Aeroscreen could make Sunday’s Indy 500 a track position race, but also give a fantastic finish too

INDIANAPOLIS — Innovation isn’t new to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s what drew people to 16th and Georgetown in droves over the years. The anticipation of seeing something new on the high powered open wheel cars was a sight to behold.

Recent changes have been minimal in comparison to the days of the past, but there’s still innovation taking place. From the Aerokit years (2015-2017) to the new Aeroscreen, IndyCar is always trying. I applaud them for that.

The attention this year is centered on the Aeroscreen. It already proved its worth in the last race weekend a month ago at the Iowa Speedway when it saved a couple of drivers from what could have been serious injuries. But, with the Aeroscreen, comes a bit of a change in setups for the drivers.

The new device weighs almost 50 pounds. It’s on the front of the car over the cockpit obviously. So, with added weight to the front of the car, adds changes throughout the rest of the Dallara.

To counter the changes, weight gets shifted in other areas. In turn, we alter the racing some. How does the new Aeroscreen adjust the racing to what we have seen in recent years?

I’ve sought out answers from the best of the best in the series and their response is all similar.

First off, passing should be hard. It shouldn’t be easy. So there’s that.

Current points leader Scott Dixon said visually it was great and says that the racing up front car definitely be closer than the last couple of years, but still, fifth on back may still be a challenge to maneuver back up to the front though.

“Yeah I think it seems to pull up pretty effective,” said current INDYCAR points leader Dixon. “I think still four, five cars back is going to be pretty tough. I think it’s still going to be the typical track position race we’ve seen the last few years. Restarts are going to be important, things like that.

“I think definitely for the first three cars you feel that a little more. Again, I think as you move further through the pack, it just depletes a little bit more. I think it is there, especially the car out front is pretty much a sitting duck right now.”

James Hinchcliffe, who was quickest on opening day, also agreed with Dixon.

“Honestly initial thoughts are quite good,” said the popular Canadian driver who’s chasing his first Indy 500 crown. “Kind of like Scott said, it felt fairly normal. You’re still getting used to the lack of kind of wind noise, the difference in where the air sort of hits you, how you feel it. In terms of the car, the handling, handling in traffic, it was pretty similar. It didn’t do anything kind of unpredictable or freaky.

“As far as the quality of the racing, it’s still early days. Like Scott said, once you’re kind of fourth, fifth back in line, it starts getting a lot trickier. The track got a decent amount hotter this afternoon when everybody was out there doing a group run. It’s still day one. We still have a lot of rubber to lay down before we get to the race. Hopefully that will help.

“There were a couple times I felt like the runs were maybe a little bit strong, that effect was a little bit stronger than what we’ve had in the last couple years. That is one of the complaints we have had, that you get a good run off the corner, really close to a guy, and just not quite pull up all the way.

“Had a few today that felt like we were pretty decent. Unfortunately the guy was also in a four-car draft so I wasn’t able to get around him. It was nice to at least get that feeling.

“Like Scott said, the guy up front is almost going to be the slowest car on track compared to the next couple behind him.”

Hinchcliffe’s former roommate Conor Daly agreed with both Hinch and Dixon.

“I definitely won’t beat around the bush, they don’t race well,” said Daly. “It’s tough. It’s hard to know if it’s the Aeroscreen that’s making it a little bit worse. Probably is. That’s the only difference and only variable.”

Daly’s teammate in this race last year, Ryan Hunter-Reay, says that they expected it to be different than last year package but that’s because of the Aeroscreen too.

“We expected it to be a different car,” said the 2014 Indy 500 champion. “It’s a big piece of equipment deflecting the air differently. It’s heavier. It’s making more disturbed air which is making for a bigger draft but again with less grip in the corners with less downforce it’s making it tough.

“Passes are tough to come by. The cars are really light in the corners because of that.”

Last year’s runner-up finisher and the 2016 race winner echoed what everyone else said.

“It’s going to be a track position race, for sure,” said Rossi. “It’s going to be really hard to pass and really hard to get runs, so I think qualifying is going to be extra important this year. I feel pretty good about that.”

Last year’s Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud, the one to beat Rossi across the yard of bricks, said even his car has been affected in traffic too.

“Suffering with quite a bit of understeer in traffic,” Pagenaud said. “I think that’s the case from everybody from the onboard I’ve watched.

“It’s a little harder to close up for some reason. I don’t know if it’s because we have a little bit more drag on the cars due to the excess weight with the Aeroscreen. It will be what it will be.”

So many may wonder how passing up front will be easier than in the back? It’s all about the invisible bubble. See, the cars from fourth on back, they have all that dirty air in wake. Think of it as when on a boat, the waves behind the boat are choppier. That’s what’s happening here. If you can get close enough to the boat, the water is calmer, but the further back you get, the waves are rougher.

That’s what’s happening on track. If you’re behind the rough water, it’s hard to get into the rough water and have your car handle right. That makes it harder to push your way up into the bubble of calmer water to get a good tow to get around that car in front of you.

Up front, the choppier seas are behind you, so the second and third place cars can take advantage of the drag from the Aeroscreen that’s causing the leader to pull back into them.

So, you need to just remain in that bubble in wake of the car in front of you and if you can, passing can happen. If you fall behind it, so far it’s showing that it’s going to be hard to close up to the front again.

“It is extremely challenging to overtake,” said Takuma Sato. “I think two things happening. Obviously, like I said, the Aeroscreen is obviously a great safe device, but a big chunk of the weight on the higher part of the car is affected physically for the car. We lost quite a lot of grip and aero efficiency.

“Secondly, I think IMS did a great job in terms of the treatment for the track surface. It’s got more grip. I think it’s a consistent grip made the tire last longer. Let’s say 30 laps of the stint, used to be we had more degradation higher. Today with the conditions, it was actually very good, small degradation. Actually make it even more difficult to overtake.

“You can still follow it, but once you get to follow, getting really, really close, you have a massive washout, then we are starting to slide. That’s making it very difficult. But still I think up at the very front you’ll be able to swap the leader change. But third car onwards, I think it’s extremely difficult to overtake.”

Sato was asked if this package was around in 2017, would he have been able to overtake Helio Castroneves in the end of that race for the win?

“I think it’s probably even more difficult with this year’s car, the circumstance,” said Sato. “I think the guy leading the pack who always have air in front of you. I think the guy in second have always opportunity to overtake relatively easier compared to in the pack. I think third car is extremely difficult.

“If you’re in sixth place, going to the last 10 laps, extremely important to get earlier into the pack in the front because otherwise you will get no chance. That is probably the biggest difference from previous year to this year. I think track position last stint you need to go by top six. I think it’s very, very important.

“The most important thing is on the last stint where you are in track position, which you can make it my strategy, I think millions way you can do that.

“Still bottom line is you need to be sixth in last 10 laps, otherwise difficult to win.”

Santino Ferrucci had an interesting reason as to why it’s close to follow.

“I think what you’re going to see a lot more in line racing and people who have good runs and make minimal mistakes will move forward,” said the second year driver. “It’s going to be a lot about endurance and perfectly clean pit stops, not letting the Aeroscreen getting you out on track in traffic.

“You lose an element of sense. With the Aeroscreen, you no longer have a sense with your head. With that, you don’t have the air, the feeling how close you are behind a car, the sound and that sixth sense. Without it, we can get really close to cars in that one second gap but what happens is, you actually can’t feel the air when it washes you out and can’t catch the car. So, a lot of us have been really close to sliding out and hitting the wall in Turn 1, Turn 4, so it’s mainly because of that missing feel.”

Graham Rahal agreed with that, telling me you can’t find the limit of these cars due to that.

With the drivers all saying that passing from fifth or so on back is going to be as difficult as ever, they’re not saying that passing isn’t going to happen up front either. Pagenaud and almost everyone else I’ve talked to did note that up front, you may get bigger runs than you’ve had in the past.

“The way you follow is not too different,” Pagenaud said. “It will be what it will be. I think we should have a good race anyways. You can see some passing up front.

“Last year was the same. The first two guys were passing a lot. I do think track position is going to be very important. You’re going to want to be in the top five in the last 30 laps to have a chance. That’s 100% sure.”

The last several years we’ve seen record setting lead changes. Prior to the DW12 being introduced in 2012, the most lead changes in the history of the Indy 500 was 29 in 1960. But, over the past eight years, we’ve seen at the very least of 29 lead changes in each race.

There were 34 lead changes in both the 2012 and 2014 races. We saw a record of 68 sandwiched in between there in 2013. In 2015, with manufacturer specific aero kits introduced, we saw 37 lead changes. There were 54 in 2016 and 35 more in 2017.

The new car came out in 2018 and we’ve seen 30 and 29 lead changes respectively. The last couple of years saw less downforce on the cars and hotter race days which produced a little more separation throughout the field. Yes, the top couple of cars could pass easier than fourth or fifth on back, but it still wasn’t as close of racing as we’ve seen between 2012 and 2017.

Can the Aeroscreen produce a lot of drag which is like the front car racing with a parachute out the back. In slipstream, the car behind is getting bigger runs now and with the extra drag, it’s creating some fun havoc up front.

That in turn could create another fantastic finish. Four of the last six races have seen the margin of victory of less than a second. Two of the top four closest finishes in Indy 500 history have occurred since 2014.

Since 1998, just six times has the finish been less than a second from first to second. Four of those have been since 2014.

Also, 10 straight years we’ve seen the final pass for the lead happen within the final 10 laps of the race. That only happened just nine times between 1969 and 2009.

Since 2011, the final pass for the win occurred within six laps to go. Does that happen again?

 

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