Several factors conspired to produce speeds topping out at 218mph in the IZOD IndyCar Series open test Wednesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and there was some sense of discomfort that occurred as a result. It may not necessarily be warranted, but requires a greater explanation as to why the speeds were what they were, and what it means for what we may see in May.
First off, the nine teams that were testing were using the race engines they will be running at Long Beach and likely Brazil, with a test next Monday at Sonoma also included. Teams were reluctant to push their engines too much, knowing the stresses they will go through before the focus switches to ovals, first with the Texas open test May 7 and then the opening of practice at Indianapolis on May 12.
“The balance was much improved, I think,” said Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “It was also hard to do a lot of miles because all of us had to use race engines that we may have to use, will definitely use, at Long Beach. We also have a Sonoma test on Monday and then possibly race it at Brazil, too. I think if they'd done the test a different way, you would have seen all of us run a lot more laps.”
The fastest laps of 218mph were achieved in tows – with the fastest single-car runs largely in the 216mph range at best. When cars can be tweaked to the maximum, with the rear wing laid back as far as possible after being trimmed out, speeds may be able to climb by as much as six or seven mph.
“I would certainly say it seemed to us as though the 218s that were being put down were at the end of the day in a draft,” Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand explained. “You certainly have reached higher speeds than at the previous tests just with cars out there on their own. The direction is there, and I think progress is being made.
“As we trimmed out, all that kind of stuff, we continued to have a good-handling racecar,” he added. “From that perspective, I think the teams have done a good job and the engine manufacturers have done a good job to work with the teams, get all that stuff under control, and really at this stage, I know for us, we were sort of against the limit.
“We didn't leave that test with a lot of options to continue picking up speed. I think everybody is kind of in the same boat. We'll have to sort of figure out I guess as a group where things are really going to be at when we come back in May.”
Going forward, the teams are not sure as yet – at least publicly – whether the engine manufacturers will produce an increase in horsepower from the estimated 550 at this test. There's also the question of whether the car itself can have a further reduction of drag beyond what was already developed with the new rear wing aero package.
“I felt like at the test we were getting into a range of being sort of limited in terms of taking more drag off the car,” Hildebrand said. “So it sort of remains to be seen if there will be some more tweaks and changes to make that happen.
“Historically just taking a two-inch long wicker off the right place on the car, you pick up half a mile an hour. The cars are quite sensitive. I think if the right changes can be found, speed can come in a hurry.
“On the manufacturer's side, I think it's a matter of where the engine manufacturers on the whole kind of want to go. As long as the engines are intended to last, I think there's a little bit of a limit to how much more boost will be allowed or for how long, whatever, during the month.”
Perhaps the greatest reason for the hand-wringing was IndyCar releasing a statement that 225mph was the goal for the cars to achieve by pole qualifying. The natural expectation, given the clamoring for instant gratification was that teams would be close to achieving it on day one.
“It's (about) putting on a good show,” Dixon said. “I think it was kind of crazy that IndyCar even put out a statement saying they would achieve 225 without knowing or having run there too much.
“I think those speeds are still possible. We only reached 218. But things develop fairly quickly. Once the rubber's down, I definitely see pole time being in the 220s. Whether it's 221 or 225, who really knows?”
It's been since 1996 – the last year IndyCars ran turbochargers at Indianapolis – that the words “new track record” were uttered at Indianapolis, with Arie Luyendyk at nearly 237mph (236.986) for a four-lap average. The pole speed never topped 231mph in the normally aspirated era from 1997 through 2011, with a best four-lap average of 231.725 in 2003, by Helio Castroneves. The following year, IndyCar's engine displacement dropped from 3.5 liters to 3.0, and the pole speed dropped a full nine mph to 222.024 by Buddy Rice. Honda went back to 3.5-liter engines in 2007, the formula used through last year.
Indy pole speeds have fluctuated based on engine displacement and available horsepower, although they were never less than 224mph during the six years Honda was the sole supplier. Dixon made an intriguing statement regarding the relative importance of speed going forward.
“I think speed is kind of irrelevant,” he said. “It wasn't too long ago – last year we were 226 to 228, but it wasn't too far back – we were struggling to break 223s and 224s, with the change in the engine and tires.
“You have to remember it's a new car, a new package. The boosts are a lot lower at big tracks like that. If boosts and things like that were open, those things would be achievable very easily.”
From those on site at Indianapolis, some of the issues that may have prevented quicker times were the chilly and gusty conditions out of the northeast, a suitable lack of rubber laid down, various boost levels and finding stability and handling. For what it's worth, cars in race trim have rarely topped 220mph over the last several years, with many laps in the high 218 or 219mph range.
The bottom line going forward for the series is that the speeds at Indy certainly can increase from this test, but may not be able to match the 225mph target set by the series, or the 227.472 pole speed set last year by Alex Tagliani. Whether that's problematic or not depends on who you talk to.