It’s a rarity these days for a racing series to end its season on a street course. In the case of the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s especially rare to close the year on a street course and, in the case of this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, have it serve as the first street course of the season.
IndyCar teams came close to racing at St. Pete in March for what’s become the series’ traditional season opener, but with the arrival of COVID-19 and the remaining street circuits on the calendar — Long Beach, Detroit and Toronto — being removed from the schedule, the paddock is having to answer a lot of chassis setup questions with no on-track data to assist in the process.
“It’s a bit of a surreal situation because everyone’s coming back here where in March, we set up, we did a track walk and then the world fell apart on us,” Gavin Ward, Josef Newgarden’s race engineer, told RACER. “So in some ways, we came here with our best guess for the first race of the year, having not done a proper race weekend with this new aeroscreen on the car, and had come up with what we thought we needed from testing pre-season for this type of track.
“So now you revisiting it and you’re seeing it with the benefit of the experience of road courses and other circuit types, what you felt you needed through the year. And it’s a little bit of a mixture of yeah, what we thought was right in March on setup is probably close, but we’ll probably do it a little differently.”
The reason why March’s chassis settings might not be a perfect fit in October centers on engineering development during the last 13 races. Entering St. Pete the first time, teams were at the first stage of their damper and suspension tuning, and had the hefty aeroscreen to learn and manage; returning in October, each car has evolved considerably with a full season of changes and improvements to factor in and worth through prior to the race.
“We’ve got our barrels loaded for changes that we might not have done that we’ve learned on road courses that we might try and apply to street courses,” said Jeremy Milless, Alexander Rossi’s race engineer. “We’re also preparing for lots of crashes in the race. We think that’s going to happen, because we think everybody’s going to be really aggressive.”
Most teams will rely on whatever they learned in pre-season testing on the Sebring short course, which is used to refine street course setups.
“We did do a test at Sebring, which is our street-esque course prep, and a few things we learned from there that we’ll take use for setup here, but also, for us, we felt we had a really strong car here last year, so there’s a good baseline,” Ward said. “We won the race obviously, and we thought we had a good pace. So we’re just trying to find the right compromise between keeping what we liked about last year’s car and trying to adapt to what we need for this year. So we came here with a set of mechanical changes and just general development that we brought along throughout the year There’s a lot to consider.”
If an absence of street racing wasn’t enough of a challenge for each team as they try to find front-running speed at St. Pete, there’s new work done to the circuit that will demand the attention from engineers and drivers alike.
“The other thing that’s a little curveball here is that they’ve actually done a fair amount of repaving on the track since we raced last year,” Ward added. “That was the case in March, but we have yet to turn a wheel on it. They repaved from about apex at Turn 10 to the front runway and also through Turns 5, 6, and 7. So we’re curious to see what that changes, the trade-offs a little bit around here. It’s an interesting place but if it smoothed it out, it might mean that people want to run maybe stiffer springs or something like that, but we’ll see.”