Stephen Marengo is an Austin, Texas based Motorsports Safety Consultant and Driver Development and Recruitment for the Spec MX-5 Challenge Series. A lifelong race fan, Stephen gave into the racing bug and turned it into a career. He can be reached at [email protected]
The weather won on the first day of INDYCAR’s “Spring Training” test at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. Only a handful of drivers managed install laps as the ambient temperatures hovered around 45 degrees and steady rain made the 20-turn road course slick and lacking grip. In a year that is already marked by major changes on and off the track, the dreary weather was disappointing start to one of the most anticipated seasons in recent memory.
In January, Roger Penske finalized the purchase of the INDYCAR Series and the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a move applauded by everyone associated with motorsports. The other major change is INDYCAR’s adoption of the Red Bull Technologies Aeroscreen.
The Aeroscreen, adopted by Indy Car as the preferred choice for enhanced frontal driver protection last year, was the culmination of over two years of research and development by the sanctioning body. It was evaluated by the FIA for use in Formula 1, where it eventually lost out to the halo, then found a home in INDYCAR after the halo was deemed unsuitable for use due to the series versatile mix of racetracks, including highspeed and high banked ovals. With just over a month to the season opener in St. Petersburg, today’s proceedings left more questions than answers.
A close-up view of the Aeroscreen (Photo by Stephen Marengo)
The Aeroscreen will present a new set of engineering challenges for the teams this season. With limited data on car performance, each lap will help the team overcome the challenges that the new device will bring to the Dallara chassis. Some teams did not receive the parts for the Aeroscreen until 2 weeks ago, so time with the new devices is limited. Going into the test, teams had immediate concerns about how the Aeroscreen will affect the 2020 INDYCAR.
Weighing in at 30 lbs. the Aeroscreen will play a significant role how the teams go about achieving maximum mechanical and aerodynamic grip. “We have to get creative on how we create balance in the new configuration” said one team member, who added “the Aeroscreen changes the center of gravity tremendously, it’s like taking 30 lbs. and putting in all into the drivers helmet”. When asked what could be carried over from previous seasons the answer was short and blunt, “Not Much.” The current generation Dallara INDYCAR was not designed for this evolution in driver safety and design flaw will be addressed in the design of the new chassis scheduled enter competition in 2022. Until, then the drivers and team must drive with a car that was not designed an Aeroscreen.
The teams also must consider how this will change spring and damper packages, which in past seasons have allowed the top teams to exert their dominance over the field. Several teams have added to the damper program in 2020 and these vital elements are looking to play an important role the creation of mechanical grip. The Aeroscreen will also create a new set of aerodynamic data on the car by increasing drag. Even the Firestone Tires have undergone changes for 2020 to accommodate the new handling characteristics of the car and increase safety.
Not everyone was worried about the lack of running; at the back of the Dale Coyne Garage several team members joked during the weather delayed 2nd session that the Aeroscreen was good because it gave them an extra slot on the pit crew during races. INDYCAR will allow an extra man over the wall this season to service the Aeroscreen during pitstops in 2020. Leading manufacturer of racing helmet tear off kits, Racing Optics, made a tear off kit for the screen and were spotted on several cars in the Paddock at COTA adding another element for teams to adjust to. Despite the challenges that the teams face one thing can be certain, the teams that master the new dynamics of the IndyCar package will gain the upper hand in the early part of the 2020 season. In a series where entire starting grids are routinely covered by less than a second, some teams could deliver some early season surprises if they get ahead of the changes.
A close-up view of the Drivers Cooling Duct on Pato O’Ward’s INDYCAR (Photo by Stephen Marengo)
Drivers face unexpected challenges in 2020 in the driver cooling area. For the first time in INDYCAR history, drivers are mandated to run a top air helmet system on road and street courses and well as short ovals. Top air systems are commonplace in NASCAR, Off Road and Road Racing, but were never needed in INDYCAR prior to 2020. With cockpit temperatures an estimated 30-40 degrees higher than last season, driver cooling, and comfort is top priority for team and drivers. The passive air duct mounted on the Aeroscreen will provide forced air as the car moves along at speed. This duct was common point of interest in the Paddock with numerous media and fans looking at the device and snapping photos. The driver’s helmet will look different with the top air kit attached to it, and it was certainly strange seeing a driver’s helmet with a 2-foot hose hanging off of it. Additional ducts in the nose of the car will be available to driver this season to help cool the lower body at certain tracks. INDYCAR drivers are in outstanding physical condition and no doubt this season they will be tested with the increase in temperature and decrease in air flow.
One item that will most likely not make an appearance on the drivers helmet in 2020 will be the aero spoilers and wickers that were used to minimize helmet buffering and helmet lift. This will be neutralized by the Aeroscreen.
A view of the top air system on Marco Andretti’s Helmet (Photo by Stephen Marengo)
With progress comes challenge, the challenges that the teams and drivers will have to overcome in 2020 as a result of progress are welcome and accepted. As we all strive for better and safer race cars, the Aeroscreen is another step towards becoming a safer sport. After having open cockpits for over 100 years, the Aeroscreen is a generational innovation that will soon join the long list of safety innovations and enhancements that has made INDYCAR the leader in safety advancement and innovation in motorsports. We can’t wait for the season to start.
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