The final oval race of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season takes place on perhaps the most technically challenging oval of the season: World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Gateway for short).
This track can provide a bit of a headache for a race engineer, but sometimes race engineers are used to dealing with changing variables, whether it be inside or outside of the car.
Luke Mason is Carlin’s race engineer for the No. 59 Chevrolet. Max Chilton has been the primary driver of that car the last few years, but the last couple of seasons the former Formula 1 racer has eliminated all ovals from his schedule apart from the Indianapolis 500.
Conor Daly has driven on the shorter ovals for Carlin the last few years and will do so again in Saturday’s (August 21st) Bommarito Automotive Group 500. Working with one driver can be enough for a race engineer, but Mason has been used to it for years now, since he’s been with Trevor Carlin’s team since 2018 and working with numerous drivers for the team.
Outside of the car, Mason has one significant hurdle to overcome in that the 2021 race weekend at Gateway is more of a race day. From the start of practice to the start of the race, approximately seven hours and 25 minutes will elapse, with qualifying taking place roughly midway between both sessions on Saturday.
As a comparison, INDYCAR had a doubleheader weekend at Gateway last year.
“I kind of wish it were a doubleheader again,” Mason said. “I think our short oval package overall is actually quite good, we showed that at Iowa [Speedway] and had a few different things gone our way at Iowa I think we could’ve ended up on the podium, if not won the race there.
“I think we’ve got a lot of confidence in our short oval car, and especially a lot of confidence in Conor at Gateway, he really enjoys that track, I know he gets excited regardless of who he’s driving for there to put in a good result there.”
Being a single day show with limited practice time does affect a smaller team like Carlin more, as they only have one car’s worth of data to pore over instead of three or four like a larger team. However, unloading off the trailer well can only help their result.
When looking at the track itself, nothing matches up. The 1.25 mile oval has a front and back straight of differing lengths, turns 1/2 are banked at 11 degrees with a much tighter turning radius while turns 3/4 are banked at 9 degrees with a much longer duration corner. When Mason looks at setting up the car for Gateway, the main focus is turns 1 and 2.
However, there is a decently sized bump on the entry to turn 3 that has thrown a wrench into making the setup perfect across the entire track.
“Generally speaking, because you’re already flat in 3 and 4, the lap time gain in 3 and 4 is less than what you can gain in 1 and 2,” Mason said. “We always went there with the focus of doing everything we can to maximize our speed in 1 and 2, and 3 and 4 would generally take care of itself because it’s the easier corner out of the two.
“Now that’s slightly compromised because that bump’s gotten worse, so you still have to get over that bump okay to maintain speed because the only opportunity to really pass anyone is the entry to 1 and 2 so you need to still get off 4 well.”
However, passing a car going into turn 1 is only half of the battle. Being able to get through the corner quickly is the other half. When making a pass into turn 1, the overtaking driver’s entry is compromised, but if that driver is comfortable without another car being around, that makes the engineer’s job that much easier.
“If you’ve got a driver that’s uncomfortable and is worried about the entry, the first thing they start doing is pinching the apex, making the corner tighter,” Mason said. “Generally it means the car’s going to understeer from the middle of the corner off because you’re coming from a tighter radius and then you start compromising the setup around how they’re driving it.”
There was one major saving grace for Mason and the rest of the Carlin team. When Daly drove in place of Chilton, the Noblesville, Ind., native had a handful of races to help the team get more secure with their oval setups, and the mechanics and engineers were lucky because both Chilton and Daly have very similar preferences in how they want the car to behave. However, with Chilton doing Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Daly doing the rest of the ovals, not everything was able to transfer over data-wise because there are different setup goals depending on the oval one visits.
Mason did have a decent amount of oval experience before moving to IndyCar. The Australian native was at Richard Childress Racing in NASCAR for a couple of years after spending a few seasons in Australian Supercars competition at Stone Brothers Racing which later became Erebus Motorsport.
Mason grew up watching the Bathurst 1000, Sandown, Eastern Creek and other touring car races but very quickly became a fan of the technical challenge of an oval.
“I think engineering a car at the Indianapolis 500 is about the coolest race car engineering challenge an engineer can have because you’ve got so much influence over how the car works,” Mason said. “You can be slightly off at a road course and have a really good road course driver to some extent carry the car a little bit. If you’re missing half of a percent on an oval, it doesn’t matter who you’ve got in the car.
“You could have a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner in the car, and he’s not going to drive around a setup issue at the 500. For me, I think Indianapolis especially, but to some extent all the ovals I find them as an engineering challenge a lot more enjoyable than the road course side.”
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