The big left turn

Ovals are just about turning left, right? Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and Dario Franchitti beg to differ and tell David Malsher about life at 350ft per second

Peter Twiss captured the World Air Speed record in the Fairey Delta 2 back in 1956. He wrote a book on the subject and its title, Faster than the Sun, is based on scientific fact: at 1132mph, Twiss was travelling quicker than the earth rotates.

Watch a Champ Car race at a superspeedway from an in-car camera and the proximity of the walls can have you believe that you too are outrunning nature. Attempt to focus on something static by the side of the track, and note how soon it flashes past as your mind fails to attune to 240mph. See someone lose it up ahead, and before you and I have time to do anything other than grip the arms of the sofa, your 'chauffeur' has hopefully got out of the throttle enough to jink round the clouds of tyre smoke and debris.

Like Twiss, Neville Duke and other test pilots of the '50s and '60s, Champ Car drivers utilise the best-looking machines of their type in which the need for ultimate speed has evolved their shape into the perfect blend of beauty and purpose. And again, like those airborne heroes, an oval racer needs technical knowledge and experience to get the most from his machinery; skill is not enough to succeed.

No-one knows this better than Rick Mears. Since John Cooper and Colin Chapman turned the Indycar world upside down and front to back in the early 1960s, there has been no greater oval racer than Mears. In a discipline where races can, and have been, won by tenths of a second, he could split those tenths into hundredths and save enough of them on each turn to eke out a crucial advantage. If you want to know about oval racing, he's the man to ask.

It's such a different style from a road course. Yes, you have to be smooth and precise on both, but on a road course you can make bigger errors and bigger corrections slide the car, drive it loose, and get away with it On a speedway you can't do that. Once it starts to slide, you're gone. So you've got to work off the feelings you get before the car reacts, not wait until it does it and then correct To run close to the limit on a speedway you have to be very smooth, precise and gentle. You gotta roll into the corner, no abrupt turn-in. The faster the circuit, the more it is that way. And the faster a circuit, the more it suited my natural driving style. On slower circuits, where you hustle the car, I had to learn that technique more."

This seems curious, because Rick actually started his circuit racing in Formula Vee and Super Vee on road courses. Indeed, his first real taste of ovals did not come until he reached the top of the tree, ChampCars. A steep learning curve, but Mears had on his side not only innate skill, but valuable lessons learnt at the school of hard knocks and soft shocks.

"Before Formula Vee, I was doing off-roading at places like Baja, and setting up your vehicle for that was all about suspension, wheel travel, shock valveing, how to get through bumps quicker than the next guy. Since then, I've always had a pretty good technical understanding of the car, and I could make corrections during the pitstops throughout the race especially 500-milers and each stop make a change. I enjoyed working with set-ups and working with engineers, so that was a plus for me also. On an oval you have to make the car carry you, because you can't hustle it"

Mario Andretti, having tried and succeeded at every form of motorsport, is in the perfect position to concur: "I don't care who you are, unless your car is set up properly on an oval, it is almost impossible to overcome a deficiency. On a road course you can muscle the car and make do. On an oval, if the car's an oversteering pig, you cannot overcome that and, sooner rather than later, you're gonna crash, usually from overcorrecting. Drivers who excel on ovals are the ones with the best feel for chassis set-up, no question."

That's where Scotsman Dario Franchitti initially struggled: "To be honest, I'm still coming to grips with ovals," he says modestly. "But I had a real problem the first year I was here, in 1997, not because I could not drive them, but because I didn't know what I wanted. I didn't know how to get the best from the car or work properly with the engineers.

"For example, in my first season, at Milwaukee and Nazareth, I qualified very close to the back, and raced there too. But I almost won at Gateway and led at Michigan. At that time, it just depended on whether we had hit the set-up just right. On a road course, I could go to the engineers and say, 'I want this and this,' or 'I want this to happen'; on an oval, I was left wondering, 'What do I want here? What does a good car on an oval feel like?'

"On an oval you have qualifying cars and race cars; different set-ups, which can be dramatically different. Carl Hogan, my team owner that year,was very good at guiding me, as were his engineers. But in the end it comes down to personal feeling, and they couldn't help me if I didn't know what I wanted or needed.

"What I quickly found out was that, on an oval, the slightest things made a huge difference and you should just be fine-tuning the car. The differences between corners are smaller than on a road course, and so the tolerances of what works and what does not are much tighter."

Mears was quick to figure out what he needed. In 1978, his second full season, he sat on the outside of the front row for the Indy 500. By 1979, he was on pole. Not long after that, he made qualifying on ovals into an art form.

"With qualifying one by one, you don't need it to run in traffic, so you can minimise the downforce. Then you can reduce the downforce still further, because you're on brand new tyres, the most amount of grip you'll ever have with them.

"Qualifying for the Indy 500 was always the most stressful thing I did throughout the year. Forget the fact that it took a month. On most ovals you do two flying laps and the best of them decides your grid position. At Indy, you had four laps of a 2.5-mile course but it was the average that counted blow one corner and you blow the whole run. So the mental strain of that, to stay focused, to get the car set-up to work for all four laps...

"The car might be set up to have a little bit of understeer for the first lap-and-a-half and then, as the tyre performance starts to level off, the fuel load starts to go down, it will neutral-up in the second and at the start of the third lap and, by the end of the fourth lap, the car is very loose. You'd go into Turn One, log what the car did, correspondingly adjust your pattern into Turn Two, and on Three, you'd make any adjustment from what you learnt in Two. And so on. That then gives you two sets of data in your head when you reach Turn One again: how it behaved coming out of Four, and how it behaved the last time you were in One. And then you might have wind direction and speed to consider too.

"You know, it's easy to go out on any oval and run 5-10mph off the pace lock the car down with aerodynamics so you can go through corners flat But if you're gonna try and beat the next guy, then you've got to do all the fine-tuning."

Says Andretti: "Since day one when we started to use aerodynamic devices on the cars, I used to absolutely trim the car out to the maximum in qualifying, and afterwards I'd come into the pits breathing like crazy having driven on the absolute edge. I mean, if I ever had a comfortable qualifying run, I could guarantee I would not have pole."

For all the constant set-up changes, the adjustments to tyres, tweaks to wing settings the quest for perfection, basically a good oval driver will have to live on instinct too, as Mears stresses: "If you get a wind blowing from end to end of the oval, it will make the car handle one way between Tunis One and Two, and the opposite way between Three and Four. If you're running with the wind down a straight, then when you turn you'll start running into the wind, which tends to blow the front out, so you get big understeer up to your apex. Then, as you come to point more directly into the wind, it'll blow against your tail and the car will get loose. How much it does this depends on the strength of the wind, which can rise and fall as you go from corner to corner. So as you exit, you might catch a big gust that pins the nose of the car and puts your tail way sideways. You have to deal with it"

So is it possible to snap some opposite lock at 220mph or so?

"Sure. You gotta have it where you turn into the corner in almost neutral steering, and unload the steering as you run through the corner, loading the car on the right-rear rather than the right-front But just a hair more, and it's too much. So you gotta stay close to that that's the hard part. And if you're going to run on the limit, there are going to be times when you overstep just a little and you're gonna have to catch it"

As if that thought isn't mind-warping enough, just the whole principle of steering can change from circuit to circuit, driver to driver. Says Franchitti: "Some guys set up severe stagger so the car has to be steered right to hold it on the straight; then, as they are going into the corner, the car is almost going straight. But I like to drive the car into the corner, so I have it set conventionally. We slow our steering down a lot for ovals, so a bit of turn doesn't make a lot of difference, but helps you fine-tune your trajectory. The downside is that it also makes it very awkward to get into your box in the pitlane." Less of a problem in qualifying, but just one of many factors to consider on raceday.

Andretti: 'The difference in set-up between qualifying and race depends on whether your car is in the ballpark performance-wise. For me, the less you had to do set-up-wise between qualifying and race, the better. But sometimes that's not good enough; last year, they had to do so many weird things to Michael's Lola to make it really competitive for both circumstances."

But be your car good or bad, there are things you have to take into account for raceday, like drafts, which necessarily affect your choice of gear ratios.

Mears: "In the past few years, changing down has been done more and more, because of the reduction in downforce. Some of the ovals have a tight-radius turn at one end, so that to maximise the power in such a small powerband, some of the guys are going down two gears to fourth.

"But on raceday you'll want fifth and sixth ratios close together. The Handford Device (sidebar, page 38) creates a big hole in the air, and a lot of drag, so you get a lot of draft you can pick up 10mph behind someone. So you also need to consider a gear that you would run when in traffic, and another one that you use when you're out on your own."

The downside of getting a tow, as in Formula One, is arriving at a corner still tucked up behind your quarry, as Mears explains: `To keep up with someone through a turn, you need to dink one way or the other to get clean air over your wings. The first year I won Indy, I was chasing Bobby Unser and got a run on him, but it was his line going into One, so he chopped down on me legitimately so! was now in a big hole in the air, the turbulence. If I had carried on turning in that hole, I'd have picked up a big understeer, and when I came out the other side of that hole with lock on, it would have suddenly pinned the front down and spun me. What I did was turn the wheels back to straight ahead, drove like I was going straight into the wall,waited until I was through the turbulence, and once I had clean air on the wings, gently fed back the lock to make the corner."

With this knowledge, a driver might shake off a pursuer, though getting it right takes someone canny and intelligent Someone like Mario Andretti. "Oh sure, it's very legitimate," he asserts. "If I had someone following me real close at a speedway in the closing laps, I'd go fora very late apex and then cross right in front of them, so right in the middle of the corner they would lose front-end downforce. I won a few races like that The guy you were fighting with might say, 'Oh, you were blocking me,' and I'd say, 'No, you were behind me, I was using all the track, and I was just giving you all the shit that I could."

'Using all the track' is an option these guys only get sporadically during a race, for one's line will often be dictated by the position of rivals, back-markers or dropped oil from an accident Thus it is when you watch the cars in qualifying that you will see oval driving at its purest. Like Andretti says, 'There is no rule of thumb which says, This is how you must drive an oval'. They're all different.

"Each oval will have a certain radius that will allow you to do certain things. At Michigan, you see three cars abreast through a comer, but you don't see that at Fontana where the inside groove is definitely quicker. Then there's Nazareth where you're relegated to one quick line arid a lapped car can keep you back forever. The Milwaukee one-miler is so wide you can 'diamond' the turns come into a late apex, make it into a real corner right in the middle of the radius, slide the tail and shoot straight off."

That's an exception though, as Mears explains: "Making the middle of the corner tight means you either have to scrub a lot of speed with the fronts or get the rear real loose. At almost all the tracks you straighten turns as much as you can, make the arc less pointed. You set the car up so you can run in real late and real high, and get the bulk of the turning accomplished before you get to the middle of the corner. So by mid-turn, you're already straightening the car up to get a faster exit"

Got that? Now imagine you're in the race, and there are backmarkers and rivals trying to prevent you taking this perfect line. Add to that, voices in your car, asking you questions.

Franchitti: "Me and the team have a constant conversation on ovals. They're asking me how the car is, and I'm saying, 'Well, here it's doing this, in these circumstances it's doing that'. So I'm adjusting the car constantly with the rollbars and the weight-jacker [a device for moving corner-weights across the car]. This keeps the handling consistent as we go from heavy fuel load to light, and then in the pits my team will adjust tyre pressures, tweak the wing settings, etc. Between us, we're constantly tuning the car; a 500-mile race has seven pitstops, and that's seven chances for the team to adjust the fundamentals. And so by the final stint before the chequered flag, we should be flying along with a perfect set-up."

So which is the most demanding type of track?

Mears: "The superspeedways, because if you make a mistake, it's gonna be a big mistake at 230mph. So to run faster than everybody else, close to the limit, on that limit without ever overstepping it, leaves you mentally drained."

Franchitti: "A one-miler like Nazareth is probably the most demanding mentally because, even at 175 or 180mph, it's such a short lap that you're constantly passing other cars so it feels incredibly quick, like pressing fast forward on your video."

Two views, two extremes. And Rockingham, should your appetite not already be whetted, should fall smack between the two in terms of speed. For the majority of British fans it will be a whole different type of racing.

The best type, in fact.

The Handford Device: why going slower is such a Drag

The intention of the Handford Device is to slow overall lap speeds, and that is something it has achieved admirably, though the drivers have not always enjoyed its side-effects.

It was all triggered by cart's first visit to Fontana, California, in 1997, when Mauricio Gugelmin's Reynard-Mercedes hit 240.942mph. Yep, that's the speed over a whole lap; the Brazilian was reaching 250 on the straights, 230 through the turns. Phenomenal, outrageous, impossible but there was the evidence. It may have set a new closed-course record, but it brought lap speeds to the forefront of the agenda in off-season discussions.

What could be done? Insist on more wing so the cars were slower down the straights and pressed harder onto the track in the turns, so the drivers would be hard on the gas for longer and so hitting the straights quicker than ever, before they hit a 'brick wall' of drag? Or reduce wing sizes so they're slower off the turns and suddenly their terminal speed on straights is stratospheric, the cars more unstable, increasing the chances of the drivers just hitting a concrete wall?

Mark Handford, then the aerodynamicist at Swift Engineering (now with Jaguar Racing) solved the dilemma. For ovals where speeds are held in check (relatively speaking) because all the teams run high-downforce settings anyway, the Handford Device stretches across the full width of the rear wing, thickening it and altering its profile. Unlike a conventional wing's thin planes, it creates drag by its very shape and, together with the wicker which rises up vertically at the rear, increases frontal area.

The version of the Device used on superspeedways differs in that it is needed to reduce cornering speeds still further, because the cars will be in low-downforce settings in order to attain higher speeds on the straights. So this version has an additional lip protruding below the rear of the Device, which creates an area of high pressure there high enough to counteract some of the downforce acting on the top of the Device. The result is less grip in the corners, while the increased frontal area means more drag on the straight.

The turbulent wake behind a ChampCar stretches back a long way 200 yards-and a following driver travelling at the some road speed, once in the tow, will find he has a lower airspeed and can now pull up onto the tail of his prey at a rate of around 10mph. However, once there, the turbulence makes it a tricky prospect to actually make the passing manoeuvre.

These boys have to be skilful, brave and committed.