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Opinion
IndyCar Texas

New IndyCar speedway aero package: Just right or too close to wrong?

OPINION: Latest IndyCar race winner Josef Newgarden and legend Rick Mears have their say on last week’s undeniably exciting race at Texas Motor Speedway, and what impact the series' new oval aero package had on the action

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, Patricio O'Ward, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet race for the lead

If you were fortunate enough to watch the IndyCar action from last week’s second round at Texas Motor Speedway, you may still be raving about the racing. If you’re a Pato O’Ward or Arrow McLaren fan, you will feel slighted that he lost his last chance to snatch the lead from eventual winner Josef Newgarden of Team Penske, thanks to a fifth caution period for Romain Grosjean’s wreck on the penultimate lap. O’Ward assured us that he had worked out the timing of the move he’d need to pull on the 250th and final lap to ensure he nosed over the timing beam ahead of Penske, but it’s a matter of conjecture. For the second straight race, he was left frustrated by a runner-up finish, and it’s little consolation to be leading the championship when there are 15 rounds still to go.

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Still, while he was in the moment, racing Newgarden and Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi for the win, O’Ward was surely having fun – and we were having fun watching him and all the others. When the field bunched for the restarts, the action got frantic and remained so for many laps. On Tuesday, IndyCar sent out a release stating the stats from the race. There were 26 lead changes, the most in a non-Indy 500 race since the IR-18 universal aerokit was introduced in 2018, and they were made between eight different cars. There were 1070 on-track passes, 439 of them were passes for position and 169 of them occurred within the top five.

It was exhilarating to watch 28 cars – 22 by the end – lapping the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway at 220mph, and despite 52 of the 250 laps being run under caution, the two hours, seven minutes and seven seconds it took Newgarden to capture his third cowboy hat in six years felt like barely half that.

But – and it’s a big but – there were warning signs that the new aero package for Texas Motor Speedway had added a tad too much downforce, at least for those specific conditions. It was probably the right amount for a Texas race in June in hot conditions and with the sun at its zenith. But this was early April, the race started at 11:15am and the ambient temperature was only 22 at the start and 25 at the end. We’ve seen in the past that the best racing on ovals, the ones where the importance of driver and race engineer skill is maximised, comes when tyre life, not fuel mileage, dictates when a driver chooses to pit under green flag conditions. On this occasion, the cars weren’t moving across the surface quite enough to cause a severe or early drop-off in the Firestones’ performance, because they were a little too stuck thanks to the combination of 45-68kg of extra downforce provided by IndyCar’s latest aero regs and the denser air.

The Arrow McLarens qualified strongly, but O'Ward had the race pace to match

The Arrow McLarens qualified strongly, but O'Ward had the race pace to match

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Be assured, it was a heartwarming sight to have cars able to run two-wide at either end of the track and this was not all down to upping the downforce. The PJ1 surface treatment at Turns 1-2 which helps NASCAR’s Goodyears find grip has always had the opposite effect on IndyCar’s Firestones, and thankfully this stuff had not been shellacked on again in the winter, so the surface was far more weathered and grippy. In addition, there were practice sessions designated specifically for drivers to run one lane up, learn their car’s behaviour, lay down some rubber up there and gain confidence that, come race day, running high wouldn’t see them drifting onto the marbles and into the wall.

But still, the side-by-side race action went on a long time, giving off a definite whiff of a pack race, with drivers saying that on fresh tyres they were able to drive without lifting even after 30 laps. It wasn’t a repeat of the Texas 2017 madness, when the fastest way around the track was the shortest line, and they could run like that with seemingly no tyre deg for a whole stint, so smothered in downforce were the cars in the last year of the ugly manufacturer aerokits. But last weekend, in the first half of a stint at least, the best drivers appeared to have no advantage over the less adept, and that surely isn’t a desirable trait in a sport, which by its nature must be a meritocracy.

"I really like high tyre deg. I like when people come and go and you've got to work your advantage. You've really got to work to try to keep the car underneath you. We're kind of a step above where I like to see the cars at" Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden’s opinion

The 26-time race winner was understandably elated by his latest triumph. He drove superbly and ultimately prevailed, and for the most part he approved of the car spec. Asked about why this Texas race was so superior to what we’d seen here in previous years, he said: “I think the biggest factors are the downforce increase, which was significant. There's a lot more load on the cars. The entire last stint, I was flat the whole time – or flat for the first half of the stint. It's a big jump from last year. That's definitely factor number one.

“I think factor two is just the track seemed better this year. It was less dark in the area where the PJ1 has been applied. Pretty much immediately when we went up there, it was OK grip. I think that was much more inviting for people. I think all of that contributed and led to the type of racing that we had today.”

Newgarden celebrates yet another Texas triumph on Sunday

Newgarden celebrates yet another Texas triumph on Sunday

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

But despite being the primary beneficiary of the set-up, the two-time champion sounded a note of caution that the package might have gone a step too far.

“I really like high tyre deg,” he stated. “I like when people come and go and you've got to work your advantage. You've really got to work to try to keep the car underneath you. We're kind of a step above where I like to see the cars at. I know from an entertainment standpoint this had to be significantly better than last year. It just had to be. It felt packed up for most of the race and definitely at the end.

“Where we go from here, it's hard to say. ‘Old’ Texas is hard to beat. The configuration was great. The track surface was better for us: we could run all three lanes. I'd like to see that back; then we can start peeling downforce off the cars.”

Newgarden said he liked the extra usable track width because “you have real estate to put your car, it makes the racing 10 times better,” and he acknowledged the difficulties facing IndyCar’s head of performance and engineering, Bill Pappas, and director of aerodynamic development, Tino Belli. But he was also clear what he doesn’t wish to experience.

“I know I don't want just a straight-up pack race, I really don't,” he said. “I think it takes out too much of the skill. I mean, you want the skill of tyre degradation where you've got to make a good car and you've got to learn how to drive it. You need some element of a packed-up race certainly in the beginning of stints, to make the show good, to make that also part of the challenge in the race. I just don't want that the whole way.”

Rick Mears’ verdict

“I think this oval package is very close,” said three-time champion and four-time Indy 500 winner Mears to Autosport on the Tuesday after the race. “The problem is, we’re dealing with an area where we’re trying to get something that’s so close that it can be changed by the day, in terms of just two or three degrees of ambient temperature and track temperature. If you’ve already got your downforce to where it’s just right for what IndyCar want to achieve with its racing, just a slight drop in temperature can leave you with a pack race because now the conditions have just added more downforce.

Mears gives his take on the new IndyCar aero package on speedways

Mears gives his take on the new IndyCar aero package on speedways

Photo by: IndyCar Series

“And you know me; whatever the type of track, I’m leery of downforce because we want to put the cars back in the drivers’ hands, and we want to reduce the cornering speeds to reduce the size of the shunts. Now, fine-tuning for a particular track adds another layer of complexity. I don’t envy Bill and Tino at all! And who’s to say what is right and wrong? So this is just my opinion.

“My first response to what I saw at Texas was, ‘Here we go, we’re getting to that point that I warned about – that it’s always about more, not less downforce, and it will eventually morph back into more.’ I told Jay [Frye, IndyCar president], Bill and Tino, ‘Take off more downforce than you want to, so you’ll have room to grow. Whatever you take off now, it’ll be harder to take off more afterward, whereas if you take off more now, it’ll be easier to add a little if necessary, and the drivers will love you for it.’

"The really is a tough call for IndyCar because there’s no single ‘right way’ because what gets that blend right at a certain track on a certain day may not work at the next oval, or the same oval but next year" Rick Mears

“I think the practice where they ran the high line – that was much less about putting rubber down up there, it was about giving drivers the confidence to run that lane. Now, did the downforce make it easier to run up there? Absolutely. The higher the downforce, the wider the available groove. And did you notice how in the race when it got serious, they all immediately ran faster in that high line than they did in practice? In practice, it looked like no one could run as quick on the high line as they could on the bottom, but in the race they could, and that was the drivers reaching the next stage of confidence… and probably since practice they had also dialed in their cars to use that groove better.

“I agree with Newgarden’s comments afterward – that they need a bit of downforce taken off, because if the tyres degraded quicker, you wouldn’t have the cars running in a pack for as long as they did. The downforce was great for excitement and it gave drivers a chance to learn that having a bit more respect for each other on track will pay off. But they were somewhat forced into it because there was more pack racing for quite a lot longer than we’ve seen there in recent years.

“The problem I see for the future is that there were still guys who couldn’t run flat, even on new tyres because they’re running near the back and have the dirty air from 20 or 25 cars, and so they’re still going to be yelling for more downforce. That’s when IndyCar has to be careful to read between the lines, and check that the guys yelling loudest aren’t just looking for a crutch to help the fact that they can’t get their cars handling as well as the fast guys.

The Texas action was on the up, but did it become too much of a pack race?

The Texas action was on the up, but did it become too much of a pack race?

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“There’s no argument from me or anyone else that the show was better than we’ve seen at Texas in recent years. Well, what’s the #1 priority that we don’t want? Unnecessary danger. So how do we get to an aero solution that is close to pack racing but isn’t pack racing, so that it’s exciting but the drivers aren’t holding the throttle flat all the way round forever, through a stint?

“The really is a tough call for IndyCar because there’s no single ‘right way’ because what gets that blend right at a certain track on a certain day may not work at the next oval, or the same oval but next year. Sitting here 48 hours later, I can look it one way where I think they can take off more downforce, and look at it another way that they got it just right.”

So there’s no point in yet judging how well the series’ aero mods – which Belli says can add up to 10% more downforce – will work for the Indianapolis 500. There have been complaints since the universal aerokit was introduced in 2018 that if you’re further back than fifth in a chain of cars around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the disturbed air is such that, aside from restarts, you can’t get close enough to the car in front through the turns to get a run on it along the next straight. Yet it wasn’t much of a problem for the Ganassi cars for the last three years, nor for Simon Pagenaud’s Penske in 2021, when he climbed from 26th on the grid to finish a very close third. As soon as one or more teams get it right, it invalidates the moans of the others, because all teams are given the same components to tune their cars.

Still, says Mears, it’s impossible to project the results from Texas onto Indy and start making predictions, because not only are they vastly different tracks, again so much is dependent on ambient conditions and track surface temperature.

“At this open test they’re having in a couple of weeks, a team that runs all their new aero pieces is maybe going to find the car draggy, too stuck,” says Mears. “If it’s a kinda cool day, and the air is heavy, the car’s going to be pinned and they may take pieces off to free it up. But you know what Indy is like: it could be those same conditions at the end of May, or temperature could be up by 15 degrees and suddenly those pieces make sense for running in a group, six or seven cars back.

“That’s the dilemma for IndyCar. They’re at a point in aero downforce where just a slight change in weather can turn a race into a pack race, or string it out when the track gets too slick.

“There is no end to this discussion, because there won’t be a time when everyone is happy with what they’ve got. When you make one change, it can cause three others, just like when you please one driver, it can piss off three others. We’re going to be having the same discussions about this forever.”

IndyCar's next oval outing is the big one in May

IndyCar's next oval outing is the big one in May

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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