Two-time Champ Car champion Alex Zanardi has criticized the pack style of racing seen in IndyCar after the death of Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas.
"As I often say, it's not speed that's the cause of such a crash. If anything, it could be an aggravating factor," Zanardi said in an interview with Autosprint. "My early years of oval racing, up to 1998, were always very dangerous. Back then, setting up the car meant finding a compromise on the car's speed. You would let it slide until the downforce wasn't yet too low in a way that penalizes turn speed too much.
"It was drift driving, and tire degradation was an important parameter. If a driver crashed against the wall, it was usually his own mistake after he had underestimated these factors.
"Nowadays, instead, driving has become too easy. At turn entry, mid turn, and turn exit, the car is attached to the road surface. In the name of safety – in principle it was even right – it was tried to slow down the cars by giving them an exaggerated amount of downforce, and therefore high drag. The result is that, in order to find speed, you see setups with the front being 3in. higher than the rear, to lessen the wing's influence! This is nonsense, but it's a necessity to beat the stopwatch."
Although Zanardi did not race in the Indy Racing League-sanctioned IndyCar Series, he competed on the high-banked superspeedways in Champ Car – including during the Handford wing era when the Michigan and Fontana events featured non-stop slipstreaming between cars, the closest Champ Car came to the current style of IndyCar pack racing.
"At the beginning of 1998, the Handford wing was introduced in our series. It was a sort of an L-shaped Gurney flap attached backward, and it was supposed to slow down the cars by generating drag," Zanardi recalled. "After the first race I, Michael Andretti and Greg Moore were literally assaulted by enthusiastic journalists who would say what a great race it was, what spectacle.
"We looked at each other and, without having agreed beforehand, we replied simultaneously: 'Have you seen the same race as us?' For us it had been crap: with the Handford you couldn't open up a gap to your rival anymore.
"Our job wasn't to race anymore, it was to wait to catch the final slipstream. No more talent, just strategy and that's it. In the long term, this has made the Indy audience fall out of love, too.
"At Las Vegas, it wasn't a race between drivers anymore. It was a pack of cars moving all together, bunched up with no chance of breaking off. Now, when you race for five minutes with your rival right next to your side, at the point that you notice if his sponsor stickers are not straight, when it's too easy do drive even on the outside line...
"At that point it's like driving with a tutor. An obscenely idiotic thing, because then you distract yourself for not concentrating enough. After a while, even if you are traveling at 200mph, you don't realize it anymore."
Zanardi, who lost both his legs in an accident during his Champ Car career, thinks driver standards are also lowered by the pack racing.
"In my times, if you went racing on a road course, Paul Tracy would bang wheels regardless when you got by his side. Instead at Michigan, a super-quick track, he would have enormous respect for anyone.
"With these cars, instead, you drive by always keeping the inside white line as your reference, just because that's the shortest line; the car is glued to the track anyway. But I prefer to race with 1,000hp while having to manage the car, instead of nowadays' 650hp and these absurd levels of grip."