Defining a Successful Test Session

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Less than a week after the official start of spring, another rite of spring took place this past Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – sounds of Indy cars at speed pierced the air and echoed throughout the Town of Speedway, IN. It was the first audible announcement that we are only about five weeks away from the Month of May.

But when drivers Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward climbed into their respective cars on a cool and cloudy day; they weren’t making preparations for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 to be run in a couple of months. They were testing for what the 2023 Indianapolis 500 may feel like for the drivers. That is when the new hybrid 2.4-liter engine package, with the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) will hit the track in competition for the first time in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Neither the engines nor the KERS (and please don’t call it the KERS system – that’s redundant) have been developed, so IndyCar resorted to a technique of mimicking how the energy would be “harvested” (to borrow a Formula One term), so they added an unspecified amount of boost that gave an estimated 60-100 extra horsepower when an extended push-to-pass system was utilized.

I am not a gearhead by any stretch of the imagination, so I won’t even try to sound like one. Most of you reading this know more about how the KERS will work than I do. From what I can tell, there are several different ways to implement this and IndyCar officials have not even decided which way they will go. But the end result will be additional horsepower on-demand and the series has wisely tried to jump ahead of things and do their best to replicate what this might possibly feel like for the drivers.

The reactions from the four drivers after Friday’s test were mixed, at best. It seems that when the added horsepower was added, the drivers were reporting a 6-7 mph speed increase while heading into the turns – and up to 10 mph if they were in the draft of another car. Not being a driver, I can only guess what heading into a corner 10 mph than they are used to – but I imagine it is harrowing.

I drive to different offices across Middle Tennessee every day in my day-job, and sometimes take a more interesting route than the Interstate. Being the wannabee race car driver that probably exists in most of us, I sometimes think my Honda Civic Coupe (with a 5-speed) has more capabilities than it really does. I’ve been on winding two-lane roads and encountered a random downhill, left-handed turn when I’m not able to hug the inside corner. Suddenly, it dawns on me that I’m carrying too much speed into the corner. If I don’t slam on the brakes, I know that my car is about to go flying. I am guessing that is what the drivers were feeling on Friday, since Scott Dixon said “…I think we all had some ‘Oh, crap!’ moments, because it’s not what we’re used to.”

Over the weekend, I saw where many fans had concluded that Friday’s test at IMS was a flop, since they came away with more questions than answers. More than once, I saw people on social media say back to the drawing board.

On the contrary, I think Friday’s test was a success. Why? Because they learned a lot.

In motor racing, a test – by definition – is a time for experimentation. That is all Friday’s test was – an experiment. In an article posted by Marshall Pruett the day before the test, IndyCar president Jay Frye was quoted as saying “Tomorrow’s tests will create more questions than answers, but that’s okay. That’s why you go test.” Exactly.

I commend IndyCar for realizing that this is going to be a complicated process and they are trying to get in front of the learning curve as quickly as possible. By holding this test on Friday, not only did they learn of the driver’s surprise at the increased speeds approaching a turn; but they also learned how the balance of the car was thrown off as well as having added tire wear. They also learned how much the drivers will be braking more.

Along with the additional horsepower, the four cars on Friday were testing the aerodynamic components that were being altered for this year’s Indianapolis 500. The hole in the underwing has been filled and strakes have been added to the cars. This is to make the car more racy, with the aerodynamics of the car being changed with the addition of the aero screen last year.

Since the car went to common bodywork for the 2018 season; the looks were improved, but the ability to pass on ovals has been weakened. I think the drivers were more pleased with the aero package for this May, than they were with the mimicked energy recovery system.

While the four drivers on Friday didn’t emerge from their respective cockpits with glowing assessments of the increased horsepower replicating the KERS, that doesn’t mean that Friday’s test was a failure. Far from it.

Legend has it that Thomas Edison made over a thousand attempts at inventing the light bulb and failed at every one of them, before getting it right. I don’t think any rational person was expecting the drivers to jump out of their cars on Friday and proclaim this replicated version of the KERS a rousing success. This was a first step in a long process.

The reason I never put any stock in lap times from an open test is because a test session is a time to try new things. Some will work, while some won’t. It’s the few times a team can try something on-track and not be penalized for it with lost track time on a race weekend. It may be an aerodynamic tweak, or a radically different spring setting. If it doesn’t work, the team knows not to try it again. But to judge a team by their lap times during a test at Sebring is simply absurd.

Just remember, it is just as important to learn that something doesn’t work during a test, as it is to find out that it does. What is the most important? In my mind, it’s to find out that something does work as intended, but there are some unintended consequences to go along with it that no one even suspected earlier.

We will probably never get a debriefing on what the engineers really learned from Friday’s test. If we do, it will probably be a couple of years from now when the final version of the new 2.4 liter engine integrated with the energy recover system is about to hit the track in competition. In the meantime, let’s take what the drivers said with a grain of salt. They were probably warned not to be too candid. I was just happy to see videos of the cars on track at IMS, while we wait for the season to start. Is it May yet?

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Defining a Successful Test Session”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    The last time push-to-pass was available at oval races, in 2011, I believe it only generated about 40 extra horsepower, so I can see why the larger amounts used in this test caught the drivers a bit over their skis. That said, it is nice to be reminded of just how much of a handful an Indycar can be with just a little more horsepower.

    I hope at least some of the additional downforce aids are available at Texas as well as Indy.

  2. Mark Wick Says:

    George, since you brought up using redundant words, Results are always at the end of a process, so “end result” is also redundant. As a long time professional journalist, seeing those two words together still makes me cringe. Usually your writing is quite good, eliminating this redundancy will make it a bit better, at lest for me.

    • Mark – While I’m certainly not immune to using bad grammar or punctuation, the occasional trendy phrase or even repetitive redundancy (that was a joke); I will disagree with you on this one. There can be partial results, intermediate results, preliminary results and final or end results. The way I used it described various ways to get to an end. The result of that end will be additional horsepower on-demand…thus being the “end result”.

  3. Mark wins.
    more redundancy….
    the newest “trendy phrase”:
    KERS System.

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