Of all the gifts IndyCar’s new universal bodywork has brought to the 2018 season, it should be easier for fans to follow the good, old fashioned engine wars between Chevy and Honda. In theory, at least.
By moving away from the high-downforce, custom aero kits created by the series engine suppliers, a level aerodynamic playing field has been reestablished. And from that base, the raw power and torque produced from the 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 engines made by Chevy and Honda would be able to stand out and eliminate the old questions as to whether one aero kit or the other was responsible for tilting sector times or higher top speeds in the favor of one brand.
But there’s also a wrinkle to consider that may, according to two leading drivers, turn the engine war topic upside down at most races. Owing to the significant reduction in maximum downforce with the new UAK18 bodywork on road/street courses and short ovals, crisp and consistent handling could be elusive.
Where the high-downforce Chevy and Honda aero kits made it easier for drivers to stand on the throttle and drag race between corners, the massive downforce cut in 2018 will have drivers and their race engineers scrambling to put the power down at many venues. As they contend with rear tires that are sliding or spinning more than usual, chassis and aero setups will play a much greater role in who gets to the braking zone first.
“I think what this car is highlighting and what this new bodywork is this showing is you can have all the power in the world, but we can’t put it to the ground like we did with the aero kits,” the Honda-powered Graham Rahal [below] told RACER.
“I don’t think that it is going to be one engine versus another, meaning that one is going to dominate, like it has been. I think it’s going to come down to getting the setup right on that given weekend. We’d kind of known, with the aero kits, which manufacturer was going to stand out at each track. And you’d think, by going with a universal kit, a spec kit, it would become all about who has the hot engines again, but I just don’t think that’s going to be the case.
“It’s going to be all about working with the car’s new tendencies to be light at the rear and moving around under braking and acceleration. If you get that right, and you can take care of your tires, and if you find the chassis balance that works, you’re going to be hard to beat. But I think that’s going to be more about the team, more about the driver and engineer on that day, than the engines making one group stand out over the other.”
2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud shares Rahal’s opinion, and says that of all the things the engine manufacturers can do to gain an advantage, working on throttle mapping and calibrations to help their drivers get off the corners with minimal slipping and sliding will be key.
“I definitely agree with Graham on that,” the Team Penske Chevy driver said. “I think it’s going to be a sharp edge on the setup. It’s going to be harder to find the right setup, so that’s going to make a bigger difference than anything on the engine, although you still want the best drivability to keep your tires in good shape, and you want the power to get out of the corners quicker.”
To understand how much aerodynamic downloading has been lost from year to year, the 2017 St. Pete race featured cars carrying a rough minimum of 6300 pounds of downforce to glue the cars to the track. With the switch to the UAK18, a maximum of approximately 5250 pounds is available – more than 1000 pounds less. It means the UAK18, in its most aggressive downforce settings, is about level with what teams had in 2017 at the Indy GP; a track where teams went to super-light downforce settings to maximize straightline speeds. Simply put, IndyCar’s new road racing downforce high was last year’s lowest of lows.
As a result, where the former aero kits masked some of the chassis setup problems due to the excessive downforce at play, Rahal says there’s no hiding those deficiencies with the UAK18.
“What this car does, with the lack of downforce, is it magnifies all the little issues,” said the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver. “The old car, if you were a little loose on corner entry, okay, but it did have a lot of downforce to overcome that. If this car is a little loose on corner entry, you are hanging on for dear life. It is just that simple. I think this car magnifies the weaknesses, and I think that is going to show on race days and maybe throughout even an entire weekend.”
The practice of bolting on new Firestone tires to deliver an immediate improvement in lap times during the race could also be less effective in 2018.
“I know that if I have a chassis imbalance I’m a little bit too loose in the corner entry,” Rahal said. “You see it reflected in the lap times immediately. When you put on new tires and normally it is like, ‘we’re going to go find a second’… trust me, there are a couple of new tire runs we did [in testing at Sebring] where we were a tenth quicker on used tires, because the chassis imbalance was too much. So far, for me, I haven’t seen new tires become the big fix like they were. If your setup’s off, tires aren’t going to bail you out.”
Pagenaud says we should see the same familiar faces running together, but not necessarily in the same large clusters that have been common during the aero kit era.
“There will be tracks where the balance is going to have a bigger effect on your performance than before,” he says. “With the old aero kits, you could be off on your setup but still be somewhat close to the other’s lap times. Now, I don’t think this will be the case.
“I know Chevy’s made big progress, and we’re very happy with the progress we’ve made on track lately as well, so I’m expecting it to be a very close fight. But I agree with Graham that it will be more on us to get it right with the setup than any other factor. You might have a lot of happy drivers running together, and a lot of unhappy drivers back there running together. But having everyone on top of each other might not happen.”
If engines aren’t as big of a factor in determining how many of this year’s races are decided, where might the winning advantage be found? The answer could be driver and engineer relationships.
“I’m excited about that,” Pagenaud continued. “It’s a team sport, and I think chemistry is going to show even more this year than any other year, so I’m super-excited about it. You know, that’s the kind of stuff my engineer Ben Bretzman and I [above] love talking about, and that’s why this winter was so interesting.
“We have an amazing relationship and great chemistry, which will help us to succeed. The driver and engineer combinations that work better together, that can get to the answers faster on how to improve the car; I think it will make a huge difference with this new bodywork. It’s definitely going to be more down to details, and if you can get to them first, it could be a big advantage. I feel so rejuvenated just because it’s been an exciting winter with something new to for us explore, and that’s fun.”