Baltimore circuit designer Tony Cotman (LEFT, shown at Sao Paulo 2010) has set the record straight about the circumstances that led to the chicane being removed for this year's IndyCar race, as well as the processes involved in rectifying the problem once it became clear that the revised track configuration was unviable.
The chicane was the target of widespread criticism from drivers at last year's inaugural race, leading to its removal for this year's event. But bumps near the Light Rail line that crosses the road proved so severe that several cars were launched off the ground during Friday's opening practice session, leaving several drivers nursing sore backs from hard landings, and Ganassi suffering an engine breakage on Charlie Kimball's car.
Cotman, whose NZR Consulting firm also handled the layouts for the Sao Paulo and Edmonton races as well as the cancelled Qingdao event, said that although he claimed responsibility for the problems with the Baltimore surface, there had been compelling reasons to drop the chicane in the lead-up to the race.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day you can't deny that the buck stops with yourself,” Cotman told RACER. “I don't want to argue that point at all. I will always push the boundaries; I will always take chances.
“But it's important that you take information from others, and particularly drivers. The drivers are in the car, they feel it, and they're a great resource. Last year, [there was] massive criticism because I ran a chicane. And the reason it was run was because of the light rail. And coincidentally, when it doesn't work this year, there's a lot of criticism. You take what you deserve, but I've consulted many, many drivers, and they all felt that they could run without the chicane. Several did last year, which I felt gave even more supporting data for what was being done.”
The drivers' case for having the chicane cut out appeared to be supported by the fact that several – some acting in response to a request from race control – short-cut the chicane during practice last year and hit the rails at racing speed. The consensus at the time was that it was bumpy, but manageable. Cotman said that he was still gathering evidence supporting the idea that the entire straight could be used uninterrupted as recently as this month.
“I've driven down it at speed in a road car only a couple of weeks ago, and at that time I discussed with a couple of drivers my thoughts, and was reassured that based on their experience from the prior year, they could get rid of the chicane,” he said.
“Ultimately, I made the decision to get rid of it. I thought that it would be a good thing due to its unpopularity in year one; I thought that it would provide a better show for the spectators, and hopefully try to enhance the passing and overall spectacle.
“Everybody knows that building street circuits is difficult, particularly here in Baltimore – the constraints here, like building at night, building around baseball games, are very, very difficult. And that's even more reason to have your ducks in a row before you begin, and you gut-check yourself along the way. But as recently as a couple of weeks ago, I was still getting reassurance.”
Cotman also sought to clarify some of the inaccuracies that had circulated around the paddock with regard to why drivers had been able to short-cut the chicane last year, but were being sent skyward 12 months later. KV Racing's Tony Kanaan had said in the press conference that Cotman had explained the problem by saying that the “rail tracks sit on rubber, so they're not the same as a year ago,” but Cotman says this is not the case.
“That's not factual at all,” he said. “The light rail isn't going to settle, let's face it. It has an extremely heavy vehicle on it multiple times per day, so if it's settling then they'd have a serious issue.”
There was also conflicting information concerning the impact of grinding work on the track surface prior to the race weekend, which was aimed at removing road markings. IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield told the media on Friday that the grinding work was not intended to change the profile of the surface, but suggested that “if you look at the profile of the pavement, the front edge before you get to the tracks, there's just enough of a lip that it bottoms out and launches the car.”
This is refuted by Cotman, who says that the grinding work was no different to that done last year.
“The road markings were actually ground off prior to last year's race, and there was further grinding that took place today between the rail tracks in an effort to reduce any high spots,” he said.
The grinding work done between the IndyCar practice session was publicly mooted as a potentially permanent fix, however the decision was later taken to install a tire barrier for the second IndyCar practice session and build a chicane overnight. Cotman says that the change of heart was prompted by seeing the performance of the US F2000 cars, which were the first to take to the track once the regrinding work had been completed, although he's convinced that the chicane's return was inevitable.
“The reality was that a permanent solution was going to be sought after Friday evening anyway,” he said. “But to get to Friday evening, how can you come up with a reasonably quick solution to make it runnable [during Friday afternoon]?
“I thought [regrinding] was a reasonable shot – it had more than a zero percent chance. Once we saw that F2000 was not really a lot better than the morning, the decision became pretty clear to go to phase two and try something else. At the end of the day we all knew what the outcome was going to be, and that was to go back to permanent kerbs.”
Meanwhile, Cotman has also suggested that changes are on the cards for another of IndyCar's controversial corners – Turn 1 at Sao Paulo.
“That has been criticised for being an accident-prone corner,” he said. “But I'll make two comments about that. One, when Sao Paulo Turn 1 was designed, IndyCar did not have double-file restarts. It was designed with the notion of what would provide the best overtaking opportunity, and the best spectacle for the fans. Since then, IndyCar has introduced double-file restarts, and I think that with a corner like that which is quite tight, it doesn't suit that anymore. Combined with that is brain failure of several kinds coming into the corner, which is pretty quick … you jump on the brakes, and it leads to shunts.
“Ultimately, if the competition rules stay the same, we need to tweak the track a little bit and open that corner up for the type of racing that they have. Having said that, when you can go there in the first year and have 97 passes in the race, it's not all bad. I will continue to push and look for ways to provide a better racing product to the spectators, and hopefully it gives IndyCar an opportunity to showcase its talent.”
Assuming that double-file restarts retain their place in next year's rulebook, the change could come as early as next year.
“There are a lot of limitations, based on the width and the drainage and some other things that go on,” Cotman said. “But I'd say that next year we'll open the corner up a little bit. Having said that, we'll wait and see what IndyCar's set of competition rules are first before I make any drastic decisions. There is nothing wrong with changing to suit the rules. But number one will always be the product.”