The Art Of Racing In The Rain

Racing in the rain at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. © [Jamie Sheldrick/ Spacesuit Media]

Racing in the rain at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. © [Jamie Sheldrick/ Spacesuit Media]

by Allan Brewer

Everyone admires a savant, someone who makes the difficult look easy—just like falling off a log.

Among racers, nothing makes a man or woman look great like driving quickly and confidently in the rain.

Is it innate talent? Is it expert set-up of the machine? Is it the tires, or the engine management settings? What is it that separates a great racing lap in the rain from one that is not quite as fast?

Simon Pagenaud’s magnificent display in the wet at the Indianapolis Grand Prix brought the Frenchman an improbable and impressive victory on Saturday. Pagenaud’s smooth, almost practiced manner at overtaking rival Scott Dixon on the penultimate lap of the race was so anticlimactic as to seem inevitable. Where did that come from, on a chilly, rainy Indiana day that was truly unfit for such perfection behind the wheel?

A key is visibility: both seeing through the spray from the car in front and being visible from the rear. On the first count, we will give Pagenaud the benefit of the doubt to crack his helmet visor to prevent misting and fogging of its surface. Secondly, a lighter color car may create greater contrast against the background of gray day and dull racetrack, thus improving the driver’s acuity. Finally, a bright color (and none is bolder than the fluorescent yellow of Simon’s Menard-sponsored machine) may distract other drivers. “My car is very bright, so when you get in their mirrors, they look and know the threat is real,” said Pagenaud. In fact, that is exactly what third-place finisher Jack Harvey (another of Pagenaud’s last-laps victims) said of the experience: “It was like seeing a yellow dart just go by to the inside.”

“The spray was huge, and quite frankly I couldn’t really see Harvey when I passed him,” Pagenaud admitted post-race. “But that’s part of it. You have to be aware of what is around you. It’s really an awareness and concentration state that you get in.”

Another telltale sign of a great rain car is balance, in both the dry and in the wet. As a rule, a car that handles well on the normal racing surface will handle well on a wet one. The opposite, unfortunately, is not true at all as a well turned-out car for a deluge becomes a slavish prig in the dry. Moving the brake bias slightly rearward can help with fore/aft balance during braking on a wet track, as can softening the roll bars and springs to permit some “give” in the suspension as it searches for precious grip.

Pagenaud was lavish in his praise of his team’s set-up on the racecar, saying, “The car was just amazing all day. It was just very, very good on the braking, so I could really experiment with that and fake some moves on people and by doing that, they were thrown off their game. I would gain time mid-corner and get them on the exit.”

“Any dis-balance you may have shows more in the rain,” he continued, “If you looked at all three cars in Victory Lane, all of the tire wear on the wet tires was different on all three cars. Dixon’s rear tires were gone, Harvey’s front were gone. That is very interesting to see that because that means we run very different setups. You know, that means that in the dry, those cars behave differently. Well, I think I had the best balanced car today, that’s all.”

With adept handling comes the ability to search out different lines in the wet than the normal racing lines that are fastest in dry conditions. “I was trying to see a different line,” said Pagenaud, “For each of the corners it was a bit different because there is a new sealant on part of the track, and the sealant reacts very differently. I was trying to avoid those patches that were a bit slippery.”

Even in untreated sections of track it is essential to avoid puddles that collect at dependent portions of the racing surface, from camber or from poor run-off. Deliberately running the furthest round of a corner can be faster than a besotten apex during the rain. And it’s essential to test a new line as conditions change, bringing even more importance to a good-handling chassis in the rain.

Finally, there has to be some joy in the exercise. “I love driving in the rain,” said Pagenaud fresh off the top spot of the podium. “You can’t calculate as much. You really have to balance the car with your feet, and your hands and play with it, dance with it. That is when your instinct driving comes out. It reminds me of my childhood, and the passion comes back to me and it’s fun. It’s just a lot of fun in the rain.”

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