The first oval of the 2018 IndyCar season will take place at Phoenix (now rebranded ISM Raceway) this weekend. In what will be a celebration marking 25 years since the great Mario Andretti’s final Indycar victory in a career spanning four separate decades, there is also expectation that there will finally be a decent race on a short-track oval.
Instead of chasing lap time, the current Indy car is designed to race better. The previous couple of races to be held at Phoenix have hardly been thrillers in modern IndyCar terms, in part due to the turbulence from the aerokits in the short-lived manufacturer kit era. In contrast to last year, these cars now have much less downforce, and now just a single additional element on the front wings – compare that to the number of elements on the front wing of a contemporary Formula 1 car!
The 1.022-mile oval will undergo a revamp during the off-season later this year. In the meantime, teams and drivers will already be familiar with the circuit with the current cars having tested there earlier in the year. The preparation that teams did there will show in the early stages of the race weekend.
With the additional testing, it should be expected that gaps may be smaller than may be the case elsewhere this year (even though they were fairly close at St. Petersburg). Last year’s race was a victory for Simon Pagenaud for the first time on an oval, while J.R. Hildebrand impressed with a third-place finish. Only Scott Dixon (2016) and Tony Kanaan (2003 and 2004) are the active previous race winners around the circuit.
The big question remains however – can these cars go racing? St. Pete was a pleasant surprise. Although the racing at the front featured little overtaking bar the botched attempt at the end, throughout the field it was fierce. But previous street course races have been very good even in the manufacturer kit era. The short ovals are a completely different kettle of fish.
There realistically needs to be two lanes to run in during the race to allow for the racing to happen. If that goes to plan, then with the expected slipstreaming, an exciting race with lots of overtaking should be on the cards. If it is a one-lane procession, barring anything crazy happening like the tyres dropping off drastically (as can be the case with the reduced downforce) then it may not be the greatest oval race in the world.
On a weekend where Formula 1’s grand future plan is also unveiled, if it has looked to IndyCar for solutions, then it will be looking closely to see whether it has worked or not. If so, then it is clear that F1 must at least consider a drastic reduction in downforce produced from wings. If not, then perhaps it is back to the drawing board.