Have Aero Kits Been Worth It?

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The Verizon IndyCar Series is now entering the second year of the aero kit era. It has been heavily documented how far behind Honda was compared to the Chevy – especially on non-ovals. The Honda fared better on race days than in qualifying, on most street circuits and road courses. At most non-oval events, the top-ten qualifiers on the grid usually contained only two to three Hondas, and they were normally in the bottom half of the top-ten.

We all now know that Honda was given more leeway to redevelop their non-oval package than Chevy was for this season. You can argue either way on that decision, but I thought IndyCar made the smart move, even though it goes against every bone in my body to reward those that got it wrong and penalize the ones that got it right. Had IndyCar not allowed Honda to make the changes, there’s a good chance they may have packed up and gone home. That would have been devastating to the series, in my opinion.

So now that we are in Year Two of the oval kit era, there is one pertinent question still being bantered around – are the aero kits worth it?

Scott Dixon doesn’t think so, and he won the championship during the first year that teams had different aero kits. Last week, an article by Bruce Martin ran on Autosport.com that quoted Dixon saying that he thought that the aero kits hurt the racing and that the money could have been better spent elsewhere. One of Dixon’s complaints was that the dirty air caused by the aero kits was much worse last season, making it hard to get close to a car on a road course.

Had this been someone who had a strong season in 2014, but fell off the pace last season – I would have written off the comment as sour grapes. But you would think the reigning champion would be happy with the way things were. That tells me that it must’ve been really bad on the track.

But there’s another angle in the sour grapes department that needs to be considered. Scott Dixon is speaking for Chevy, who was not granted additional flexibility to redesign their aero kits for this season. Some of what Dixon said sounded as if he was afraid Honda could surpass Chevy, given their additional latitude to make changes.

The ideal scenario for IndyCar is to have Honda catch up to Chevy but not pass them. That’s about the only good thing that could happen, in the eyes of the series. There are potentially many bad things that could go wrong. The most likely is that Honda catches up to where Chevy was last year, but Chevy advances their own kit. In that case, we’ll be back where we were last season.

The two worst case scenarios would be for Honda to surpass Chevy, as Dixon pointed out. Worse than that, but probably less likely to happen, would be for Honda to go the wrong way again and be further behind than ever. I don’t see that happening, but I guess it could.

So the series is faced with four possibilities for the 2016 aero kit comparisons, and three of them are bad. The good one has the Chevy and Honda powered cars fairly even – about where things were in 2014 before the introduction of aero kits.

It’s no secret that I was a big proponent of aero kits when the concept was first introduced to us in the summer of 2010 – when the ICONIC committee chose the Dallara safety cell as the sole chassis for competition beginning in 2012. The idea was that different companies would be sourced out to develop aero kits to attach to the Dallara tub. This would be a cost-saving alternative to give teams a choice without having to decide between one chassis or another. Teams could purchase two different aero kits per season and have the ability to make changes within each kit. They could run the Boeing road course kit at Mid-Ohio and two weeks later, the Lola superspeedway kit at Fontana.

As they did in the CART days, Team Penske would have been allowed to build their own kit. However, it would have to be at least made available to other teams at the mandated price.

The whole idea was to have innovation and diversity within the series, to try and get further and further away from the unwanted tag of being a spec series.

It sounded good in theory, but no companies stepped up to design and build the kits. When no one stepped up, the idea was simplified. It came down to competition between the two engine manufacturers, which was completely foreign to the original concept. Teams had no choice but to run their manufacturer’s aero kit, no matter how bad it may be. There was no flexibility in choosing between independent kit builders, and staying with the DW12 bodywork was not an option. The result was what we got last year – two kits with half the field unhappy and unable to change anything.

So, again my question is this…have the aero kits been worth it?

I am still a proponent of the aero kits – even this watered-down version of what was originally proposed. But I’ve been proven wrong enough times in my life to know that just because I’m in favor of something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right.

I like the fact that some cars look different than the others. I’ve heard the argument that casual fans have never been able to tell the difference, but I can. At a glance, I could always tell a ’91 Lola from a ’92 Lola; or a Lola from a Reynard, Penske or Swift. And who couldn’t tell that a Galmer looked different. Of course, I’m still amazed that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between HD and standard-definition television.

But is it worth affecting the racing and spending a fortune just to have cars look slightly different? What originally appealed to me about aero kits was thinking that teams would have the flexibility to experiment with a lot of different options. The rigidity of the rulebook has pretty well nixed any opportunity for innovation among teams. Any innovation takes place with the aero kit designers and once the design is in place, you can pretty well forget any major changes for the year. If it didn’t work at St. Petersburg, it probably won’t work at Sonoma either.

Is it bad that half the field had an inferior product? That was never considered a crisis before. Before the 1992 season started, Team Penske was the only Chevy team to run the Chevy-B. Going into the season, it was touted to be lighter and more powerful than the Chevy-A, which had been the envy for many years but was getting long in the tooth. In short, the Chevy-B was a dog. Not only could it not match up to the new Ford-Cosworth XB, it wasn’t even as good as the Chevy-A. Yet, I don’t recall Team Penske whining that they were entitled to a do-over. They took their lumps and got the improved Chevy-C in 1993 that all the Chevy teams got.

Racing has always been like that. You take risks to go faster. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires. I’ll still take that scenario any day over the spec series that was IndyCar from 2006 through 2011, when everyone ran a 2003 Dallara powered by Honda. There was no innovation or risk-taking. Everyone had the exact same car. The only difference was the driver and/or quality of the teams.

I’m curious to know what you think. I don’t see the aero kits being abandoned after two years, but who knows what this season holds? Please feel free to elaborate on your thoughts in the comment section. Unlike certain topics, I’m somewhat pliable on this subject.

George Phillips

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21 Responses to “Have Aero Kits Been Worth It?”

  1. 2006-2011 were some of the worst years (wait I take that back) since 1996. The years immediately following the split (the IRL) were the worst and at that period, IndyCar fans witnessed total destruction of what was one of the most popular, competitive forms of motorsport on the planet and got really ticked off. I personally was so offended by what was happening I probably still to this day have not gotten over it. IMO, many who were not fans during that time underestimate, for just plain do not understand the the gravity of how pissed off the fans really were. All one has to do is look at IndyCars current state and this supports this premise. Fans got so mad, they left, and they never came back.

    I think personally think Honda and Chevrolet are in too deep financially with the aero kits to abandon them. If they stick with it they both will look back and be thankful. There is no turning back in my opinion. They will continue to develop as they should and I think the rules need to accommodate as many unlimited tweaks as deemed necessary by both manufactures to get an edge. This folks is called innovation, a keystone to survival of the series.

    I have read engines are continuing to get upgraded as well. Nearing 750 horsepower for 2016 This is another positive step. I was really encouraged to hear that.

  2. The first half of the season they were not worth it, but during the second half they were worth it. All I hope for 2016 is that teams outside of Penske and Ganassi can race for the win at the Indy 500.

  3. the idea of the aerokits was good but the implementation of the aerokits is disappointing. too similar, too fragile, too expensive. I wonder if the aerokits had not come along, if the owners could have invested the money on more cars and drivers.

  4. Mike Silver Says:

    Aerokits would be worth more if teams were allowed to make in season tweaks. The rulebook needs to loosen up. I am talking about team tweaks, not manufacturers. Take driver prefernces into account.

  5. This series lives and dies on sponsorship. If I as a sponsor found that I had spent millions on a dog for the rest of the season after St. Petes … with no recourse… then I doubt I’d be back again.

    The tweaks must be allowed at any time during the season if only to appease the people who pay the money.

  6. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    One axiom seems to never have changed in all of autosport, when considering how to best the competition –
    “Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?”

    To me, this is what Indycar (and most all autosport) has been about since inception. There’s nothing particularly egalitarian about the sport. Fairness in most all American professional sports is the norm. Franchises, owners, teams, all have some limited latitude to spend their way to winning, but largely that has been reduced as much as possible, for better or worse. There’s little penalty for owners to have a dud of a team, Indycar included.

    The question seems to be, “Is there a place for more risk-taking, more outright and open competition, and is that place in motorsport?” In my opinion, yes. It’s still how a sport can differentiate itself from most others on the planet.

    So given the thin choice between the much-compromised aerokit idea and single-spec vehicles, I suppose I’ll take aerokits. It’s the last bastion of the appearance of any sort of variable and open competition.

    ‘Open competition’ doesn’t have to mean ‘unlimited competition’, but it certainly can be more open than it is today, and to me it’s a sad state when the debate between the highly-balanced aerokit/engine “competition” and a single-spec car is what we as fans have left. I think the relative ratings and stature of the sport also reflect that.

  7. Bruce Waine Says:

    For a perspective from another driver, it is well worth reading Rick Mear’s technical advise in the October 28th, 2015 MOTORSPORT web site interview with and written by David Malsher.

    http://www.motorsport.com/indycar/news/rick-mears-sounds-indycar-warning/

    A portion of Rick’s interview follows………….

    The illogical ‘safety’ argument

    It’s important to understand that throughout this interview, Rick Mears has maintained his customary poise. The Wichita, Kansas-born/Bakersfield, California-raised legend is renowned for his pleasant demeanor and that shy affability that charms fans as well as media grubs. But there are hints of both outrage and exasperation in his voice as he discusses the hypocritical and groundless arguments presented by drivers who lack faith in their own skills.

    “What I think is wrong is people who try to argue that the cars being too much of a handful is a safety issue,” says Mears. “It’s not; it’s up to a driver to adapt and drive to the limit of what he’s given. When I was racing, if someone had told me that everyone had to run on three wheels instead of four, fine – it’s then up to me to try and make sure that I’m the fastest guy on three wheels. But some of the drivers roll out this ‘safety’ word, and suddenly it ties everybody’s hands.

    “But you know, those arguments make no sense anyway. Remove downforce and you actually improve safety. The more the car is stuck to the track, the more lateral load it creates, the less progressive it is to control; the harder you lean on it, the quicker it goes away when it finally snaps. Reduce that lateral load so it’s up to the driver to use his feel and judgment to gauge where the limit is, and you put it back into his hands and at a slower speed.
    “Some of the drivers roll out this ‘safety’ word, and suddenly it ties everybody’s hands. But those arguments make no sense anyway. Remove downforce and you actually improve safety”

    “After the Justin Wilson tragedy, everyone was very quick to jump on the bandwagon about how to get tethers to stop these aerodynamic bits flying everywhere and so on. I was saying, ‘Whoa, back up a bit and look at the basics. No question we can improve those tethers, but don’t make that the story.

    The best thing we can do, the fundamental thing, is make sure the cars aren’t hitting the walls so hard that they explode [like Sage Karam’s did]. And what’s the best way to solve that? Reduce corner speeds.’

    “Reduce the corner speed by reducing downforce, and suddenly you have a car that’s quicker in a straight line and slower in the corner, and so it demands more skill to drive because you have a bigger differential between terminal speed and corner speed. You as a driver decide when or if you need to change down a gear, and when you need to get back on the throttle.

    “And like I say, by reducing that lateral load, the car will have more feel so the driver has a chance to catch it, so there’ll be fewer accidents anyway. It wouldn’t be like the string suddenly breaking and the car shooting up the track into the wall. Fewer accidents, fewer broken bits flying around.”

    Angles of attack
    “Less downforce also alters the line you take to the corner, and therefore the angle you’re going to spin,” observes Mears. “If you’re going from up near the wall on the straight, but diving down to the apex to take the fastest line, you’re at a shallow angle. And at the critical point when it’s likely to let go – as you’re picking up the throttle – you are furthest away from the fence. That means you have the whole track width to either save it or, if you lose it, brake and scrub off speed.

    “I remember my first test with Penske at Phoenix. [Team Penske incumbent] Tom Sneva spun on three separate occasions and didn’t hit the wall once! The less lateral load, the longer the spinning arc. With too much downforce, there is no arc; the string – grip – suddenly snaps, disappears, and you plow into the wall, often with the front-right corner.”

    Would IndyCar insisting on the low and slender superspeedway wings rather than road course wings help improve the racing on the smaller ovals?

    “Heck yes!” declares Mears immediately. “We did some filming for a Pennzoil commercial at Phoenix in the mid-’80s, and we had to run the car in superspeedway trim. Well, after the ad footage was in the can, I told the team I wanted to go run some laps at speed and find out what it feels like. And I’ll be damned: I had to use the brakes, like I had with the flat-bottomed car I’d run there in ’78! I genuinely had to drag the brake into Turns 1 and 3. Yes, OK, it felt terrible for the first five or ten laps because it wasn’t what I was used to, but then I got comfortable with it and I thought, ‘Hey, I’m really driving the car; I’m having a lot more input.’”

    “Slow the corner speeds and it’s like making the SAFER barriers even softer and making the cars stronger – and for almost no expenditure”

    Just as he spurns the argument that tricky-handling cars are a safety hazard, so Mears points out that passive safety measures are improved with a downforce reduction… and for precious little outlay.

    “Slow the corner speed and it’s like making the SAFER barriers even softer and making the cars stronger – and for almost no expenditure,” he points out with disarming clarity. “That’s your safety improved by a major percentage without doing anything except modify the cars, and making them better to race. And it’s so cost-effective too, because you already have the necessary parts. It’s not an additional expense.

    “So I don’t react well when I hear the drivers try and play the safety card, saying ‘We’re going to hurt someone if we radically reduce downforce.’ Their logic and the physics just don’t add up.”

    Mears is way too smart and way too content with his life as consultant for Team Penske and driver coach for Indy Lights drivers to ever take the job of IndyCar’s president of competition. But whoever does get that role would be advised to have the Rocket on speed dial.

    Unlike most opinions he’ll hear, Rick’s have been formed not by self interest but by experience, sound reasoning and a wish to see IndyCar stop picking at a growth that needs lancing.

    But will anyone be brave enough to damn the drivers’ torpedoes and hit the reset button on downforce?

    This appears to be one of those rare cases where going radical is also logical, economical, ethical – and in pure racing terms – desirable.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      #BAM Spot on. Love that Mears guy.

    • Christopher Says:

      Many of the classic moments at the Indy 500 (and other races) include a driver truly “driving” the car. Danny Sullivan spinning … and then winning would not be possible with today’s high downforce set-up — he would have plastered the wall and been done.

    • Two counter points to Rocket Rick’s thoughts (which I have to also say I’m not opposed to at all, just that I don’t think the issues are as cut and dried as he makes them sound):

      1) I haven’t heard many drivers hold up “reducing downforce” as a safety issue. In fact, most drivers that I’ve heard quoted have also advocated for reductions to downforce levels (with one very vocal dissenting voice the other way…).

      2) Putting superspeedway wings onto the cars on the short ovals may mean putting steering wheels back in the drivers’ hands, but it doesn’t mean that the racing is automatically going to be “better”. CART did exactly that in the early 2000s, and the resulting race that I attended at the Chicago Motor Speedway in 2002 (won by Cristiano da Matta) was one of the most mind blowingly boring races I’ve ever attended (rivaled only by the Kansas Speedway race I attended in 2010). With little downforce, there was basically no on-track passing all day, and I remember spending giant chunks of the race twirling my stopwatch around my finger while counting down the laps until the opening of the next pit window, when we might actually see a change of position. The racing might get more “interesting”, in that the cars will be harder to control, but side by side racing may, in fact, suffer.

      This is a tricky balancing act, to be sure.

    • For almost every day of my time covering racing, 1975-1996, 2001-2003, I was assigned to capture “track action”, meaning anytime a race car deviated from traveling front end first.
      In the earlier years I frequently exposed most, if not all, of a 36 exposure roll of film as cars spunn around and around often without hitting the wall, sometimes hitting so slowly that damage was minor.
      I vividly remember one time when Tom Bigelow got loose in Turn 1 at IMS. As the car rotated I could hear the full roar of the engine when the nose was pointed away from the wall, the the squeal of the locked tires when the nose turned toward the wall. He was doing a masterful job of driving and avoided contact.
      As the years went by, it became more and more rare for a driver to be able to do anything once he, or she, lost traction.
      Rick Mears is absolutely right.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I say they have been worth it, because I think having aero kits is more interesting than not having them. I am also aware that I am (far too) easy to please and not an especially representative sample of the greater American motorsports fan that Indycar seeks to appeal to, so my personal preference doesn’t mean much here.

    Aero kits were a compromise, and a somewhat clever one, I thought. In theory they really do allow for levels of technical innovation, aesthetic differentiation, and competition similar to what was seen in the CART era when multiple manufacturers produced new cars every year. In practice, they have not lived up to that potential (at least in part because they are directly tied to the engine manufacturers), but have shown flashes of it. Given the current economic state of the sport, I think aero kits are probably the best way to maintain a fair-sized grid and recapture some elements of the chassis competition of old.

    Compromise, of course, often pleases no one, and there are certainly a lot of fans and participants alike who are not pleased with aero kits. I do think part of this stems from everyone involved in the sport spending a whole decade without any meaningful level of chassis competition. A status quo without significant changes was created, and status quos are difficult to break out of.

  9. I am not quite sure how to answer the question. Worth it to who? (or whom? I never could get that right)
    Was it worth it to the engine manufacturers who put up most of the money and continue to do so. I can’t speak for them, of course, but I doubt it.

    Was it worth it to the teams from a financial standpoint? My impression is that the team owners and most drivers feel the same way as Scott Dixon. Not worth it. Allow the teams to make their own tweaks during the season.

    Was it worth it from a fan’s standpoint? I can only speak for myself. At speed there is still little difference in appearence between Honda and Chevy. I think the cars look even less sleek with all those little winglets and such tacked on.

    Was it worth it to IndyCar as a series? Not much bang for the buck in my opinion although it was someone else’s buck. The money spent on aerokits could have had a much greater positive inpact if it had been spent on marketing, although I am not sure that would be true if IndyCar was to do the marketing.

    With some teams cutting back on the number of cars in their stable, likely due to lack of sponsorship money, I feel strongly that IndyCar needs to take a long look at how to make the series more affordable for the owners and for track promoters. The current trend seems to be less tracks and less cars. By less tracks I mean less track continuity.

    I also tend to agree with Rick Mear’s comments as posted above. More horsepower, less downforce.

  10. ecurie415 Says:

    “You know what would have made this race better? Aero kits,” said no one, ever. An expensive gimmick that made no sense when it was announced (I can’t think of an open wheel racing series where one company builds a car but lets a third party modify the aero). It makes even less sense today. This, to me, is the natural consequence of having a single chassis manufacturer and having few ways to differentiate the cars on a visual level. It’s caused expense, division in the paddock, and at least one alleged fan injury. A half-hearted execution of a dubious original idea. Time to go.

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