IndyCar: Post St. Petersburg Thoughts

I finally had the chance to watch the IndyCar season opener at St. Petersburg from this past weekend and instead of recapping the race, offering some analysis of it, or posting thoughts on the race itself, I want to revisit the post I wrote a few weeks ago about the aero kits. Without apologies, I am a supporter of the aero kits. I believe that with them, the cream will rise to the top both behind the wheel and behind the pit wall; the teams that figure out and take advantage of all of the permutations will be the ones that finish at the top of the championship at the end of the season.

I think Honda may have stolen a march on Chevrolet in the battle between the aero kits.

After watching the race, it’s obvious that I got that wrong. There are a lot of things to take under consideration, such as the capability of the team and the quality of the engine, but it looked fairly obvious that Honda was on their back foot with the aero kits at St. Petersburg. Seven of the top ten finishers were Chevrolets with the first Honda finishing in seventh.

Chevrolet, on the other hand may have been thinking more about durability.

One of the first things that I noticed during the race was how much the Honda front wing flexed and vibrated. It was particularly noticeable when the Hondas were leaving their pit box with the speed limiters engaged. It was also clear that the Honda front wings were more susceptible to damage. Both Jon Beekhuis and Scott Goodyear pointed out during the ABC/ESPN broadcast that the front wing main planes were common parts, which meant that they can’t be changed. If you compare the wings, the Honda kit has a lot more weight hanging out at the end of those main planes than the Chevrolet kit does. It looks like the main plane may not be able to handle that much hanging off of it and Chevrolet may have figured that out and Honda didn’t. Perhaps Honda is trying to play the Red Bull trick from F1 of allowing flex in the wing to reduce downforce on the straights; if so, they may have allowed too much flex. Regardless, the Chevrolet front wing was much more durable than the Honda front wing. Most of the Chevrolet front wing damage was the “upper,” which didn’t seem to effect the car’s balance as much when lost. On the other hand, most of the Honda front wing damage was the huge end plate and multiple attached elements; at least six or seven of these were lost and when lost definitely had an effect on the car’s balance.

When you take the manufacturer partnerships into consideration, the differences in the aero kits aren’t that surprising. Both partnerships are not new, both pairs have plenty of experience working with each other. Pratt and Miller are more experienced at designing GT race cars, although they have some prototype experience and Wirth Research has experience with designing prototype race cars, particularly the recent HPD/Acura ARX series LMP1 and LMP2 cars

Looking at the problems HPD and Wirth Research have had over the last month, I wonder if their problems are related. The ARx-04b coupe, which was supposed to be their LMP2 car this season has had a very rough start. After being uncompetitive at the 24 Hours of Daytona and then slow at testing at Sebring, the decision was made to withdraw it from competition and do more development on it. During IndyCar pre-season testing and during the race at St. Petersburg, the Hondas were generally slower than the Chevrolets. With both being HPD/Wirth projects being worked on at around the same time, I have to wonder if perhaps they bit off more than they could chew? It certainly seems that Chevrolet and Pratt & Miller got their kit together earlier, and possibly had more testing time thus leading to their kit’s higher performance.

I think one more thing is worth pointing out about the aero kits. The key to developing them is testing and there are really only three teams with the resources to properly develop them: Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti, arguably in that order. Chevrolet has Penske and Ganassi, the two best teams in the paddock in their corner while Honda only has Andretti in theirs. I believe that this too has resulted in what we saw at St. Petersburg (not to mention that Hunter-Reay was the only one among his teammates to keep his nose clean, he did an outstanding job of recovering from a first corner mistake).

There is going to be a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth from the fans and teams, but I still support the idea of the aero kits. Motor Sport is not just a competition to see who the best driver is, it is also a competition to see who can build the best race car. Let’s see what happens when we get to the natural road courses and the ovals…


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