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Former winner Alexander Rossi helped inspire a major change for the Indy 500 Open Test

Arrow McLaren's Gavin Ward addresses the setup for Alexander Rossi's Indy 500 car, from downforce, to the front wing, to everything else that goes into making the car ready for "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

INDIANAPOLIS – With a full field of 33 cars hitting the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Thursday’s Open Test for the 107th Indy 500, it was a chance for the NTT IndyCar Series teams to try out the new aerodynamic bits and pieces that will be used at this year’s race.

It’s a complicated collection of barge boards, strakes, wickers and rear wing angles that collectively will create more drag on the rear wing, combined with increasing the downforce on the undertray of the car. The goal is to improve driveability and passing opportunities in traffic.

One of those new pieces was inspired by Alexander Rossi of Arrow McLaren Racing.

INDY 500 OPEN TEST AT IMS: Details, how to watch on Peacock

THURSDAY SPEEDS: ROP l Session I l Session II l Combined
Rossi, who won the 100th Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2016 for Andretti Autosport, was credited by IndyCar Director of Aerodynamic Development Tino Belli for coming up with the concept that is being utilized on the rear wing.

“The rear-wing pillar was Alexander Rossi’s idea that came up at the driver’s meeting in December and we implemented pretty quickly,” Belli told NBC Sports Wednesday in Indianapolis as teams were preparing to hit the track on Thursday morning. “The stability wickers were started three years ago. The barge boards and trailing edge wicker were started within a month of last year’s Indianapolis 500.

“The difficulty is Dallara has to make 66 sets of parts. When it comes to carbon fiber pieces, you can’t make them 100 at a time. You make them a couple at a time, so it goes from concept to development to the decision process to implement it. Some of these things can take 20 weeks of manufacturing.”

AERO AND SAFETY CHANGES: A graphical look at some new elements being tried for the Indy 500 test
Rossi was tracked down by NBC Sports after Thursday’s full day of testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to ask about his role in part of the aerodynamic package IndyCar is using this year in an attempt to create closer racing with more passing opportunities.

“I just said we can add more rear-wing angle,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “That’s where it started.

“We had previously a rear wing that could go to whatever levels, but we restricted it to plus-2. I said, ‘Why can’t we just use the maximum of the rear wing?’ It was as simple as that. They were like, ‘That makes a lot of sense.’

“We all realized the introduction of the aeroscreen that is a great thing for a safety aspect, following cars is more difficult than it was in the past. The solution to that is more downforce. A perfect example of that was Texas, and hopefully that carries over to here.”

The day began with two hours of practice from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, followed by the Rookie Orientation Program and Refresher runs for IndyCar drivers who have not competed since last year.

Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist debrief on pit road at Indianapolis__LargeImageWithoutWatermark_m76875

C Jones

A few sprinkles of rain halted track activity for 45 minutes before a 4-hour, 13-minute session concluded at 6:30 p.m. ET.

The 33 drivers that took part in Thursday’s session had to deal with very windy conditions and 85-degree temperatures that heated the IMS asphalt to 120 degrees track temp.

“The wind makes it very inconsistent, and it makes it difficult to expect what you are going to get,” 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, who now races for Meyer Shank Racing, told NBC Sports on pit lane at the conclusion of Thursday’s session. “We found a way to make it really nice on the handling side of things and then we are working on the aero bits to see what kind of speed we had. It’s pretty fast.

“I think we are in the game. Toward the end, I tried to run behind people. It felt good in traffic. Overall, a very good day.”

Josef Newgarden of Team Penske was the fastest driver of the day at 227.686 mph in the No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet.

Newgarden turned his top lap with about 50 minutes remaining in the afternoon practice, when cars circulated in hectic packs, simulating what will be seen on Race Day, Sunday, May 28.

Romain Grosjean- Andretti Autosport

Romain Grosjean- Andretti Autosport

Joe Skibinski / @skibbyy

“Really great day,” Newgarden said. “I wish it was race day today. But you can’t choose those. You have to show up on that day and be very good. I told the team that if it was race day, don’t touch it because it was very good. Sometimes you show up and the car is great. and sometimes you have to work on it. Today was one of those really good days.

“We got through our list, as well, and we learned a lot, which is always positive. Sometimes you can go around in circles at this place, but today as a team I felt like we were very efficient with our time. We split everything up and divided and conquered. Really, really happy for Team Penske today, and I feel good for next month with the Shell car.”

Conor Daly of Ed Carpenter Racing was second fastest in the No. 20 Dallara-Chevrolet at 227.466 mph after running 145 laps. Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing was third at 226.788 mph in the No. 9 Dallara-Honda followed by last Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach winner Kyle Kirkwood, who ran a fast lap at 226.727 mph in the No. 27 Dallara-Honda for Andretti Autosport.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato of Chip Ganassi Racing was fifth in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda at 226.265 mph.

Stefan Wilson, one of the Indy 500 “one-offs” for Cusick Motorsports with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, was sixth at 225.960 mph in the No. 24 Dallara-Chevrolet.

As for the man who inspired the rear wing angle pillars, Rossi was 22nd fastest at 223.296 mph in the No. 7 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren.

Remember, this was only a test.

“It was a good day,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “We got through everything that we were trying to get through. It’s always hard on these types of days to understand where you really are because the tow is so dramatic around here. But I’m happy with the balance and where we started from and will continue to get better as more days come on.

“I’ve done one group run, so I don’t know yet.”

Thursday’s action included a total of 3,517 laps by the 33 drivers (including the Rookie Orientation Program and Refresher). With the threat of rain on Friday that potentially could wash out the second day of the test, many of the teams got in as much running and testing as possible.

“To me, I’m satisfied with what we got accomplished,” Pagenaud said. “We checked off the list a lot of stuff that was very important. We are reassured about the speed of the car. After Texas, we were very worried. So, that is a positive for us.”

Pagenaud defeated Rossi in a fierce fight to the finish in 2019 when the driver from France was with Team Penske. He was asked if the new aero changes will make this year’s Indianapolis 500 as conducive to passing.

“It will still be the same game as usual,” Pagenaud said. “You want to be in second and get a shot at first, but you don’t want to slip back to fourth because it will be too hard to get up there. It’s still a one-lane track.”

According to Belli, last year’s previous wing angle had a maximum of 2 degrees that limited teams in the back of the pack from having a chance to race through traffic before trimming out the car once they got to the front.

“We produced a set of pillars and checked them all in the wind tunnel,” Belli told NBC Sports. “We can allow the wing angle to go to 9 degrees, but we will limit it to go to 5 degrees – 3 degrees more this year.

“We don’t expect all the drivers to go maximum there because if you are running up front, you can go plus-2 degrees. That was more for the drivers who were not starting up front who needed more downforce to get through the early part of the race and could trim out more at the end of the race.

“The teams always had the option of the wicker, but once you put the wicker on, you have to leave it on the whole race. You can’t use the wicker to trim out.”

The degree of wing angle includes a maximum of 10 degrees, which creates more aerodynamic drag, but the changes underneath the car can allow up to 10 percent more downforce than last year’s 500-Mile Race.

“We don’t want to create a pack race, so it’s a balance between safety and entertainment,” Belli said. “Indy is different because the long straights, at the end of the race, if you have too much drag, you won’t win the race. There is only one position that matters at Indy, and that is the winner. It doesn’t matter if it is second or third.

“The rear wing is a no-brainer because you make the car slower to make it more comfortable.”

Teams now have more options of how they want to set up their race cars for the Indianapolis 500 with the hope of creating closer racing and more passing opportunities.

“We don’t expect all of the cars to take 10 percent, but the ones in the pack will,” Belli said. “The cars at the front will use the trailing arm wickers, and that will be more grip.

“We are expecting more of a step-up in the competitiveness in the cars that are further back in the field and give them a bit more of a chance.

“It will make it easier for the cars to race closer together. At Texas, we had up to 12 percent more downforce. We are expecting somewhat of a similar step towards more passing and ease of following each other at Indianapolis.”

Rossi went into Thursday’s test with an open mind as his Arrow McLaren team was preparing to give him a fast Chevrolet.

“This morning was testing the new aero components and how the reality matched up with the wind tunnel numbers and in the afternoon with other cars you get more of an opinion with how you stack up,” Rossi said. “But it’s early days.

Thursday’s test was the first chance for the teams in this year’s Indianapolis 500 to put the “rubber to the road” and find out how the new aero bits will work at the demanding 2.5-mile, flat oval.

“We really want to understand how these new components do and getting an idea with how this car performs in traffic to what I’m used to and coming away from here with the pros and cons and the short checklist of what we need to do when we get here in May,” Rossi said.

After inspiring one of IndyCar’s aerodynamic changes, does Rossi have a future as an aerodynamicist or a race engineer?

The driver from Northern California, gave his typical look of puzzlement and bewilderment over the question.

“I didn’t come up with the part,” Rossi said. “I just said let’s run more degrees of rear wing, and they did the rest.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500