Some of the finest Verizon IndyCar Series drivers wore looks of exasperation after getting their first taste of running close together at Phoenix International Raceway.
The three-hour Friday night session, run in the same approximate time when the April 7 race takes place, gave teams a chance to send their drivers out to sample the new-for-2018 bodywork and gauge the effects of the rather low downforce settings the series has mandated.
The desired outcome of clean topside aerodynamics, which reduce drag, and the increased reliance on the underwing to make efficient downforce was achieved, but it did not produce the slingshot moves entering the corners that some were hoping to see. Competitive passing was all but nonexistent.
“Definitely difficult in traffic,” defending race winner Simon Pagenaud told RACER. “Very hard to get the car good enough so you can follow. Definitely a lot of understeer in our car in traffic. I don’t feel that bubble of air when I’m behind someone – I don’t feel like I can catch up to people, like it pulls me in the way we anticipated.”
The Team Penske driver found the decrease in buffeting and wind disturbance – issues created by the former manufacturer aero kits that made running close nearly impossible – were quite good with the 2018 bodywork. But the slashed downforce figures – somewhere close to 1,200 pounds less from 2017 – makes the cars squirm and dance on their own, which makes charging out of the corners to attempt a pass at the end of the straight extremely hard.
It’s still early days with the new bodywork at Phoenix, but it sounds like one problem has been traded for another.
“When I’m behind someone, the air is very clean,” Pagenaud continued. “It doesn’t affect the car too bad in the corners, but we’re having to deal with balance issues now, and there’s only one groove. It’s still going to be very difficult for us here. It’s an interesting place for our cars.”
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, who won the Phoenix race in 2016, found there wasn’t enough time spent on the straights to get good shots at ducking out and making a pass into Turns 1 and 3, and with the low downforce limitations in mind, passing – if the same aero spec is kept for the race – could be a rarity.
“I wouldn’t say traffic was great from the little bit that I did,” he said. “This track’s always going to be difficult. The corners are very long radius, you have a corner in the middle of the back straight, so there’s not a lot of long straights to use to get runs on people. But the car’s just light – very light, man.”
Graham Rahal led the night session in his Rahal Letterman Lanigan entry, and shared similar feedback on the sensation of following other drivers in traffic.
“We need to get it better in traffic, no doubt,” he said. “It’s just less downforce. It’s still better, but it’s sliding around front and rear. Earlier today, it was only the front, but in traffic, the rears seem to lose a little bit now. Overall, it’s the first test and it’s going to take a little while to figure out.
“But the lap time fall-off in traffic is so severe, I’m not saying a second lane will come in, but you might be able to run a second lane because you’re going to be a couple seconds per lap off, so you won’t want to be on the primary line going that slow.”
With one more night session to search for answers, the attempts to find the right chassis balance while running in traffic will be the key pursuit of every time. By the time Saturday’s final outing is complete, IndyCar will know whether more downforce will be the right adjustment to make so drivers can put on a proper race in April.