With one final tune-up on deck this morning at Miller Lite Carb Day, drivers of the Verizon IndyCar Series have a genuine concern about the way their new Dallara IR-18 universal aero kit will handle the 90-degree temperatures forecasted for race day on Sunday.
The vote is unanimous that IndyCar’s new bodywork looks beautiful, and in rounds at St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Long Beach and Barber, it did indeed produce better racing than those races did one year ago.
The race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course went well enough two weeks ago, but in the time spent on the 2.5-mile oval over the last ten days, the car has had its ups and downs.
Again, the car’s appearance has never been more appealing, but teams have been painted into a box with some of the options (or lack thereof) they have at their disposal. An inefficient front wing coupled with very little flexibility with the rear wing has created a very temperamental car that is sensitive to track temperature.
With Sunday’s race expected to be run in 90-degree ambient temperatures and track temps above 125 degrees Fahrenheit, the conditions are going to be a major factor over the course of the scheduled 500 miles.
In practice leading up to this weekend, drivers have made note of the difficulty they are faced with while running in a pack of cars, where the first few drivers are able to navigate somehwat easily while drivers further back in the line of cars struggle to deal with turbulent air.
“When you are first or third, it is hard, third on back… is really hard,” said Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz. “You have to wait for everyone to make a mistake.”
On Indianapolis 500 Media Day, “traffic” became the operative word as drivers made many mentions of their varying levels of concern. Seasoned veteran Sebastien Bourdais gave an honest analysis when he noted that everyone is struggling.
“I don’t think anybody is comfortable in traffic,” Bourdais said. “The car being very sensitive, losing a lot of downforce and washing out the front very quickly and unpredictably… or it is becoming predictable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to follow closely and make passes.
The Dale Coyne Racing driver still feels his team has some ground to make up during Friday’s one hour Carb Day practice, though he feels much better about the situation after his team found a bit of consistency on Monday.
“We went back to race trim on Monday and we definitely found a couple of things which has made a significant difference on the way that I am going to approach and start the race,” said Bourdais. “Just to be honest with you, if we had not found that, I would be sitting in front of you thinking, ‘Jesus, how am I going to drive and race this thing on Sunday?’
“I was just about as bad as I have ever been here.”
Spaniard Oriol Servia has been with this universal aero kit since its birth as the designated Honda test driver as the car debuted last summer. He cautions that the challenges faced here at Indianapolis do not have any barrier to the car’s success over time and that teams must simply figure out what the IR-18 likes.
“It takes a lot of engineers and smart minds to get there,” said Servia at Media Day. “I have a feeling that there’s a couple of cars that were running Monday that were way better than anyone else in traffic, so the car is capable of doing it. We just need to get that set-up!”
One of the teams that is again confident (although a bit more quietly in 2018) is Andretti Autosport.
Leading the charge once again is Marco Andretti, and he has been consistently one of the best drivers on the speed charts with a tow all month long, potentially hinting at their prowess in traffic.
“I think as a team we are in a pretty good position,” said Andretti. “In qualifying, its four laps where we are as trimmed out as we can be and I’m flat… its almost out of our power. But now it is back into our power, and we are pretty good in traffic.
“I think the temps are going to suit us, because if you miss the mark, people are going to pay for it more with the temps where they are going to be.”
While some drivers are looking at the heat as an obstacle to overcome on Sunday, Andretti views the challenge as an opportunity.
“I think as far as playing to our strengths and hopefully not making any mistakes and getting a good car balance beneath you, it is going to put an emphasis on (running well in heat). That plays right into us, for sure.”
Drivers at Media Day made mention that the first 10 to 15 laps will offer somewhat better opportunities to pass before the tires fall off. That window may be shortened this weekend as practices and the race will be contested in the month’s hottest temperatures.
Per Accuweather.com, the temperature during the one-hour practice session today will sit between 77 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit, which is much cooler than the expected temperature range of 87 to 92 degrees predicted for race day on Sunday.
Expect drivers to be pushing hard this morning in final practice to find that final 1 or 2 percent that could put their car a head above the rest.
Practice begins at 11:00 a.m. Eastern and will be shown live on NBCSN with coverage on the radio courtesy of the IMS Radio Network on Sirius 214/XM 209.
Images courtesy of Chris Owens/INDYCAR Media.