As the NTT IndyCar Series teams reach the championship’s summer swing, a common occurrence has taken place between the bigger and smaller teams.
For those with ample budgets and plenty of staff in the engineering department, IndyCar’s intellectual arms race continues on, uninterrupted, through the entire season. It’s reflected in their competitiveness, which tends to keep them in the title hunt from the first to the final round.
And for the teams with limited funds to invest in engineering R&D projects – the kinds that find fractions of a second and allow them to occasionally play with the heavyweights – we tend to see a tapering off in that regard. Budgets for damper development, seven-post shaker rigs, and all manner of off-track performance explorations are exhausted and progress comes to a halt.
The Dale Coyne Racing team typifies the latter dynamic as off-season R&D efforts show their value in heightened competitiveness for Sebastien Bourdais as the calendar moves through the month of May, but once the Indianapolis 500 is in the rearview mirror, it’s not uncommon for the Coynes of the paddock to struggle. Keeping up with the Team Penskes, Andretti Autosports and Chip Ganassi Racings becomes a hit-or-miss proposition once the R&D account runs dry.
A new antidote, of sorts, for this phenomenon of performance haves and have-nots is emerging with the increased use of engineering-focused driver-in-the-loop (DIL) simulators. By using the multi-axis simulators owned by Chevy or Honda, smaller IndyCar teams are finding ways to maintain their competitive edge after the R&D money has run out.
By invitation, and sometimes by contract, teams are able to use the DIL simulators on select occasions to try chassis setup options days before a race, just as Bourdais and his DCR engineers did with Honda Performance Development. According to the four-time Champ Car champion, with the aforementioned budget constraints, qualifying and finishing eighth at Toronto was only made possible through access to virtual testing technology.
“My experiences with those machines are actually fairly limited,” he said. “I used to do quite a bit of work with Peugeot in the [LMP1] simulator, but that was very short-lived. And my next experience since Peugeot really has only been the two-day test in the simulator to prepare for Toronto, because it’s not part of the deal we have with Honda.
“So, we don’t have windows of [guaranteed] usage, and it’s unbudgeted. So, thanks to [new CEO] Ted [Klaus] at HPD, we finally got an opportunity to use the facility and everybody was great. They did help us to elevate our level from where we were last year, which was really not very good, to what we’ve seen this weekend, which was in a way a [top] six, top five, potentially.”
Led by Bourdais’ race engineer Craig Hampson, two days on the simulator clawed back some of the performance deficit surrendered by R&D budget limitations.
“There’s never any guarantees, but we went in with a very open mind and worked very hard,” he said. “I think I did 377 laps in two days, and we actually came out with something, and it actually turned out to be very interesting and very useful. When we arrived on track the car was… I wouldn’t say spot-on, but it was definitely more competitive than the other platform that we had used before.”
As some of DCR’s rivals – in both engine camps – pursue similar gains to keep the championship contenders in sight, finding time on a DIL simulator could make the difference between mid-pack finishes and stronger runs inside the top 10.
“There’s no denying that had we not gone into the simulator we would’ve never been able to figure out that different [chassis] platform that we decided to pursue,” Bourdais said. “There’s absolutely no argument there. It just would not have happened. We would have never taken the chance to unload the car [using the settings eventually found in the simulator]. That would have been so far off what we typically use to what we actually started with at Toronto.”