No ‘Magic Pill’ Yet For IndyCar At Texas Oval

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 6 2014

Scott Dixon takes practice laps at Texas Motor Speedway, where racing Indy cars has always been dicey. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – An additional 300 pounds of downforce may not be the “magic pill” Verizon IndyCar Series teams are seeking in the never-ending aerodynamic conundrum surrounding open-wheel racing at Texas Motor Speedway.

Sanctioning body INDYCAR announced Thursday that teams competing in Saturday night’s Firestone 600 here will have the option of increasing downforce by about 300 pounds over the 2013 maximum aerodynamic specification. The more downforce produced, the more a Chevrolet or Honda-powered Dallara chassis will be pinned to the racetrack.

INDYCAR worked out the aero package with driver input and in collaboration with Firestone Racing during a mid-April test here. Using tools available to reach the higher downforce level on TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval will result in 50 pounds of drag on the chassis (with temperatures and pressures identical to 2013), theoretically slowing the car with likely less drop-off in tire degradation through fuel stints during the 248-lap/372-mile (four-stop) race.

But following Friday morning’s 75-minute practice, series regular Sebastien Bourdais put a different spin on the new package. “It’s definitely easier on your own (compared to 2013), but tire degradation is still massive,” said Bourdais, driver of the No. 11 Hydroxycut/KVSH Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. “This place abuses tires really badly. Even though we have more downforce, it’s not huge. We’re still running around with a low amount of downforce compared to what we’re used to running around here. It’s definitely taking its toll on tires and it’s all about average speed over the stint.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to focus on, but in the meantime you need balance. It’s kind of a mix between max speed and then average speed and the shift between on your own and in traffic as far as balance is concerned.”

Bourdais stood 18th on a 22-driver speed chart after a hot lap in 24.5443-seconds/213.410 mph on the fifth of his 40 circuits completed. The session was topped by 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan at 23.8762-seconds/219.382 mph in his No. 10 Suave for Men Dallara/Chevrolet fielded by Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Teammate Scott Dixon, the three-time/reigning series champion, was second-fast at 23.9922-seconds/218.321 mph in the No. 9 TCGR Dallara/Chevy.

Firestone is supplying the same tire specification and construction used at TMS and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval in Fontana, Calif., during the 2013 season.

Asked how many laps he logged before his tires began to drop-off during practice, Bourdais said, “They degrade pretty much constantly; it seems like you can sustain a certain speed for, I’d say, 10 laps and then the first plateau kind of starts to hit. But really from the get-go you can feel from Lap 1, 2, 3 you start to scrub a little bit more and it gets harder and harder to stay flat. I guess that’s what separates the better and the weaker cars, it’s just how long you can stay flat. But when traffic comes into play nobody is really flat anymore.

“Ultimately, if we want to make it stick with the number of pit stops with the added 20 laps you pretty much need to get 50 laps out of the tires _ and if you do that it’s going to be a stretch. I mean, 50 laps on a set of tires _ by the end of the stint, somebody’s definitely going to be screaming on the radio.”

The aero package introduced at TMS last year was the result of driver concerns over pack racing in the aftermath of the multi-car wreck that killed two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season-ender at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a sister 1.5-mile facility to TMS.

Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves _ fifth on Friday’s practice sheet at 217.529 mph _ reeled-off a dominating performance here last summer, leading a race-high 132 of 228 laps in the 324-miler after taking the point on Lap 97. On Lap 130, Castroneves’ lead over Penske teammate Will Power was 1.1246-seconds. By Lap 170, the lead had ballooned to 13.5968-seconds. When a final green flag pit stop went off without a hitch on Lap 178, Castroneves was home-free, cruising to victory over Ryan Hunter-Reay by 4.6919-seconds. Last summer’s event, which produced only four lead changes among four drivers, was run at an average speed of 177.257 mph.

Working with INDYCAR officials who reportedly reduced downforce levels from the 2012 package, Firestone engineers developed a new Firehawk tire specification intentionally designed to “go off” if not properly managed through a stint. While some drivers struggled to make the tires last for a full fuel run, others ran more than 60 laps/90-plus miles without issue. Castroneves put in three full stints of 53 laps or more, but admitted post-race the package felt “very, very different” from his cockpit.

Similarly, runnerup Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport described his night as a “battle royale” during which he fought to save his tires and keep off the walls. Ditto third-place finisher Kanaan, who at one point pleaded over his radio for his crew to “give me more tires.”

Again, theoretically the option available this weekend will put the field closer to the 2012 race specs, which Dixon called “a perfect situation.”

Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car World Series champion, termed the conditions during the mid-April test here as “really, really complicated. There was a lot of wind so it was very difficult to get some good reads. And then you show up here and you got two sets of tires to figure the car out. It’s very complicated to do everything and you’ve got 75 minutes to pretty much finish up your race car and one shot at trying to sort out your qualifying car. So we’ll see how close we get it.”

Track temperature was reported at 93 degrees at the start of practice and was on the rise when qualifying began at 2 p.m. (CDT). Bourdais posted a seventh-place result in the 98th Indy 500 at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25th, the only series oval race run to-date. Bourdais started 15th and finished 20th here last June.

“It’s definitely not a place where it’s easy to find your way around,” said Bourdais, a 35-year-old native of Le Mans, France. “It’s bumpy. It’s fast. There’s a lot of banking (24-degrees) and traffic makes a big difference in the balance of the car. It’s not easy, and it’s always the same thing.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 6 2014
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