IndyCar 2020 hot topics: Can Richmond deliver a thriller?

David Malsher-Lopez
motorsport.com

In 2009, on IndyCar’s previous visit to Richmond, the show was non-existent. Dario Franchitti led from pole, got caught out by a yellow that allowed Andretti Autosport’s Hideki Mutoh to go off-strategy and hit the front, and then Franchitti’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon dominated the final two thirds and won.

Or so the stat books show. In fact Dixon didn’t dominate: he simply led. His #9 actually had Dario’s #10 traveling in his wake for lap after endless lap, but the Scot could do nothing about Scott. Such was the nature of the tire degradation that night that a million rubber marbles off-line meant that, to avoid sliding up into the wall,  backmarkers weren’t keen to get out of the way of the leaders, who were similarly disinclined to go offline to lap them. It was one of IndyCar’s least spectacular oval races this century, and Franchitti didn’t hold back in his post-race interview.

“It was such a track position race tonight, no one could pass,” he said. “Scott and I were out there racing hard until we got to traffic and then we had to run a second slower, just as slow as the car [backmarker] in front.

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“I really apologize to the fans because that was a dreadful race… We’re doing our best. We’re trying as hard as we can out there, but we’ve got to do something and put better racing on.”

Sadly, there wasn’t time to remedy the issue at what was then called Richmond International Raceway: the 0.75-mile oval was deleted from the calendar for 2010, leaving IndyCar fans on the east coast ill-served. Only St. Petersburg has proven to have staying power.

The Homestead event was put out of its misery after 2010; Baltimore was fun and well-liked by the locals in its first year, 2011, but hemorrhaged money and was gone in three years; New Hampshire proved to be a farcical one-off in ’11; Watkins Glen continued until 2010, disappeared, returned in ’16 and was gone again by ’18; and Boston, as we sadly remember, was aborted.

Most recent eastern casualty is Pocono Raceway which came back in 2013 after a 24-year absence, but proved stubbornly resistant to popularity, despite being one of the most distinctive tracks on the calendar. Some may still imagine that the huge accidents at ‘The Tricky Triangle’ were the reason for the track being lanced from the IndyCar schedule, but they are surely delusional. Those shunts were largely the results of driver misjudgments rather than problems with the track itself. The cynics among us reckon that had Pocono attracted 40,000 fans each time, IndyCar would still be racing there…  

In Pocono’s place, Richmond Raceway returns – but should we be throwing our arms aloft in joy at the prospect? Well, in principle, absolutely, because the series needs ovals in order to maintain arguably its most attractive USP – track diversity. Secondly, there should be enough fans to warrant another eastern race.

What kind of show can they expect to see, however? Well, the encouraging start point is the current breed of IndyCar sheathed in the IR18 aerokit, which relies far more on underfloor aero and having less ‘dirty air’-inducing top-surface protuberances. It has made several tracks more ‘raceable’ – (our usual thanks at this point to IndyCar director of aerodynamic development Tino Belli, and IR18 designer, Chris Beattie) – and while this characteristic was most welcome at road courses such as Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca, there’s no denying it has also proved a boon at Iowa Speedway, the track that most resembles Richmond as a sub-1-mile oval with 14-degree banking.

Current IndyCar races well at the similar short oval in Iowa.

Current IndyCar races well at the similar short oval in Iowa. <span class="copyright">Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images</span>
Current IndyCar races well at the similar short oval in Iowa. Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

As IndyCar drivers of prodigious talent have been preaching forever, excess downforce is the enemy of meritocracy, for it serves as an equalizer – or a Band-Aid, as Rick Mears would put it – that naturally punishes the best drivers and engineers. Therefore, crucial to making ovals more demanding is having as much power and as little downforce as possible in order to create a large disparity between maximum speed on straights and minimum speed in the turns at either end. That means it comes down to driver judgment regarding when to ease the throttle on approaching a turn, when to change down a gear or two, when to brake, and when and how hard to hit the gas on turn exit.

In that regard, early indications from last October’s Richmond test featuring Dixon’s Ganassi-Honda and Josef Newgarden’s Penske-Chevrolet are highly encouraging. The cars reached a top speed of 175mph, but had to go down to 135 on corner apex.

“It’s not going to be like the last Richmond race,” IndyCar’s VP of competition, Bill Pappas tells Motorsport.com. “I think we had too much downforce back then, and the track had a lot more grip than it has now, so the cars carried a lot of speed into the corner and then had too much drag on the straights. I think that’s why it was follow-the-leader. This car is very different and so is the track these days.”

Another key factor in producing a good raceable package is running tires that degrade and therefore have great influence on pitstop strategy. Whenever planned stops are governed merely by fuel consumption, there is little variance between teams, because even the best in the business at fuel-saving won’t eke out his mileage more than three laps longer than his most fuelhardy rival. Well, rest assured, Richmond won’t be won by the guy who just sips the Sunoco.

Race engineers’ game plans will have to be formulated around tire usage, such is the abrasiveness of the track surface. A fuel load could last 120 laps around the three-quarter-mile course, but the tires won’t reach anything like that distance. The Newgarden/Dixon test – conducted with the cars carrying aeroscreens – demonstrated just how punishing the little track’s turns will be on the Firestones. Between Lap 5 and Lap 80, lap speeds dropped from 148mph (already 10mph off a simulated qualifying lap) to just 128! In other words, come the race, a driver on fresh tires is going to absolutely carve into the track position advantage of a rival who hasn’t yet pitted.

“It will come down to drivers adopting the right driving style and teams adapting their setups to take care of their tires,” says Pappas. “It will be a race governed by tire life, not fuel load, and the difference between those who can look after their tires and those who can’t. The strategists will be weighing up time lost by making an extra pitstop compared to time lost on track as they run slower to make the tires last. That should mix it up.

High tire degradation should be a blessing but could be a curse…

High tire degradation should be a blessing but could be a curse… <span class="copyright">Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images</span>
High tire degradation should be a blessing but could be a curse… Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“As the tires go off, the difference between maximum and minimum speeds should increase and it will be easier for drivers to make a mistake. We’ll be running the increased boost [1.5-bar] like we did at Iowa last year, which will help, and so the drivers will be fighting to control wheelspin out of the turns so they don’t use their tires too quick.”

Which sounds great. Of course the problem with high-deg tires is that they can scatter a lot of marbles, and so despite the rather different breed of IndyCar now in play, Firestone has paid close attention to its data from more than a decade ago.

Director of race tire engineering and production Cara Adams explains to Motorsport.com: “We were able to take some of the data and notes we gathered in 2009, and it helped us decide for the test what stagger we’d use and what compounds we’d use.

“Even back 11 years ago, teams were coming in for tires before they needed more fuel. That’s because the surface at Richmond is truly unique. The surfaces of the other ovals we run are pretty similar to each other, even though the tracks have very different configurations. But Richmond is still very abrasive and when we went there for the test last fall with Penske and Ganassi, we were able to examine again the surface, do our track scans and analyze the friction measurements. And our conclusion was that this track remains an outlier compared with any other we race on: still very abrasive, and with a unique geometry too.

“So we definitely couldn’t use, say, the Iowa tire configuration at Richmond. Because the radius of the turns are a bit tighter, Richmond needs a bigger stagger, so it’s going to be a true short-oval tire construction that we bring. Possibly it’ll be a completely unique specification, or maybe what we learn can be helpful for the right-side tires at Gateway.”

While much of the IndyCar teams’ off-season data analysis has been about how the shift in weight distribution caused by the aeroscreen has increased front tire wear, Richmond Raceway could switch emphasis to the other end of the car. Adams reaffirms Pappas’ observations regarding traction on the exit of Richmond Turns 2 and 4.

“Similar to Gateway, the drivers’ and engineers’ strategy on how to manage the rear tires on power down coming out of the turns, especially Turn 4, is going to be key to the race,” she says. “That, as well as how quickly you use the outside front, is going to decide your pit strategy, and I agree: you may see a great deal of variance there between the drivers and teams.”

Strategic shake-ups based on driver/car performance sound good but of course we come back to the knotty problem of whether the track will be clean enough to race or will a proliferation of marbles prove too intimidating for the guys in the cockpit to risk throwing their car at the SAFER barriers.

Controlling wheelspin on turn exits – thereby conserving rear tire life – will be a challenge.

Controlling wheelspin on turn exits – thereby conserving rear tire life – will be a challenge. <span class="copyright">Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images</span>
Controlling wheelspin on turn exits – thereby conserving rear tire life – will be a challenge. Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“Whenever you have a really abrasive surface and a lot of tire spinning on power down, you’re going to create a situation where there are marbles,” Adams says, “even if we chose a harder, much more durable compound. Then it has less grip, and sooner in the life cycle of the tire, therefore the drivers are going to spin the tires up even more and therefore create marbles. So any marble issue really is a direct result of the nature of the track surface.

“But we did try to learn from what we saw in 2009, and I think once we’re past the first stint, the track will be rubbered up, the cars should be sliding less and creating fewer marbles.”

Hmm… Sounds a bit worrying for those of us wishing to see Richmond return to the schedule with a race that captures the hearts and minds of the local populace and snares a title sponsor for the future. IndyCar isn’t oblivious to the potential issue.

“I think Kyle [Novak, race director] is always aware of that sort of thing,” Pappas responds, “and if the right circumstance presents itself, the yellows may go on a little longer to allow the track sweepers to blow off the marbles.

“But,” he adds, “he’s not going to throw an unnecessary yellow to do that.”

The key may lie in the drivers’ attitudes to opening up that second groove. Josef Newgarden is not only the two-time and defending NTT IndyCar Series champ, he has also proven a master of short ovals, with a victory at Phoenix and two at Iowa. Now with a test at Richmond under his belt, he’s well placed to pass judgment – and he’s extremely positive about the prospect of a good race at the little track in Henrico County, Virginia.

“I think Richmond has high potential to race really well,” he tells Motorsport.com, “purely because it’s highly likely that two lanes will come in. You have the bottom lane, but I do believe the second lane is workable there because the track surface is now fairly old, and it’s just shaped really well.

“From a banking standpoint it’s very like Iowa, although there is some transition difference, but even the shape reminds me a lot of Iowa, and if you get enough people up there you can run a second lane. I was testing with Scott but I was choosing to run the second lane by myself and it works.

Newgarden, along with Dixon, ran the aeroscreen test at Richmond last October. The full field will reconvene there on March 25 for an open test.

Newgarden, along with Dixon, ran the aeroscreen test at Richmond last October. The full field will reconvene there on March 25 for an open test. <span class="copyright">Josef Newgarden</span>
Newgarden, along with Dixon, ran the aeroscreen test at Richmond last October. The full field will reconvene there on March 25 for an open test. Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden

“So I’m pumped that it can work and it can be a good race. You just need people to go up there and use that second lane right from the start so it gets rubbered in and you don’t get the marbles building. I think it should be easier to run side-by-side at Richmond than at Gateway, to be honest.

“The way I look at it is, if there’s four seconds of drop-off over a stint – which is crazy but awesome too! – then you’re going to need a second lane available because you have to find a way past the guy ahead who hasn’t stopped yet. There’s no way you can afford to lose time to whoever you’re racing, just sitting behind a car on old tires that’s four seconds off your potential pace.

“So we just have to cooperate and know it’s in all of our interests to have that second lane open.”

Newgarden smiles as he realizes what he’s said. Getting 25 racers to work together for the common good –really?

“Yeah, it’s a challenge… You can only hope.

“But honestly, I think getting two lanes working might just naturally happen, because with the tire deg so high, the way you get in and off a corner is so different – the lines you have to take – and the performance differential between the guys with fresh tires and worn tires, I think a lot of the track could be opened up. It could be like Phoenix 2018 with this current car when the tires went off, compared with Phoenix 2017 with the manufacturer aerokits when we had so much downforce that we weren’t sliding and the tires never went off.”

Newgarden confirms the point both Adams and Pappas made regarding traction, but highlights Turn 2 rather than 4 as the tricky area.

“Yeah, wheelspin could be a problem, you’ve got to be careful with the throttle application on exit,” he says. “Off Turn 2, it’s very nasty in the transition there as the banking drops off [from 14 degrees to just 2]. Iowa has a more gradual transition and has a little more banking on the straight [4 degrees].

“So someone who has a very good-handling racecar that can really turn in the center of the corner but then also puts the power down well in a straight line is going to be really strong. But the tire deg is still going to be really high compared with other tracks. I mean, if I was going to give you a ballpark figure, I reckon there’s up to 40 percent more dropoff than Iowa.

“The thing is, the corner radius is just tighter so you just can’t keep the momentum up like at Iowa, you have more understeer. There’s a lot more braking, a lot more going on for the driver from the input standpoint, and Iowa already requires a lot of input, so imagine putting 40 percent more on top of that. I mean, even on new tires, we’re having to brake for the turns. It’s awesome. So you can see why I’m optimistic about us putting on a really good show there.”

As ever, Newgarden’s reasoning seems sound and so it’s entirely feasible that Richmond will be the perfect blend of a great race but also one where the purists can be satisfied that the best oval racers and engineers – and tacticians – will come to the fore.

Obviously we’ll have a better picture following the full-grid open test on March 25, but track president Dennis Bickmeier may have a real hit on his hands, especially if the race is marketed as well as the round at World Wide Technology Raceway in Gateway. Between them, these two events could even form a template of sorts, so that maybe IndyCar after too many years of dwindling crowds, can once more become a hit on ovals, thereby enticing more such venues to renew their interest in U.S. open-wheel racing.

“I hope so,” says Pappas. “I think if Jay [Frye, IndyCar president] can find other suitable short ovals that make commercial sense, we’d love to go to more of them. Ovals are part of the DNA of IndyCar, and if another one or two joined the calendar, that would be awesome.”

Penske Entertainment chiefs will be keeping a very watchful eye on IndyCar’s Richmond Raceway reboot. So too will we – and with our fingers crossed. 

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