Detroit Grand Prix next on learning curve for new IndyCar design

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News


Will Power (12) won the Indianapolis 500 last weekend in the newly designed cars used this season in the IndyCar Series.

Detroit — The new 2018 IndyCar cars coming to The Raceway on Belle Isle this weekend are prettier than the previous model used in the open-wheel racing series, until 2017.

But do not let that fool you.

Like some attractive boyfriends and girlfriends brought home to meet the parents, this one can be a handful.

More demanding of drivers than any recent car designed for the IndyCar Series, it is less attached to the race course.

The intent of reducing is to create more compelling racing, in part, by increasing speed on the straights and affording closer following for more passing.

Veteran racers accustomed to a vehicle stacked with wings front and rear, pinning the car to the track, strive to deliver the performance their cars no longer provide. With vision, reaction, steering wheel, throttle, transmission and brakes, drivers seek speed while endeavoring to regain some of the control no longer commanded by the car.

A reassertion of human performance, sought generally throughout motorsports in the current era, is the firm intention.

The IndyCar Series is getting after it. 

But, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday, an intense mid-spring heat combined with the continuing shock of the new among drivers and crews to play a bit of havoc with the 500.

The configuration of the 2018 car designed for big ovals proved integral to the spinouts of Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, the three-time 500-winner Helio Castroneves and the four-time IndyCar champion Sebastien Bourdais.

The other of the two configurations of the new model, created for road tracks and in use in Detroit, is designed to provide more downforce.

But the amount is still a significant reduction from the road course set-ups, for 2017.

The impact on the racing in the Detroit Grand Prix (3:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday) will become far clearer after the first several drivers do their first few laps on the long track on Belle Isle, with its varying surfaces, tight turns and jarring bumps.

But drivers and crews say they have a far clearer sense of the possibilities before Detroit than they did before Indianapolis.

“In the street courses, thus far, it’s really improved the racing, quite a lot,” said Ed Carpenter, the veteran team owner and driver, who qualified for the Indianapolis 500 pole a full football field in front of second place, but finished the race in second, behind Will Power, of Team Penske.

“I think Detroit’s always been a pretty good race as it was, so I think it will be that much better this year.”

After the third day of testing the big-oval configuration of the new car at Indianapolis earlier this month, Graham Rahal described what Patrick, Kanaan, Castroneves and Bourdais felt too much of, for the best competitive racing, Sunday.

“When it gives up, it's like ice. And then, bang!” Rahal said of the car sliding. “It's difficult because you don't know what a fine line it is.”

But, in its road track configuration, the new car will be better in Detroit, said the big driver, who scintillated fans with a car so hot off the hauler last season that he swept both races.

While the Raceway on Belle Isle, with its multiple asphalt and concrete surfaces and the high concentration of bumps that persists despite extensive improvements, presents unique challenges, Rahal and other drives are confident in better, more-assured racing than Indianapolis.

Graham Rahal says he expects the new IndyCar cars to perform well on Belle Isle this weekend. "It’s a really promising car to go there and race with."

“I mean, it’s definitely tricky. There’s no doubt about that,” he said, two days before the 500.

“From our perspective, I think it’s going to perform really well in Detroit. It’s a really promising car to go there and race with.

“On the street courses, if you look what we’ve had so far at St. Pete as well as when we went to Long Beach, it’s been good,” he said.

“In Long Beach, I put myself in a bad position; had to go to the back of the pack. I drew a penalty. And I was able pass my way all of the way up through the field.

“So, I think that from that perspective, people are really going to enjoy it.”

Even driving the big-oval configuration of the new car, Alexander Rossi produced similar, optimal performance with a series of brilliant passes in the Indianapolis 500.

It can be done.

But drivers and teams are plainly grappling with the new design.

That said, and while tweaks and more may be required to produce optimal performance with the new car, participants and observers are applauding IndyCar, and urging others, like Formula One, toward bolder pursuits.

“They're doing the right thing with the aerodynamics of the cars and coming back to more of a pure-looking single-seater, open-wheel car, which I think was something all of the open-wheel aficionados wanted to see,” the great Mario Andretti, who won in both racing series, told Autosport, last week.

“They reduced the downforce of the car … But with the smaller wings, you can stay near the guy's gearbox and you can have a competitive overtake.

“I think personally that's where F1 missed it.”

Formula One will not have a chance to made amends until its model of racing machine is redeveloped for the 2021 season.

But as it moves through the transition with both configurations of its new model, even allowing for some problems like the difficulties at Indianapolis, the IndyCar Series is far into hoeing a new row for motorsports.

It began with a simple concept removed from performance.

Make it pretty, first, then design in competitiveness.

The appearance harkens back 25-30 years, with a lower hood and drastically reduced wings streamlining the chassis.

The old wings looked like someone tossed a large, dead alligator across the nose of the car. The new ones are trim.

The rear wheels are exposed, with the large, boxy rear wheel guards banished. It helped move the weight forward two percent, to satisfy the drivers who wanted more bias frontward.

There are new sidepods, which provide more safety from side impacts, and help shift the mass to the center of the car.

The downforce of 5,500 pounds on the 2017 car is reduced by about 20 percent.

With the wings gone, about 65 percent of it is generated from underneath the car, an increase from the 45 percent of the previous models.

Downforce, which makes the car more stable and is produced by a combination of air resistance and gravity, is created less by physical riggings attached to the car than the forces of nature, harnessed by design, underneath the car.

“There was a lot of downforce taken off the car, but the downforce is in the right spot,” said Jay Frye of IndyCar, who oversees operations, competition and technical matters for the IndyCar Series, during early drivers’ tests of the new car.

“You saw where they could pull up on each other, and there wasn’t a washout of turbulence like there was before.

“It looks much more racy than it did a year ago.”

The changes were contemplated and designed with significant input from a broad representation of stakeholders in the IndyCar Series, including the drivers, who wanted more control and better racing.

Around the course at Belle Isle, expect to see drivers working the steering wheel, switch panels and other controls in the cockpit, as the required human manipulation of the machine increases in importance.

Mostly, drivers are required to be both more involved and more exacting, managing their greater participation in the vehicle with an emphasis on not overwhelming it.

The harrowing spins that eliminated four of the most popular drivers in the field in the Indianapolis 500 resulted from far too much reliance on the stability of the front right wheels and tires on the big left turns. It forced the rear ends to wash out.

There will be issues in Detroit. But they will be less about big spins in big turns, and more about controlling all of the bouncing about on bumps, anticipating the variable handling on the changing pavement and managing the quick, smaller turns in the context of the challenges of the new car.

“It’s just a technical, tough, low-grip, different grip levels around the track, sort of circuit,” said Will Power, whose chance to win the championship improved markedly with consecutive wins in May in the IndyCar Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500.

Winning the first race on Belle Isle would make it three in a row.

“It’s a street course, so the walls are the limit. You can’t run off the grass and make mistakes,” Power said.

“We’ll go from really fine driving, very precision sort of driving (on the big oval) to just an animal. You’re sort of manhandling the car around, on the bumps.

“It’s a cool weekend.

“It’s tough, limited practice,” he said. “And I’ve been thinking about the transition quite a bit.

“The new cars are quite different.”


When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Belle Isle

IndyCar: Dual IndyCar races on Saturday and Sunday, 3:30 p.m.; each day, 70 laps each


Support races

Saturday — TransAm Challenge Race, 8:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 1, 10:05 a.m.; IMSA SportsCar Championship, 12:30 p.m.

Sunday — TransAm Dash Race, 11:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 2, 2:05 p.m.