The season-opening round of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, was the first time the new downforce-reducing bodywork for the Dallara DW12 chassis was used in competition. The new kit bears many significant changes from the previous, manufacture-produced kits including:
- the repositioning of the engine air intake,
- the reshaping of the engine cowling,
- the reduction in front and rear wing-produced downforce,
- and an increase in downforce produced by the undertray.
The overall changes in the profile of the car produce less total downforce, and what is produced is generated below the car rather than on top of it.
These changes place a greater importance on the mechanical grip of the car, and reduce the wake turbulence. With less aerodynamic grip, the braking zones are longer, and cornering speeds are lower. The accompanying reduction of drag also increases the straight-line speed. The reduction of turbulence in the car’s wake allows trailing cars can follow more closely while maintaining grip and balance. All this was done to enhance the competitiveness and quality of the racing action.
Changes such as these, a reduction of overall downforce, a greater reliance on mechanical grip, and a reduction in wake turbulence, is something that drivers and fans have been asking both IndyCar and Formula 1 to implement for years. So does reducing downforce create better racing? Yes. Yes it does!
The IndyCar race last weekend saw lots of fantastic racing action, amazing examples of car control, and examples of even veteran drivers not getting things right. The cars are more challenging to drive and engineer. Mechanical balance is harder while also being more important to achieve. It has helped to level the playing field among the various teams and enable talented drivers such as Robert Wickens to really shine. Wickens dominated a race filled with rookies and veterans alike desperately searching for grip, sawing at their steering wheels, and adapting to the changing brake points as more rubber was put down on the track.
Not everyone got this right as even Scott Dixon broke a bit too late into Turn 1 and collected last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Takuma Sato. It was a mistake that several made throughout the afternoon, but none with as much impact on the results as the mistake by Alexander Rossi with two laps to go. On the final restart of the race on Lap 108, Rossi and Wickens drove away from the field jockeying for position and lead of the race into Turn 1. Rossi broke too late and too far inside were there was even less grip due to the accumulation of klag. His No. 98 machine slid sideways into the side of Wickens, tossing the rookie race leader into a terminal spin.
It’s good to see a series finally move in the direction of less downforce and more emphasis on mechanical grip. Hopefully, the remainder of the IndyCar season will be just as much of a showcase of driver skill and car control talent as the St. Petersburg race was. It would also be nice if Formula 1 took notes on how these changes to the IndyCar aero solution has affected the racing.