The 2018 Indianapolis 500 might go down as one of the most frustrating events in recent history for a large portion of the grid.
Drivers and engineers alike have been burning countless hours while searching for the optimal mechanical setup, and outside of suspension settings, the hunt for a happy aerodynamic balance has been a fruitless fishing expedition for far too many. Faces, painted with questions or confusion, have become the norm as attempts to master the Universal Aero Kit 18 has not gone according to plan.
Teams are just starting to wraps their heads around the car in qualifying trim, but for the all-important 500-mile race, discussions of ill-handling Dallara DW12s have been prevalent on pit lane.
“In order to make the car work in traffic, you still a lot of times have to run it right on the edge of being uncomfortable,” said Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden. “That’s just sometimes what you have to do to make it fast, make it work. Really everyone in the field, they’re working a lot harder than you realize sometimes. It is on a knife edge every now and then, but you just try to make that edge a little bit duller so it doesn’t cut you as deep.”
Newgarden’s Chevy-powered teammate Simon Pagenaud described a more frightening phenomenon when following a pack of cars.
“The aero wash – you’re losing a lot of load on the front when you’re behind someone,” he said of the turbulence affecting front grip. “It’s so unexpected. It’s so drastic. All of a sudden, it’s like the front wing broke. It’s kind of scary at 240mph.
“The draft is amazing. You do have a chance to pass with the draft, but it’s very difficult to keep the front tires working. You slide so much that you end up burning [up] the front tires, so you make adjustments, and then you burn the rear tires, and then everything’s burned. Back in the pack is very difficult.”
Following JR Hildebrand’s slide into the wall that damaged the left side of his Dreyer & Reinbold Chevy, Graham Rahal confessed he came close to a similar outcome with his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.
“I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was going to be in that scenario today where the right-front tire is so overworked, you have so much slip angle in it, it just gives up,” he said. “It’s like ice and then, bang, you hit a curb. You turn [in], it doesn’t turn. We’ve all done it. That’s exactly what it feels like.
“It’s difficult because you don’t know what a fine line is. Sometimes it’s slide, slide, slide, then OK. Other times it never comes back. I just think the further back you are, you have to hang on. These cars, you got to drive the you-know-what out of them. The rear is sliding around, the front is pushing. It’s not pretty, that’s for sure.”
The RLLR driver described the process he and many others have been working through in traffic during practice.
“A lot of it is trying to understand the way that it wiggles,” he continued. “It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. We’re used to the old car. You know what it’s going to do. You know what to expect. This car is a different animal.
“Fortunately with this car – knock on wood, I don’t want to jinx myself – when it does tend to go, the front is what gives up. That’s a much better feeling than the rear. In the old car, the rear would tend to go. This is definitely better off. But for sure, understanding the front wing, what angle does it work at, what angle does it stall at, the end fences, all of this stuff is so new, just to try to make it work is a bit of a chore.”
Team owner Dale Coyne, who has four Honda-powered cars entered for the race, has heard a similar tune being sung by the likes of Sebastien Bourdais, Conor Daly, Pippa Mann, and Zachary Claman De Melo.
“The traffic issue has surprised us.There’s no fixing it,” he said. “You’re not stuck anymore; there’s no feel to the car. It’s still creates the vacuum, but it gets more intense and you lose all the feel with the car if you can’t get out of it. You’re afraid to pull out, afraid to do anything. Can’t get closer.”
As three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti told RACER on Thursday, being the first or second car in a tow isn’t bad; pulling out to pass the leader should be easier than ever, but for those who don’t have the speed to run towards the front, or get stuck farther back due to misfortune or a bad pit stop, listen in for some heated radio transmissions.
In a scenario where 30 of the 33 drivers might be experiencing a feeling of driving on ice, as Rahal explained, we could be in store for a wild 102nd Indy 500.