How will the quality of racing differ at this year’s Indianapolis 500 with the new aeroscreen driver safety device fitted to the cars? It’s the one big variable 33 NTT IndyCar Series teams have been trying to solve since the first laps of opening practice, and so far, most drivers have reported an added challenge in drafting up to and past their rivals.
Due to the change in aerodynamic profile created by the aeroscreen, and running the race in the middle of summer, Bryan Herta, who co-owns Marco Andretti’s pole-sitting No. 98 Honda, expects Sunday’s 200-lap contest to reward those with few passes to make.
“We always talk about track position at Indy, and normally we talk about it in terms of track position for the final 50 laps, the final 20 laps of the race,” he said. “But this one, because we’ve lost a little downforce with the aeroscreen; it blocks some of the air going to the rear wing and so forth, (and) we’ve also with the extra temperature that we have in August, we have higher track temps, which takes grip away also from the cars. It’s a different Indianapolis 500 than a May one would be.
“I think what we’re seeing is those factors combined are making the car slide a little more, it’s a little harder to follow closely. Which we’re thinking may end up being a little harder to pass. So now, instead of thinking in terms of last 20 laps, last 50 laps, and trying to position yourself with track position, now we’re saying, ‘Geez, if you have track position at any point in the race, you have to do everything you can to hang on to it, because you may not be able to get it back.’”
Herta’s prediction isn’t exactly what JR Hildebrand, who starts 32nd in his No. 67 Dreyer & Reinbold Chevy, wants to hear. Considering the aerodynamic difficulties encountered last year while running in a pack of cars, Hildebrand is hoping to find himself in situations where he’s close to the lead car in whatever group he’s lapping with on Sunday.
“For us, at least, I don’t anticipate it being harder than it was last year,” he said. “So when you’re just behind one car, it’s like, ‘OK, this seems pretty straightforward,’ but then difference between one car back and four cars back and 10 cars back is like, ‘Oh, my God, this is suddenly becoming really difficult.’ I think that’s the thing that a lot of guys (are) talking about.
“Race day is looking like it’s going to be about as hot as it’s been for a lot of practice. Everybody will running at least some wicker on the rear wing. You’ll be trying to just hunt for sufficient downforce to get through a run and try to run as close as you can to the guy in front of you through the corner.”
Hildebrand says to look for the timing of some passes to be more harrowing than usual.
“The Ganassi guys were running the full-span rear wicker, which is a super inefficient thing from a drag perspective, but they were right on guys coming through Turn 2 and Turn 4,” he said. “Sometimes, right on them coming through the corner and then still couldn’t make the pass at the end of the straightaway. It’s going to be a lot of late passes in the corners.
“I think the biggest thing is just going to end up being once you’re in a train of cars, guys in front of you, they’re going to have, at some point, a little hesitation lift at the exit of Turn 2 and Turn 4. It’s going to be at a premium that you’re ready to take advantage of those moments when they happen, because it’s just generally not easy to be close enough through the corners to just outright suck up and blow by.”
Starting on the last row, Hildebrand will learn more than most about the art of passing with the aeroscreen during his 10th Indy 500.
“One of the things that I noticed while we were out there is once you get within three or four car lengths, when you’ve kind of blown through that turbulence bubble, cars do suck up pretty good for that last little bit,” he said.
“So I’m hopeful. I’m still optimistic. I have to be optimistic, starting where we are! “But I’m still optimistic that we can get the thing handling well enough, just mechanically, that you don’t have to be quite as reliant on the aero to get the thing through the corner. And hopefully be able to put the car in that kind of sweet spot when you need it.”