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New Indy Car Chassis Put Through Paces At TMS

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 24 2017

James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports tested the 2018 Indy car chassis at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday.

FORT WORTH, Texas – INDYCAR’s sleeker, slimmer and sexier universal chassis made its 1.5-mile testing debut Monday at Texas Motor Speedway, the last bastion of pack racing heading into the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.

Four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing and James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports put their Honda-powered machines through a day-long session designed to add to INDYCAR’s data base. The series will compete in “The Original NightTime IndyCar Race” at TMS on Saturday, June 9, 2018 with memories of last summer’s expensive crash-fest still fresh.

Will Power survived a battle of attrition to win the 21st annual Rainguard Water Sealers 600 on June 10. Power, of Team Penske, won under caution following the night’s ninth yellow flag on Lap 244 of the scheduled 248 after a four-car wreck initiated by reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Takuma Sato in Turn 1. Among those eliminated in that mishap on TMS’ repaved and reconfigured layout was Dixon.

“Last year’s race was one of the craziest I’ve ever been a part of,” said Dixon, who started second and finished ninth after leading a total of 12 laps. “In general, it’s not going to be too far removed from that. We’re trying to create some separation in the corners but the way this car is able to close, it should provide more of a better style of racing _more predictable for the drivers without having a crazy pack race we’ve had the last couple of years. More predictable, where you can place it and not have six guys going for the same piece of real estate.

“Today is perfect weather but it’s a lot hotter when we come back here. Hopefully this is a lot easier to make changes on the move because it’s a universal kit. I think for me that’s the most positive thing…you can make quick changes.”

Earlier in last June’s race, a massive, nine-car crash heading into Turn 3 prompted a red flag stoppage on Lap 152. The incident was triggered by contact principally involving Hinchcliffe, who was sandwiched between former SPM teammate Mikhail Aleshin on the outside and Tony Kanaan of CGR on the bottom.

“We’re leaning everything,” Hinchcliffe said. “The kit is brand new with a lot of different elements to it. I think Scott and I were both pretty impressed with it out of the box. It does

The next generation of Indy cars will actually feature open wheels.

all the things a race car should do and not a whole lot of what a race car shouldn’t do. Unfortunately, it’s been something we’ve dealt with in the past couple of years with the aero kit. I’m excited to finally get some miles on it and keep learning.”

Series officials announced in April 2016 their plan to scrap the aero kits provided by OEM engine suppliers Chevrolet and Honda in favor of universal bodywork. In addition to lower costs across the board, the transition to the universal kit is an effort to make the cars safer while increasing the ability to pass. The new kit is designed to reduce turbulence and make it easier for cars to follow and pass each other on the track _ not just during pit stops.

In June, INDYCAR announced that Dallara Automobili would manufacture the universal kit that will be fitted to the Dallara IR12 chassis for the 2018 season. The new kit already has been tested on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s famed 2.5-mile oval, at the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and the 3.74-mile Sebring International Raceway in Florida during a street-course simulation.

“Change is good,” said Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 champion who will mark his record 17th consecutive season with team-owner Chip Ganassi in 2018. “I think what the Verizon IndyCar Series has done with the universal aero kit _ they’ve spent a lot of hours not just going over it with themselves but with the teams, engineers, fans and public _ to figure out what everybody wants. I think going to a universal aero kit makes the racing very tight and in a positive direction, too. There are lots of things to be excited about, especially in 2018.”

While six ovals are listed on the 17-event 2018 schedule, TMS is the only intermediate, or 1.5-mile, layout remaining. Still, Monday’s test will add to INDYCAR’s data base for Phoenix Raceway, IMS, Iowa Speedway in Newton, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill.

“The wind tunnel numbers are there but you don’t know how it’s going to handle on the track in certain situations,” Hinchcliffe said. “We’re trying to build the data base for the Honda teams…running as may laps and configurations as we can. It wasn’t doing anything funky. I was flat-out about lap four and felt very comfortable from the get-go. It’s been a while since we’ve been going in circles and it felt good.”

Aesthetically, the chassis design resembles the cars of the late 1980s to mid-1990s run during the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) era of open-wheel racing. The engine cover has a lower profile, the side pod profile is smaller/swoopier and the boxy rear pods are gone, leaving the wide rear tires exposed. At TMS, Dixon and Hinchcliffe ran with rear wings that looked smaller and trimmer than those found on a typical “Tuner Car” for the street.

“It looks like an INDYCAR. Never mind Formula One,” Hinchcliffe said. “It doesn’t have all these ridiculous flicks. It’s a great-looking car and reminds me of the era of Indy car racing I fell in love with as a kid. There’s nothing on the back _ no pods, open tires _ it gets you excited. Looks great, so far drives great _so it’s checking all the boxes.”

A native of New Zealand, Dixon recalled making his first start in CART in March 2001 with PacWest Racing. “All of us remember how cool the cars looked, how slick and slim they looked,” said Dixon, the Verizon IndyCar Series champion in 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2015. “They (INDYCAR) went back with a modern twist and done it in a way that makes the car perform better in traffic. It’s much more predictable…so we should get some fantastic racing.

“For the fans, I think it looks cool. When the last aero kit came out I said, ‘I don’t like how these cars look. That’s the most ugly thing I’ve ever seen.’ And they spent a lot of time making sure the car is safer…the car has a lot less lift when going backward. If it’s safer, it’s a no-brainer.”

Dixon, a winner at TMS in 2008 and 2015, will be lead driver of Ganassi Racing’s revamped 2018 lineup. In September, Ganassi announced he would scale back his organization from four cars to two in 2018. While Dixon will return to his No. 9 Honda, a driver for the No. 10 most recently occupied by Kanaan has yet to be determined.

Hinchcliffe said the previous generation chassis had “some quirky characteristics” in traffic on an oval. “That made the car a lot loose,” said Hinchcliffe, who finished the 2017 season 13th in the championship standings with one victory and seven top-10 finishes. “This car seems very planted and feels like it will be less affected by crosswinds.”

Hinchcliffe said that characteristic should level the playing field between the series’ multi-car and small-budget organizations. “The equality,” said Hinchcliffe, who will be teamed with rookie and fellow-Canadian Robert Wickens at SPM in 2018. “Bringing everybody back on the same page is going to help close the gap a little bit to some of the other guys that enjoyed a fruitful 2017 season.

“Honda has done an incredible job on the speedway kit in the past and obviously we are making the horsepower or else we wouldn’t be able to compete and win Indy 500s like we have been. There are definitely tracks that have been a huge disadvantage to us from an aero kit perspective the last three seasons.”

Dixon noted the tires Firestone Racing will provide for this generation of chassis remains “a strong topic of conversation” among series regulars. “This tire is too durable; you need some degradation out there,” Dixon said.

“Certainly, the other element that plays into it is tires,” Hinchcliffe said. “The demands on the tires are different and we’re trying to gather data on that as well for when we come back in June.”

Dixon and Hinchcliffe simulated side-by-side racing during the afternoon session as ambient temps rose into the 80s. While Hinchcliffe noted final downforce specs have yet to be determined by INDYCAR, Dixon pointed out the new design has eliminated 1,500 pounds of downforce.

“Fifteen-hundred pounds less downforce is a significant change,” said Dixon, who finished the 2017 season third in the championship standings with one victory and 10 top-five finishes. “There’s just a lot less grip. You’re going down the straightaway faster…there’s an increase of about 10 mph on a road-course…even today the speeds are creeping up pretty quickly. I think for me it’s a welcome adjustment being a universal kit. The car being generally more difficult to drive is good for me.

“The biggest thing of all is that they’ve done it in a way to make the car perform better _ it should be better in traffic. It should be much more predictable, a little easier to follow in traffic. In hindsight, we should get some damn good racing.

“I think it’s (INDYCAR) the greatest racing in the world right now. It’s the closest. It’s the most disparity with winners and teams _ from big teams to small teams. As a package, I think what the Verizon IndyCar Series has is the best racing right now. There is nothing else out there that comes close to it.“

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 24 2017
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