Test Eases Downforce – And Concerns – At Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 8 2012

Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske and Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing test Indycars at Texas Motor Speedway. (LAT Photo USA)

FORT WORTH, Texas – A revised aerodynamic package with less downforce has emerged from “a range of options” available to IZOD IndyCar Series teams hot-lapping during an Open Test at Texas Motor Speedway, momentarily easing concerns over pack racing on INDYCAR’s lone remaining 1.5-mile oval.

Monday’s 6.5-hours of track time produced 1,172 incident-free laps with the series’ new Dallara DW12 chassis/2.2-liter, turbocharged V-6 engine packages from Chevrolet and Honda. The Open Test drew 11 car/driver combinations as the follow-up to a Feb. 21 session here among three drivers that elicited criticism from former series champion Tony Kanaan over the continued inherent dangers of pack racing.

The current chassis/engine package was introduced after the multiple-car crash that killed two-time/reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon during the season-ender at sister 1.5-mile oval Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16.

Series veteran Kanaan, of KV Racing Technology, tested here in February along with Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe and Alex Tagliani of Bryan Herta Autosport. TMS will play host to the Firestone 550k weekend June 8-9, first night race of the IndyCar season on an oval featuring 24-degree banked turns.

In addition, former Formula One star Rubens Barrichello passed his IndyCar Series oval rookie test in a Dallara/Chevy set-up by teammate and fellow-Brazilian Kanaan.

“All this testing is really aimed at the style of racing and trying to make sure that we don’t come back here and have everyone running easy wide-open,” said Briscoe, who logged 111 laps in his No. 2

Wade Cunningham tests the Dallara/Honda of A.J. Foyt Racing. (LAT Photo USA)

Dallara/Chevy. “You want to have to actually set the thing up and drive it and not anybody with any car just do it easily. Because that’s how it was in Vegas. Anyone could run fast. It wasn’t challenging and you forgot that you were doing 220 mph with cars on all corners of you. So that’s what happened there. We’ve definitely gone away from that.

“We’ve come back with a different aero package with less downforce on the car. Definitely makes it a little more challenging to drive. You can find the limits of the (Firestone) tires sooner and I think what we’ve got, we basically can get close to being fully trimmed-out through what you might call a qualifying run, though probably not all the way. Then definitely for the race you’ve got to gamble on what (downforce) you want to put back in it.

“Hopefully, that’s all in the right direction of not everyone running the least amount of downforce possible and still (having) too much grip, which creates the pack racing that we saw in Vegas. So definitely a step in the right direction. We’re going to have to really pedal the cars from mid-stint on.”

Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing topped the speed chart for the combined morning/afternoon sessions on a warm (86 degrees) and breezy day at 24.6644-seconds and 212.371 mph in his No. 9 Dallara/Honda. Charlie Kimball, driver of the No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda, was quickest in the afternoon at 24.7859-seconds/211.330 mph.

“The cars have a range of options…I was pleasantly surprised to be honest,” said Dixon, a two-time series champion sixth in points after four street/road-course races. “With the rules being more open, instead of coming here and having a 10-degree rear main-plate or whatever it was…it just created more pack racing and people didn’t have the option to try and separate themselves and different strategies. Now there’s lots of options and it’s going to be difficult to drive. INDYCAR’s done good with the options we have.”

Confirming the aerodynamic package for TMS and providing drivers with oval track time in advance of Saturday’s opening practice for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 27 topped INDYCAR’s to-do list.

“I think long-term it’s important for us to establish how the cars interact together, what they feel like in

Driver Wade Cunningham and team owner A.J. Foyt keep an eye on testing at Texas. (LAT Photo USA)

traffic and how confident the drivers are. That’s really the premise for today’s test,” said Beaux Barfield, INDYCAR’s president of competition/race director.

“There’s a slight difference here aerodynamically than what we’ll run at Indianapolis _ really just the rear-wheel guards to protect from wheel-to-wheel contact,” said Will Phillips, INDYCAR’s vice president of technology. “That’s different here than what we run at Indy. Comparing it to the old car, speed-wise we’re not that far off despite running considerably less horsepower than last year. We’re running lower boost level, so we’re probably as much as 70 horsepower less than we were when we were here with the old (Honda V-8) car. Yet we’re only two or three miles an hour (slower), so the efficiency of the car is significantly improved to do that.”

Point-leader Will Power, winner of the last three street/road-course races, said series officials have introduced two main changes to reduce downforce. “Basically, you’re allowed to lay the rear wing back, which gives less drag and less downforce,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Chevy. “And also, you’ve got a big undertray on this car and it had turning vanes/stripes underneath…they took all them out to reduce the flow of downforce as well. So what we ran in qualifying last year, which was only four laps, is what you can run for the maximum amount of downforce. In pounds…the minimum you can run on the old car is the maximum you can run on this car. From that, you can take more off, probably shed another 500 or 600 pounds from that.”

Briscoe said he found it difficult to go a full-stint – approximately 50 laps on tires – running the revised aero package. “You can’t just run qualifying downforce and go racing. That’s what we did in Vegas,” Briscoe reiterated. “I think you’re still going to see a little side-by-side, close racing (at TMS). I don’t think you’re going to see three-wide/three-deep pack racing. It starts giving up in the middle of the corner, so you’ve got to give yourself some distance and look for clean air. I think new tires, the first five laps it’s going to be close and hard-fought and then everyone’s going to be trying to find the clean air.”

The last half-hour of practice, between 5 -5:30 p.m., saw Briscoe among several drivers simulating race conditions down the track’s signature frontstraight dogleg into Turn 1.

“The car seems to tow well – so from a distance you can tow-up and get close when the tires are good,” Briscoe said. “When my tires went off a bit, I’d tow-up but then in the corners I was scrubbing so much I couldn’t close the gap anymore. At that point we’d have to go back and work on the setup of the car to make it able to run better in traffic.”

The Dallara DW12 – named in honor of primary test driver Wheldon – wasn’t universally praised when introduced this offseason. But Briscoe said there’s no doubt this chassis is safer than the eight-year-old Dallara it replaced.

“The first thing is the car should be safer,” said Briscoe, winner of the 2010 race at TMS. “No one’s been in a ‘big one’ yet but we’ve got a lot more opportunity if something goes wrong – if someone checks-up or something – you’re going to hit bodywork before you hit tires. And that’s all aimed at keeping the car on the ground. Obviously there are no guarantees – you can’t test that until it happens. Accidents are going to happen. Cars are going to hit the walls. I feel like they’ve made this car safer in the cockpit. We’re surrounded by a lot more foam so that when an impact happens, our backs should be more protected. That’s good.”

Remarkably, Power – the series’ acknowledged road-course ace – said he has been going through an adjustment period with the Dallara DW12 during the season’s first four events.

“The road-course configuration, the car is 85 pounds lighter,” said Power, who scored his first oval-track win at TMS during the second Firestone Twin 275 last June. “And the engine delivers the power in a very different way because it’s turbocharged so you have a delay when you get on the throttle because the turbos have to spool-up. So it has 30 percent more downforce, a lot more grip, the braking zones are shorter…so it was definitely a different car to drive on a road-course and took a while to get used to.

“But you don’t ever want to touch in these cars on an oval.”

Dixon said for open-wheel racing, a banked track like TMS “is almost the enemy. It was easy to race on the flat tracks, and one of the best tracks was Homestead-(Miami Speedway) until they changed it. You understand why all these tracks are changing for NASCAR because it creates better racing for them. That’s probably the toughest thing for us. But coming here today and having the car in a situation where you can take a lot of downforce off it, that’s pretty difficult. And qualifying could actually be difficult for a change – which for Texas, that’s pretty big.”

Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves noted TMS has produced some “horrific accidents,” including devastating injuries suffered by Davey Hamilton and Kenny Brack. Unlike Wheldon, they both survived.

“At end of the day it’s an oval. You’re running over 200 mph,” said Castroneves, a three-time winner at TMS, most of any driver. “Anything that goes out of control, the margin of error is very small compared to a road-course. But we’ve had great races as well. This year the car seems much more safe – the sidepods are a little bit bigger, we have a little bumper behind the rear of the tire so it’s more difficult for the cars to interlock wheels and prevent the cars from flying. At the end of the day, it’s motorsport and a sad part of it is it’s also a risk sport.”

Combined practice results from Monday’s IZOD IndyCar Open Test on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway quadoval with car number, driver, chassis/engine, time/speed and total laps:

9 Scott Dixon Dallara/Chevy 00:24.6644/212.371 104

83 Charlie Kimball Dallara/Honda 00:24.7859/211.330 111

10 Dario Franchitti Dallara/Honda 00:24.8807/210.525 129

12 Will Power Dallara/Chevy 00:24.8994/210.367 137

20 Ed Carpenter Dallara/Chevy 00:24.9336/210.078 98

38 Graham Rahal Dallara/Honda 00:24.9416/210.011 119

3 Helio Castroneves Dallara/Chevy 00:25.0531/209.076 112

2 Ryan Briscoe Dallara/Chevy 00.25.1965/207.886 111

14 Mike Conway Dallara/Honda 00.25.2424/207.508 40

14 Wade Cunningham Dallara/Honda 00.25.3060/206.986 68

8 Rubens Barrichello Dallara/Chevy 00.25.3230/206.848 123

8 Tony Kanaan Dallara/Chevy 00.25.5456/205.045 20

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 8 2012
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