The fight against downforce
With the enthusiastic support of drivers and many others in the business, NASCAR has moved this year to a new low-downforce aero package. This has cut downforce by as much as 30 per cent.
“The drivers really pushed for this,” says Ken Howes, Hendrick Motorsports’ vice-president of competition. “We feel the new package will play to at least one or two of our drivers’ advantages at some tracks, where the tyres degenerate and the cars become awkward and difficult to drive.”
NASCAR has put more restrictions on the cars’ underbodies as well as the splitters and rear spoilers. “A fair amount of work has been going on in the wind tunnel, trying to understand where you can find some gains with the smaller splitter, spoiler and radiator pan,” Howes said. “The outer body shapes are pretty much controlled by the rules and, more and more, cars are controlled by the rules underneath. So the areas to work in are smaller and smaller all the time. It becomes more about details and fine adjustments.
“Once upon a time you could find a five- or 10-pound increase in downforce in the wind tunnel. But now it’s the old saying, ‘We’re stacking pennies.’ And it’s happening in all forms of racing, not just NASCAR. The sanctioning bodies try to decrease the speed of the cars and race teams try to increase the speed of their cars.
“Any race team is going to go to work to get as much as they can out of the rules. That’s what’s expected. It’s how racing works. Whether it’s the same rules or new rules, you’re either trying to get more out of it or get back what the rules have taken away.”
Goodyear is NASCAR’s long-time spec tyre supplier. The company has been flat out testing and building new tyres for this season. “We’re totally in favour of taking the downforce away and giving the cars more mechanical grip,” said Stu Grant, Goodyear’s director of racing. “That puts it more in the hands of the drivers.”
Before going ahead with this year’s new package, NASCAR experimented with the combination in two races last year. “As we were working with NASCAR to figure out what the rules package should be, one of the best things we did was to run the low-downforce set-up in race conditions at Kentucky and Darlington,” Grant says. “We did that with the 2015 package because we didn’t have time to make a tyre specifically for the low-downforce package, but the racing was darned good.
“We kept testing and were able to build tyres that got back, not all the grip that you lost from the downforce, but a good part of it. We got a lot of lap time back from increased mechanical grip and making a better tyre,
but not all of it.
“We’re going to hit most of the tracks with a new set-up and we’ll see how it goes in the second half of the year. If there’s a race in the first half of the season where we didn’t react in the right way, what do we do at that track in the second half of the season?
“There are a lot of moving pieces from the teams to us to NASCAR, but it’s all about communication. If you can keep a dialogue going to make sure you’ve got input, I won’t say it eliminates the surprises, but it keeps them to a minimum.
“And as the year wears on NASCAR might decide it wants to change the rules for 2017. But that’s yet to be determined. It’s a fluid and very dynamic situation. And, of course, whatever the rules are the teams are going to be busy trying to get back whatever’s been taken away.”
So goes the battle against downforce in all forms of racing, NASCAR included.