IndyCar teams size up revised aeroscreen ahead of first test

IndyCar, its teams, and drivers have been engaged in a flurry of communications behind the scenes as the series prepares for its first test of the new Red Bull Advanced Technologies aeroscreen set to debut in competition next year.

As a testament to the growing concerns over the aeroscreen’s weight and how that weight might negatively influence handling, its height and how it could impede cockpit ingress, egress, and possibly increase cockpit temperatures, receive pitting from rocks and debris throughout each race that would reduce visibility, and other worries, IndyCar’s stars recently called a private drivers-only meeting where their issues with the device were debated and assembled for presentation to IndyCar’s leadership team.

When the people who are tasked with driving the cars feel the need to gather and form a united front on any subject, the serious nature of such a meeting should command IndyCar’s complete attention.

Positioned atop the cockpit, the high and forward aeroscreen mass is far from optimal when considering vehicle dynamics. With the addition of a metal halo behind the aeroscreen, the estimated weight of the device and mounting fixtures is in the region of 50 pounds, which is a significant figure for a highly-tuned open-wheel race car to incorporate without experiencing a number of adverse reactions to cornering, braking, and tire consumption.

Scott Dixon in the Dallara simulator with the 2020 aeroscreen prototype. Image by Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

As word of the weight made the rounds in the paddock over summer, a number of team principals and race engineers have lobbied IndyCar for changes to mitigate the anticipated problems.

In particular, a call for new front suspension a-arms, and the corresponding pushrods and rocker arms that connect the a-arms to the dampers, is said to have been met with heavy resistance due to added costs. As a common practice to combat excessive forward weight distribution, installing new a-arms that sweep farther forward and therefore move weight distribution rearward to compensate for the nose-heavy changes that are coming would be the most obvious route to pursue.

Complicating that move, however, would be the related need to modify the front wings. If new forward-swept a-arms were adopted, the front tires would likely rest where the various current front wing packages sit, and would need to be moved forward to make space for the Firestone rubber.

Graceful incorporation of the RBAT aeroscreen into the IndyCar chassis shown in renderings could be altered by changes the device may make necessary to the front wings and suspension.

In his August 14 visit to The Week In IndyCar podcast, championship-winning race engineer Craig Hampson outlined the primary performance issues the aeroscreen will present for IndyCar’s competition department to overcome.

“That thing is not going to be light,” said Sebastien Bourdais’ Dale Coyne Racing technical guru. “And it’s not going to be light because it has to be able to stand up to some pretty impressive forces, like a tire hitting it going 200 miles an hour. So, it’s going to have a very beefy titanium frame and then it’s got the optical material surrounding it and then you need the tub modified for all the locating points for that. It’s going to add a lot of weight. That weight is going to be towards the front of the car, so it’s going to affect the weight distribution of the car.

“And that weight actually is going to be pretty high up as well, so it raises the center of gravity of the car and the net effect of that is there is more weight transfer from the inside wheel to the outside wheels going around a corner and that’s going to reduce your level of grip.

“In particular, the weight distribution change is going to pretty dramatically affect how the car handles. I expect it would add a lot of understeer to the car. It may be that Firestone has to design all-new tires. Or at least all-new front tires to be able to deal with the changes that are going to be coming from the aeroscreen.”

Along with the recent drivers-only meeting aimed at staving off any aeroscreen problems IndyCar might need to get ahead of before the RBAT units go into production, the series made use of the Firestone tire test earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway to gather feedback on how the weight of an aeroscreen impacted handling and tire degradation.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal and Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden were asked to carry approximately 50 pounds of ballast toward the front of their cars to replicate the effects of having the aeroscreen’s mass resting across the front axle, and it’s believed the 2019 Texas race tires fared rather well during those runs.

Without the actual aeroscreen in place to judge the aerodynamic changes to the cars, IndyCar will have plenty of work to do once it starts proper testing. The aero and mass influences produced by the device will be tested on the road courses at Barber Motorsports Park and on Sebring’s short course, but the complexity of the problems will increase once oval testing is complete.

“Now, the good news is, these discussions have been taking place. IndyCar is on it,” Hampson added. “They know figures and values. Firestone knows that they’ve got work to do on this. But, I expect that every setup I have this year goes in the bin, in the shredder. We’re going to have to start all over again next year, because that’s a lot of weight, and it’s forward, and it’s high, and I think the tires are going to change. So, everybody enjoy your 2019 and then put your thinking caps on for 2020 because I think it’s [going to be] all different.”

“I sat in the car and can get out of it as fast as I can the current car, and have no general problems with visibility,” says Graham Rahal. Image by Phillip Abbott/LAT

From the driver’s meeting to testing with the simulated weight of the aeroscreen, it’s clear how much the changes coming for 2020 have dominated the thoughts and actions of the IndyCar paddock. For Rahal, whose family has been part of the IndyCar community for longer than he’s been alive, there might be some value found in recalling the series’ past with CART and Champ Car.

“I know there are a lot of drivers who are nervous, and they have every right to be,” he told RACER. “But I think sometimes we’re forgetting that change was how we did things, every year; hell, sometimes every race. It was new cars every year, different engines, different aero, new tires…new everything. And I think we’ve lost track of that since, these days, nothing really changes. Not regularly.

“So when you have a big thing like the aeroscreen coming in, and it’s a lot different from anything we’ve seen, there’s a lot of reaction from some drivers, and yeah, fans too, who maybe don’t remember that we used to change everything every year. We’re making a big change, but it’s nothing new for IndyCar.”

Although Rahal has not driven an Indy car with the first or second generation aeroscreen attached, the series’ tallest driver was able to climb in and out of a Dallara DW12 chassis with the RBAT prototype aeroscreen in place. His findings might settle come of the other concerns that were registered.

“I sat in the car and can get out of it as fast as I can the current car, and have no general problems with visibility,” he said. “Some people are concerned about heat being in the cockpit. With the ducting they’re putting in the shock covers to flow air into the cockpit, I think it might actually be cooler than it is now. I know some people complained about not being able to belt themselves in, but I have no problems there, either. I typically belt myself in, and I know some drivers need help doing that, and they’ve had some issues, but for me, the aeroscreen didn’t change anything in getting into the car and strapping myself in, or then getting out. Total non-issue.”

Where Rahal has found positives with the RBAT device — at least prior to sampling it in anger behind the wheel of the No. 15 Honda — he and the NTT IndyCar Series have some deeply entrenched opponents on the grid who are unlikely to welcome the aeroscreen’s arrival. Those drivers, so far, have opted to keep their names and opinions out of the public eye.

Hampson might not have to drive the cars he engineers, but in light of the ongoing pushback by some for IndyCar’s new cockpit protection device, he’s reminded of the driver he engineered at Andretti Autosport in 2015.

“Am I supportive of the aeroscreen and the halo structure that supports it?” he asked. “Absolutely yes, and that’s because I was good friends with Justin Wilson. Every other major (open-wheel) series in the world — Formula 1, Formula E, Formula 3, GP2, GP3 — they’ve all got the halo. We’re late to the party, honestly; it’s not from a lack of trying but we’re late to the party and if we can prevent one more injury, prevent a death, it’s worth every bit of effort and every bit of money. I miss Justin all the time and what we are making for next year would have saved him, so I’m supportive.”

Support aside, the coming months where aeroscreen testing begins, Firestone attempts to finalize its 2020 tires and the internal debates over the device’s merits and shortcomings will rage should make for an interesting offseason.