IndyCar – A weird qualifying weekend and the consequences of innovation

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As you heard in FBC Podcast #421, I was not pleased with how this past weekend went down at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I wasn’t the only one. I’ll admit that a lot of my irritation comes from driving ten hours there and ten hours back and not getting to do as much photography work as I’d like, and certainly not enough to warrant twenty hours in the car. Ok, let me take a deep breath and reflect on this weekend, and today’s unfortunate incident involving James Hinchcliffe, with a bit more objectivity.

First datum, cars are flipping when they make contact with the wall, regardless of their manufacturing origin. Second, the Chevrolet cars were extremely unstable in qualifying trim. Third, the Honda kit is more downforce-focused than their competitor’s kit. Of the big incidents during pre-qualifying practice, three involved the Chevrolet cars of Castroneves, Newgarden, and Carpenter, and two involved the Honda cars of Mann and Hinchcliffe. In four of those incidents, the car made contact with the outside wall, was turned backwards, and subsequently inverted. In the case of Pippa Mann’s incident, her car remained upright and planted to the track surface showing no desire to lift and go inverted. Mann also did not hit outside wall, but struck the wall on the inside of the exit of Turn 4 on a flat and level portion of the raceway after a lengthy skid. So what do all of the flips have in common? They all occurred after the car came into contact with the outside wall and had the rear end of the car facing forward at a high rate of speed.

Qualifying was rained out on Saturday and rescheduled to begin at 10:00am on Sunday morning. During the three-hour session, everyone would have a singular opportunity to turn four quick laps. Following the three-hour hastened qualifying session, there was to be a Fast Nine Shootout to determine the pole position. Lastly, the four slowest qualifiers would have their own shootout for the final three spots on the back row. All that changed as the decision about how to move forward after Carpenter’s incident was hashed out without creating so much fury among the Honda teams that we saw another 2005 USGP-type of protest.

Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing  team watches the CCTV of the press conference on Sunday detailing the changes to the cars and qualifying procedures to be implemented that afternoon.
Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing team watches the CCTV of the press conference on Sunday detailing the changes to the cars and qualifying procedures to be implemented that afternoon.

The officials chose to change the qualifying rules to require teams to race in whichever qualifying trim they chose and that the boost would be set at the Race Day value, removing the extra boost that was previously permitted for Fast Friday and qualification. The Honda-based teams were not at all happy about an apparent Chevrolet problem suddenly becoming their problem as well as their qualifying aero package appeared to be far more stable than Chevrolet’s. It was starting to appear that officials were making up the rules as they went with no genuine adherence to any rulebook or previous procedures, but but the mantra all day long was that it was all done in the name of safety and that “safety comes first.” Who is going to argue with that? Are you against safety?

Alex Tagliani  expressing a bit of disbelief as he's informed about the changes being made to his car ahead of qualifying.
Alex Tagliani expressing a bit of disbelief as he’s informed about the changes being made to his car ahead of qualifying.
The assumption was always that it was a Chevrolet-specific problem since only the Chevrolet cars had flipped. However, with only three data points regarding cars hitting the outside barrier, I think it was incorrect to assume Chevrolet’s aero kits were to blame. There was a brief practice session later in the afternoon followed by single qualifying runs for the entire field beginning at 3:15pm during which Pole position was determined. There would be no Fast Nine session. Oddly, the Last Row Shootout did still happen. This aspect of the weekend’s procedures, the attempts to jazz up the show, was pure silliness and a topic that I will address later this week.

Scott Dixon heading out for his first qualifying attempt on Saturday morning.
Scott Dixon heading out for his first qualifying attempt on Saturday morning.
Thankfully, qualifying went off without incident with Scott Dixon securing the Pole for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. With qualifying over and uneventful, many thought it would be back to business as usual as the teams prepared their cars for Race Day. That changed abruptly as the front right push-rod on Hinchcliffe’s Honda collapsed as he entered Turn 3. The sudden lack of steering control sent his car nearly nose-first into the outside wall of the South Chute. As the car turned sideways after the initial contact, it began to flip. Fortunately, the car remained upright and Hinchcliffe was awake and alert when the safety and medical crew arrived, but he was taken immediately to Methodist Hospital for surgery on his upper-left thigh.

Hinchcliffe’s incident demonstrated that it wasn’t only the Chevrolet kits that were susceptible to flipping. Now when we look at what each flipping incident has in common, we see only a singular variable. When the car strikes the outside wall, the tendency is for the car to reverse its attitude so that the rear of the car is facing and moving forward. When this happens at speed, lift is generated by the chassis causing the car to become airborn and invert. Since both the Chevrolet and Honda aero solutions demonstrate this tendency, it is either a solution at the rear of the car that is common between the two kits, or it is the result of the Dallara undertray, an undertray that was modified from its original design right before the beginning of the season.

There is certainly a difference in the rear section of the Chevrolet versus the Honda kit. Take a look at the rear wheel guards of the two solutions. The Chevrolet kit is far more open than Honda’s, and the rear interior panel at the top of the guard is slanted inward at the bottom. The only other element present is a thin horizontal structural brace at the midpoint of the rear tire guard.

Scott Dixon's Chevrolet with the rear aero structure attached.
Scott Dixon’s Chevrolet with the rear aero structure attached.

The Honda solution is significantly more complex as seen in the image below of Carlos Huerta’s Honda. The rearmost faces in this case are completely vertical. The initial conclusion one might try to reach is that yes, the slanted panels of the Chevrolet kits do provide a bit of lift on the rear of the car, and perhaps enough to allow enough air under the undertray with high enough angle of attack to create disastrous amounts of lift. The Honda kit with its vertical panels may be less likely to produce this initial amount of lift.

Carlos Huerta's Honda-powered and aero-fitted Dallara with the rear aero package attached.
Carlos Huerta’s Honda-powered and aero-fitted Dallara with the rear aero package attached.

The third thing to consider is the undertray itself. Worried about the increase in downforce achievable from the new aero packages for this season, INDYCAR chose to cut a hole in the undertray on its leading edge to reduce the amount of downforce created by the undertray. This redistribution of downforce from under the car to the wings alters how you set up the car, and increases the sensitivity of the car’s handling characteristics to the front and rear wing geometry. As NASCAR saw when it tried to introduce a rear wing instead of a rear spoiler, changes in aerodynamics can have unexpected consequences.

The hastened rules changes made a short couple of hours before qualifying seemed not to consider this. That’s not to say that those involved didn’t perform even the rudimentary analysis I just did. There are some extremely talented and experienced people behind the scenes at IndyCar and I’m sure they’ve thought about this and more, but the decision that came forth had the texture of a feel-good measure to create the appearance of finding a solution. It was a decision to enable the cars to be easier to drive thus making driver errors less costly. During qualifying we did see some cars wiggle in Turn 1, but no one ended up in the wall. Many drivers when asked about their qualifying runs responded that their cars were very well behaved and that what is usually four laps of terror was a simple and easy exercise. So after a fashion, the changes implemented worked, but they did seem rushed and arbitrary, especially if you were a Honda-based team.

This is the cost of innovation. Sometimes people get the solution wrong, but that’s alright. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. For years, the capricious fandom of IndyCar has been clamoring for the end of the spec era and the return of multiple manufacturers of chassis and engines to the Speedway. Well, now that they have it, there’s been a huge outcry about what a bad idea it’s been. When you allow engineers to be creative and seek their own solution to the problem of how to get a car successfully circumnavigate the Indianapolis Motor Speedway faster than the other poor bloke, you will see some good and some not-so-good designs. It has ever been thus, and always will be. In Formula 1 this year, we’ve seen a traditionally front-running, championship-winning team in McLaren get the solution so very, very wrong. Chevrolet got their aero kit solution working better than Honda. They also have stability issues. It’s a mixed bag of advantages and disadvantages, but penalizing Honda for having a more stable package for the sake of minimizing Chevrolet’s shortcomings makes for poor sport. If the Chevrolet kits are unstable and unsafe, demand that Chevrolet fix the issue. If you’re concerned about cars being in the air, then don’t look to Chevrolet or Honda for the blame. Look instead to the Dallara core chassis and specifically the modified undertray.

With only five days remaining until the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, you will not see substantive changes to the chassis prior to Race Day. This means that you will likely see a car airborne. It means there will be carbon fiber bits scattered around. It means there will be increased coverage from the “if it bleeds, it leads” crowd that would otherwise not give IndyCar a second glance. It means that there will still be amazing racing between amazingly talented racing car drivers. It also means that we will be praying before the race, as we do before every 500, for the safety of the drivers, the crews, and the spectators. Kami to ikimasu. Vai com Deus. Ve con Dios. Va avec dieu. Andare con Dio. Godspeed!

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Mike W

“…but penalizing Honda for having a more stable package for the sake of minimizing Chevrolet’s shortcomings makes for poor sport. If the Chevrolet kits are unstable and unsafe, demand that Chevrolet fix the issue.” I imagine by the time we see pocono or fontana, there will be some sort of backdraft flap that will drop down over the floor tunnel openings to alleviate the dallara flipping issue. Chevy will have to go back to the drawing board for its quali kit to try and get it more stable to alleviate their instability issue. And Honda will probably get screwed as… Read more »

xorpheous

You’re stealing my thunder, Mike. ;) That’s a topic for my next article.

Mike W

We think alike Doug.

Paul KieferJr

Hmmm…..see also: Formul 1’s “DRS”?

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