Too Light Or Just Right?

The rear wing on Oriol Servia's Indianapolis racer. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

The rear wing on Oriol Servia’s Indianapolis racer. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

By Allan Brewer

In the air, wings mean speed. Wings create lift. Wings enable man to break the sound barrier. Their design is an exact science. They introduce a new challenge to motorsport: the assimilation of wing and wheel in the earth-bound automobile; the application of principles of aerodynamics to move across the land at terrific speed with great control. When the wings are working, speed records fall.

The result of wings is to add downforce to the car. It is especially effective at gluing the machine to the track in turns. As a result, vehicle speed can be maintained at a higher rate all around the racing surface than without aerodynamic assistance. With sufficient downforce a race car can be driven flat-out all around the Indianapolis oval.

The newly redesigned 2018 Dallara IndyCar chassis has been met with professional applause for its innovative aerodynamic elements—that is, for its wings. It has won in only a few months of competition the prestigious Louis Schwitzer Award, given for racing engineering excellence, for its four principles: Tino Belli, Indycar’s director of aerodynamic development; Andrea Toso and Antonio Montanari of Dallara, and acknowledged aero guru Chris Beatty.
The new car is the product of an unusual, highly collaborative development process. IndyCar polled teams and sought fan input on how the car should look. The design was then reverse-engineered to look appealing and finally to build in the necessary performance and safety requirements for racing at 200-plus mile per hour speeds. Computer-aided design rendered concepts into 3-D reconstructions, and finally into actual physical parts for use on the car. The process is complicated and pain-staking, but it yields impressive production of custom-built pieces that are one-of-a-kind.

The stated goals of the new design were to improve safety, improve the car’s overall appearance and make it more challenging to drive. There is consensus that IndyCar succeeded in all of these things. “The actual test is going to be this weekend,” Belli said before qualifications weekend at Indianapolis, “We felt that, with an abundance of caution this first year, we wanted to target qualifying to the slow side. Get this first year and make sure the car has all the stability that it needs and then next year we might think about pushing the envelope a little bit further.”

The IndyCar teams have practiced enough now at high speed to get a sense of how the new car reacts in passing – the first two or three overtakers have an easier time passing the leader than those deeper in the field. The start and restarts in the tightly-packed field, with their slower speeds as the drivers climb through the gears and are buffeted by turbulence, can turn the car into a handful. “At slower speeds (meaning 215 mph), the car feels like garbage,” said JR Hildebrand. “And that just gets magnified in a situation where there’s a crazy amount of turbulence.” Charlie Kimball added, “This car is light on downforce; it just walks its way through the corner and you can’t stay flat (on the throttle).”

A day of spinning, sliding, tire-smoking crashes, backwards into the SAFER barrier at Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 was thought-provoking. There is little argument that the 2018 Dallara IndyCar is a better car than any that has come before. For example, passing is up substantially year over year in the current season to date from 2017. In general the drivers have backed up the engineers’ efforts at removing downforce and making the car once again a “driver’s car.” But, it was a sure source of frustration for several veteran drivers, former winners of the Indy 500 included, who found themselves caught out by sudden oversteer that ended their day at the 102nd Indianapolis 500 mile race. For them, the jury is still out on how much of a “driver’s car” they have.

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