Race Weekend Central

Techbench Tuesday: IndyCar at Road America, 2022

Alex Palou closed on Josef Newgarden as the pair drove up the hill at Road America to get the green flag for the final two laps of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series race.

With barely over eight miles to go, Palou followed Newgarden closely, shifting into fourth gear on the restart.

Then fifth gear. Then sixth gear.

Then there was a problem, but not for Palou. Newgarden’s gearbox had trouble, and the Tennessee native no longer had sixth gear.

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Palou took the lead going to turn 1. After Newgarden downshifted, he discovered that the gearbox would not upshift any longer. Emergency mode became the call for the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet as the two-time IndyCar champion coasted around to a 21st place finish.

Race engineer Julian Robertson was on the timing stand of the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda trying to get his second win in a row at Road America. One year after remotely helping Chris Simmons engineer Felix Rosenqvist to a win after a COVID exposure scare, Robertson’s car was in front, but the excitement couldn’t be there yet.

A technical fault could befall them, giving the win to Colton Herta. However, Palou won, giving Robertson his third win as an engineer at Road America, his first coming with Bruno Junqueira in 2001.

As IndyCar visits Road America, each engineer has to deal with one of the most unique circuits in North America. This is the longest track IndyCar races on at 4.014 miles. The long straights flow through the forest, giving drivers a splendid view as they go uphill and downhill as the circuit flows.

When Robertson looks at the 14-turn track, there is one section of track that gets a lot of attention: The Carousel.

Numbered turns 9 and 10, The Carousel is a very fast, mostly flat right hander that can help drivers make up a lot of time on each other. No other fast corner in IndyCar is as long duration as The Carousel.

“The Carousel is probably the biggest thing that’s difficult to get right,” Robertson said.

Road America also has many long straights. The main straightaway is the longest, followed by the stretch from turns 3 to 5 and from the end of The Carousel to Canada Corner. Some might think that engineers would set the cars up with less downforce for those straights, but the time lost in each corner would negate the advantage of having a faster car in a straight line.

“We tend to be operating like closer to maximum downforce with these cars we’re running now. Like yeah, we trim at Elkhart Lake, but we don’t trim a ton,” Robertson said.

“I think most people in qualifying will probably be, let’s call it one stage trimmed (off of max downforce). Some might be two stage trimmed. Some might even go max down force, particularly if it’s your second run on tires or something, you know, that’s the kind of level you’re at.”

Lastly, a difference in tire performance plays a large part in how different teams pick their strategies. If there is a significant difference between how the black primary compound and the red alternate compound perform, then that will help the engineers and strategists figure out where to place their pit stops instead of how long a car can go on a tank of fuel.

“In the race, tires dictate it massively,” Robertson said. “Like you saw what happened at Detroit? Yeah, Detroit was pretty cool because there were probably four different strategies going on, or clear strategies and they were all kind of going on. And if you knew what you were watching, it was extremely interesting. Road America is a little more straightforward, but yeah, how good your car is on one tire or the other can dictate how you finish in the race. You’ve gotta be able to handle both types of tire, again, Road America more than anything is about ultimate speed.”

The Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America airs live on NBC starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Follow @CDeHarde

About the author

Christopher DeHarde has covered IndyCar racing and the Road to Indy for various outlets since 2014. In addition to open wheel racing, DeHarde has also covered IMSA and various short track racing events around Indiana. Originally from New Orleans, DeHarde moved to the Indianapolis area in 2017 to further pursue a career as a motorsports writer.

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