F1 vs IndyCar: What makes a great race?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Sebastien Bourdais, of France, drives the #18 Honda IndyCar on the track at Saint Petersburg. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

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    On the weekend, IndyCar became the latest major racing series to start 2018, doing so with much fanfare and a spectacular race.

    This season marks a return to standardised aerodynamics to IndyCar, and this change brings with it a new philosophy, with a slashing of downforce one of its headline characteristics.

    Reducing downforce, so the logic goes, will force drivers to work harder to keep their cars on the track, and shifting some downforce generation from wings to the floor, as is also now the case, will ease following and therefore encourage passing.

    “The aero kit has about 20 percent less downforce,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s US motorsport vice-president. “So obviously it puts the drivers back in the driver’s seat to show what they can do behind the wheel.”

    By most accounts, the changes were a big success. Round 1, the Grand Prix of St Petersburg, Florida, was an action-packed spectacle featuring a mind-boggling 366 successful overtaking manoeuvres.

    It didn’t take long for the inevitable comparisons with Formula One to be made.

    Fresh in the minds of F1 fans was the soporific season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which featured just five on-track passes, few of which were memorable, and there were 435 passes in total for 2017.

    There are of course caveats to these figures. IndyCar’s 366 overtakes include all passes in all situations; it logged 283 passes for position.

    Moreover, Formula One’s statistics, as supplied by Pirelli, do not include first-lap position changes or places gained during pit stops, and a pass must be executed during a flying lap and held to the start-finish line to be counted.

    Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton during 2018 preseason testing

    (Wolfgang Wilhelm/Mercedes AMG Petronas)

    The criteria for the two series are different, though it goes without saying they are not sufficiently different to bridge a gap worth hundreds of passes, and even if the St Petersburg numbers are high for IndyCar, passes measured in triple digits are not unusual.

    So has IndyCar found the magic motorsport formula? Is the answer as simple as slashing downforce?

    Well, yes and no.

    First, a low-downforce solution paired with ground effect is nothing new – Formula One considered shifting downforce generation to the underside of the car while formulating the 2017 regulations, although it didn’t follow through.

    Indeed, F1 went in the opposite direction: it increased downforce substantially to reduce lap times, and it did so principally with wider wings – renowned for making overtaking more difficult – and a larger diffuser.

    The specific motivation was to speed up the cars and increase the spectacle, not by increasing overtaking but by reducing lap times by three seconds.

    By this metric, the rules change has been a success, and the cars undoubtedly look spectacular when taking to the track in anger.

    Though Formula One’s choice for speed over raceability has predictably made overtaking substantially more difficult, consider that in 2011, when overtaking increased substantially thanks in part to DRS and Pirelli’s made-to-degrade tyres, there were complaints that overtaking was [em]too frequent[/em].

    Fast forward to today and discourse is dominated by the lack of overtaking despite, mind you, 2017 featuring 26.7 passes per race – if you were to discount the DRS era (2011 to present), this would be the highest per-race overtaking figure since 1991.

    There are perhaps two conclusions to be drawn from F1 and IndyCar’s differing approaches.

    The first is that cornering speed in Formula One is apparently more readily equated to driver ability, whereas in IndyCar, as expressed by Jim Campbell, managing a nervous, slippery car with more power than grip – the kind of car F1 had prior to 2017 – is a better test of skill. This is of course subjective.

    The second seems to be a question of culture. It is a generalisation, but motorsport in the United States is a spectacle first. The preference is for big, bold racing that has spectators on the edge of their seats for the duration.

    Sebastien Bourdais driving for Dayle Coyne Raacing in St Petersburg

    (Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

    European motorsport has typically eschewed this approach. Distilled, European-style racing requires only two cars, and neither necessarily must execute a pass, only follow closely enough to spar for position.

    The battle for first place between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix springs to mind. Vettel was never able to capture the position, but all race long he pressured Hamilton to try to force him into a mistake that never came.

    “Spa was awesome,” Hamilton said, reflecting on that race. “To be fighting a four-time world champion who you respect… It’s really down to one of you making the smallest mistake, and none of us did.”

    Vettel spoke disdainfully of the quest to boost overtaking, saying, “Overtaking should be an achievement and not handed to you.”

    To use a well-worn analogy, the scarcity of goals in football makes it no less exciting – the excitement lies with the challenge of scoring.

    It all serves to highlight that there’s more to racing than overtaking alone and that, as the specifics of IndyCar and F1’s diverging views on the role of downforce in spectacle suggest, what makes a good race is subjective in the extreme.

    It’s all food for thought as Formula One considers its next-generation regulations while balancing the competing demands of improving the spectacle and keeping true to its values and the associated expectations of its long-term fans.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • March 15th 2018 @ 10:11am
      freddieeffer said | March 15th 2018 @ 10:11am | ! Report

      So is Jim Campbell’s Indycar mantra of “managing a nervous, slippery car with more power than grip …. is a better test of skill” an admission of wanting as many “thrills n spills’ and ‘bangs for your bucks’ for the fans, but equally a compromise on overall car and driver safety? I wonder if a racing death might alter his views?

      • Columnist

        March 15th 2018 @ 11:22am
        Michael Lamonato said | March 15th 2018 @ 11:22am | ! Report

        I think in the case of ‘thrills and spills’, yes, but the cars aren’t so unwieldy that they’re dangerous. They offer less downforce compared to the previous generation of car but not less than other categories, for example.

        IndyCar is also taking steps on the safety front, developing the windshield/aeroscreen head protection device as an alternative to the halo that’s appeared in F1, so it might be unfair to say safety isn’t a priority in the US as much as it is in Europe.

    • March 15th 2018 @ 10:15am
      Aaron Callaghan said | March 15th 2018 @ 10:15am | ! Report

      Along that same vein, see V8 supercars expanded their esports foot print. I expect Indy car to get involved in esports and F1 to dramatically step up their Formula 1 efforts.

      • Columnist

        March 15th 2018 @ 11:24am
        Michael Lamonato said | March 15th 2018 @ 11:24am | ! Report

        Yeah, I think you’re definitely right on that one. It’s a bit surprising they haven’t already given the eSports market in the US is relatively significant. I look forward to seeing where F1 takes its eSports competition in the next few years.

    • Roar Guru

      March 15th 2018 @ 12:15pm
      spruce moose said | March 15th 2018 @ 12:15pm | ! Report

      Vettel spoke disdainfully of the quest to boost overtaking, saying, “Overtaking should be an achievement and not handed to you.”

      I’ll bet all the money in my pocket and all the money in his considerably deeper pockets that if Ferrari was producing a car that was constantly fighting for 9th and 10th instead of the podium, Vettel would be the first to come out and say “F1 needs to encourage more overtaking”.

      • Columnist

        March 18th 2018 @ 7:48am
        Michael Lamonato said | March 18th 2018 @ 7:48am | ! Report

        Maybe! This year could be the test if Red Bull Racing finds its way ahead.

    • March 19th 2018 @ 6:48pm
      woodart said | March 19th 2018 @ 6:48pm | ! Report

      interesting you mention soccer as an anology, a game that has so many draws ,that they have to have penalty shootouts to get results. that surely is a farce. if you want to call that exciting…….for all of its faults ,american sport does one thing very well, they do not have draws. the paying spectator goes away knowing who won. if I want to see cars following each other closely, I can stand beside any highway. when I see a race report saying the only passes for the lead were done in the pits……sorry, you have lost the point of it.

    • Roar Pro

      March 20th 2018 @ 5:34pm
      anon said | March 20th 2018 @ 5:34pm | ! Report

      Indy Car street circuits are far more bumpy and slippery than anything in F1. The street circuits are crude. Modern F1 street circuits are effectively circuits with close walls.

    • April 2nd 2018 @ 2:52pm
      NCMag said | April 2nd 2018 @ 2:52pm | ! Report

      You are writing this article and it seemed to make some sense, simply because there’s DRS. There had been years where overtaking was only feasible through pit stops, and cars also don’t follow closely enough to even look like they were going to pass.

      The simple conclusion is the more the better. But it shouldn’t be too easy like opening DRS on a straight and passing effortlessly. Indycar and FE is the way to go.

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