With the current schedule, the Verizon IndyCar Series runs from mid-March to mid-September, therefore leaving half a year is without competition. So what happens during the off-season?
While it may appear that they’ve taken a six-month vacation, teams are still hard at work trying to find an edge over their competitors.
Teams methodically go back through all the information they’ve collected during the racing season, analyze and dissect it, trying to discover how they can be better. Race weekends offer little chance to make corrections other than small tweaks for a given track. If the car rolls off the transporter with the wrong set up, there is little track time to make corrections and still fine tune the car.
“During the off season, teams typically take the car apart trying to get it back to its minimum weight,” explained Bill Pappas, IndyCar’s VP of Competition – Race Engineering, a former team engineer. “Every time something is added, such as a safety feature, it causes the car to gain weight. As the team tries to rebalance the car, they look at the drive line components, the shafts and joints. While they can’t change the gear box, they may improve performance with coatings and by polishing parts. Teams also work on their uprights (wheel assembly) to have the lowest drag as possible for ovals.”
The off season can actually be very busy as teams bench test as much as possible and take advantage of computer-aided simulations. Making use of these tools is at a premium since IndyCar has limited private team testing to only four days (from the Sonoma finale to mid-April) due to the aero kit development freeze (body work consisting of front and rear wings, side pods, and engine cover).
“This is the first year we are using the same aero (kits),” said Kyle Moyer, Team Penske’s Competition Director. “In the past, we had to learn how to run the new car. Sometimes we test using the seven poster rig or use a wind tunnel. The car isn’t changing for 2017 so we still have that data. IndyCar has opened up some rules that allow us to make refinements such as changes to the roll bars (driver cockpit adjustment).
“Everyone is changing over to Performance Friction Corporation (PFC) brakes. We’ve only had one day to try them out. You have to learn their characteristics as the PFC brakes are different than the previous brakes we’ve used (Brembo). They run at different temperatures and the brake bias is different. We can now modify the brake pedal with the rules opening up with a mixation system, which hasn’t been allowed since 2012.
“We have spent the off season at Team Penske expanding to a fifth entry for the Indianapolis 500 (for driver Juan Pablo Montoya). Both Tim (Cindric) and Roger (Penske) have told us that effort needs to have everything the other four cars have, including pit equipment and fuel tanks.”
Some teams are better at figuring out which aero kit parts to use and in what combination for a particular track. It’s not until the fastest driver demonstrates what is achievable that a team can know that they haven’t succeeded in finding the optimum performance.
“Our mechanical package really suited the DW12 (2012 chassis with universal body work),” said Andretti Autosport driver and 2013 IndyCar champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay. “We figured it out, we nailed it, and we were fast on street courses. With the new aero load, the different package with the aero kits, it rendered some of our street course set ups useless. We had to start reinventing the wheel all over again. That’s been a process where we’ve been a few steps behind.”
With Chip Ganassi Racing changing from Chevy to Honda power this season, their engineering staff has carefully studied the performance of every Honda aero kit part.
“You can pick up on things quite quickly using segment times and overlays, looking at statistics and the data you have every weekend at these tracks,” described Scott Dixon, four-time IndyCar champion (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015). “You discover exactly where the deficits are. Over the winter, we’ve found some good gains. Whether it’s enough at some places, or maybe not, we know where the weaknesses are.”
Moving to Dale Coyne Racing for 2017, Sebastien Bourdais recalls how far behind his 2016 season effort was after losing all his team members during the off season. Only his engineer returned at KVSH Racing. That uncertainty alone would reduce driver confidence. Bourdais cited that his right front tire man had never changed a tire before the first race.
“You just can’t go backwards for five months out of the year,” explained four- time Champ Car titlist (2004 – 2007), Bourdais. “You are only as good as the team and the team is only as good as its people. Dale (Coyne) has an effort that runs from January 1 to Dec. 31. While the resources and personnel are limited, it’s not all about the means but more about the consistency.”
With aero kits frozen for 2017, results will depend on engine performance and how well teams fine-tune their use of available parts to suit each track after their off season homework.
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