When downforce dominates over power, so that a car can be driven flat out around a high-banked superspeedway, it results in ‘pack racing’ with competitors jammed closely together. It’s a fearful business and often results in big, multi-car accidents in both NASCAR and IndyCar.
For years IndyCar’s drivers have pleaded to get rid of the ‘pack racing’ everybody loathes.
It was this that resulted in Dan Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas in 2011, and many drivers and team bosses can’t believe IndyCar has made so little progress to eradicate it.
“I told IndyCar we shouldn’t be racing like this,” says Indy 500 winner Juan Montoya after July’s crash-filled California 500. “Sooner or later somebody is going to get hurt.”
When it comes to the right balance between downforce and horsepower, few are better placed to provide perspective than four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, who continues these days as an invaluable consultant to Team Penske drivers Montoya, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.
“One of the things I always say is that downforce is like money to a driver,” Mears says. “If you made $50,000 one year and $100,000 the next, and were then cut back to $50,000, you would say, ‘That’s impossible. I can’t live on so little’. But if you have to, you discover that it can be done.
“A few times in the CART days I recall that we’d try running less downforce. For the first few laps I didn’t like it, but after I had run 30 or 40 it was fine. I felt like I was driving the car again, like I had more input.
“Then they would try it with some other drivers and right away some of them would say, ‘You’re trying to kill me!’ So there were always arguments about taking off downforce and there always will be.
“But eventually, it has to happen. I’ve said it for years and others have too, and maybe one day some other people will wake up and say, ‘You know what? Aerodynamics is the worst thing that ever happened to motor sport.’
“Today, it dictates everything about the car. They’ve been going down a path with more and more downforce and they’re just boxing themselves into a corner. It’s like anything. At one point something is good but then it reaches a level that’s bad for business. The drivers don’t want ‘pack racing’, but they seem unable to get away from a formula that creates it.
“Sometimes when you’re chasing the set-up in a car, you work and work and you don’t get anywhere and you have to say, ‘Let’s stop and go back to where we were and start again. Let’s try another direction.’
“We’ve made the cars stronger and safer, we’ve built safer walls and better catch fences. The sport has done a tremendous job, but you can’t keep on down this path. If you reduce the downforce and reduce the lateral load on the cars you make all these things better. In effect, you make everything – the cars, the walls, the catch fences – safer than they are now.
“I wanted to drive. That’s what I loved doing and that’s what I got paid for. There’s driving and there’s guiding, and they’re two different things. I liked to drive it, not guide it. The more driver aids we have, the less input we have.
“To me, the fun part was: give me more power than I can use and let me figure out how to use it better than the next guy.”
These words come from one of motor racing’s rare geniuses, a sublimely smooth driver and superb racer. It would be foolish for our industry to ignore Rick’s observations. Heeding and understanding them is essential to the future of the Indy 500 and, indeed, Indycar racing.