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Indy 500 Open Test: What IndyCar teams learned about aero in the world’s biggest race

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 – The 33 car-driver combinations that came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday crammed two days of the Indy 500 Open Test into one.

That cram session will pay big dividends when those teams return next month for the 107th Indianapolis 500.

It was a scheduled two-day open test on April 20 and 21, but with the threat of rain and cold conditions forecast for Friday, IndyCar took proactive measures and extended Thursday by 90 minutes while starting an hour earlier.

AERO AND SAFETY CHANGES: A graphical look at some new elements being tried for the Indy 500 test

INDY 500 PRIMER: Details for the May 28 race on NBC
Realizing the chances were slim to run the second day at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the teams went to work. The boxes on their testing lists were checked off, and teams even had a chance to run in high-speed packs late afternoon Thursday.

By the time the session was completed at 6:30 p.m. ET, many of the teams already had most of what they needed.

“For us, as a team, we got through most of our list on Thursday,” Team Penske IndyCar general manger Kyle Moyer told NBC Sports. “Everybody worked really well to get through that list. We got 80 percent of our boxes checked already, so that was very good for us.

“Friday would have been difficult, especially if you were trying to compare anything from Thursday in the heat to Friday in the cold. If we were limited to two hours of running in the cold temperatures.”

By completing so much of the test on Day 1, many of the teams that cleared out of Gasoline Alley after IndyCar officials canceled the second day of the test at 9:15 a.m. ET Friday were not disappointed.

In fact, many were relieved because of steady rain and temperatures in the 40s that wouldn’t have been conducive to productivity.

“The problem with cold temperatures is everything feels good,” Moyer said. “Everybody’s car feels good, and everything you do is better because there is so much grip, you can’t make a mistake. On Thursday, it was perfect being 80 degrees. That will be more like we plan on being with in May.”

Even though it eventually stopped raining late Friday afternoon, the track still wasn’t dry in time for much practice anyway.

“We had a sweepstakes going on in Gasoline Alley based on the radar when we would get running again,” Ward said. “I had one hour of running. It would have still been too cold.”

There also was the worry of losing a car to a crash in largely useless conditions. “Rule No. 1 at the Speedway: Don’t get in a hurry,” Ward said.
The day off also was a welcome break.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O’Ward (5) hops into his car during open test practice in preparation for the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Thursday, April 20, 2023 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis. Motorsports Indycar

Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

IndyCar teams are in the middle of an aggressive three-week period that began with the April 16 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in Southern California, followed by a 2,000-mile trek to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where teams had to be in place by Wednesday to test.

Additionally, the street course cars either were placed aside for an Indy car that was set up specifically for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or the street course setup was converted to oval setup. Next week, it’s off to the Barber Motorsports Park road course for the Children’s of Alabama Grand Prix.

“It was a pretty aggressive turnaround for the series to get back from the West Coast after Long Beach last weekend and into that Open Test,” Arrow McLaren racing director Gavin Ward told NBC Sports in a Friday interview. “Our guys have put in some hours, and I would be lying if I said a few of us aren’t breathing a sigh of relief to get a little bit easier of a day to start the prep on Barber and give our guys a bit of a rest this weekend.”

With 33 of the 34 car/driver combinations entered in this year’s 107thIndianapolis 500 participating Thursday, a total of 3,517 total laps were completed. That included one session for the veterans only in the morning, one session for the Rookie Orientation Program and for “refresher” laps and a final session for all drivers that lasted four hours and 15 minutes.

What made this test important for the teams is IndyCar has made some aerodynamic rule adjustments for the May 28 race that create more drag but also generate more frontal and underwing downforce.

That should increase downforce by up to 10 percent, which is designed to allow the cars to race closer together, to “suck up” to the car in front faster and longer. That should produce more passing opportunities in traffic during the Indy 500.

“They are giving teams a number of options,” Ward said. “The aerodynamics of speedway racing is pretty complicated, and there is a lot of interaction, and there is a lot of nuances with how a driver feels the car and how it behaves in dirty air and clean air. It is remarkably complicated stuff.

“To say you know exactly how everything is going to work until you get into running is unrealistic, actually. We have a lot of data to go through and more learning to be done to know how all the parts fit together and interact with each other. The teams are going through that process now.

“It gives options. Whether every one of them gives you something you want or not, I’m not sure. Giving teams more options, we are all for; we like that.”

IndyCar officials, led by director of aerodynamics Tino Belli, came up with a complicated combination of strakes, “barge boards,” Gurney flaps (also called wickers) and other tweaks to create a balanced approach to additional downforce.

One of the changes was even a rear-wing “pillar” that was inspired by Arrow McLaren driver Alexander Rossi in IndyCar’s offseason meeting with drivers last December.

“He’s a smart cookie,” Ward said of Rossi. “He has lots of great ideas, and he’s not afraid to voice them. A lot of people in the series all have a common goal of making a better product for the fans.

“That was a good suggestion from him.”

There are myriad options for the teams to determine what will work best when they return for the biggest race of the year in the Indy 500.

But will the changes have the desired effect of creating closer racing with more passing opportunities?

“It’s hard telling,” Moyer said. “You saw people running a little bit closer. There was plenty of passing Thursday. Some was legit, but you also saw some people lifting and letting the pass happen to get to the back of the pack. I think there was some legit passing.

“I think it will be harder to stay up front by yourself, which is probably good for racing. All of the changes are in the right direction, just like Texas. IndyCar thought it out pretty good through that and made some good decisions.”

Simon Pagenaud, who won the 2019 Indy 500 while at Team Penske but begins his second season at Meyer Shank Racing, told NBC Sports Thursday that farther back than fourth place will have a hard time getting to the front because Indianapolis is still a “one-groove track.”

Moyer is a bit more optimistic than his former driver.

“It all depends on who those four guys are,” Moyer explained. “At Texas, you could see it was a good thing between the top four, but because of those four, no one had a drive in how they used each other.

“If you get two guys up front that know how to battle between each other but not let anybody else in, I could see that. If you get some guys that are more aggressive, I think all the way back to eighth place could be in play.”

Moyer oversees all three of Team Penske’s NTT IndyCar Series entries, which include two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, two-time IndyCar champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power and third-year driver Scott McLaughlin.

Moyer calls McLaughlin’s race strategy on the timing stand.

Of the “Rubik’s Cube” of aerodynamic changes, Moyer explained to NBC Sports which he thinks are most effective and which changes are most creative.

“The rear wing helps a little bit, but that downforce was always there because you could run a bigger wicker,” he said. “Nobody was running full rear wing downforce Thursday. There might have been a couple teams testing, but nobody went to plus-5. You could always put the wicker on the old wing, so I don’t think the wing is as important.

“The underbody with the wicker for the infill coming off is a huge benefit for all of the teams.”

That is the area where Moyer believes IndyCar made the most creative change.

“It’s the infill section,” Moyer said. “The mods with the wicker, all of that seems to be a pretty good move by IndyCar to make that change. Even though we added a bit of weight to the car, everybody needs more front downforce so that helps that. The strakes help, but that is minor, to be honest. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but if you said we didn’t have it for this year, I don’t think it is that big of a thing.”

All of the changes -- including strakes, wickers and “barge boards” on the undertray or infill section -- create a vortex effect that sucks the car to the ground giving it incredible aerodynamic downforce.

That allows the car additional traction to use parts of the track that would be risky with a lower downforce car.

“None of it gives us tons of downforce,” Moyer said. “It’s little things are giving us a little more so if you add it all up, it’s a small percentage of what we have already.”

The changes also create more drag in the race, but that will not have an impact on qualifying when teams “trim out” their race car, sacrificing handling for maximum speed over four laps.

“Everybody will take it off for qualifying,” Moyer said. “We won’t have more drag and downforce than we did last year in qualifying. All of the modifications will be off the car for qualifying. It’s all race stuff.

“The whole thing is about being closer to the car in front so that you can get the suck up to the car. If you can get closer, that means you can suck up longer and make the pass easier. If you can’t suck up, then you won’t get the run as easily and then it ends up late into Turn 1 or Turn 3. On Thursday, some legit passes were made just past the start-finish line, three-quarters of the way down the track. That’s where we were three or four years ago. We are back to doing that and it’s a pretty good balance they came up with to match.”

Before joining Arrow McLaren midway through the 2022 season, Ward was an engineer at Team Penske and worked with Moyer. Prior to that, Ward was an engineer in Formula One for Red Bull.

The talented Canadian now is in charge of a three-driver Arrow McLaren effort in IndyCar and a four-driver effort in the Indianapolis 500 with the addition of 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan to the team.

Ward takes a calculated, measured, and steady approach to determine the benefit of the aero bits and pieces and how they add up to a winning formula.

“They are all sensible options,” Ward said. “If I was to pick one out, it would be the wicker on the back of the leading edge of the underwing infill panel is one of the most interesting things to play with. We are all in favor of better safety, so the stability wickers are a good development from the series.

“I’m happy to see them be proactive on that.”

Unlike a practice session that leads into qualifications setting the starting lineup for a race, a test session is much different because teams experiment with which changes are effective.

That is one reason why Moyer wasn’t putting too much emphasis on Newgarden turning the fastest lap of the test at 227.686 in the No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet for Team Penske in a busy session where he completed 115 laps.

“He had the fastest speed last year, too, and you saw what that did for the race,” Moyer quipped, referring to the fact Team Penske struggled in last year’s 500 with Newgarden starting 14th and finishing 13th.

“Don’t hold much into testing,” Moyer continued. “You have to look at yourself and the team behind the scenes. We made some improvements and hopefully they show up when we come back in a few weeks. “He was fastest last year, too. With the tows, if you put on a couple sets of new tires, you will eventually get there.”

Moyer’s mission is to improve the efforts for Newgarden, McLaughlin and Power as Team Penske aims for a record-extending 19th Indianapolis 500 victory.

Scott Dixon - Indianapolis 500 Open Test - By_ Walt Kuhn_LargeImageWithoutWatermark_m77131


At Arrow McLaren, Ward is trying to formulate a winning strategy for Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist or Kanaan to return McLaren to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since Johnny Rutherford in 1976.

McLaren cars also won the 1972 Indianapolis 500 with Penske Racing’s Mark Donohue and in 1974 when Rutherford gave the McLaren team its first Indianapolis 500 win.

“The test went well from our point of view,” Ward said. “We went in there with pretty humble ambitions. At the Speedway, the key is to build up progressively. We wanted to make sure we understood the new parts and how they worked, step through them bit by bit and on multiple cars.

“Although that may not seem like the most time-efficient plan, it’s important to build driver confidence and understanding of the cars. We had some strong race cars last year, so we are working fairly methodically.

“There are some pros and cons for sure. There are going to be interesting decisions for teams to make, and you will see teams taking different routes and pivoting throughout the month of May. It will be an interesting behind-the-scenes engineering exercise going on without getting into too much detail.

“Overall, we got through a heck of a lot. We knew the weather was coming Friday so our plan was very frontloaded for Thursday. We got through the day and was pretty chilled out knowing we wouldn’t run on Friday.”

Another limiting factor to the test is the number of available tire sets. By running so many laps Thursday, teams were down to just one or two sets for Friday, which would have probably meant fewer laps.

“From our point of view, if we ran Friday, we were going to do data gathering runs,” Ward explained. “We only had a few sets of tires left because we knew it was unlikely there would be much running on Friday.

“The conditions on Friday looked like it was going to be pretty cool and unrepresentative anyway. The more representative stuff in terms of pack running was going to come on a hotter track. You can fool yourself on a cooler track how it will feel in the pack.

“From our point of view, we were looking at the opposite of a long run on Friday.”

The timing of this year’s Indy 500 Open Test is important because next weekend is the annual trip to Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

2023 Indianapolis 500 Practice

2023 Indianapolis 500 Practice

Chris Owens

After that is the last weekend off before the three weekends in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It starts with the GMR Grand Prix on May 13, continues with a week of practice and qualifications for the Indy 500 and culminates with the race on May 28.

“The test was very productive,” Moyer said. “It is nice that IndyCar does this open test because it gives you time to reset yourself before you come back. That first week goes awful quick when you come back for some reason. It’s good to get a good run in and then you can go back and reset yourself before you come back.

“In our case, we worked pretty hard over the winter. Some of the gains came back, we believe, but it’s so hard to tell with the tows and some people weren’t running their ‘Indy’ car. They were running backup cars. You never know.

“Everybody knew going into Thursday there was a good chance this would happen with a rainout on Friday, so everybody powered through. You didn’t see a lot of cars going back to the garages. If you look at the lap count, everybody got through five or six sets of tires on Thursday. Some even got into seven sets of tires on Thursday. That’s a lot of laps and a lot of miles.”

Moyer applauded IndyCar’s efforts to be quick to adjust the schedule to ensure that all teams got more than enough track time on Thursday, rather than stick to the original schedule, once it became apparent bad weather was on the way for Friday.

“They were up front with everything,” Moyer said. “It was good to move the start of the test earlier. Everybody was nervous about the wind in the afternoon, but it never really showed up to what everybody thought it was going to get to. It was plenty safe to be running. Even in the later hours, when the wind picked up a little bit, it was still good enough you could get good test results. Everybody ran in packs and got a good feel for what their race car feels like.

“All in all, I think it was OK whatever happened Friday, whether we ran or not.

“Everybody across the board in the series was happy with what they did on Thursday.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500