Race previews from teams seldom have much meat in them. Often they're headed up by either a cliché about whichever country or state they're racing in – “Michael Gofaster is Hungary for success in Budapest,” – or, particularly in IndyCar where principal sponsors change on a regular basis, there might be a clumsy pun involving the name of the latest company that no one's ever heard of: “The No. 44 Icebox entry can help Jeremy Crashalot keep his cool.” And if the writer is too uninspired to even be crass, there's always the brain-pulpingly banal, “Jonny Skidmark hoping to do well this weekend.”
Truly? You mean he's not aiming for his usual blend of mediocrity in qualifying followed by incompetence in the race? Well, well, well: good for Jonny. One click-'n'-drag later, the offending email is deleted.
But then there are press releases that provide genuine insight, and Chip Ganassi Racing's Lorin Lukas has this year been picking the brain of Brad Goldberg, Charlie Kimball's race engineer, to reveal some interesting stats. CGR's pre-Iowa release was a case in point. Did you know, for example, that the drivers are pulling 1G for 14 of the 17-point-something seconds it takes to complete a lap? Or that, in the turns, they're pulling 5G?
That makes sense when you know that IndyCars are lapping a 0.875-mile track at an average of 185mph, but now and again you need a reminder of the sheer physicality of top-level open-wheel cars. What appears reasonably simple on the surface is anything but in the cockpit.
So with no track action at Iowa on Friday, it was a good chance to ask Goldberg to elaborate on the special demands of IndyCar's shortest venue, as well as the series' oval package as a whole.
RACER: It's common among media to think that drivers find oval racing mentally challenging but physically undemanding. That's not the case here, right?
BRAD GOLDBERG: Right, you're only straight for about three seconds along the back stretch, and the rest of the time you're turning. That's not a big stress in the course of a qualifying run, but when you're doing 250 laps, it's a lot, especially when you're pulling 5Gs in the turns at each end of the course. That G load is higher here than in Texas, for example.
But then added to that is the massive bump over the tunnel between Turns 1 and 2. Because the winters are so nice up here (!), the ground settles, and that has created a section where you fall into a dip and then launch the other side. And that is right where you are pulling the most lateral load, too. So at the same time as you're getting 5G lateral load, you get at least a 2G vertical load under compression.
I've always thought that it would be really cool from a fan's standpoint if IndyCar could create a simulator that could reproduce that feeling! I'm not sure many people can comprehend what 5Gs feels like. A roller-coaster can only do so much.
So do the drivers have a lot of extra neck support around here?
BG: Absolutely. Charlie has a pad thick enough to actually tilt his head over a little bit, so that when he's turning, his head is straight up and down. And on the left of the cockpit, theres a bit more padding so that when he hits the bumps, there's just enough to keep him from rocking too much. Dario [Franchitti] is even more sensitive to that rocking sensation, and has even more padding.
Around Iowa, do you set it up so the driver is counter-steering against the banking, and then he's straightening it up to make the turns?
BG: Yeah, you can offset the steering wheel so that when he's going down the straight, he's right-hand down. But it's interesting because there's a whole psychological game going on there. Because if you ask any driver, their biggest fear is that, like driving a road car in the snow, you'll turn so much and then the right-front will grab. Well, when that happens on an oval track, the rear comes around and you go backward into the fence.
At Indianapolis, you're lapping and you're just making tiny delicate adjustments, but at Milwaukee and even more here, you're using more lock because the corners are narrower. Well, if you've set the steering to just be straight along the straights, then once the driver turns and his hands are that much further around in order to make the turn, he starts getting very nervous and doesn't want to turn the wheel any further. Then he'll come into the pits and say that he's got a lot of understeer! So if you then fix the understeer by putting more downforce on the front or taking more off the rear, then of course you really do have a problem, because now the rear end is loose and it really will whip the tail around into the wall.
So one of the first things we taught Charlie was that if he got to the point where he didn't want to turn the wheel more and felt he had understeer, come in and we'll fix that. We've had it wrong at Milwaukee in the past where the steering was just straight along the straights, so in order to make the turn, the steering was at 90 degrees or more. At 170mph in qualifying trim, that makes a driver feel nervous!
At Iowa, add to that the fact that you've got this bump over the tunnel, so they'll hit that and for a fraction of a second they're pointing straight at the wall, and then they'll make the turn. So you have to get your car to have really good compliance because a confident driver will be a fast driver.
And despite this being a very spec series, you can speed up or slow down the steering according to taste, and add or reduce castor?
BG: Yeah, you can adjust both. But on an oval, especially one where you're light on downforce, you put castor in to bring some steering feel back, otherwise some drivers start doing this [he moves an imaginary steering wheel in an agitated manner] because they don't really know where the car is. And all that does, obviously, is make the back end really nervous.
But at the same time, when you put castor in, you get a lot of kickback through the wheel, so although there are fewer unnecessary movements, the movements the driver does now make are more deliberate and the steering is heavier, and so that's more physical effort. So it's a very fine line between putting enough feel into the steering so the driver knows what the car's doing but not giving him so much physical effort that he starts getting tired – especially when, just because of the nature of the track, he's being pulled 5G one way and 2G vertically.
The other two issues to bear in mind with regards to the steering: 1) Although Iowa is wide enough to go two-wide, the high line really starts to tighten up and get squeezed on the exit of Turn 2. And 2) On the exit of Turn 3, the banking starts to unwind itself, it warps. So you hit a compression, the bottom falls out from underneath you and that's why people crash on the exit of Turn 4.
So it's safe to say that Iowa is a physical challenge as well as a mental one.
BG: It's probably the most physical track we go to in terms of lateral G, and so on a 17-18sec lap, after 250 laps, the driver gets out of the car and wants to keep walking to the left!
You're also changing gears four times a lap – upchanges on the exit of Turn 4 and exit of 2 and downchange for entry to 1 and 3.
What is the speed difference between Turns 1-2 and Turns 3-4?
BG: Very similar: in qualifying, they're doing about 190mph down each straight and around 175mph through each turn. But Turns 3-4 are probably a little easier because 4 opens up, whereas, like we said, Turn 2, you've just gotten over the bump and then the wall starts coming in on you on the exit…
Yeah so I found it odd the line that Graham Rahal ran in the Ganassi car last year really odd. It was right up by the wall.
BG: Right, and Graham does typically drive the high line around here. Is it the best? Hmm… I don't know. The really fast guys around here, like Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan, turn in late, taking a really wide entry into Turn 1, and then turn down the banking and get most of their turning done before the high-G point so they then have a really shallow exit from Turn 2, which also gives themselves a safety margin if the car steps out.
Graham's line was about taking a shallow entry into Turn 1 but it means he's still got a lot of turning to do as he goes over the compression, and then he's up by the wall on the exit, so there's no room to catch the car.
If you turn in late like Tony, like Marco, you're also having to turn in more sharply. Doesn't that take the edge off the tires quicker, especially the right front?
BG: Yes, and that will be something to watch for here. The tire is the Iowa 2012 left, but the Texas 2013 right… and we all saw the tire degradation in Texas. OK, so here we have a different setup, more downforce here, but you are also working the tires harder. The drivers just gently floating the cars through that kink in the Texas straightaway, whereas here, the front “straight” truly arcs, so the right-side tires aren't really getting a rest.
So I think you'll see everyone hold onto their tires and hold position for the first 15 laps after a pit stop, but after that, you're going to get some cars dropping off the pace, others staying up front, and some kinda dropping back but not falling off the cliff-edge.
As an engineer, I like the challenge of trying to be the guy who has his tires fall off less. There's not much room for development on these spec cars, so you grab every chance you can to find the thing that will make the difference.
Well, talking of tire degradation, everyone but Helio [Castroneves] had major fall-off in pace at Texas this year, like last year – some 15-17mph from the start of a stint to the end. That being the case, had there been a late yellow, do you think everyone would have dashed to the pits for fresh tires?
BG: Yes. We actually discussed that in the pre-race meeting because we felt that even if the yellow came out with 10 laps to go, and the green period at the end was going to be five laps, and there were only about 10 cars on the lead lap then it would be worth pitting. That's how much of an advantage new tires were. If we'd been eighth and pitted, and Helio had stayed out on old tires, I think we could have been past him within three or four laps.
And then everyone would have said it was a great race, too.
BG: Right. The problem was that these cars do push such a big hole in the air that the following cars can't use the downforce they have. And in that way, this car is almost self-policing in that with such low downforce levels, you cannot get the pack racing of old. But I was discussing this with Tom Wurtz [team manager], places like Iowa and Milwaukee, they should give us push-to-pass again. On these short straights, you can get a third of the way alongside the guy in front, maybe halfway, but if the guy ahead then dive-bombs into the apex then you have to back off and he takes the air away and you push up the track and lose your momentum.
As happened to Scott Dixon a couple of times.
BG: Exactly. So if you have a push-to-pass facility, then the car trying to make the pass is right alongside at turn-in, so then the cars are going in side by side and properly fighting. So Tom mentioned reintroducing the 20-30hp push-to-pass to Derrick Walker.
But I thought the Milwaukee race was good, anyway, and going back to your point about what fans say is a good race is very much down to the TV direction and commentating. The director needs to know what to look for, the commentators need to explain what the viewers are watching. Why does a following driver run staggered behind the car he's chasing instead of directly behind him going into the turns? You or I know it's to get clean air on his wings, but will all the people watching at home know that it's not just to get air on the nose of the car but also to get air on the underwing?
And to go full circle – what we were talking about at the start – do the fans know how much punishment the driver's being put through physically? That a 1,500lb car with 5,000lbs of downforce is going around here pulling 5G? It's that stuff that makes IndyCar what it is. And in this particular case, it's what makes Iowa Speedway what it is.