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The Way It Is/ The challenges of racing in IndyCar

by Gordon Kirby
After last weekend's pair of races in Detroit, IndyCar is halfway through this season's tight schedule of sixteen races. At this stage, the championship is shaping up as a Penske vs Ganassi battle with Simon Pagenaud enjoying a seemingly insurmountable 80-point lead over defending champion Scott Dixon and teammate Helio Castroneves. With four cars capable of winning any race Team Penske will be hard to beat this year, although only a fool would count Dixon and Ganassi out of it.

The strength of Penske's challenge was emphasized in Sunday's race in Detroit as Will Power and Pagenaud finished one-two. Champion in 2014, Power has had an indifferent start to this year. He had to miss the season-opener because of a medical condition and has been pretty much luckless since then, until scoring his first win in more than year last weekend. Power admits it's going to be difficult for anyone to catch, let alone beat Pagenaud.

"Obviously, Pagenaud has a massive lead in the championship and that's going to be hard to pull back," Power says. "I can't think of a time when anyone had an 80-point lead over everyone at this stage of the season. For him not to win it, he's going to have to have a seriously bad run of races and somebody else has got have a good run of races like he's had. It's going to be tough for anyone to catch him."

Defending champion Dixon is the most likely man to threaten Pagenaud. Dixon and Ganassi's team showed their resilience in beating Juan Pablo Montoya and Penske to last year's title in the season finale.

"It's definitely going to be a dogfight all year," Dixon observed. "Chevy has done an amazing job the past few years and have been the manufacturer to beat, but Honda have definitely stepped it up. It's tough and that's the way it should be. Honda and Chevrolet are very competitive and the competition is very tight."

On this point, Power agrees wholeheartedly.

"I think on the road and street courses the competition is going to be fierce," Will says. "Honda made a jump forward at the Speedway and I think they're going to be very strong this year. I think it's going to be pretty tight competition, which is how it should be. Last year you could have a bad day and finish seventh, but this year if you have a bad day you're going to be lucky to finish fifteenth."

With this year's additional downforce the current Dallaras put a huge amount of physical loading on the drivers.

"This year the car is the most difficult they've ever been to drive," Power remarks. "You need to be at that critical stage of fitness and testing to be on your game. I've put a lot into my fitness program to make sure I'm capable of being on top of it."

Dixon expanded on Power's remark and discussed the challenges of pack racing at Indianapolis and elsewhere.

"I think we are one of the last major formulas without power steering," Dixon noted. "So physically, it's very tough. At tracks like Phoenix, Texas or Iowa, we're pulling over 6 gs which I believe is much higher than anything a Formula 1 car gets to, especially when you add the vertical and horizontal loadings. At Indianapolis, it's almost like flying a plane. The cars are extremely light turning into turn one at almost 240 mph and when you get thirty other cars out there it can change drastically whether you are four cars deep or fifteenth or sixteenth.

"It's always a fine balance trying to figure out what you need. You've got to keep looking at the wind sock. How much grip are you going to have? How early do you need to turn in? If you wash out in the middle of the corner, it takes off fast. You have to touch the brake sometimes to get the front to move but it you hit it too hard the rear end is going to come around.

"After three hours at Indianapolis in the close form of competition we've had over the last three or four years you're mentally drained. You can hardly speak. You've constantly got someone in front of you, someone behind you, and several times each lap you've got people beside you. You're fighting such a fine line all the time of being in control. There's never a lull. You're really never get a chance to chill out. Even when you're just trying to hold position you've got be paying attention to everything that's going around you.

"If you look back fifteen years there were maybe five or six cars on the lead lap of the 500," Scott added. "But these days there are twenty or twenty-five cars on average on the lead lap."

Dixon was disappointed with his performance at Indianapolis this year.

"Speed eluded us a little over the month, which was a little frustrating," he says. "Last year, we were the car to beat and we had a damn fast car on raceday until we had the overheating problem at the end. This year, we were just a little bit off. We had a drama on qualifying weekend with having to make an engine change which wasn't in the forecast. Huge credit to the team for getting the engine change done. But we were pretty good in the race. TK was strong and Charlie was strong too. At least we were in the hunt."

Dixon is a big fan of the depth of field and strong competition in IndyCar.

"I think the cool thing about the IndyCar series is you've got competition," Scott grins. "In a lot of other formulas these days, you're racing your teammate, but with this formula someone can maybe not have a good qualifying but still have the equipment to get up there and fight for the win. If you're in Formula 1, you're pretty much racing your teammate. You're racing one other car."

Power is equally enthusiastic about the greater depth of field IndyCar enjoys compared to F1.

"Especially now that both manufacturers are equal, you really can be on pole one week and you can be twentieth the next week," Power says. "At most races, there's less than a second covering the entire field of 22 cars. It's unbelievable. If you're car is slightly out of the window you can be the best driver in the world and you will be down the timing chart in the IndyCar series.

"The way it's turned out this series is probably the most competitive in the world. It's the most competitive this series has been in its history just because of the nature of the rules. With all the data and analysis that we do these days, no one is going to find any extra speed. Everyone knows where everyone else is fast and how to do that so that just makes it even closer.

"The difference with Formula 1 is that their cars are all different. The cars are different and the engines have different power characteristics so they perform very differently. F1 cars also have different levels of downforce whereas in IndyCar everyone has the same downforce and everyone knows what downforce level everyone else is running. So this series has become very much a driver detailed series.

"Guys come over from Europe and they find out this series is much tougher than they think. It's one thing to test one of these cars, but when it comes to the races it can be a bit of a shock to some guys from Europe. It's very competitive and you've absolutely got to be on your game."

Power believes IndyCar did an excellent job with all the aerodynamic changes made for this year's Indy 500.

"I think all the adjustments they made to keep the cars from flying worked really, really well," Power declares. "We didn't see any cars flying this year. Anytime somebody spun or crashed the cars stayed on the ground. So all that was absolutely worth doing and the car is safer for it."

For a few years Will has been a vocal proponent of going to a balance of more horsepower and less downforce. He remains firmly committed to pushing IndyCar to move in this direction.

"I think they've gone too far the wrong way with the downforce," he says. "The more downforce you make, the more it's going to be disturbed in dirty air, so passing is more difficult. If you look back to the old Dallara before this car, it had a basic front and rear wing with endplates but really nothing more, and that was the best racing we ever had. Since then, it's become harder and harder to follow people because of the hole in the floor of the car and all these little winglets everywhere. It's made it very difficult to pass.

"I'd love to go back to the wing package we had with the old Dallara. You would immediately have great racing. But the manufacturers put a lot of money into the series and they want to have different-looking cars. A lot of time and money has been spent developing what we now have, so it's tough to say let's scrap everything and go back to what we had.

"I think IndyCar needs to really understand what a car is like in dirty air. If they go to a single body kit it will make it a lot easier, but again, I believe they need to get back to the old formula we had for the road and street courses and short ovals. The superspeedway package is fine the way it is. The racing was really good at the Speedway this year and it should be at Texas and Pocono.

"The big problem is at the road courses and short ovals. To me, they should try speedway wings on the short ovals and turn the horsepower up so we would be faster on the straights and downshifting in the corners. It may not work, but I've been saying for a while that's something they should try in conjunction with a softer tire from Firestone.

"The horsepower versus downforce is very opposite from what it was twenty years ago. But we're as fast as ever on the straights and the braking zones are so compressed that it's very hard to pass. In some ways that's fun in fast corners at places like Barber, Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen."

Power believes the days of Indy cars waggling their tails under hard acceleration are long-gone, never to return.

"With all the downforce that can be made and all the data that's available these days," he observes. "I'm not sure that you'll ever get back to seeing the cars moving around like they used to because it's just not fast. Maybe if they had 900 horsepower they would look more spectacular on the road courses. And for sure, the direction I would like to see them go is more power and less downforce, so it makes it harder to get on the throttle, the tires go off more and it probably makes for better racing for the drivers and the fans."

As anyone who's a regular reader of this column knows, I agree entirely, and I was delighted to hear many fans at Indianapolis this year express to me their hopes that IndyCar eventually will listen to Power and his fellow drivers and respond accordingly. The message from competitors and fans is more than clear.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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