner lines visually, reduce the total downforce, but also make it less draggy so you accelerate, and you've got longer brake zones so that the drivers that can really dance on the brakes and make the car dance through the corners. Visually, fans should see more of what the driver's doing with the car. And I think that's a good thing.
The more the fans can put themselves in the driver's seat, and see how special it is, what we do in the car, that's always going to be a good thing for the sport. It's going to be better for fans at the racetrack, it's going to be better for fans watching on TV.
Maybe it's the difference between wanting to go see SpaceX re-land their first rocket. Wanting to go see a land speed record set at Bonneville. And wanting to go see a basketball game where LeBron or any of those easily recognizable and instantly noticeable players with real talent is on display head to head against other athletes.
And the challenge and the beauty of IndyCar racing is that it is that combination of car and driver. It is the combination of person and mechanics. And when those percentages and proportions are such that the driver isn't as highlighted because of all the downforce, it's hard to make new fans. And when the percentage is the other way, that the cars are boring and it's only the driver making a difference, that's not cool either.
We have to make sure that we're always evaluating those proportions to do right by our fans, do right by our history, and the future of the sport.
JR Hildebrand, who has raced the same three models and serves as IndyCar's resident driver-engineer with Ed Carpenter Racing:
I think the idea of creating different aero kits for diversity, creating for innovation, those are at the core of what has made motorsports interesting and meaningful. I think in some way the aero kit exercise in Indy Car was an example of that, but now we're asking what the endgame is. Did it have a point? At this stage, applying that strictly to aero development that allows for incredible increases in downforce, it's probably not a particularly relevant space. It did certainly have a fairly significant impact on how the cars performed, but at what cost? And did the manufacturers benefit from it in a substantive way? I think there's a reason that we're going back to a more highly controlled formula with spec aero kits next year.
I think aero kits showed us that we might have to think about the vehicle formula fundamentally differently going forward, and design for what we want for it to be. We've taken a step towards doing that, I think, with the universal kit. I'm bummed to see the separation of manufacturers go away, but at the same time, I think it's a necessary thing to do at this point, to recalibrate.
Michael Cannon, championship-winning race engineer with extensive aero development experience who looks after rookie Ed Jones at Dale Coyne Racing:
The aero kits that manufacturers came up with make a shocking amount of downforce. Elkhart Lake's are probably a very good example. Turn 7 and Turn 13 were always a pretty good long lift with the Champ Cars. With the current kit, that's just like flat-out.
The guys that took advantage of that downforce, that exploit that downforce on a week in, week out basis, those guys are heroes. You have to be unbelievably fit to put up the G-forces these racecars generate. I don't expect fitness levels to change with the universal kits, but I will say that it will be good to have the drivers represent a larger percentage of how quickly the cars get through the corners.
Scott Dixon's aero kit story:
Because I've been going to these tracks with whatever configuration car for, I don't know, 15-plus years, you typically have a pretty good benchmark for things. Probably one of the bigger eye openers, it was in the last two years, was going back to Watkins Glen. When you're taking Turn 10 flat (below), the carousel flat most of the time. It's just like, WTF, you know? The steering's so heavy. You're struggling to breathe. You're having to take a deep breath and then just sort of get stuck into it.
At Mid-Ohio, all of a sudden, you're going through Turn 1 flat. Before, you're downshifting, going down two gears, and now it's flat, top gear. Some of these tracks that you went to you were just able to take these corners so damn fast. I definitely won't forget that.
Simon Pagenaud's aero kit story:
The last race at Watkins Glen, obviously I ran really high downforce hoping for rain and the bus stop (pictured above) was blindingly fast. It is just crazy. I was thinking, in the race when I was saving a little bit of fuel, I wasn't braking for the bus stop...it's just unbelievable. I would lift, the car would slow itself enough, and back to full throttle... I've never seen anything like it.
Tim Cindric's aero kit story:
We haven't seen the strain on the cars on the short ovals that we've seen here. The first time our car came back from Iowa with an aero kit, and you start finding bent push rods and cracked wheels...and you haven't hit the wall...
That was our first big indication that the downforce levels we were seeing went beyond anyone's furthest expectations.
Charlie Kimball's aero kit story:
Barber Motorsports Park has always been so evocative for downforce. You take every pound of downforce on the car around that place. And that last section, when you come down the back straight, and then you've got that left-right up the hill over across the long right into the right left onto the front straight, that whole sequence... The first time in qualifying on Firestone reds with the aero kit and I went flat through the left, and breathe the throttle, down a couple of gears and back flat up the hill through the right...
I mean, you go across the alternate start/finish timeline, come in the pit lane, and they plug the intercom in and I'm sitting there breathing too heavily to give them any feedback. And I wasn't the only one.
Michael Cannon's aero kit story:
I look at the efficiency of Indy 500 package. I mean we went very, very fast with what's arguably a very small engine. I mean, it's only a 2.2-liter V6 engine and these things are still going around there in excess of 230 miles an hour. Yeah, so the efficiency of the package is very, very good.
It took brute horsepower in the CART days to go around that place in the 230s and we're a long way down from that in Fast Friday trim. We're still turning those kind of lap speeds, but it's through efficiency. Maybe that's not as sexy to talk about, but it was a hell of an engineering achievement.
JR Hildebrand's aero kit story:
I'll give you the full-on, most extreme example I have, which was when I kind of realized holy s**t this is actually how far these things have come. Last year, when Tony Kanaan and I both did the initial, on-track testing that was leading into development of the universal kit at Mid-Ohio, they had a test plan laid out and at the end of the day there was a free run, basically. If anybody had a strong opinion about wanting to do something different, at the end of the day, we could do that. I wish that I had chimed in and suggested that we take the wings off and see what the cars would be like, but...
In what ends up being the racecar driver's most pure mentality, we both, I think, just wanted to see how fast the cars could go. We've been running around this whole test day on full tanks of fuel, and never doing new tire runs. And so they allowed for both cars to run with every piece of downforce equipment possible, stacked on the cars. And we didn't change the setup or do anything to different prepare for that. We went out, and it was like, holy s**t.
If we had gone out on sticker tires on low fuel, it would have taken everything you had to just steer the car through the corner. It was a shocking amount of grip that the car was generating. I think that's the experience that still stands out to me most in terms of how much development really happened with the aero kits, how much both Honda and Chevy, through HPD and Pratt & Miller, what they really accomplished through that period.