Gordon Kirby

IndyCar’s aero dilemma

After the opening two races of this year’s IndyCar series it was Penske vs Ganassi once again. Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud finished one-two for Penske in the streets of St Petersburg in late March while defending champion Scott Dixon won two weeks later when the championship returned to the Phoenix oval in Arizona. 

Team Penske was in top form at St Petersburg. Its Dallara-Chevrolets swept the first four places in qualifying and finished one-two-four in the race, with Montoya scoring a clear victory. The Colombian attacked and passed Pagenaud on a mid-race restart and was in control thereafter.

Montoya turned 40 last September but remains as sharp and motivated as ever and is a favourite to win this year’s Indy 500 and IndyCar title with Penske. He believes having three fast and experienced team-mates in Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves is the key to Penske’s strength. “I’ve been with some of the top teams in motor racing, but this is the only one in which we actually help each other,” Montoya said. “It comes from Roger and goes all the way through the organisation. We’re team players.”

Dixon beat Montoya to last year’s IndyCar championship at the final round. The Kiwi won at Phoenix this year after Montoya cut a tyre while leading, but Dixon dominated the last two-thirds of the race.

“Our car was super-fast,” Dixon said. “I think it was the best out there. It was extremely quick all night. We had some bad luck at St Pete with overheating issues, but we’re a strong team. We’re always competitive and if we can figure out the first part of the season it will make the end a little easier for us. This is a tough series. You’ve got to get points, whatever the circumstances.”

Thanks to this and last year’s aero kits, downforce numbers keep going up in IndyCar. This makes for more speed and more loading on the cars and drivers. Like most of the drivers, Montoya would prefer to see downforce reduced. “I’m not a big fan of where we are with downforce on the short ovals,” he said. “I’m a big pusher for taking off downforce there. I think it would be better, but I don’t make those decisions. I drive the car and I’ll give my opinions, but at the end of the day IndyCar decides where we’re going to be, and that’s where we are.”

NASCAR’s experiment this year with a new low-downforce package has worked well, with good racing, different grooves and the cars sliding around. The drivers like the new package and it’s produced some entertaining races. “But it’s different from an Indycar,” Montoya said. “In a NASCAR you’re taking away maybe a few hundred pounds of downforce, but with an Indycar we have more than 6000 pounds. It’s much harder to figure out how you’re going to take it off. 

“It’s a lot easier in NASCAR to add or take downforce off. You’ve got the spoiler and the splitter. But our cars are different. We have different rear wings, different front wings, different side pod shapes. So how do you control it? It’s a much more complicated thing to make happen and to manage. And every time you change something, it costs the manufacturers money and makes it more expensive for them.

“You have to decide what you’re looking for. That’s the million-dollar question. Yes, we all believe we need less downforce, but we must make sure we don’t ruin the show by taking too much away. It’s a hard compromise, but it’s a work in progress. The question is, what do the manufacturers want to do?”